Fasting for democracy — Why I’ve given up food to fight corruption

Kai Newkirk on day 13 (October 30) of the Fast for Democracy. (Facebook/99Rise)

Kai Newkirk on day 13 (October 30) of the Fast for Democracy. (Facebook/99Rise)

Fourteen days ago I had my last meal — if you can call it that. A cup of apple juice on a flight. Since then I’ve been living on water alone and I’m prepared to continue for days to come.

Why would someone willingly take on this kind of discomfort? I’ve chosen to do so to demonstrate through my own bodily sacrifice the seriousness of what I and more and more Americans believe to be a crisis: the utter corruption of our democracy by what Abraham Lincoln called “the money power.” I want to call on people who acknowledge this problem, but may not act on it, to take a simple step: pledge to vote this November and to do so in support of candidates who will fight to end this corruption.

In the days since I began my fast others who feel this urgency have joined me. Some for just a day in solidarity, others — like retired attorney Steve Bass in Los Angeles and civil servant Laura Rubalcalba in Sacramento — for the duration. The pool of people to whom we appeal by our collective sacrifice is an enormous one. Indeed, a growing consensus is emerging among the American people that billionaires and corporations are essentially buying our elections and insisting that the victors they finance — Republican and Democrat alike — govern in their narrow interest rather than that of the nation.

Look at any injustice, any critical and chronic problem in America — from climate disruption to mass incarceration to student debt or outrageous wealth inequality — and a clear assessment will reveal that the wishes and needs of big money interests are being served instead of those of the vast majority of Americans. Koch brother beats grandma or your kids every time. We must face the hard truth: America has become a plutocratic oligarchy. Our economic and political life are dominated by a tiny elite, a fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent.

This is wrong; it’s a betrayal of this country’s tremendous legacy of struggle to realize the democratic promise of its founding principles, and it threatens our future as a people. Yet, far too many of us who feel this truth at some level lack the hope or courage to take on the challenge of doing something about it. We are fasting to help change that. There is hope and courage is contagious.

The hope that I see is not in any one candidate or leader — this isn’t 2008. Instead I see hope in a movement that is growing in this land, our land. Especially in the last almost 5 years since the Supreme Court disgraced itself with the infamous Citizens United decision, people across our country have begun waking up and organizing to confront what Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig calls the “first issue” for progress in the United States: ending political corruption through fundamental reform of election funding and, more broadly, the intersection of private wealth, corporate power and public governance.  In the summer of 2012, I decided after years of community organizing and political work to join this movement and devote myself to this fight.

I left my position as a deputy for a Los Angeles City Councilman to help launch 99Rise — a growing grassroots organization fighting to end corruption and win real democracy in America through nonviolent civil resistance in the tradition of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the early trade union organizers, the civil rights workers and beyond. In the two years since then, I’ve been to jail four times — once for disrupting the Supreme Court on the eve of another shameful “go corruption!” decision, McCutcheon v. FEC — and marched almost 500 miles from Los Angeles to the California capitol in Sacramento. As thousands of others have stepped up to sacrifice in many different ways, we’ve won victories that are slowly shifting the political weather on this issue.

We see the signs of the Democratic Party and many Republicans shifting tentatively but significantly in our direction — from California and Vermont issuing binding calls for a Constitutional Convention to address it; to hundreds of cities and nearly a third of states calling by resolution or referendum for Congress to do so; to the recent Senate vote on an imperfect but serious Amendment and the proposal of a strong public finance bill in the House.

Right now, many candidates for office who have begun to feel the power of this growing movement are staking their flag on our side of this fight. The big money forces of corruption — the Koch brothers, Chevrons, and Sheldon Adelsons — see this and they are spending unprecedented millions to tighten their grip on our government before we grow much stronger. On the eve of what will be the most expensive midterm election in American history marked by perhaps the lowest voter turnout ever, people who care about democracy, about our country — about ourselves — cannot sit this one out. So, in this moment we have chosen one tool of civil resistance — fasting — to move many more to commit to stand against corruption by taking up another: the vote.

Fasting is a weapon that anyone can wield — it’s requirements are only a living body and a determined will. Indeed, while the epic fasts of historic leaders like Gandhi and Cesar Chavez are best known, ordinary people have put this tool to powerful use in movements for immigrant rights, the human rights of prisoners, and other fights for generations. While many fasts or hunger strikes demand something of an opponent or oppressor, our fast — and some of the most powerful examples in history — makes a demand of our supporters, those who agree with and even love us. By our sacrifice, we implore you to consider that which moves us to such uncommon action and — if you in fact do agree — to take action yourself.

Now 14 days into our Fast for Democracy, over 1,000 people have pledged and our message has reached tens of thousands more. The other night a friend said he didn’t recognize me — and another suggested I won’t have to dress up to be a skeleton for Halloween. I’ve lost some weight, true, and this isn’t easy. But I and those who have joined me will continue our fast until at least 28,000 people — symbolic of the 28th Constitutional Amendment for which we fight — have taken the Democracy Voter Pledge or until the polls close on November 4th. If you, the reader, are among those who agree: stand with us and sign the pledge.

The Democracy Voter Pledge is simple. It states: “I pledge to vote on or before November 4th, 2014, for pro-democracy candidates who will fight for reform to end corruption.” To help people identify pro-democracy candidates to support, we’ve developed Democracy Voter Guides that we share with everyone who pledges.

What makes a “pro-democracy” candidate? For us, the litmus test is whether or not a candidate has voted for, co-sponsored, or made clear public statements in favor of legislation to either advance a 28th Amendment to ban big money from elections or advance public financing of elections. If yes on either, pro-democracy; if no on both, pro-corruption. Some have asked whether this standard is strong enough and even whether participating in an election system we know is rigged makes sense. Let me respond here to them.

No promise or past behavior from a politician is a guarantee of future action. We know this. But electing those who commit to back anti-corruption reform in principle or who have taken steps to do so already helps to build a popular mandate for this change by validating our position. And it gives us leverage as a movement to hold them accountable by further mobilizing a now more emboldened public. As Gandhi, Dr. King, and scholars like Gene Sharp have taught us, ultimately, power lies in a mobilized people. A strategy of nonviolent civil resistance is based on galvanizing both the sympathy of a majority of the public and a critical mass of active participation for a cause. When we achieve that decisive threshold of active public support, the key institutions — or pillars — that uphold the status quo are forced to shift to concede to our demands or face unsustainable political, social and economic costs.

Engaging in this election to elevate our cause and support candidates likely to stand with us is a step in that broader process. In this critical struggle, we must be prepared to use every nonviolent tool. Voting is one such tool, and a powerful one with particular meaning in this fight, which is, in one sense, a struggle to defend our very right to vote.

Indeed, the struggle to end corruption and establish political equality regardless of wealth is a struggle to ensure that universal suffrage still means something. That it is still the lever, shared equally by all adult citizens, that sets our representative government on its course. If we are dismayed by corruption, by the rigging of the game, and discard our ballot power we defame that for which we fight. And further, in my view, the blood, sweat and tears that Americans who came before us have shed in order to win that right to vote, to expand the franchise from a tiny minority of property-owning white men to Americans of any class, color or gender, makes voting a sacred right. And a sacred duty. We fast to call on all who stand with us in principle on the question of political equality to stand with us now in action: vote for democracy this November.

Join us. Pledge to vote. Help us build a movement. This is just a step in much larger struggle — but it is an important step. Whatever happens when the election results come in, our path forward is still clear: to build a mass movement of nonviolent civil resistance that galvanizes the American public and leverages our people power in a way that no plutocrat can withstand.

I know this will be miles away from easy. But when I look at the history of our country, I see a humbling, profoundly powerful tradition of nonviolent struggle that has overcome tremendous entrenched resistance to advance progress toward “liberty and justice for all” in America. We surely face no greater obstacles than they did. From the abolitionists to the suffragettes, from the early trade union organizers to the civil rights workers and beyond, everyday Americans have built movements and put their bodies and freedom on the line for justice. And won. Every one of us is heir in some way to that legacy of struggle — if not in this country, then in those from which most Americans ancestors came. The same strength is in us. It’s time to remember who we are, take up the same tools our ancestors did, and renew our democracy.

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