A busload of roughly two dozen students from UNH arrived in Washington, D.C. as hundreds of protesters pushing to repeal Citizens United were still being processed and booked by the U.S. Capitol Police. The dreary-eyed students from rural New Hampshire swung their hiking backpacks out of the belly of their coach bus on Saturday, April 16 at Union Station – just yards from the heartbeat of American politics. They were joining one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the 21st century.
I’m a student journalist at UNH who managed to hitch a ride to D.C. along with members of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), who organized the trip. I wasn’t there to protest, but UNH is a small community so I had personal ties to people who were, including my girlfriend, UNH senior Taylor Picard.
From Monday, April 11 to Sunday, April 17, roughly 900 people were arrested at the steps of the Capitol. On Monday, April 18, after the UNH students arrived, about 300 more arrests were made.
Fighting to rid the political process of private money, the movement began the prior week when 130 activists walked from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia into the arms of hundreds of supporters and the Capitol police in D.C. They came back to the Capitol steps every day that week. The name of the game was non-violent escalation. Under the banner Democracy Spring, their sit-ins demanded either a response from Congress or mass arrests. They got the latter.
Back in New Hampshire, information about the initial actions was hard to come by, making its way to us only through the vague and often inaccurate filter of the Twittersphere. We heard rumors of 400 arrests made on the first day, 300 the next. We didn’t know what the protestors were being charged with, we only knew that we were coming to join them.
“I had to go when I saw the amount of passionate people that were also going. I knew that we’d have a group of people that were also going to be on the front lines and that we could represent our university as part of this movement,” UNH freshman Zach Adinolfi said.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Columbia Heights would be their home for the weekend. A U-Haul out front was their closet; the pews lining the sanctuary clouded by incense were their beds; and the basement their strategic headquarters. The students were welcomed by NAACP chapters from D.C. and Boston, members of various labor unions (some currently on strike), fellow students from as far away as Florida and protest veterans active as far back as the King riots in 1968. Many had already been arrested multiple times that week for Democracy Spring.
“Seeing all the people from older generations still fighting for the same movement and how the same issues are still affecting the same people without a government response is powerful,” UNH junior and community leadership major Lexus Reyna said. “You get to see how different issues affect different people but how they all came together for one group cause – to get big money out of politics.”
In the parking lot behind the church, students, war veterans and non-profit organizers alike mingled. They spoke and argued about climate change, debt, the true meaning of democracy and political revolution. Someone who introduced himself to me as a disabled veteran spoke to me about the value of bitcoin and auditing the Federal Reserve. Minutes later, a student from West Virginia detailed his work in battling opioid overdoses in his rural Appalachian town.
“I loved late nights after the protests, chatting with organizers and activists, debating and even arguing at times about the best ways for the movement to move forward and how to go about protests,” UNH junior and SEAC member Chris Grinley said.
Opinions and political leanings varied greatly among the crowd, but it was made clear that this was a movement of convergence. Organizers and UNH students explained to me that the opinions and passions of those gathered at St. Stephens may be as diverse as their backgrounds, but a broad, united front was as integral to the movement as it was to a functioning democracy.
“I think diversity of ideas is a positive thing. Especially seeing so many people passionate about different things, some people are there for the environment, some for just strictly voting rights, some for racial justice. I think it’s really cool to see people come to fight for different things, but recognizing that they’re facing the same issue,” Grinley said.
In many ways, the purpose of these protests was to result in arrests. More arrests result in increased awareness, media coverage and focus on the commitment of activists surrounding private spending in politics. The protests were meant to appear in headlines read by the representatives inside the Capitol building. As explained to us by event organizers, Democracy Spring was over and it would be continued through the weekend under the name Democracy Awakening. Initially planned separately, the movements joined forces, pooling their resources to demand government action on a lack of voter representation.
On Sunday afternoon, we marched along with 5,000 others around the Capitol. Following a Capitol police escort and a massive puppet depicting a corporate lobbyist, the demonstration paraded past inconvenienced commuters and gawking tourists.
“Marching through the streets with thousands of people is pretty incredible to experience. It’s empowering. We had a whole crew of UNH people right in the front starting all these chants. Just hearing them reverberate was incredible to see,” UNH junior and SEAC member Griffin Sinclair-Wingate said.
Chants about oil lobbies, crooked money channels and discrimination met drums, trumpets and horns, all echoing off congressional buildings, monuments and one ExxonMobil gas station.
“Down with socialism,” yelled one tourist visiting D.C. with his family from Wyoming.
On Monday, as hundreds already planned to picket a Supreme Court decision on a controversial immigration reform case and 150 more were inside the Capitol lobbying their representatives, the protesters would march from Columbus Circle, past the Supreme Court and on to the Capitol.
Those who didn’t attend a training session led by event organizers and legal staff, were not permitted to attend the sit-in. At the meeting, local attorneys outlined that the action was coordinated transparently with Capitol law enforcement officials who had tentatively agreed to a post and forfeit (non-conviction) of a minor misdemeanor for those who would be arrested. They also emphasized that being able to fiscally and legally afford an arrest is a notable position of privilege.
The march to the Capitol was led in part by the Rev.William Barber II and Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP. Winding down 1st Street and past the Supreme Court, the procession was met with cheers from those picketing the Court’s immigration case and the chants emanating from the Democracy Awakening activists changed to Spanish.
Waiting at the Capitol was a police coach bus, multiple armored vans and dozens of officers, some armed with automatic weapons. Despite this show of force, protestors and the police didn’t clash and the rally remained non-contentious, passionate and respectful. Many of the non-partisan protesters and organizers considered the action a solidarity measure toward the police, who they considered limited in their own representative voice.
Almost reminiscent of a rehearsed stage fight, the crowd, gathered at the steps, split in two as the Capitol police isolated those risking arrest within a police line. The larger crowd was pushed roughly 100 yards back, as the Capitol police provided three warnings to those sitting in. As supporters cheered, protesters were slowly escorted to the perimeters, processed and released. Over 300 people were arrested for the sit-in, pushing the total number of arrests for the week of both Democracy Spring and Awakening to over a thousand.
One UNH student, Picard, acting on her own accord, was among those arrested on the steps, charged with a minor misdemeanor for obstruction and a $50 fine. She describes the decision as spontaneous and unplanned.
“I saw someone step away when they gave the second warning. I remembered that being able to choose to get arrested is a privilege and I realized that I was one of the few people there that had that privilege. I had no [prior arrests] and I had the money to do so. I felt like it was my responsibility,” said Picard. “I’m a white college student – cops aren’t going to mess with me, they’ll mess with others… I was hoping to be another number so that these issues finally get talked about, so that no one can go on ignoring it,” Picard said.
As those being arrested were moved from the steps, they kept chanting. One member of the US Capitol Police briefly joined them in their chant.
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