Why I Was Arrested

US Capitol Police surround activists during the 'Congress with Conscience' rally on Capitol Hill April 18, 2016 in Washington
US Capitol Police surround activists during the 'Congress with Conscience' rally on Capitol Hill April 18, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, I was arrested at the U.S. Capitol.

I was proud to join hundreds of fellow Americans in a mass civil disobedience action that culminated a historic week of pro-democracy protests in Washington, D.C.

Among the others arrested at the Capitol on Monday were social justice and public interest leaders from Greenpeace and the NAACP, Sierra Club and the Communication Workers of America, Food and Water Watch and Represent.Us, Friends of the Earth and the AFL-CIO, and many more.

Three hundred and six of us were arrested on Monday, culminating eight days of protests involving more than 1,300 arrests and a Sunday march and rally of 5,000.

Those of us arrested on Monday refused to abide by police instructions to move, in order to demand far-reaching reform of our broken political system.

I did not make the decision to get arrested lightly, and my organization, Public Citizen, did not decide to encourage people to engage in civil disobedience without considerable deliberation.

But I acted -- along with my fellow arrestees from the Democracy Awakening and Democracy Spring mobilizations -- because we knew it was the right thing to do.

The act of civil disobedience is, first, a matter of conscience.

We chose to engage in civil disobedience because we care so much for our country -- and because we are so desperately concerned about our broken democracy.

  • We find it morally unacceptable that just a few hundred super-rich people and corporations are dominating election spending and exercising an outsized influence over who runs for office, who wins, what gets debated and what policies are ultimately adopted.
  • We find it ethically intolerable for the U.S. Supreme Court to characterize corporations as a "disadvantaged class" -- as the five-member majority did in Citizens United -- and then to grant political speech rights meant for people to these artificial entities that have far more wealth and power than living, breathing human beings.
  • We find it shameful beyond words that states across the country -- empowered by a Supreme Court that eviscerated the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act -- are making it harder to register and harder to vote, with the plain intention of impeding African Americans, Latinos and others from getting to the ballot box. It should be unimaginable that our country is undoing the hard-fought, and now widely celebrated, efforts of the civil rights movement to expand the franchise. But that rollback is in fact underway.

I was proud to sit on the Capitol steps, proud to have police officers arrest me, proud to be detained.

Civil disobedience provides its own vocabulary, its own means of expression.

By our act, we said: What's going on inside the Capitol, and in our country, is wrong.

By our act, we said: It is not just wrong, it is unacceptable. And we won't accept it.

Civil disobedience is a moral statement, but it's not just that. It's also a protest and advocacy tactic.

When Public Citizen and allies including the Democracy Initiative were first developing the idea for what became Democracy Awakening, we had multiple, complimentary objectives in mind.

We wanted to bring together a wide range of organizations around a common project, to strengthen the democracy movement and especially to show how our democracy crisis blocks solutions to virtually every other topline issue -- from inequality to climate change, from student debt to drug prices, from clean water to living wages, from jobs and trade policy to safe food.

We did that.

Some 300 organizations joined together to endorse Democracy Awakening.

We aspired to build a deeper, stronger, richer and more robust and fulsome democracy movement that integrated advocacy on voting rights and Big Money in politics.

We did that.

Voting rights and civil rights organizations joined together with money-in-politics groups to drive forward a mass action built around a broad and inclusive democracy agenda.

And we wanted to create an opportunity for Americans to show their passion around money-in-politics and democracy issues. In the six years since Citizens United, we've made more progress than anyone could have imagined, but it's not enough. We needed to show pundits and politicians the intensity of the public demand to fix a rigged political system.

We did that.

Sunday featured what may have been the largest rally and march for democracy in the nation's capital in 50 years. Thousands participated from across the country. There were young children and seniors. Long-time voting rights advocates marched side by side with campaigners to take money out of politics. All joined together to rescue our democracy. And Monday's civil disobedience action culminated eight days of protests including those organized under the Democracy Spring banner, with over 1,300 arrests total.

Creating different opportunities for people to participate -- but making civil disobedience a key component of the mobilization -- helped advance each of these objectives. On all these fronts, we of course have much, much more to do - but over the last week of protests and in the lead-up organizing, we made great strides.

But in thinking about the strategic importance of civil disobedience, above all there is this:

Throughout America's history, powerful social movements have driven every expansion of our democracy, from the 14th Amendment to women's right to vote to the Voting Rights Act. If we're going to win the far-reaching reforms we need to rescue our democracy from the twin evils of Big Money dominance and voter suppression, we're going to need another social movement of comparable scale.

That will require patient organizing around the country, but it also requires galvanizing moments. Large-scale civil disobedience uniquely helps provide that inspiration and spark action, engagement, commitment, activism and creativity.

That's ultimately why I think it was so important that hundreds of Americans decided to do so over the past week.

Our promise was that the last day of protests in Washington wasn't the end of something, but the beginning -- the beginning of a new phase of our movement, one in which we build and project our power at a higher level than we've ever been able to do.