When I moved back to the D.C. area in the fall I found myself in a conversation with my landlord, who told me that my generation “is screwed.” The evidence he used was the fact that an architecture job he held in the 1990s paid about $80,000. That same job today, with inflation, should pay about what, $130,000? Instead it pays $60,000. I agreed with his estimation, and then handed him an ungodly amount of money for rent.
It always seems to be baby boomers telling me these things, that my generation is screwed. Well a few of those baby boomers stood with millennials on the steps of the U.S. Capitol earlier this spring, risking arrest in a fight against political corruption. You may have heard about the effort, Democracy Spring. It received coverage on NPR, in the Guardian and in Rolling Stone, but major broadcast outlets largely ignored it.
Regardless of the coverage, the effort was a significant statement for millennials, as well as anyone who is fed up with the status quo. Last summer former President Jimmy Carter in an interview with Rolling Stone called America “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery,” while railing against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which in 2014 eliminated Watergate-era caps on campaign contributions. The 1,400 people arrested were driven by the situation Carter described, an electoral process that is exacerbating the gap between rich and poor.
After refusing to leave the Capitol, protesters were arrested and handed $50 fines that carry misdemeanor charges. Friday saw the most creative arrests, when a dozen protesters used a tour group as a Trojan horse into the Capitol. Once inside, they zip-tied themselves to the scaffolding.
Some are drawing parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but Democracy Spring is a more concentrated effort with actual demands. And it has a leader: D.C.-based Kai Newkirk, a former field deputy for a member of the Los Angeles City Council who has built himself a resume of civil disobedience. In 2014, the now-35-year-old West Virginia native led the group 99Rise on a similar movement in California, where sit-ins at the state capitol led to the passage of two democracy reform bills in the state legislature. One concerned campaign donation disclosure and the other helped set the stage for a California referendum this fall, in which voters will weigh Citizens United. So far 16 states have requested that lawmakers amend the Constitution to overturn the decision.
During D.C.’s first sit-in, Newkirk told his legion that they had surpassed the record for arrests at the Capitol in a single day, claiming 400 in on day. By the end of the week, Newkirk and hundreds of others were arrested alongside actress Rosario Dawson, who made the trip to D.C. to tell everyone that the status quo is “killing people.” Other notable arrests included Ben & Jerry’s ice cream co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, NAACP President Cornell Brooks, Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and labor leader Larry Cohen.
Adding himself to the list was Dr. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, who made a brief bid for the presidency this cycle, running on campaign-finance and election reform. During a rally before the march to the Capitol, Lessig described an institution that is bending “over backward to figure out what the rich want.” Journalist Chris Hedges, also arrested, spoke to demonstrators squatted outside the Capitol, urging them to overthrow America’s “corporate coup d’état.”
“This house has become (Congress’) brothel,” Hedges said, standing between police and protesters. “They write the legislation that slowly disempowers, disenfranchises and impoverishes us all. The only way to overthrow this corporate coup is to carry out what we’re doing today, sustained acts of civil disobedience to rest back our democracy from corporate predators. Neither party is going to do it for us.”
Democracy Spring organizers sent out an email blast the day after protests wrapped up at the Capitol, claiming that this is just the beginning in a fight to gain proper congressional representation. If they follow through, the next effort will be worth following.