Frances Moore Lappé: Why I’m Facing Arrest to Get Money Out of Politics

Democracy Spring is expected to be the largest civil disobedience action in decades.

On April 11, thousands of marchers with Democracy Spring will arrive in the nation’s capital. “This is the beginning.”

Frances Moore Lappé is perhaps best known for her best-selling book Diet for a Small Planet, which looked at the causes of world hunger—and offered a solution. But these days, she’s thinking more about ballots than beans.

It’s not that she’s lost her passion for vegetables. It’s just that she’s come to believe that no amount of organizing can beat big agriculture—or any major industry, for that matter—unless the United States finds a way to get money out of politics. Democracy, she says, is the “mother of all issues.”

So she was overjoyed, she says, to learn in the fall of 2015 that hundreds of people—the number has reached more than 2,000 since then—had pledged to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience over this very issue. She immediately joined up.

The event, dubbed Democracy Spring, kicks off April 2nd with a gathering at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Then there’s a nine-day march to Washington, D.C. If Congress hasn’t moved forward legislation that would take on money in politics by the time the marchers arrive, then they say they’re prepared to risk arrest in a week of nonviolent sit-ins. The event has the support of the AFL-CIO and is being promoted as “the largest civil disobedience action in a generation.”

It’s a movement that took years to build, according to organizer Kai Newkirk. Back in 2012, a number of people affiliated with Occupy Los Angeles coalesced into the group 99 Rise, which specializes in nonviolent civil disobedience. In February 2014, members of the group, including Newkirk, interrupted the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on McCutcheon vs. FEC, a case widely seen as an extension of Citizens United. The following year, the group marched to show support for three clean-elections bills in the California state house. Two of the bills ultimately passed.

The relationships 99 Rise forged in those years made Democracy Spring possible, Newkirk says. A core group of supporters, including Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, Young Turks host Cenk Uygur, and Dream Defenders leader Umi Selah, signed on first. Avaaz, a huge web-based political advocacy operation with more than 43 million members worldwide, signed on next. Its members have become major donors for the group.

Lappé says she hasn’t been arrested since the 1980s, but feels the timing is right to change how our democracy is funded.

Newkirk says Democracy Spring now has nine full-time staff members, including a communications director, a training coordinator, and a field coordinator. Most staff members live with volunteers in a “movement house” north of Washington, D.C., where they sleep in bunk beds put together by Newkirk’s father. Forty-five people participated in a nonviolent action training this past weekend.

Lappé says she hasn’t been arrested since the 1980s but feels the timing is right to change how our democracy is funded. Here’s an edited version of a conversation Lappé had with YES! Senior Editor James Trimarco.

James Trimarco: How did you get involved in Democracy Spring?

Frances Moore Lappé: In the hardest book of my life, which is about world hunger, I said that hunger is not encouraged by the scarcity of food but by the scarcity of democracy. And I swore that I would just dive in and work to build a democracy movement because that was the root of it all.

Here’s how I see it: Even though I lived through the ’60s, for me, this is an even more powerful moment for many reasons, and I think we can go beyond anything we experienced in the ’60s. This is not another Occupy movement that awakens people to the crisis but doesn’t continue on.

Trimarco: How do you hope this will be different?

Lappé: I don’t want to put down the Occupy movement because I think it did awaken people to the crisis of inequality. But the energy is different because this movement is about solutions, and we want to continue on until we solve the problem.

There’s pending legislation that is a key part of the solution. I’m referring to the Sarbanes Bill, also called the Government By the People Act, and there’s another one called the Fair Elections Now Act. If those were passed, people could run for office without taking big bucks from wealthy donors like the Koch brothers. Then there’s the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Voter Empowerment Act, both of which would reinstate and strengthen voting rights. And there’s the Democracy for All Amendment, which would begin the process for a constitutional amendment to limit campaign spending.

But the energy is different because this movement is about solutions, and we want to continue on until we solve the problem.

These are all things that have been introduced, and the Government By the People Act has 160 co-sponsors. You can find polls showing that two-thirds to well over 80 percent of people are behind these across the country. It’s just that, in the current Congress, none of these things are moving because so many of the people we have elected are themselves beholden to moneyed interests.

So that, I think, is a huge, huge difference between Occupy and Democracy Spring. I’ve been stressing from the beginning that I really want this to be the beginning of something, not the end of something, so that everybody who gets involved will look for and find people—even if it’s just a few buddies—to do things with, like educational work in their community, maybe more demonstrations, calling on local legislatures to make change that’s aligned with what we are demanding at the national level.

Trimarco: Why do you say that democracy is the “mother of all issues”?

Lappé: Why do we subsidize chemical agriculture when we could be subsidizing healthy food so that everybody could afford it? Why is it that Monsanto was able to spread its GMOs all over the country with no long-term testing whatsoever? Well, for most of these industries, and for Monsanto, it was their influence in government.

So whatever your issue, I think that’s what people are starting to realize. Take prison. We have privatization of prison and we have some bad laws that have led to mass incarceration that’s way overbalanced toward people of color. Part of the problem is the lobbying of the prison industry itself. Who benefits from having more than 2 million people in prisons and jails? So you name the issue, and the crisis will relate in some way to the power of private interests in making the laws.

Interviews with organizers of Democracy Spring. Video by Marcus Strath and Kevin Strassbruger / Democracy Spring.

Trimarco: Democracy Spring kicks off on April 2 with a gathering at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and then there’s a march to Washington, D.C. What role does that march play?

Lappé: Marches have become such a symbol of people’s commitment to walk together. I think it is symbolically true that we are in for the long walk toward a democracy we can believe in.

It’s also an opportunity for all of us to experience a sense of community. People who’ve been in other marches have told me that it feels like an incredible sense of commitment and solidarity for the people that you march with. That changes you for life.

Trimarco: What happens when you get to D.C.?

Lappé: More than 2,000 of us have agreed to risk arrest, including some people with bigger names than mine, like Lawrence Lessig, Zephyr Teachout, Cenk Uygur, Mark Ruffalo, and Gaby Hoffmann. I think that says a lot, too, that people are willing to risk arrest.

I haven’t done this since I was protesting the Reagan support for the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, so it’s all gonna be new for me.

Trimarco: Can you talk to me a little bit about those sit-ins, how they create leverage for the policies you want to see?

Lappé: All the polls show tremendous anger about our country being ruled by an oligarchy. If we do a good job and handle ourselves with dignity, then I think people watching will say, “Wow, they’re speaking for me. I feel that way too, and I wish I could be there. How can I get involved?”

We have models of publicly funded elections in Seattle and Tallahassee, Florida. It’s working here, it’s working there, and it can work in our whole country if we just say we are not going to vote for people who take big contributions—we only vote for people who only take small donations and public financing.

You name the issue, and the crisis will relate in some way to the power of private interests in making the laws.

That’s the idea, that this is not the end of something or one-off thing. This is the beginning.

Trimarco: In addition to the problem of candidates being funded by corporations and wealthy donors, we also see candidates who self-fund—the Michael Bloombergs and the Donald Trumps.

Lappé: I think that’s also undemocratic, in the sense that we should have a level playing field. Often I introduce a metaphor that, to me, captures the problem. We’ve been organized into a large auditorium where we all have the right to speak, but a few people can afford electronic megaphones. They can just drown out the rest of us. We can be speaking as much as we want, but nobody can hear us. And if you can fund your own campaign with millions of dollars, then you’ve got that megaphone.

Trimarco: Some of Trump’s supporters say they like him because they feel he can’t be bought.

Lappé: The system is so corrupted that you can understand why they feel that way. Everybody else has been bought by others. But I’m just saying that, in a sense, you’re buying yourself when you’re so wealthy that you have all these vested interests and you don’t have to listen to other people. You can put yourself on the platform and advertise and get such media coverage, as Trump is doing, because he has big bucks. You’re effectively drowning out somebody much more qualified. That’s what Trump is doing. He’s drowning out many more qualified people.

Trimarco: I read on your blog that you’re hosting retreats to discuss “democracy’s next historical stage.” Can you give us a sense of what that next stage looks like for you?

Lappé: I love to quote William Hastie, who was the first African-American federal court judge, and he said, “Democracy is becoming rather than being. It’s easily lost but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.”

The next historical stage is to drop the idea that we inherited a democracy, and to recognize that every generation has to be about creating and improving it. And we’ve dropped the ball. We’ve really gone backward.

I came to adulthood in my 20s during the War on Poverty. I helped to start a poverty program, a summer program, in my college, and I felt like I could do something. It felt so different than now, with the young generation coming out of college feeling like they just have to scramble to keep their heads above water.

What’s so exciting to me is that young people are leading Democracy Spring, and we the elders are accepting that leadership and praising that leadership. I’m just so grateful for that leadership. I want to contribute my piece of it.

This post first appeared in YES! Magazine.

By James Trimarco

James is a senior editor at YES! Magazine.