Democracy Spring (DS) was established as a political movement in early 2016 to warn Americans that “our democracy is in crisis” because U.S. “elections are dominated by billionaires and big-money interests who can spend unlimited sums of money on political campaigns to protect their special interests at the general expense.” Though DS did not mention Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump by name, it was clearly alluding to him in its vow to “make this election a referendum on whether our democracy should belong to the People as a whole or to the billionaire class” wherein “the super-rich dominate the ‘money primary’ that decides who can run for office.”
In its earliest days, DS identified four specific reform bills that were already pending before Congress as “exemplary actions that can be taken” toward the goal of minimizing the influence of money in political elections: (a) Implement “small-dollar citizen-funded elections,” where candidates are required to accept public money for their campaigns in exchange for a promise to limit how much they spend on any election and how much they receive in donations from any one source; (b) “Combat voter suppression” efforts like the enactment of Voter ID laws, which DS falsely characterizes as efforts to “disenfranchise … people of color and the poor”; (c) “Empower citizens with universal suffrage,” meaning that all adult U.S. residents should be eligible to vote in political elections, without any citizenship or voter-registration requirements; and (d) “Introduce a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United,” a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision that had struck down the McCain-Feigold Act’s restrictions on what corporations could spend to support or oppose political candidates during the weeks immediately preceding primaries and general elections.
In its effort to gain support for the aforementioned agenda items, DS vowed to “call on every member of Congress and candidate for office in America” to join its “citizen equality champions” in taking an “Equal Voice for All” pledge that “commits them to fight for pro-democracy reform.” This pledge read as follows: “I pledge to fight to ensure that our government is free from the corrupting influence of big money in politics and solely dependent upon the people as equal citizens, by supporting pro-democracy reforms including voting rights protections, anti-corruption measures, citizen-funded elections, and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.”
In March 2016, DS announced that its activities as an organized movement would begin officially on April 2, in “the heart of the [political] primary season,” with “one of the largest civil-disobedience actions in a generation”—thousands of participants making a ten-day, 140-mile march from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the U.S. Capitol in the District of Columbia. Upon arriving in Washington, the demonstrators would proceed to stage a series of massive sit-ins at the Capitol and in Congressional offices throughout the week of April 11-18, to drive home their “demand” that Congress “take immediate action to end the corruption of big money in our politics and ensure free and fair elections in which every American has an equal voice.” Many of these protesters, said DS, would be quite willing to get arrested for their disruptive activities as a means of drawing public attention to their cause: “With hundreds of patriotic Americans being sent to jail, day after day for at least a week—simply for sitting in to save our democracy—the drama in Washington will rock the business-as-usual cycle of this election and catapult this critical issue onto center stage.”
Calling itself “a deeply nonviolent campaign, in the tradition of the American civil rights movement,” the fledgling DS announced that anyone planning to risk arrest during a demonstration would be required to first participate in one of the numerous “nonviolent civil disobedience” training sessions which its organizers were conducting on an ongoing basis. Moreover, DS arranged for a team of pro-bono lawyers to provide legal counsel and representation for anyone who was in fact arrested.
During the week of April 11-18, at least 1,240 DS protesters were arrested during their sit-ins at the Capitol, on charges like “crowding, obstructing and incommoding.”
Though DS claims that it is “not affiliated with any political candidate or party,” the 100+ Endorsing Organizations that collaborated to launch and support the movement were all left-wing entities that typically back Democratic Party agendas. Among these groups were American Family Voices, the AFL-CIO, Avaaz, the Backbone Campaign, Brave New Films, Catholics United, Citizen Action NY, Code Pink, Democracy for America, Democracy Matters, the Democratic Socialists of America, Demos, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Friends of the Earth, the Institute for Policy Studies, Jewish Voice for Peace, MoveOn, the National Organization for Women, National People’s Action, the Network of Spiritual Progressives/Tikkun Magazine, Office of the Americas, The Other 98%, Peace Action, People for Bernie [Sanders], People for the American Way, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Progressive Democrats of America, Public Citizen, United for Peace and Justice, the United States Student Association, United We Dream, the Working Families Party, and the Young Democratic Socialists.
Among the prominent individuals who committed themselves as “Public Pledgers” in support of DS and its objectives were Medea Benjamin, Heather Booth, John Cavanagh, Jodie Evans, Bill Fletcher Jr., and Jim Hightower.