At age 35, Kai Newkirk has a long history with civil disobedience. He’s been arrested for a cause 10 times, which he doesn't think is enough. His most infamous arrest, in 2014, was at the U.S. Supreme Court, where, with a collaborator, he pulled off a very rare disruption—and even rarer videotaping—of oral arguments to protest the court’s dismantling of campaign finance laws.
These days, Newkirk, who is usually based in Los Angeles, has been co-living and coworking in a large house in Takoma Park, Maryland, where he and about 20 others—volunteers and a few paid staff—are plotting what they hope will be the biggest disruption in Washington seen in a generation.
Democracy Spring, an action led by Newkirk’s group 99Rise along with several dozen endorsing organizations, is planning to launch a massive sit-in at the U.S. Capitol in mid-April. Their cause is what they believe to be an underlying barrier to all kinds of social, environmental, and economic reforms in the United States: corrupt elections, entrenched elite power, and the massive and growing influence of money in politics.
"We know that there’s tremendous frustration and anger around the country about the state of our democracy—that’s clearly evidenced in the success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders," says Newkirk. "The political and economic system is just not working for everyday people."
Starting on Saturday, marchers will begin in Philadelphia and make their way to Washington, D.C., where on April 11, they plan a nonviolent sit-in both outside and, to the extent possible, inside the U.S. Capitol. Though the movement takes inspiration from Occupy Wall Street, it is taking a decidedly different approach with a set of very specific demands—that Congress pass four pieces of legislation that have already been introduced this session.
"We didn’t want anybody, Paul Ryan or someone on CNN or a presidential candidate, to be able to say ‘yes there’s a problem, but these people don’t know what they want," Newkirk says. The bills in question propose overturning the Court’s Citizens United decision, citizen-funded elections, reforms to combat voter suppression, and a step toward expanding voting rights. They hope to continue to rotate people into the sit-in until they win or everyone's arrested.
The grassroots movement to reform government and elections has been growing every since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision lifted limits on political donations to candidates. Democracy Spring, in fact, isn't even the only D.C. protest event on the issue planned in April. The group is closely coordinating with another large coalition of organizations, called Democracy Awakening, that will be holding a rally and march on the weekend of April 16. And this election cycle, in states including South Dakota, New York, and California, there are more ballot initiatives to reform government than in any previous election.
Turnout is crucial to achieving momentum on such an intransigent issue. When first proposing the idea for Democracy Spring, the groups launched a Kickstarter-like model where the action would proceed only if he could get to 1,000 sit-in pledges. Now they hope to far surpass that total and are confidently predicting it will be the largest civil disobedience this century.
That achievement might be possible if their pledges come through. In 2011, about 1,200 people were arrested at the White House protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline, the proposed tar sands oil project eventually rejected by President Obama, marking the largest number at a single protest in a long time (Newkirk isn’t counting the Occupy Wall Street movement where there were many more arrests—but were dispersed around the country.) So far about 3,000 people have filled out an online pledge to risk arrest, including a number of activist-celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo, Gaby Hoffman, and Lawrence Lessig. Organizers are following up with each individual, and even if not everyone shows, it promises to be a big action.
99 Rise, the grassroots pro-democracy group Newkirk cofounded after quitting his job working for a L.A. city councilman, was already behind a similar, much smaller march in California calling for electoral reforms. Democracy Spring, for its part, is calling on its network of trained organizers around the country to bring people to Washington, as well as a steering committee of other progressive groups.
Though most groups involved are left-leaning, Newkirk hopes it will draw some support from grassroots libertarians or conservatives. After publishing an article characterizing Democracy Spring as an "anti-Trump" rally run by radicals, the conservative site Breitbart did allow Newkirk to byline his own piece.
This election year is an interesting time to amp up this movement. Sanders is funding his successful-beyond-anyone’s-expectations campaign with small donations. Trump is mostly self-funding his campaign and taking smaller donations. Both have attracted support because of their stance. But even so, taking into account other candidates and races for Congress, Newkirk says this will be the most "big-money dominated, billionaire dominated, voting suppression, dark-money election in history." (Billionaire politicians who can fund their own campaigns, like Trump and Michael Bloomberg, aren’t the way to dampen the influence of the elite either).
"We believe for real change to happen, people have to act beyond only voting," he says. "No candidate can drive that. There has to be an intervention."