Spring is blooming this time of year in Washington D.C. — and so is citizen-led democracy.
Surrounded by colorful cherry blossoms and tulip patches, a swarming sea of citizen activists stomped the streets this weekend with one clear and unified demand: campaign reform in the U.S. government.
Environmentalists, religious leaders, civil rights advocates and a diverse crowd of more than 5,000 congregated in front of the Capitol building on Saturday for Democracy Awakening, one of two massive citizen-led movements that occurred in Washington D.C. last week.
Combined with the Democracy Springs movement, which ran from April 11 to April 16, the two rallies have resulted in more than 1,000 citizen arrests so far.
After participating in Saturday’s Democracy Awakening march around the Capitol building, UCF student Natalie Montanez was approached by a fellow activist who told her he was glad she was able to experience such a positive community.
Montanez, a senior psychology student, replied, “more than positive — passionate, angry."
The weekend-long event consisted of democracy workshops, teach-ins, rallies and marches, and concluded with a massive sit-in on the Capitol steps on Monday, where hundreds willingly risked arrest in a massive act of civil disobedience.
“I think the most important thing I took away from this weekend is that it’s going to take more than just positivity to create the change we need to see,” Montanez said. “It’s going to take radicalism, it’s going to thousands — not hundreds — being arrested.”
Standing at the head of the crowd gathered in the Capitol building’s front yard, Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, addressed those present as a "dazzling constellation of citizen activists."
“We’re not intimidated by big money, not intimidated by voter suppression, not intimidated by skepticism, pessimism; we’re not intimidated by civic self-doubt,” he said. “We’re here as a generationally diverse citizen army.”
Hundreds of people marched with Democracy Spring from Philadelphia to Washington to sit-in at the U.S. Capitol building and risk arrest.Video provided by Newsy Newslook
Brooks called upon the millennial generation, praising the moral and civic aspirations he said are felt among young citizens.
He told the crowd how millennials are echoing a powerful phrase all across the country, particularly in places like Ferguson and Cleveland. They are chanting “Stay Woke,” demanding that the U.S. Congress wake up to the legalized corruption that results from big money in politics.
“We say to U.S. senators and representatives, you are sleeping through a revolution,” Brooks yelled.
In the crowd of invigorated millennials stood Agustin Elias, student and president of UCF’s Campus Peace Action.
“The raw passion in the voices of many of the guest speakers, particularly [Brooks], was very inspiring to me as a public speaker and as a human in general,” he said. “The unifying cause of the movement was definitely enlightening to me.”
Elias said that participating in the D.C. rally provided him with the activism angle he had been looking to employ in CPA’s campus initiatives.
“I now realize that the common denominator of all our national issues is voter injustice and big money in politics,” he said.
Aaron Mair, president of the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization, echoed this statement in front of the mass audience at the rally.
“When our democracy suffers, so does our ability to protect the environment, so does our ability to protect jobs, but more importantly, so does our ability to protect basic civil rights,” he said. “Let’s make it clear that we are on the right side of history.”
Elias, who had long been looking to narrow CPA’s focus, said that he looks forward to bringing voter rights and campaign reform back to UCF.
For Rae-Claire Johnson, who spearheaded mobilization efforts in Florida, Elias’ experience was the exact outcome her team was focused on when they encouraged and facilitated the involvement of nearly 200 Floridians in the national movement.
“We did this because we believed that if they came here, and they saw that other people feel the way that they do, and that they aren’t alone, they would be energized to go back to their communities and keep the efforts going, because that’s where it has to start,” she said.
Daniela Marin is a digital producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at DanielaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.