We disrupted the U.S. Supreme Court to protest money in politics.
In April of 2015, four friends and I disrupted the U.S. Supreme Court on the anniversary of McCUTCHEON v. FEC (one of many decisions gutting restrictions on political donations) to remind the court of its duty to uphold the principle of “one person, one vote.” We face a sentence of 10–16 months in prison and $100,000 fine. We’ll be sentenced Monday, July 24th.
This is my statement to the court:
Each time we return to this courtroom, I’m struck by the silence. Much like the Supreme Court chamber, it reminds me of being in a church. It isn’t easy, in my experience, to break that silence, to go into a church and raise one’s voice, as I’m doing now and as we did over two years ago. It flies totally in the face of one’s cultural conditioning to stand up and disrupt the service, and I don’t think any of my friends or I did so with any great pleasure, but only trepidation, and a feeling of obligation in our role as citizens; the same sense of duty that I’m sure motivates the members of the court, and deriving from the same faith in the law.
The numerous times we’ve been called back to appear in this courtroom over the past couple of years, sometimes for only a 15-minute hearing to say, “Yes, your honor, I understand,” have been costly and frustrating, to be honest, but I appreciate that the reason for summoning us was always a meticulous attention to process, and fairness. I may disagree with the government’s zealous prosecution of our case, the multitude of lawyers and resources assigned to the overturn of our appeal, and the incredibly thorough Presentencing Investigation Report scrutinizing my life, such as it is, but I have no complaint whatsoever with the deliberativeness of the court. Citizens in a functioning democracy don’t require that the outcome favor them, only that the process be fair.
And that, fundamentally, is why we disrupted the Supreme Court: to warn that the public was losing faith in the fairness and integrity of its government.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in his decision for McCUTCHEON v. FEC, the case whose anniversary we marked with our protest, wrote, “responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elective officials.” But there’s a growing, almost irreversible, feeling in this country that government is not responsive to the will of the people, only to a wealthy donor class. That’s the result of a long series of decisions, McCutcheon being just one, in which the Court removed most restrictions on political spending. People feel that the system is rigged against them in favor of the moneyed elite, and the feeling is borne out by research. A 2014 Princeton study, in its examination of 1800 political outcomes, found that whereas
“economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy … the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact.”
I doubt many people read that, but really it only confirmed what Americans need no Princeton study to tell them: that, increasingly, they are powerless and effectively disenfranchised.
Our attorneys, Mr. Light and Mr. Clarke, were very good about educating us on the history of the law under which we were prosecuted, that it was intended to dissuade groups like the Klan (and Communists) from attempting to intimidate courts and juries. We agree that courts and juries shouldn’t operate in a climate of intimidation, but the charge, in our case, is paradoxical. After all, we only stood in the courtroom and paraphrased, without anger or desire to intimidate, the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution: “One person, one vote.” If we’d truly wished to intimidate the court, everyone knows that the best way to do it would have been to make massive contributions, in one form or another, to a politician who would subsequently make or approve judiciary appointments favorable to our interests. That’s how modern Klans, in their various guises, influence the court in our time, when money is speech and mere speaking, apparently, is criminal.
My friends and I broke the law because we couldn’t afford to influence the government legally. As the court was informed by my Presentencing Investigation Report, I have $8 in my checking account. (That’s not true, I should say, but considering the sums currently necessary to buy influence, it may as well be.)
As the court was also informed by my Presentencing Investigation Report, I work periodically for a social justice organization called the Liberty Hill Foundation. It was named for an area in Los Angeles where police arrested the author Upton Sinclair for reading aloud from the U.S. Constitution, as he spoke in support of striking longshoremen. The police chief warned him to “cut out that Constitution stuff,” and, when he refused, he was arrested. Whereupon another man tried to read the Declaration of Independence, and was arrested, and so on and so on; I consider our protest very much in the tradition of that event.
Of course, I understand that the government’s objection is not to what we said, but the manner in which we said it, and the timing. But this is always the establishment’s response to civil disobedience: We don’t object to what you say, but can you please do it where we can’t hear it? We support your right to protest, but can you do it in a manner that can be ignored completely?
As the court knows from still another document, my Notification of Re-Arrest, I was arrested again in Pennsylvania not long ago. In that state, incredibly, it’s legal to give gifts to legislators (tickets, cars, money, you name it), so I went to support a Republican bill that would limit gifts. The group I was participating with, March on Harrisburg, met with 230 of 253 legislators over the course of months, convincing many to co-sponsor the bill that, by most accounts, would definitely pass. But a single powerful representative, determined to protect a system of corruption benefitting himself and his colleagues, stalled the bill in committee and wouldn’t allow a vote. We requested a meeting, he refused, we refused to leave his office, and so he had us arrested. When the media asked why he wouldn’t meet with us, he said that our protest was the “wrong way” to ask for a meeting. This after we’d phoned, mailed, texted, reached out through other legislators, even via his family. “Protest the right way” really means “We don’t want to be responsive to this.”
Each of my friends and codefendants have been active on the issue of money in politics in various non-disruptive, unsensational ways; advocating for legislation, participating in the electoral process, community organizing — all of the so-called “right ways” — and to similar frustrating ends. When a protest is being organized that will probably result in prison time, you generally don’t raise your hand to participate unless you feel as if you’ve exhausted the other options. But the avenues for citizens of average wealth to play a role in their democracy have been systematically closed.
On the recording of the justices’ microphones during our protest in the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia urges that we be given “stiff, stiff sentences.” As if that would rectify anything; as if we didn’t enter the courtroom that morning with the understanding that the punishment would be stiff. He perfectly expressed the typical reaction of power to protest, that it’s a useless inconvenience. But I say this: protest is not a disruption of a fair and functional system, but rather a symptom of a system which is unfair and dysfunctional.
If protest is an annoyance, it’s an annoyance in the same sense that a fire alarm is. If it’s shrill, it’s shrill like the whistle of a teakettle. If it’s an inconvenience, it’s only inconvenient in the sense that an engine service light is. You can get a bad mechanic to unplug the wire and make the light go off, but you probably shouldn’t. Even the engine of our democracy will stop unless it’s serviced.
The indifference of the establishment to the growing discontent in this country seems to presuppose that the public will remain forever passive, and that they can go on abusing it and stealing from its dish indefinitely, as if the dog will not eventually bite. But instead of dismissing protest and prosecuting protestors — expending the public’s resources on its own muzzling — power should appreciate protest for what it is: a growl of warning.
Our protest in the court was not violent and it wasn’t angry. My friends and I are committed to nonviolence. Rather it was a loving plea to government to heed the warning and be responsive to the needs of the people once more. If the Court is like a church, the justices can too often seem cloistered. We tapped on the wall of the cloister to warn them about a crisis of faith occurring outside, that, if ignored, is only preface to more urgent banging, or even a breach.
In the words of President Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” When he said that, he was gently chiding a gathering of South American ambassadors and oligarchs, little anticipating that the warning would someday equally apply to the oligarchy the United States would become. I’ll end with something else he said on the same subject in his Inaugural Address: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Thank you for the court’s time and efforts to be fair and responsive.