What I Learned From My March With Democracy Spring

The author addresses a crowd gathered for the Democracy Spring mobilization in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Democracy Spring)

What I Learned From My March With Democracy Spring

The political march is a tool for social transformation in itself. This one gave me a taste of the connected, empowered society I’m working to create.

This past Monday was the most important day of my life. I walked up to the Capitol building and sat on the steps with more than 400 people. When asked to move, we refused and were arrested. We committed nonviolent civil disobedience together to protest the power of money in politics and support the restoration of real democracy.

I was arrested in the afternoon and didn't get out until midnight.

I was arrested in the afternoon and didn't get out until midnight. I joined the others at a holding facility that looked like a warehouse, and we spent our time there doing the same thing we'd done on the 140-mile march that brought us here from Philadelphia. We talked about why we were here and why we felt as strongly as we did.

For me, democracy is all about feeling strongly. The very word makes my heart go pitter-patter. Democracy is the way we work together to meet our deepest nonphysical needs: for connection, meaning, and power. Tragically, this promise has been corrupted by a concept of democracy so thin that it's let a wealthy minority drown out the voices of the people.

On April 2, we rallied at the Liberty Bell and then we just started marching. Passing first through Philadelphia neighborhoods, it was wonderful to see people come out and wave in support. In one yard, little kids banged on noisemakers, celebrating our march. The first person I met there, Taralei Griffin, told me she'd had a passion for democracy since the second grade--and she sent me a picture of herself wearing an American flag as a Halloween costume to prove it.

We spent our first night in Chester, Pennsylvania, where four churches came together to take care of us. They gave us a place to put our sleeping bags and provided wonderful food.

In Wilmington, Delaware, in yet another welcoming church, we had a "storytelling and resonating" session. Sitting on the floor in the common room, we self-organized into groups of three to share our motivations. I was with two young men. One was a thoughtful veteran still finding his way. The other, a former banker, had devoted his life to the Catholic Worker movement for a number of years and needed nourishment. The daily care he gives to those who've been beaten down had taken a toll on him.

He didn't want to just bind the wounds of our society anymore, he said. He wanted to address the root causes of those wounds. And that helped motivate him to join our march.

Of course, that's my story too. From the 1980s on, I've been saying that hunger isn't caused by a scarcity of food, but by a scarcity of democracy. It's true globally, and it's true here. The United States is the world's biggest agricultural exporter, yet our government classifies one in seven of our households as "food insecure"--meaning they don't always know where their next meal is coming from. That's scary.

But we can't end hunger without democracy. The same goes for homelessness and climate change. The prospect of a real democracy is like a canopy of hope over these other issues.

A number of people here carry within them the energy they got from the Occupy movement. Others marched in the New Hampshire Rebellion with democracy champion Larry Lessig, who's with us now. They walked the full length of the state in January of 2014, and again in 2015.

Now that I have experienced the power of this kind of march, I understand why they're doing it again. The march, in itself, is a powerful tool for social transformation. I never really got that before. We are changing ourselves as we join together and take risks together. We are experiencing all three human requirements of connection, meaning, and power. Tasting them, we want more and feel empowered to achieve more.

The march also empowers the people who see it. After watching us in Philadelphia, about 400 new people pledged to commit civil disobedience in Washington, D.C.

Democracy Spring's generational mix is striking too. I've never experienced anything like it. As an elder, I remember the attitude of the 60s, when some warned: "Don't trust anybody over 30." Here, the feeling is exactly opposite. Everybody is contributing and everybody is valued. Elders bring the perspective and learning of many decades. Youth come in with focus, voice, and vision. The respect across the generations is palpable.

And that's not the only difference between this movement and the ones of the '60s. Not long ago, I was speaking with my friend Adam Eichen, a 23-year-old graduate of Vassar College, about how difficult it can be for Americans to believe that we can change the system.

Adam asked whether a specific individual had shown me that I could make a difference.

The answer was no. I admired Dr. King and other leaders, but I didn't need someone to inspire me because I knew I was part of something big and historic. I had the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the War on Poverty at my back.

I want those in Adam's generation to have the same feeling I did. And, more than that, I want an accountable, passionate, inclusive movement of movements for real democracy.

The seed of that is here today, and that's why I'm here. It's not too late to join us. Americans will be sitting in at the nation's capital until April 18.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.