ELKRIDGE, MD — It’s 40 degrees warmer here than when the members of New Hampshire Rebellion, a group dedicated to campaign finance reform, left on their winter walk in January 2015. Many of those who stepped out into -15 temperatures on their way to Concord, the state capitol 145 miles to the south, had no idea how hard it would be. Those 25 bundled up walkers only knew they needed to do something to clean up our government.
A little over a year later, when almost 300 walkers set off on a crisp morning from Independence Hall in Philadelphia last Saturday, some of those same NH Hampshire Rebel walkers were among them, still angry about even more money and more corruption in our political system. This time the destination is Washington, DC, the capital of quid pro quo, 138 miles to the south. They had joined a movement and growing national community called Democracy Spring.
The idea for this walk and mass civil disobedience action was conceived by grassroots group 99 Rise and dozens of other groups promoting democracy. Inspired by NH Rebellion’s model of long walks to draw attention to the blight of big money politics, organizers are looking to capitalize on recent discussions of campaign finance reform on the 2016 campaign trail. The goal is to create a moment that’s impossible for the national media and the political class to ignore, and inspire millions of Americans to demand solutions NOW.
“People know the system is corrupt,” said Peter James Callahan, Communications Director of Democracy Spring. “85% percent of Americans want fundamental change in the way the US funds elections. Why? Because they know, rightfully so, that they’re politically powerless.”
Callahan says he’s overwhelmed by the response, with walkers arriving from 33 states, including liberals, conservatives, independents, and all racial backgrounds.
“The Democracy Spring march is much larger than the NH Rebellion walks,” said Brian Beihl, deputy director of NH Rebellion, “but the dedication and the fire of the walkers is the same. You don’t walk 140 miles for fun; you do it because you believe in your cause. No matter their political leanings, these voters are frustrated, as they see their voices get drown out by big money interests. They see no choice but to take their message directly to Washington,” Beihl said.
One of the planners of the Democracy Spring march route, long-time NH Rebel Mary Redway of Rhode Island, said voters need to get active if they want to fix money in politics.
“This is something I believe in very strongly and I feel the need to get out and bring others with me,” said Redway. “We may not have the money but the we have the numbers. I’ve been too complacent in my youth, and allowed big money politics to erode all the gains we made in the 1960s. We need to win back democracy for our children,” she explained.
Like in the New Hampshire Rebellion, Democracy Spring participants are speaking with people they pass on the street, hoping to educate as well as inspire. The most memorable example was when the Democracy Spring marchers arrived in Baltimore. There in front of City Hall they joined a memorial vigil for Freddie Gray, the young African American man killed by the police in 2014. Democracy Spring merged with the mobilization, in what ended up being a profound experience for many marchers.
Logistics coordinator Vince Wallace explained, “The problems society faces from money in politics are systemic. And the problems that come from our history of racial injustice are systemic too. They’re hard for many people to see. It’s only after Americans see two groups like Democracy Spring and Black Lives Matter organizing together and ask, ‘Why is that happening?’ that these connections start becoming apparent.”
Day after day, a tangible sense of community is forming along the march. Walkers are making new friendships and relationships, which are sure to last well beyond just the duration of Democracy Spring itself.
This community-building is familiar to those who have been to New Hampshire Rebellion marches in years past. Watching the way former NH Rebellion participants reconnected with each other in Philadelphia on the first day of Democracy Spring was like seeing old friends meet up again.
In less than 48 hours, the Democracy Spring marchers are joining thousands more in DC, where they plan to risk arrest by sitting in at the US Capitol, day after day, demanding Congress act to ensure a more representational democracy.
Like those first NH Rebellion walkers who braved the elements to inspire their neighbors, and a nation,, these Democracy Spring walkers wonder what awaits them in the nation’s capitol. Yet they walk on, knowing their will be many more steps and many more voters who will need to rise up to ensure a democracy that respects all our voices and represents all people.