First Time in 8 Years: Kai Newkirk Tells Us Why He Got Arrested at the Supreme Court

It was scary, hectic and necessary to spotlight how the Court harms democracy.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright Glynnis Jones

(Editor’s note. On February 26, democracy reform activist Kai Newkirk interrupted the U.S. Supreme Court to make a statement protesting the court’s recent campaign finance rulings that have created more pathways for wealthy people and interests to influence elections. The Court is expected to rule any week now in a new case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, that may lift contribution limits to political parties.

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Newkirk, the co-founder of 99 Rise, was videotaped making a brief statement before police took him away and arrested him. It was the first protest inside the Court in eight years and first time that a video had been made inside the Court. AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld spoke to Newkirk on Tuesday about the protest message and action.”

“I rise on behalf of the vast majority of the American people who believe money is not speech, corporations are not people, and government should not be for sale to the highest bidder. We demand that you overturn Citizens United, keep the cap in McCutcheon, and an end to corruption. We demand free and fair elections and a real democracy now.”

AlterNet: Let’s start with what prompted you not just to protest at the Supreme Court about Citizens United and McCutcheon, but stand up and address the justices.

Kai Newkirk: It’s been around a year and a half since I left my job for a L.A. City Councilman to help launch 99 Rise, which is a grassroots organization using non-violent resistance to try to end real corruption and promote real democracy. I did that because I felt over the years of community organizing I’ve come see that this issue of corruption and the big money domination of our politics has become critical and central to the question of whether we’re going to be able to address the real problems that we face as a country and make meaningful progressive change. I felt like this is a crisis point. We really have to do something. And the only way to make that change is through building a mass non-violent movement that makes the status quo untenable and moves millions of people from the sidelines into the streets or into action.

The impending McCutcheon decision is an important moment and another milestone in the development of this fight. So I had the opportunity to try to shine a spotlight on—not just the Supreme Court and its role in deepening corruption, but the broader problem of the corruption of money and politics. We thought about what were ways that we could intervene in the process and what were ways to shine that spotlight. Going into the court, protesting in the court is very rare. I think the last one was eight years ago. So I knew that it would be noteworthy if I actually stood up, registered that protest within the court chambers itself, and we knew that if we captured it on video—which was unprecedented—that we would elevate it even further.

AlterNet: Did the Justices look at you while you were giving your short statement? Did you catch their attention? What did that feel like?

Kai Newkirk: The process overall required moving through a lot of fear. It was a very intimidating, scary thing for me to do—to stand up there at the Supreme Court. I think for most people it would be. It certainly was for me. But I knew that this was so important and tried to really stay centered in who I am, and what motivates me, and the people that inspire me to do what’s right and what’s hard.

I stood up. I faced them. I thought that Scalia was most aligned with where I was in the room. I thought I noticed a little bit of a smirk. He sort of noticed it and sat back a little bit. But I wasn’t focused on that. I just had a glimspse of that. I was just standing and trying to get the words out. I was aware of the security people rushing toward me. I was just trying to focus on making my statement and doing so in a strong and composed manner, and getting it out in a clear way as quickly as I could. I knew I didn’t have much time. And then they tackled me and that was it. It all happened very quickly.

AlterNet: How were you treated during the arrest? Were you respected? Or were you treated like you were arrested for drunk driving? What was that like?

Kai Newkirk: As soon as I was grabbed and pulled out, a couple of moments later I was just standing there and being questioned. Then I was brought downstairs and questioned. And eventually they decided to arrest me and I was put through the process in the DC jail system. That’s never easy. I have been in jail in DC before in non-violent political actions but I wasn’t subjected to any special treatment either worse or better as far as I could see.

AlterNet: One of the things that I think is astounding in that a lot of the press reports on this have been focusing more on the fact that you were able to sneak a video camera into the court than the substance of your protest, which is that the Court is exacerbating the most dysfunctional aspects in our political money culture. Have you noticed that?

Kai Newkirk: I have noticed that has been a real strong theme. Looking at it from the media’s perspective, I see that they see the simple fact of the video, which is unprecedented, as being the most unique and newsworthy thing for them that’s happening in the moment, as opposed to the broader historic and impactful crisis of corruption. While that’s disappointing, we have tried to take advantage of that and use that as a tool to elevate this broader issue. I think all the coverage that it has received, none of it has ignored the purpose of our protest. It was to spotlight corruption and to challenge that, and to stand up and defend democracy and to mobilize people to do the same. That message has gotten, even when they focus on how unprecedented the video was.

So far, the response on social media, people going to our website, people covering it in different media venues—the web, to TV, print, radio—has been incredibly encouraging. I think this has been a big step forward, not just for 99 Rise as an organization but for folks who care about this and our movement. That’s been incredibly heartening to see and that is what we wanted. We want this to be a spark that inspires people around the country who agree that corruption in politics is a serious problem; that it is a crisis and the first issue that we need to address to move our country forward. We want to move people in their hearts and their gut to say if this person can stand up in the U.S. Supreme Court and speak out and go to jail, then maybe I can do something too.



Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).