Roger's report about the campaign finance reform demonstration in the Capitol, 2/29/2000

Shortcuts here to sections below on: Quotes about campaign finances, Testimony in court, and Photos.

The demonstration

About 500 people assembled at the Arlington Metro stop at 8:30 am for the 5-mile walk with "Granny D" (Doris Haddock) to the Capitol. I loved looking at the weathered face of this wonderful 90-year-old woman who had walked for 14 months from the west coast, and thinking of how happy she must feel to be within sight of her journey’s end, surrounded by people from all over the country making common cause with her. It was a beautiful blue- sky day in Washington and the walkers were in high spirits - we set off and gathered many more people, to around two thousand by the time we arrived at the steps of the Capitol. There were lots of signs - one of my favorites said, "Elections that are for sale can't be free" but my very favorite said, "My interests are special too!" It was an orderly march of entirely peaceful people, though I personally was much put off by the beating of drums and chanting of slogans encouraged by a woman with a bullhorn - some people seem to think that shouting slogans helps, but to me it detracts from the dignity of the march and makes conversation impossible, and to build unity I would much rather sing together (as "We shall overcome" and other songs added power to civil rights marches), so I moved around in the procession trying to get away from the shouting when it occurred. One of my favorite spots was near a cluster of seven "Raging Grannies", some in wheelchairs - lovely old women who sang songs with familiar tunes but their own humorous/satirical words of social consciousness.

On the Capitol steps there were the usual speeches (most mercifully short) honoring Granny D and in support of campaign finance reform, from VIPS of Common Cause, the Alliance for Democracy, and other groups, and from legislators such as Russ Feingold (of the Senate's McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill), and ending with Granny D, who spoke with great gusto and passion. The press was there in great numbers, though I don't know how much of the coverage actually appeared in the media - I bought a New York Times the next morning and it had reduced the coverage of this important event to one photo with a two-line caption - but of course the media has its own reasons for wanting to continue the current unreformed status quo.

Following our agreed scenario, the sixteen of us intending civil disobedience entered the Capitol rotunda and each group of four unfurled its banner stating the need for campaign finance reform and began speaking to the audience of tourists in the rotunda. Because we were widely separated and went in sequence, the police had to give each group in turn The Three Warnings before placing its members under arrest (on the charge of Demonstrating in the Capitol), and in the time it took to give the warnings we were able to do a considerable amount of public speaking before being handcuffed and ushered out. The response we got from the folks listening was very sympathetic, and well it should be since campaign finance reform is, as somebody said, the reform that makes all other reforms possible - as long as legislators have to scrounge for campaign money from special interests, our democracy will be for sale to these interests and the will of the people will be thwarted. (I found out that Congress does not meet on Mondays or Fridays, reserving these days as well as the weekend for money-grubbing. Did you know that?)

I was in the last of the four groups which had the largest banner (thirty feet!) and was number two in speaking order, so I didn't get to speak long before being handcuffed and ushered out. Although I had expected to be very nervous at the demonstration, and to be upset at being handcuffed, and to be inarticulate when it came my turn to speak (especially since in handcuffs I could not access my little written-out speech) the opposite was the case - I did not have the slightest twinge of nervousness at any point in the event, I was not at all angry at being handcuffed or at the officer who did it, and in speaking to the crowd while in handcuffs I found my voice and felt strong and articulate - something about how a democracy Of the People, By the People, and For the People was what we were urging, and of it being in great danger from the campaign money system which has become so important to legislators. I felt no fear at all, only a great happiness and a surge of spiritual power when our time came.

We were treated very sympathetically by the Capitol Police and spent about six hours together in a holding area, which gave us time to "process" the event and to name ourselves the "Doris Haddock Democracy Brigade", and to get even better acquainted - we ranged in age from 20 to 71 and in geography from Washington DC to Oregon, and most of us had never been arrested before. On the outside was a support group looking after our possessions and our legal rights and waiting to give us hugs when we were released. I was a little disappointed that for reasons of solidarity we did not choose to go to jail but instead promised to return to court on March 24th, but I was also (inconsistently) glad because I feel that exercising our First Amendment right to free speech in the Capitol should not be a jailable offense at all - we did it as a public service for which the country should be supportive, not punitive. Still, I hope that on another occasion we will agree in advance that we will all go to jail together if arrested.

We were released just in time to attend the tail end of a gathering in a nearby church to honor Granny D - again there were speeches which we mostly missed (thank goodness) but the grand climax for us was Granny D's spontaneous talk at the end and her reward for the sixteen of us - we each got a hug and a kiss from her, and wasn't that wonderful!

That's the end of the story, but read on if you want to know more about the issues and such.... We did our action as a project of the Alliance for Democracy; two other groups did likewise, in October and January, and there will be others - if you would like to know more, email Randy Kehler (randyk@javanet.com). Randy spent two years in jail during the Vietnam era, was a (the?) leader in the Nuclear Freeze movement, had his house confiscated for nonpayment of war taxes, works tirelessly for Right Causes, and is a gentle and optimistic soul powered by a deep spiritual center. A speech by Ronnie Dugger (head of the Alliance for Democracy) eloquently sums up the need for campaign finance reform and is on the Alliance web page (http://www.afd-online.org) - see also Granny D's (http://www.grannyd.com).  Another web site that is full of horror stories about how money corrupts our system is TomPaine.com

Quotes

Facts (for '97-98 - no doubt it's worse now): The current campaign finance system is hopelessly corrupt - a crime against democracy. We want our democracy back!

Testimony in the court:

In the DC court on Friday, those of us arrested on 2/29 for Demonstrating in the Capitol were tried by a judge who treated us respectfully and sympathetically, and sentenced us to "time served" - the 5 hours we had already spent in the police station. After we had been sentenced we were each allowed to make a brief statement, which was a very emotionally intense time indeed. The whole experience has been a deep and rewarding one. The next such demonstration will be on April 21st (the day before a big Earth Day rally in Washington) and anybody interested in participating in it should contact Randy Kehler (randyk@javanet.com). Here is my statement explaining in personal terms (as recommended by our lawyer) why I became a Criminal in the Cause of Truth:

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United States v. Roger C. Conant

Remarks of defendant Roger C. Conant,

delivered following a plea of guilty to charge of unlawfully demonstrating in the U.S. Capitol, March 24, 2000:

Your Honor, I feel blessed to have lived my life in this country, which I love so very deeply. When I sing America the Beautiful, as I love to do, I still choke up at the reminders of its beauty and the noble principles on which the country was founded.

I want to spend my retirement years trying to return the blessings I have received and to leave the country a better place than I found it. But in wanting to overcome the country's deficiencies I have come to realize that most of its problems have their root in economic greed, and that their solutions are stymied by the political system, which is so heavily influenced by that greed.

"America, America, God mend thine ev'ry flaw" - but the deepest flaws will not be mended without a reform of our campaign finance system. Though the march of thousands, on the day of our arrest, to urge this reform was a powerful witness, I knew that a stronger personal witness was called for, which led to this first arrest of my life.

I - we - did not risk arrest lightly, but from a sense that to speak Truth to Power in the Capitol was our civic responsibility, an action not disrespectful of our country but rather undertaken from a profound love of it, from a passionate love of the principles on which it was founded, and out of a deep fear that these principles are increasingly subverted by the corrupt system which makes Congress far more responsive to the needs of corporate donors than to the People.

Your honor, one of my deepest regrets is that when the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery was held thirty-five years ago, I did not join in that great opportunity to witness to the Truth and to the need for profound reforms in the country. I do not want to regret in future years that when voices were needed for this desperately important reform of our current political system, I remained silent. I am sorry - and distressed - that our public witness to Truth was deemed illegal, but I am convinced that it was in the finest tradition of dignified and spiritually-based nonviolent protest against entrenched wrongs, and I hope that you can respect and understand that motivation for Demonstrating in the Capitol. Our motivation is only that we want a government Of the People, By the People, and For the People, and that it should not perish from this earth.

Photos

The banner which our group displayed

Roger being handcuffed - the Suffragettes in the background