Courtroom sketch of Kai speaking before the Supreme Court. Image courtesy of 99Rise
On the 26th February, Kai Newkirk spoke before the US Supreme Court. The 33-year-old isn't a lawyer and he had not been called to testify. At the time, the court was running through oral arguments in a mundane patent case. Newkirk, a longtime labour and environmental activist who cut his teeth in the global justice movement, was just another gentleman in the crowd – until he stood up and gave the justices a piece of his mind.
This was the first disruption at the Supreme Court since 1983, when pornographer Larry Flint threw a fit. At the time, Newkirk's protest was pretty much ignored by the major media – even a New York Times article about the day's proceedings failed to mention it. Luckily, members of 99Rise, an activist group Newkirk helped established in 2012, were there. They secretly recorded video of his speech, mixed it with additional footage they had shot covertly of the court in October, and posted it to YouTube. Recording video is strictly forbidden in the Supreme Court, and this was the first time any footage at all of its proceedings had been made publicly available. Since it was posted, the video has been viewed more than 340,000 times.
In the video, before Newkirk is seized by security, he urges the justices to repeal their decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the 2010 ruling that allowed for yacht loads of cash to enter the political system. He implores them to “keep a cap on McCutcheon” – a reference to Shaun McCutcheon, a rotund Coalmont Electrical Development executive from Alabama who brought a case to the court that activists are calling “Citizens United Part II.”
McCutcheon is known for cutting candidates checks in the amount of $1,776 (£1,058) – in honor of the year America declared independence. He felt the $123,000 (£73,000) limit on how much he could dole out per election cycle wasn't enough. So he demanded the Supreme Court lift the FEC's legal impediments preventing his fingers from reaching for his checkbook.
On the 2nd of April, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the McCutcheon v. FEC case, lifting individual campaign contribution limits. Now, Newkirk wants to use the publicity his stunt has achieved to “raise a nonviolent army” of at least 10,000 people to follow in his footsteps and commit acts of civil disobedience and force a constitutional amendment that levels the political playing field. He recently discussed these plans with me, along with what drove him to cause a ruckus in the highest court in the land, by phone from Los Angeles.
Kai Newkirk, fourth from the right, at an immigrants rights rally in Los Angeles on April 5, 2014.
VICE: How long have you been an activist? What took you down this road?
Kai Newkirk: I've been a community organiser in different ways, in different movements, starting with the World Trade Organisation protest in Seattle in 1999. Overtime, I've come to see if we don't take on corruption and get big money out of politics, then we're not going to be able to do anything else. We have to take this on and do whatever it takes to win as soon as possible. We're trying to raise a nonviolent army of democracy defenders around the country, to create the mass movement that we'll need to make the status quo untenable.
How did you manage to capture footage of your speech?
We went in just like anybody else, only we had a hidden camera. We did it because we feel that there is a crisis of corruption in this country and that the Supreme Court is deepening that crisis by shutting everyday Americans out of our government. We hoped that by sharing footage of an extremely rare action, a protest at the Supreme Court, it would draw attention to the problem. It's inspired a lot of people. Tonnes have been reaching out to us through our website and social media and we want to help them take a stand, too.
What was it like making an unsolicited oral argument before the Supreme Court from the pews?
It was intimidating. An air of deference permeates the room. It was challenging to overcome the fear that I was feeling because I had no idea how they would respond or how it was going to go. As I was sitting there, waiting and preparing, I tried to focus my thinking on all the people who urgently need a government that works for them. I knew that standing up in that setting would be something that could give voice to millions of Americans who are angry at how the laws, policies, and priorities set by our government are skewed towards supporting the rich.
The abolitionists, the suffragists, civil rights, the dreamers – the struggle for democracy is the history of this country. This is the time for our generation to step up and take our place in that tradition. Spending a night in jail, to me that's small potatoes compared to getting a government that works for us.
Do you think the Supreme Court is isolated from reality because cameras and recording equipment are banned from the court?
In this day and age people are constantly sharing, everyone from teenagers to the president. This is the era of YouTube. For an institution that is so important in our society to not participate in that because of an old tradition, it has separated them from the rest of us and reduced accountability.
There's been an almost universal response of outrage to Citizens United. I'm sure that the justices are aware of that. But they are going in the same direction, empowering the wealthiest Americans to have a huge sway over our democracy. But it doesn't have to be like that. We've got make sure that they are more aware of how the masses of Americans feel betrayed.
On one hand there is this lack of access that we have to the justices, but if you look at Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, it appears they were in communication with the Koch brothers in the run-up to the Citizens United ruling. Clarence's wife set up her own political action committee just two months before the decision.
The justices are appointed by presidents who are looking to advance the interests of the groups that they're accountable to. As you point out, there are justices on the court who are deeply connected to corporations and to those who believe having greater wealth should allow them to have a greater say in our democracy. That is fundamentally un-American. They are empowering the 1 percent of the 1 percent. We've got to raise the costs – socially, economically, and politically – of continuing in that direction.
What's the impact of the Citizens United decision and how will last week's McCutcheon ruling make the situation worse?
Big money corruption of American politics was at crisis level before Citizens United. You had a situation where over 90 percent of candidates who raise the most money win, where you weren't viable as a candidate unless you had the support of rich Americans, and members of Congress were spending 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money from a tiny slice of the public. Citizens United took that to an obscene new level. It allows corporations and unions and individuals to spend unlimited amounts on what's called outside spending – not giving directly to candidates, mind you, but to groups who spend on their behalf.
So you had Chevron cutting a $2.5 million (£1.5 million) check to John Boehner's political action committee. Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate, sending well over $100 million (£60 million) in the 2012 election. There was a vast increase in outside spending from billionaires and corporations, much of it done secretly through nonprofits that don't have to disclose their donors.
McCutcheon is another outrageous step in this direction. It allows wealthy individuals to give even more money directly to candidates. There was about $120,000 (£72,000) that they were allowed to give total per election cycle. Now that they've removed that cap, it goes to $3.6 million (£2.14 million). So you can have somebody give $500,000 (£300,000) to the state Republican Party or to a PAC or to many, many more candidates. It gives an individual like Sean McCutcheon in Alabama, a businessman, even more power to wield a corrupting influence in our democracy. People want to go in the other direction. Ninety-seven percent of Americans have said they believe in reducing the influence of money on politics.
Yep, but is repealing Citizens United and McCutcheon even enough? As you've pointed out, money was already dominating politics before these court rulings. Is this problem structural, rooted in our politics operate in America?
We think the first change needs to be a constitutional reform that ensures private wealth is effectively irrelevant when it comes to political power. That reform either needs to ban private money from public elections or at least allow congress not only to regulate it as much as necessary, but to prohibit it if necessary. We're seeking to establish a transparent form of participatory public financing.
Money is not First Amendment–protected political speech, and corporations do not have the same rights as human beings. If we win this reform at a constitutional level we can settle this for posterity. Climate change, income inequality, education, mass incarceration, all across the board. If we really want to solve these problems we have to win this fight first.
What are some next steps that 99Rise plans to take?
We are looking at how we can empower folks around the country to take nonviolent action.
We're trying to lay the ground work to organise what will be the largest day of civil disobedience in the history of our country. We're looking at all the options for how we can respond to this upsurge of people who were inspired by our protest at the Supreme Court.
The largest day of civil disobedience in the history of this country – that's a tall order.
We're going to use what we're describing as a Kickstarter campaign for mass nonviolent protest, asking people to pledge to be one of ten thousand folks to join in. Once we cross the ten thousand threshold, we'll set the date and begin training those who've signed up.
Which billionaires should expect protesters blocking their office doors?
We're looking at different options – whether we're going to focus on corporate targets, or congressional and statehouse targets, or individual donors, or some combination. But what we know is that if we're going to win this fight, we're going to need millions of people who are willing to step up, organise, make sacrifices, risk arrest, and go to jail. That's what's necessary.
They have millions of dollars.
When we're not afraid anymore, when we step off the sidelines of history and take our place together and shape our story, I think anything is possible.
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