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My 500-Mile March to Protest Big Money’s Influence in Politics

March For Democracy

(Editor's note. Late Sunday, fifteen 99Rise pro-democracy protesters were arrested outside the California Statehouse. Last week, the Assembly approved SB1272 for its second reading. The bill would ask all California voters this fall to reject the U.S. Supreme Court's recent campaign finance rulings. It must be approved at a third reading before going to the Gov. Jerry Brown. This essay by 99Rise's co-founder was written as their protest march approached Sacramento.)

I didn’t ask to be known as “the guy who protested inside the Supreme Court.” But there I was, standing up during oral arguments of McCutcheon v. FEC (known colloquially as “Citizens United, Part 2”), shouting to nine justices in robes that I represented the vast majority of Americans who believe that corporations aren’t people; that money shouldn’t buy free speech; and that the highest court in the land had an opportunity to finally turn things around with its decision of the case.

While my story—and the first-ever inside-the-court  video I took—garnered a decent amount of headlines, the Court was, unsurprisingly, not swayed by my protest. Their McCutcheon decision expanded an already out-of-control system of unlimited spending in politics. It was an unbridled loss for all Americans who treasure a one-person, one-vote political system, not a system where the people with the biggest bank accounts have the biggest microphones and most influence.

Some personal background: I’ve been a community organizer for 15 years. I’ve served as a Deputy City Councilman and fought for a number of progressive fights in different capacities. I know what it’s like to work within the system to try to accomplish meaningful change. But despite some of the victories I shared in over those years, it was all too obvious that we were losing the war. It didn’t matter that we were good at playing the game. The game was rigged; its rules were fixed. I developed the conviction that in order to make real progress we had to change that game and write new rules. And history shows that only a mass movement of direct nonviolent action can do that.

For those who are wondering, yes—the court did press charges. I pled guilty to three federal misdemeanors and was given a sentence of time served (I was in jail overnight when arrested, so two days, technically) in April. I am also barred from the Supreme Court grounds for a year and must pay the standard fee of $50 per convicted charge to the Victims of Violent Crime Fund. SCOTUS counsel pressed the prosecutors to push for a greater sentence, but the judge was sympathetic.

I wasn’t thrilled to spend the night in jail, but in the big picture of what happened next, it was a small price to pay. When I got out of jail and turned on my phone, I was greeted by a torrent of new supporters inspired to take action in response to the obvious corruption that McCutcheon represents and to build the movement to win genuine democracy for the people of this country. They saw that this one person was willing to sacrifice for a just cause and were moved to do the same. I knew then that we had to create the opportunity for others to do what I had done: take direct action to build the movement for systemic change. The March for Democracy was born.

On May 17, I began a 480-mile march from Los Angeles, over the mountains and valleys of California, to the state capitol in Sacramento. The goal was to deliver a simple demand to the leaders of our nation’s largest state: publicly acknowledge the crisis of corruption and take immediate action to end it.

I decided to take this march even if I was the only one walking the entire distance, like Granny D, who walked across the country at the age of 88 to demand campaign finance reform. Luckily, I didn’t have to walk alone. I was joined by a dozen amazing fellow activists committed to walking all 480 miles from LA to Sacramento. In every town we passed through, people came out of their homes and workplaces to hear our message, support our march, and ask to join the fight. Bigger names have reached out as  well: Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, who is himself launching a “super PAC to end all super PACs,” marched with us.  And we were honored when one of the founders of the United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta, said she’d join our cause.

Of course, it hasn’t been all wine and ticker tape parades. One man threw a Gatorade bottle at us from a moving car. A few people yelled at me to "get a job" (joke’s on them: this  is my job). Not to mention the enormous test of physical and emotional endurance this march requires: crossing mountains, the Antelope Valley desert, Central valley vineyards; marching in the heat, rain, and sun. Suffering blisters, swelling, soreness, and long days, every day—we haven’t had one day off in over a month.

But there’s no question that the sacrifice is necessary. It’s the only way to spark a movement. That feeling has been confirmed again and again as those who learn about the march have been moved to change their lives to support or join this effort to take back democracy, whether by taking us in for the night, feeding us for a weekend, or walking with us to the Capitol to risk arrest.

Once we reach Sacramento, the plan is to occupy the Capitol and to stage a sit-in for as long as it takes to make sure the voice of the people is heard and our lawmakers know that we are serious about holding them accountable. Already, there are hopeful signs. On Monday, the day after we arrive, the state legislature will vote on SB1272, a bill to give California’s voters the chance to formally instruct the U.S. Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United—and the chance for the California legislature to ratify it. They’re also likely to take up a formal call for a federal Constitutional Convention to propose an amendment outlawing big money corruption (AJR1). If these bills pass, it will prove to California and the nation that Citizens United isn’t the way it has to be. Big money corruption of our democracy isn’t the way it has to be. We can change the game, and the system.

I am marching because unless we end legalized corruption and win real democracy, the possibility of a just, livable future for everyone I love may be lost. My life has taught me that standing up to do the right thing, to be there for those we love—no matter how hard it is—is the most important thing at the end of the day. Right now, that means marching to move everyone who believes in political equality to stand up and do something to defend our democracy. I hope you’ll stand with me.

Kai Newkirk is a co-founder of 99Rise, a grassroots, youth-powered network of organizers building the movement to end political corruption by reforming the campaign finance system and win real democracy through nonviolent civil resistance.

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