Chanting, “Money ain’t speech, corporations aren’t people!” and “We are the 99 percent!” around 425 protesters were arrested Monday in a mass sit-in on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and more have returned to face arrest Tuesday. The demonstration, called Democracy Spring, is advocating a set of reforms the organizers have dubbed the “democracy movement,” demanding Congress amend campaign finance laws and restore the Voting Rights Act, among other actions. For about five hours under the windy shadow of the looming Rotunda, at least eight police buses roll across the sandstone Capitol plaza to haul away the last of the peaceful protesters, where participants — some costumed in green dollar-bill suits and Lady Liberty garb — have overwhelmed a Capitol Police processing center, sending protesters to a nearby overflow facility. Police records suggest Monday was the largest spate of mass arrests in at least a decade at the U.S. Capitol, and close observers of Washington activism say it may have been the largest since the Vietnam War.
If movement organizers have their way, there will be more. The event is mobilizing a week of sit-ins at the Capitol building — over 3,500 have pledged to be arrested — in what organizers hope will become a series of intensifying waves of protest meant to highlight the influence of money in politics. In an election cycle that’s already seen Black Lives Matter and other protesters change the conversation among candidates, Democracy Spring is billing itself as 2016’s first full-stage activist production. Organizers tell Rolling Stone they think they’ve deciphered a riddle that’s long vexed left-wing activists: a way to succeed where another historic protest, Occupy Wall Street, supposedly failed.
“This is the beginning of the end for corruption and inequality in our democracy,” says Kai Newkirk, one of the movement’s leaders, speaking by phone from behind a police cordon, where reporters are barred from access under threat of arrest. Newkirk has spent the last few years campaigning against moneyed interests in American politics, once confronting Supreme Court justices inside the Court before being hauled away. “Occupy is a part of the tradition that we’re following, although that tradition goes back much further,” Newkirk continues, adding, “This is a movement that turns the tide on issues of political inequality, in the way that Occupy did for economic inequality.”
The demonstration is meant to highlight four bills already before Congress, Newkirk says, a departure from an Occupy culture often criticized for lack of focus and concrete goals. Two involve campaign finance — expanding public financing for federal campaigns, and a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, a deeply unpopular Supreme Court ruling that granted First-Amendment rights to corporations. The other two bills would end gerrymandering — the practice of drawing congressional districts to favor political parties — and restore the Voting Rights Act, also struck down by the Supreme Court in recent years.