The impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commissionallowing unlimited and anonymous campaign spending has been profound and could yet be decisive in this election.
With an estimated $9.8 billion set to be spent during this electoral cycle, the 2012 elections will be the most expensive in history and have completely saturated the media and cultural environment in so-called swing states. As a result, according to the 99Rise.org, “One in four Americans say they are less likely to vote than in 2008, and 75 percent of Americans believe money buys results in Congress.
In response, 99Rise, a new grassroots group seeking to expose corporate spending in the most expensive election in United States history and get “big money out of politics” once and for all, has recently risen up. Coming out of the tradition of the Optor! movement in Serbia and the more recent Occupy protests in the US, 99Rise believes that strategic, nonviolent direct action is the only way to redress legislative loopholes that benefit profit over people.
An example came on September 28 in Los Angeles and New York City when students and community members delivered petitions to both Chase and Bank of America demanding that the banks disclose their campaign spending. When the banks refused, the students vowed to return in greater numbers.
Recently, three high school students, Emilie Hirsch, Cai Oglesby and Danielle Raskin, followed up by sitting-in at JPMorgan Chase in lower Manhattan, demanding full disclosure of the bank’s anonymous political expenditures. Instead of engaging in any kind of dialogue with the peaceful young demonstrators, JP Morgan Chase officials instead chose to shut down the entire sixty-floor building and had the NYPD arrest them.
“I’m risking arrest today because I’m fed up with politics as usual. The way we finance elections is broken,” says Hirsch, a high school senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, when asked why she was participating in the action. “Both sides are dependent on the donations of corporations and the super-rich, and that means that their preferences take precedent over the needs of ordinary Americans like me, regardless of who ends up in office. I’m prepared to get arrested in hopes of inspiring other frustrated Americans to join me in pushing for change.”
Hirsch, Oglesby and Raskin—who were introduced to activism through the youth-led, popular education and service-learning organization that they run, the New York 2 New Orleans Coalition—are just three people out of many who are calling attention to the corrupting power of “dark money.”
Guido Girgenti, East Coast Regional organizer for 99Rise, gave a detailed recount of the action: “We walked in and before Cai [Oglesby] was even able to read the statement explaining our demand and purpose, the security guard started yelling ‘Protesters at Williams Street! Protesters at Williams Street!’ ” Said Girgenti, “Cai read the statement over his yells and the three took their positions, obviously not intimidated. I think they prepared themselves very well to be harassed and yelled at and were ready to be resolute. I think it was the strength they emanated during the sit-in that caused NYPD and JPMorgan Chase security to totally overreact and shut down the building; they realized these youth were ready and willing to stay there until demands for disclosure were met and they were not used to having nonviolent students so smoothly ignore their commands.”
The New York sit-in was followed by a similar action in Los Angeles, when another group of young people delivered the same petition making the same demand of another Wall Street bank. During the peaceful sit-in, five 99Risers were arrested after demanding that Citigroup fully disclose all “dark money” spending.
Jordan Greenslade, a 19-year-old Occidental College student, was among the arrestees. “This is the first election in which I get to cast my ballot, and I’m excited to fulfill that sacred duty as an American citizen,” said Greenslade, “but I can’t make an informed decision about who to vote for without knowing what interests are backing each of the candidates. Today I’m standing up for democratic transparency and will risk arrest if necessary to show America just how far Wall Street will go to continue buying our elected officials in secret.”
According to Alex Stevens, an online organizer for 99Rise, the protest in Los Angeles was heavily policed but not violent. “A small group of cops had been stationed at the Staging Location watching us. Those risking arrest left for the undisclosed target in advance of the thirty or so supporters. A detachment of about a dozen officers on bikes emerged and tailed the thirty non-arrestable supporters from the staging location to the target,” said Stevens. “When we arrived, CitiGroup had already locked down the main entrance entirely and was refusing to accept the petition. Five activists sat down blocking the doors in front, the other supporters joined them.… Twelve cops formed a column just outside the area where activists and press were located. One officer declared the area an unlawful assembly, and a disperse order was issued.… the police surrounded those sitting-in, blocking them from view—they were then arrested one by one without much hassle and carted off in the paddy wagon.” Stevens also reported that the bail for each arrestee was set at $5,000.
The vision of these series of actions is articulated by Girgenti in his award-winning essay in The Nation’s 2012 Student Writing Contest. “I still believe the arc of history bends toward justice. But a sober assessment of our situation demands that we ask, given an epochal level of corporate power,” wrote Girgenti, “will the arc bend fast enough to avert another financial crisis? Or to save the planet? This is not an abstract question. The climate has a deadline. Whether we meet that deadline is not a question of solutions (there are many), but whether we can restore a republic of, by and for the people.”
While the 2012 elections have shaped our political climate in the past months, 99Risers are planning to continue nonviolent actions against banks well beyond the election, promising the kind of mass mobilization that Occupy Wall Street attempted in 2011. Our generation needs to learn from the model of organizing that acknowledges the success of direct action and legislative pressure working in tandem in order to build a broad movement and put ourselves on the line, strategically, when and where it really counts.