Human Rights

A Democratic Spring: Thousands March on Washington to Demand Fixes to Our Broken Political System

Hundreds are arrested in mass action on Capitol steps.

Photo Credit: Steven Rosenfeld

Thousands of protesters from across America descended on the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court on Monday, where hundreds of pro-democracy activists were arrested for blocking Congress’ doorstep and loud crowds of young people, undocumented familes and immigration advocates rallied at the Court.

The action was a stunning display of a growing and vibrant progressive spectrum, reflecting a determination to work together on a range of justice issues that define much of what’s wrong with America’s political system.

The day began together, with thousands filling a nearby park for early morning speeches, prayers and pledges to protest non-violently. They then marched toward the citadel of political and legal power, the Capitol and Supreme Court, where hundreds of democracy protesters broke off to get arrested and highlight their agenda—driven by the recent loss of voting rights and the reach of big money in politics. The immigrant rights advocates, including teenagers and children whose parents have been deported, gathered and rallied for hours before the Supreme Court, which was hearing a Republican-led lawsuit challenging President Obama’s executive orders to suspend immigration enforcement.

“This is what a movement looks like,” said Robert Weissman, Public Citizen president and an organizer of the Democracy Awakening rallies and culminating mass arrest, before the march began. “This is different than a traditional left-right movement… We are creating something new here.”

“It is beautiful to see all these groups getting together and realizing that getting money out of politics is issue number one,” said Ben Cohen, of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream fame, who brought a Vermont delegation. “We are finally uniting the money-out- of-politics movement with the voters-in movement. It is a realization that if we all work together, we will win. There’s a hell of lot more of us than there are of them.”

It was a spectacle not seen often in Washington, where thousands of people in tee-shirts touting a gamut of local and national civil rights groups, labor unions, environmental groups, immigrant rights groups and clergy assembled and carried banners and signs demanding equality, fairness and justice.

Reymundo Otero came from Miami by bus with 54 others and works with the Nora Sandigo Children’s Foundation, which has taken legal custody of almost 1,000 children whose parents have been deported. He and others repeatedly said they cannot understand why the law keeps tearing apart families. “We see it every day. You see it in the children. You see it in their faces. They long to have a family. They long for it.”

“What I see here are human beings who are looking for a better life and are trying to contribute to this country,” said Blanca Pacheco, a community organizer with the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. “We are already contributing and want the opportunity to have hopes and dreams, and be free of fear.”

The passion and power of a modern civil rights movement could be seen in the sweeping calls for justice. While the police kept the immigration activists away from the Court’s marble front steps, a more orchestrated protest unfurled across the park at Congress’s door, capping a week of democracy-related protests at the Capitol where an estimated 1,500 people were arrested in intentional civil disobedience.

The democracy protests started last week, when more then 100 people arrived after walking from Philadelphia and got arrested on the Capitol entrance while demanding campaign finance reform. Since then, there have been a daily events underscoring and expalining how the political system is driven and distorted by the activities related to money in politics, and on a parallel track, how Republican majorities in many red states have deliberately undermined voting rights.

These events were intended to create new and deeper bonds between the progressive movement's various wings. For many years, good government groups often worked apart from traditional civil rights groups and the Black clergy. But as increasiongly has become the case, these factions are coming together to promote common demands for justice, equality under law, and rebalancing the outsized impact of big money in politics.

The democracy protesters had a handful of demands. They called for prompt Senate hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. They want the 1965 Voting Rights Act restored, which would stop many red states from instituting a range of new barriers, from tougher ID laws to fewer opportunities to vote. They want to modernize voter registration and make it more inclusive, not raise barriers such as requiring new voters to provide documents proving their citizenship. They want Congress to send to the states a constitutional amendment that gives it power to regulate raising and spending political money, and they want Congress to support for more public financing and small donor options—essentially what’s been powering Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Before the march, those planning to get arrested filed into a large room at Washington’s Union Station, where the NAACP gave out yellow tee-shirts and posters that said, “New Generation, Old Battle,” and other organizations, such as Greenpeace and the National Lawyers Guild, gave out white armbands and lead a legal briefing on what to expect if arrested. This was serious business, they said, explaining the likely scenario. The police would repeatedly warn protesters to leave, then proceed to cordon off the crowd and process people one by one. They explained possible charges and what not to do to—to avoid more serious charges than being cited for blocking an entrance and being fined.   

Among those at the briefing was longtime democracy reformer Nick Nyhart, who is the founding executive of Every Voice. He was asked to reflect on what he’s seeing now that he hasn’t seen in several decades of activism. “The problem is worse,” he replied. “That Washington Post story where 50 families are donating half the money for the presidential campaign’s super PACs. The money is bigger. It’s a bigger problem.”

Looking at those also lining up to get arrested—not just the leaders of groups but also concerned citizens—Nyhart continued. “People are going beyond the norm. They are escalating their action. It reflects the sense that system isn’t working. It’s also pushing people to go to such lengths to make change.”

Other longtime Washington progressives, like Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, said that Sanders’ message—that the political and economic systems were rigged—was taking hold, and could be seen in all the protesters. “I think in this election season people realize there needs to be a growing and permanent movement for economic change,' he said. "You can’t do it without democracy reforms.”      

And so the speeches, prayers, marches, arrests and still more protests began. Democracy reformers chanted, “This is what democracy works like,” and sang 1950s civil rights era anthems like, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” Immigration activists heard gripping testimonials from young people whose parents were deported, repeatedly chanted “Si, se puede,” and proudly posed for photos with teenagers wore tee-shirts declared, “Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic.”

But there was great pain and peril propelling all these protesters. Just as the immigration advocates want to keep families together and live without fear, the civil rights and pro-democracy activists want the political system to be responsive to ordinary people—and not a tiny wealthy elite that prospers at others' expense. Together, and in their separate ways, they are saying the system is broken and demanding equality in law and politics.

 

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).