In April of 2015, five pro-democracy activists stood up in the U.S. Supreme Court to denounce the justices for allowing unlimited sums of money to corrupt our politics. This action occurred on the one-year anniversary of the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, in which the court ruled that the overall federal limit on individual campaign contributions violated the First Amendment. Coupled with the disastrous Citizens United decision, which gave corporations permission to spend unlimited amounts on ads and other political tools, these court rulings have silenced the majority of people while giving immense power to the moneyed elite to influence our government.
Now more than two years since they rose one by one to admonish the court for tilting our elections in the favor of the wealthy, on Monday these activists appeared for sentencing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Originally facing sentences of 10–16 months in prison and $100,000 fines, they’ve had to appear in court several times over the years, incurring expenses and hardship as the government has prosecuted them with a zealousness that does not fit the charges.
Four of the five activists, who are David Bronstein, Matthew Kresling, Yasmina Mrabet, Belinda Rodriguez, and Richard Saffle, took turns in addressing the court to explain why they chose to rise up for our democracy. Rather than this being an isolated incident, they explained that they have worked for years to petition their government through more normal, non-disruptive channels, but since they lack the money to influence their representatives, the government doesn’t care what they have to say.
Mr. Kresling, for example, took part in Democracy Spring and March on Harrisburg, which were two monumental, pro-democracy efforts involving intensive outreach to state and national representatives in government. Earlier this year, March on Harrisburg met with 230 of 253 Pennsylvania state legislators to convince them to co-sponsor an end to district gerrymandering and to support a ban on gifts to lawmakers. Despite overwhelming support for the gift ban, a single, powerful representative, Daryl Metcalfe, stalled the bill in committee in order to protect a system of corruption. Mr. Kresling said the following to the court today (his full statement can be read here):
Each of my friends and co-defendants have been active on the issue of money in politics in various non-disruptive, unsensational ways; advocating for legislation, participating in the electoral process, community organizing — all of the so-called ‘right ways’ — and to similar frustrating ends. When a protest is being organized that will probably result in prison time, you generally don’t raise your hand to participate unless you feel as if you’ve exhausted the other options. But the avenues for citizens of average wealth to play a role in their democracy have been systematically closed.
Mr. Kresling quoted a detailed 2014 Princeton study of 1,800 political outcomes when he said, “economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy… the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact.”
Mr. Saffle has also been deeply involved with trying to end the corrupting influence of money in politics. As the West Virginia State Director of WolfPAC—a non-partisan political action committee with the goal of “ending corporate personhood and publicly financing all elections in the country”—Mr. Saffle has hands-on experience in a legislative process where moneyed interests drown out the cry of average citizens. Said Mr. Saffle (his full statement can be read here):
We’re no strangers to political corruption in West Virginia. We’ve had at least one governor incarcerated for extortion. Being a state rich with natural resources, the energy industry has ruled in West Virginia since it became an industry. Coal barons like Don Blankenship can fund the Republican takeover of our legislature and then serve less than a year in jail with the blood of 29 miners from the Upper Big Branch mine on his hands.
I don’t regret taking part in this action… But I also recognize it’s not the most important part of this process. The work myself and others across the country are doing with WolfPAC is the most important work being done to affect this change. After serving 30 hours in jail, and being on probation for over two years, I feel that my debt to society has already been paid.
The government’s harsh prosecution of these citizens—who each had just seconds to speak before being dragged away by the police during their courtroom disruption over two years ago—is indicative of a larger trend sweeping through the United States that is more representative of a fascist state than a democracy. From growing opposition to oil-and-gas pipelines to marches decrying the murder of mostly young, black men in their communities at the hands of police, protesters face draconian penalties for daring to demand racial, environmental, and social justice.
In 2016, Black Lives Matter activist Jasmine Richards faced up to four years in prison in California for trying to prevent someone from being arrested during a peace march in Pasadena. She was convicted of a rarely used statute in California law known up until recently as “felony lynching.” She eventually received a greatly reduced sentence after the government already achieved its goal of terrorizing and intimidating not only Ms. Richards but also all activists.
More recently, the government has aggressively gone after individuals demonstrating to protect their water supply from a pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota. One Oglala Sioux woman, Red Fawn Fallis, has been charged with three federal felonies and faces 25 years or more in prison. Prosecutors accuse her of firing a gun while multiple police officers had her pinned to the ground. Other protesters face up to fifteen years in jail for setting barricades on fire as a highly militarized police force overran their encampment with sound cannons, tear gas, and excessive force.
This aggressive repression of dissent reached full pitch in January of this year when the government brought multiple felony charges against more than 200 people on Inauguration Day. Some, like Emmie DiCicco, had the misfortune of simply getting caught up in the kettling process when the police were making mass arrests. Multiple video accounts show that Ms. DiCicco was simply there observing and recording the protests. That didn’t prevent prosecutors from bringing felony charges against her.
As our government grows less responsive to human rights issues and more supportive of unbridled corporate power, citizens are finding no other recourse but to exercise civil disobedience to warn of our descent into a fascist state. It was the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, after all, and the disastrous Citizens United decision that has stripped our people of their collective voice. When corporate interests usurp all levels of governmental power, as they have been doing for decades now, activists are left with no other choice but to rebel.
In the end, the judge on Monday sentenced the five Supreme Court activists with one weekend in jail (except for Mr. Kresling, who received two weekends because of an arrest in Harrisburg during March on Harrisburg). They must cover court costs and stay away from the Supreme Court during one year of unsupervised probation. Despite this, the government has already succeeded in scaring people from exercising their constitutional rights all across the country.