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Democracy Spring: Over 400 Arrested at U.S. Capitol Protesting Corruption & Money in Politics

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More than 400 people were arrested Monday in a massive sit-in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to protest the influence of big money and corporate lobbying in politics. The protest, organized under the name Democracy Spring, brought together activists from about 140 organizations who marched from Philadelphia to Washington last week. Similar acts of civil disobedience are scheduled throughout the week in Washington. We speak to Kai Newkirk, campaign director of Democracy Spring and co-founder and an organizer with 99Rise. He was arrested yesterday in the action at the U.S. Capitol.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this is Democracy Now! We’re on the road as part of the 100-city tour, now in San Francisco, headed to Stanford University this afternoon and to Santa Clara tonight.

But in Washington, D.C., more than 400 people were arrested Monday in a massive sit-in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to protest the influence of big money and corporate lobbying in politics. The protest, organized under the name Democracy Spring, brought together activists from about 140 organizations who marched from Philadelphia to Washington last week. Similar acts of civil disobedience are scheduled throughout the week in Washington. This is Democracy Spring campaign organizer Kai Newkirk speaking during yesterday’s action.

KAI NEWKIRK: [echoed by the Peoples’ Mic] The American people won’t take this anymore! We’re going to end this corruption! This is just the beginning! This is just the beginning! Join us! Join us! Join us! Join us! Join us!

AMY GOODMAN: The Democracy Spring action comes in a presidential election cycle in which campaign finance reform, super PACs and dark money have made headlines. The Washington Post reports, through the end of January, 680 corporations had given nearly $68 million to super PACs in this election cycle—12 percent of the $549 million raised by such groups. This figure does not include the untold amounts of dark money contributions to other groups that are not disclosed by the donor or the recipient.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Kai Newkirk is campaign director of Democracy Spring, co-founder and organizer with 99Rise. He was arrested yesterday in the action at the Capitol. And Lee Fang is with us here in San Francisco, investigative journalist at The Intercept covering the intersection of money and politics.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go directly to D.C. Kai Newkirk, you just recently got out of jail. Talk about this mass civil disobedience that took place yesterday, leading to the arrest of more than 400 people.

KAI NEWKIRK Thank you, Amy. It’s great to be with you, and it’s an honor to be on the show.

We think that yesterday can be the beginning of the end of this corruption and inequality in our democracy. It was so inspiring to see people come together at the People’s House and say, “We are going to take it back,” people from across the political spectrum, many of whom had walked all the way from Philadelphia, from the Liberty Bell, to Washington, D.C., almost 150 people who did that, and, we believe, over 500 people who sat in and sent a message to Congress that we will not accept inaction to save our democracy, and sent a message to anyone who’s running for office in our country that you have to make a decision: Are you going to stand on the side of democracy and on the side of the people or on the side of big money and corruption? And if you choose to defend the status quo of corruption, we believe there’s going to be growing nonviolent resistance in the streets, at the Capitol, at your fundraisers and in the polls, to say, “We will not take it anymore. We demand an equal voice in our democracy.” And, yes, it’s right. It’s just the beginning. And we call on people to join us here. We’re going to be back at the Capitol today and tomorrow and the next day.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai Newkirk, can you talk about how you and who were the others who organized Democracy Spring?

KAI NEWKIRK Sure. We had this vision well over a year ago. We had led a march in California from Los Angeles to Sacramento, 99Rise, the organization that I co-founded. It was very powerful. It was an inspiration to many people. And we thought, “What if we could take that national? What if we could give people across the country an opportunity to participate?” and have been able to bring together an incredible coalition, as you said, over 140 organizations from across the spectrum of the progressive movement and even beyond. And leaders from different parts of the movement—Cenk Uygur from The Young Turks sat in yesterday. Frances Moore Lappé, a leader around food justice for many years; Umi Selah from the Dream Defenders; Jodie Evans from CodePink; John Pudner from a conservative organization Take Back Our Republic marched with us and joined with us.

And when we were at the Capitol today, you could feel the energy that this can be a moment that can really turn the tide around this. And it’s because of the hard work of so many people who have built this coalition and brought people together and given them an opportunity to express what the vast majority of people in our country feel, which is that the political system is not representing us, that it is corrupt, and that, because of that, we have a rigged economy. We want a government of, by and for the people, not the 1 percent. And we stood up and sent a message that we’re going to win that, one way or another, yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai Newkirk, you also snuck a camera into the Supreme Court. Can you talk about what you did back in 2014 and why you were there?

KAI NEWKIRK Yes, that was on the eve of the expected decision in the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, which was another—ultimately, another wrecking ball to the wall of separation between wealth and state in our society, Citizens United 2.0. And we felt like we needed to call attention to this crisis and the Supreme Court’s role in deepening it, and do so in a way that would inspire people to stand up. So, myself and one other person, Ryan Clayton from Wolf PAC, who also sat in with us yesterday, we went into the court, and I stood up and gave a short speech, was arrested. But we got it on video, the first video ever from inside the Supreme Court. We’ve done two similar actions, 99Rise, since then, with seven people and five people.

And I’m very proud, because the goal, in many ways, of that was to inspire other people to step up and to be willing to do something similar. And yesterday was a tremendous fulfillment of that, to see hundreds of people, over 500. It took them hours to get people processed and out. They had to get another bus, because they were not prepared. There were so many people. And more are going to be joining today and tomorrow. And we call on people, wherever you are this country, if you agree with us, get in your car, get on the bus, get a ticket, do whatever it takes to get to D.C. and be part of this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai Newkirk, what are the bills before Congress right now that addresses campaign finance?

KAI NEWKIRK There are many steps that Congress could take. We’re calling on them to take immediate action to end the corruption of big money in politics and ensure free and fair elections that give us all an equal voice. And there are four bills, in particular, that we’ve identified—two that deal with big money in politics and two that will protect and expand the right to vote and voter access. One would set up public finance, a citizen funding of elections, so that anyone can run for office without raising money from billionaires. Another is an amendment that would overturn Citizens United. The third would restore the damage that was done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, the Voting Rights Advancement Act. And the fourth, the Voter Empowerment Act, would do many positive things to make it easier for people to get to the polls and to be able to vote. And in the wake of Justice Scalia’s death, there’s a fifth step that we’re calling on Congress to take, which is to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court who will vote to uphold the principle of political equality, to end this corruption of big money in politics and ensure that all have the right to vote.

And what we’re saying is that even though the conventional wisdom is that Congress won’t do anything with Republican leadership, we don’t accept that. You know, we feel that conscience demands that we ask what is right, what is just, what is consistent with our principles as a country. And the vast majority of the American people—Republican, Democrat, independent—want change on this. And we’re saying to Congress, “You can’t just hide. You can’t just be resigned. You can’t just pretend that we don’t know that you could solve this problem right now. We’re going to demand that you do so. And if you don’t, you’re going to have to send hundreds of people to jail, day after day, and expose this problem and shine a spotlight on it and force yourselves to take a stand and make a decision.” And those who don’t stand with the people, and stand on the side of corruption, we believe that there will be a growing political price to pay.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai, have any presidential candidates endorsed Democracy Spring?

KAI NEWKIRK I don’t know if we could call it an endorsement, but there were two tweets that went out from the Bernie Sanders account yesterday lifting up what we did. We want to be clear this is a nonpartisan, independent campaign. There are many Bernie supporters that are part of it, but I’ve talked to many Hillary supporters and even some Trump supporters. And it’s welcome to everyone. And what we’re saying is that we’re not going to endorse candidates, but we are calling on them to endorse the movement. Whatever office you’re running for, from president on down to city council, you need to let the American people know, those who you would want to represent, if you will work and fight to solve this problem, if you will work to make sure that we have a government that represents us all, not just the 1 percent. We were pleased to see those tweets from the Bernie Sanders campaign. We hope that Hillary Clinton, Trump and anyone who’s running for office in our country will stand with us in this cause to save our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai, can you talk about how Democracy Spring fits into Democracy Awakening and what that is?

KAI NEWKIRK Yes, I like to think of it as two wings of the same bird, one democracy mobilization that’s coming to D.C. this spring. All told, I think over 300 organizations are part of it. We kicked things off with this march from Philadelphia to D.C. and are sitting in at the Capitol this week and building, going at least through the week. We will carry forward until either Congress does something or they send so many of us to jail that it will be, we believe, the largest civil disobedience in our country in this 21st century.

And this weekend, we’ll be joined by many more with the Democracy Awakening; on the 17th, there will be a huge family-friendly rally. We call on everyone to come out into the streets to march, to walk, to join with us then. And then, on Monday, Congress of Conscience, lobbying direct action going back to the Capitol, we’ll be there, we’ll be organizing. It may go beyond that.

And we’re calling on people across the country, wherever you are, to be part of this moment. If enough of us come together, Amy, in D.C., we can make this the turning of the tide. We can shine a spotlight on this issue like never before in our country and lift it up in the middle of this presidential election in a way that Occupy Wall Street did for economic inequality. We can do that for this critical issue of political inequality. Solving it is the key to making progress on so many other urgent issues in our country, from catastrophic climate change to mass incarceration. We lit a spark yesterday, and we need to fan the flames and build this into something that changes the political weather in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai Newkirk, I want to thank you for being with us, campaign director of Democracy Spring, co-founder of 99Rise.

When we come back, Intercept investigative reporter Lee Fang on money in politics—oh, also on skin care. Why would the CIA be interested in a cream that takes away your blemishes and softens your skin? Stay with us.

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