Protest or Civil Courage?
(This interview was conducted during the Democracy Spring march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC — part of a two week action to push for a more equal and representative democracy.)
We are about sixty miles into our 140-mile march to Washington, D.C. from Philadelphia. How are you feeling?
Exhilarated…and that’s after waking up at 4 am on a hard floor!
Why are you feeling so exhilarated?
At the risk of sounding cheesy, Democracy Spring is a moment I’ve hoped for all my life: Finding myself in a nurturing community that’s uniting people across issues, ethnic groups, genders, and backgrounds to tackle the mother of them all, our democracy deficit. We’re determined to create real democracy, one accountable not to Big Money but to the citizens. What could be more exhilarating than that?
Before the march, I confess, I imagined most people moving along, ear buds in place, in their own worlds. But, no. Everyone’s talking and telling each other what brought them here. Each story I’ve heard — from the veteran to the MIT engineer, the teenager to the former Wall St. banker — is so engrossing that I forget to ask how many more miles to go!
Day after day, I see everyone staying positive, being respectful, and welcoming each person who’s joining us.
You’ve been writing about democracy for almost three decades. Is this sense of community new for you?
The food movement, which I know best and respect deeply, has always felt like a vibrant, connected community. But honestly, I feared I’d never find that in the world of democracy.
But my fear has evaporated here. In Democracy Spring, I sense a powerful community forming. It embodies the democratic spirit, in which our heads and hearts meet. We have long known the facts of our democracy crisis, but few of us have dared to hope that foundational change is possible.
I have a strong sense that we’ll come to see Democracy Spring as more than an event. It might well become one historic marker of the budding democracy movement.
So why has this community formed now?
Because millions of Americans now get it! We must remove Big Money from politics to succeed on any issue we care about from racial justice to climate change. It’s the plurality of commitments within Democracy Spring that is our strength, not our weakness.
Why is marching from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. so important?
It makes the movement visible. No one can ignore one hundred and fifty people marching one hundred and forty miles. Hundreds of people from their cars and front steps are honking and waving at us, calling out, “Yes! Finally!” When people see us, I sense they see themselves in our action. Many are thanking us for representing them because they aren’t able to march for themselves.
Everyone who sees us will likely tell their friends, “Hey, I saw people marching on the highway about money in politics!” And some will think: “Okay, maybe I don’t have to give up on real change.”
In this way we’re fighting our one real enemy — despair.
Also, the march is transforming all of those in it. At least it’s true for me! I will carry the stories I’ve heard forever as well as the community we’ve formed. Learning and standing up together for what we believe in is powerful.
Taking this action, I feel myself becoming more convincing to myself. Don’t you think that can make me more convincing to others?
Yeah, protest certainly can do that.
For me, “protest” doesn’t really capture Democracy Spring.
I think of what we’re hoping to embody as “civil courage.” I hope that doesn’t sound self-important, because all I mean is that we’re choosing to do something most of us have never done before to stand up for the good of the whole. We are not only naming the crisis, but we are also offering specific solutions.
Can you tell me more about what you mean by “civil courage”?
To me it’s the essence of democracy.
For here is the human challenge: By nature we are so very social that we want desperately to fit in and to feel accepted. What’s toughest for most of us is to break with the pack — even when the wider group is heading into great danger. Civil courage means trusting one’s vision and saying to those who’ve given up or don’t see the danger: “I respect you, but I’ve got to go and stand up for what I believe is necessary for all to thrive.”
It can feel scary. But the reward of acting with others for the good of all is great. It is hope itself. When my daughter Anna Lappé and I founded the Small Planet Institute, we chose this as our motto: “Hope is not what we seek in evidence, it is what we become in action together.”
What’s the difference between the typical understanding of courage and civil courage?
We all admire someone rushing into a burning building to save a stranger. That instantaneous response demonstrates enormous courage.
Civil courage is different and often unheralded. It builds over time. It is built on human solidarity and often requires deep reflection. But in the end, you realize that in all of life, it’s not possible to know what’s possible, so you take the leap. It’s deeply patriotic. And that’s what I sense in the people around me: marchers making big sacrifices financially or otherwise to fight for all Americans. Many are even willing to sit-in at the Capitol on April 11th, risking arrest for the first time in their lives.
I’m fortunate to have my family and friends behind me. But some people don’t. I admire them the most.
Taking the leap to stand up for a future of dignity for all is civil courage. And for me, Democracy Spring embodies it.
Are you hopeful that the Democracy Spring movement can flourish?
It could be a turning point. Within it, we are creating a culture of engagement in which every person’s voice is respected; therefore everyone has dignity — a fundamental human need.
In that spirit, as soon as Democracy Spring is finished, Democracy Awakening begins, in which over 200 groups are organizing teach-ins and other actions, including civil disobedience, to push for meaningful election and voting rights reform.
All I know for sure is that right now, for the first time in my life, I feel I am a part of historic movement responding to three basic human requirements for life: connection, something I feel with everyone that is here; meaning, as getting Big Money out of politics is the most important issue of our time; and a sense of power, because together we are making a difference.
So you can imagine how grateful I am to those who created Democracy Spring. It is changing me, it’s building my courage quotient, and I firmly believe that courage is contagious.