Saturday morning was rainy and cold, as a few hundred activists gathered in front of Philadelphia’s historic Independence Hall, home of both the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution.
They were there to draw attention to ways in which our government has become less representative and democratic. A series of court decisions, Citizens United among them, have given the wealthy more political power than ever, and restricted the voting rights of minority populations.
Among the group were one hundred and fifty activists, many wearing hiking boots and reflective vests, who at noon would begin winding their way through the streets of Philadelphia, headed south toward Washington, DC. Over the next 11 days, some plan to walk the entire 140 miles to the capital. Others would walk part of the way, peel off to go to work on Monday, and rejoin the others when they reach DC.
As they prepared to step off, Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard professor, activist, march organizer and — briefly — presidential candidate, addressed the crowd. “When Madison puttered around in that building convincing people to sign onto a constitution,” Lessig said, “at the core of his ideal was a democracy that would be responsive to the people, with this ideal of equality.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve allowed that ideal to be radically corrupted so that we have today nothing like the representative democracy that they promised us. Nothing like the ideal of a democracy where we are all equal.”
The idea for the march, called Democracy Spring, takes a page from Doris Haddock, widely known as Granny D, who, starting on January 1, 1999, at the age of 89, walked across the entire continental US for campaign finance reform. By the time she finished, more than a year later, the media coverage she received had politicians paying attention. Her activism contributed to the successful passage of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, almost all of which has been eviscerated in the last decade by corporate-friendly Supreme Court decisions.
The marchers’ arrival in Washington, DC, will coincide with a larger, related event, Democracy Awakening, calling on elected officials to take a series of actions related to voting rights and campaign finance reform, including voicing their support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Democracy Awakening includes a wide array of groups ranging from the NAACP to unions like the SEIU and environmental groups such as Greenpeace. From April 11-16, they plan to bring their message to Congress with meetings, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.
In Philadelphia, we spoke with some of the marchers about what motivates them.
Anita Daniel, 52, from New Orleans, LA
“We’re in crisis mode now… I never wanted to be one of those people who sat on the couch and said, ‘Wow, that’s bad, I wish somebody would fix that.’ The corruption affects every issue. We will never fix climate change and solve those problems unless we get the corporate, fossil-fuel money out of the government… You know, with the BP spill, they paid a fine for that and they destroyed our environment, and we’re still feeling the effects of it. We’ll feel the effects for our entire generation. And they paid a fraction — a small amount of dollars and walked away, and we’re left with the devastation. And that’s happening with everything. If big companies can control our government and how regulations are enacted, then set aside a little fine money and walk away with millions in profits… I work for a corporation, and I’m taking every vacation day I have to do this march. So this is my vacation.”
Diane Poole, 60, from York, PA
“We’re fighting for equality for we the people, and fair elections. We the people would like for money not to control politics in elections. It should be our vote. And it hasn’t been like that for a very long time. And that’s what we’re marching to Washington to insist… I was born into a sharecropper’s home. And we were pretty poor. As I got older, I saw that money ruled politics. And it just hasn’t changed. It’s been like that for a really long time. How we the people have sat back for so long and allowed it to get to this point is another story. When they said it was getting better it was all a dream… You’ve got a few choice people running this world, telling everybody what to do whether it’s wrong or right. And it seems like we the people succumb to it instead of fighting. And that’s why right now here we are in 2016 and we’re fighting for democracy.”
Keela, 25, from Philadelphia, PA
“The problem is, we’re all supposed to participate but we don’t. And when no one participates, we just leave it in the hands of the people we already elected who may or may not be working in our best interest… I would love to see Citizens United overturned. I think that corporations should not be considered people. They are a conglomeration — a group of people who already individually have a vote and their interests represented. I don’t think they should get anything extra. I would love to see publicly funded elections. I don’t think it’s ok that the oil companies and the pharmaceutical companies get to pour all of this money into our political system as if their voice matter more than ours. I’ve been donating to Bernie Sanders because he’s not taking money from them.”
Monica Lovell, 41, from Rochester Hills, MI
“It seems like we’re losing our voice. Our country was founded by people who were sick of people taking advantage of them and now it’s our turn to say we’re sick of you taking advantage of us… My tiny voice from Michigan is gonna make a difference. And that’s why I’m here. I’m marching for everybody that wants to be here but isn’t here, for everybody thats getting shafted by the system. It’s important. We need to wake up now.”
Drew Geliebter, 26, from Philadelphia, PA
“I got involved back when Occupy first got started in Philly. That’s when I really got radicalized, as it were. But I think that’s what makes me gravitate toward this issue — there are a lot of things wrong with the system. It is corrupt to its core, in many ways. And the illnesses that stem from that are affecting everybody from every demographic. It’s hard to find a community in the United States that isn’t suffering in some way — outside of that tiny fraction at the top — who doesn’t have the corruption to blame for why they’re not being represented, why they’re not having their injustices looked at seriously or corrected or anything like that… If this encourages people to organize their own sit-ins and we see a resurgence in the type of civil disobedience we saw in the ’60s — that to me is what success will be. Congress is not going to act, they’re not going to vote on our bills. I’m not expecting that to be a result. But having people really understand that you can go down and you can sit in, you can march 140 miles, that people are doing it, it’s not this outlandish thing, it’s a reality, and it’s the least that we should be doing at this point to correct the things that should be going on.”
Max Dunitz, 24, from Cambridge, MA
“I first started thinking about this when Granny D ran for Senate… It’s just a crazy story, an 80-year-old woman walking across the country and then for the last mile some members of Congress would drive out and walk with her… I was part of [Lawrence Lessig’s money-in-politics group] New Hampshire rebellion, and I was in New Hampshire as recently as the GOP debate where Rubio did the robot thing. We marched to the debate. They had a little free speech zone… It showed the whole irony that we have an FEC that is not enforcing election law, and our voices can’t get heard… Young people are most affected by this. Any issue from climate change to seeing whether we have social security: All of that depends on this.”
Shira Wohlberg, 46, from Williamstown, MA
I’m a climate justice activist. It’s very obvious that if you’re industry, it’s not in your best interest to do anything to actually address climate change… Supposedly Obama’s working on overturning Citizens United. If you have enough people — and I don’t think we’ll have enough people — but it’s all setting things in motion, then people in charge can point and say ‘they made us do this.’ Politicians, I’ve learned, sometimes are very grateful for the opening that we create for them to do something and pretend that they didn’t do it by choice, they were forced to do it, and they don’t have to be responsible quite the same way.”