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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.

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.