For Annabel Park, founder of the Coffee Party USA, the influence of corporations on elections is "a cancer in our political system." Speaking by phone, she elaborates on this heavy metaphor with a statement even more dire: that if Americans remain cynical and allow the cancer to spread as much as it has, then corporate influence "will permanently control the political narrative in the United States."
What could be so terrifying but so influential that it caused this full-time documentary filmmaker and political activist to "work 20 hours a day" to halt the cancer from spreading?
For her and other activists who have converged on Washington, DC this weekend, it is known simply as Citizens United.
Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down numerous campaign finance spending laws and allows for unlimited spending on elections by corporations and unions, turns one-year-old this weekend. And Park, a longtime activist, chose not to sit idly by on this important anniversary. Joining with a diverse coalition of activist groups and associations, and with help from activist Bill Moyer of Washington State, she launched the weekend's inaugural "For the People" summit.
"We are gathering because we do not want the government in conflict between serving corporations or serving people," she says.
Organized under the banner Movement for the People, it is a trans-partisan summit and weekend of action, strategizing, workshops, and lobbying that seeks to counter the unprecedented influence of special interests which shaped the political narrative of the 2010 election cycle.
"Political action comes down to storytelling. And the story we're trying to tell [with the summit] is that we're going through a major political crisis," she says. Likening the crisis to the modern struggle with identity politics, she believes that it is stemmed from the fact that "our government now thinks corporations are people. And what we're trying to say is corporations should not get the same political rights as people do."
While the activists converged for the "For the People" summit in DC, that is not all they did. On a blistering cold January 21 morning, in a park outside of the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings, the always-energetic Moyer and his Backbone Campaign sponsored a tongue-in-cheek rally featuring costumed activists, handmade signs and backdrops that included a rewritten preamble to the Constitution -- "We the Corporations," it began -- that had the crowd of 50 yelling and cheering.
During the rally, onlookers were introduced to "corporate persons," a direct play on the term "corporate personhood," which many at the crowd agreed to be a direct result of the Citizens United ruling, if not preceding it. One such "person" was Mona Santo, a parody of the infamous food processing corporation played by activist Diane Wittner of the group Chesapeake Citizens.
After numerous introductions, they gathered together to lead the crowd in cheering "Don't wait, incorporate!"
Among songs, a mock press conference reintroducing the public to Murray Hill, Inc., a corporate person who became famous for attempting to run for Congress in 2010, and the unveiling of a 200-foot banner, signed by over a thousand people that reads "We The People," the rally and creative action served to highlight the direct impact of Citizens United on American's lives.
One crucial impact is that on lawmakers, said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen in a statement. "Citizens United has cast a shadow over all policymaking, because elected officials now know that if they cross powerful corporate interests, they face the prospect of an unaccountable, outside campaign to defeat them in the next election."
So while the action may have been nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek rally he, like the organizers of the weekend's events, also believes that the importance of the action is insurmountable. "Public action must [nonetheless] come from all sides," he said.
But what solutions can these groups rally around? Some activists take heed from Congress, which has seen some momentum on the DISCLOSE Act requiring more transparency from organizations that contribute to campaigns.
But for Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy and speaker at the day's first panel, that is not enough.
"Disclosure is important but is no substitute for the reforms we need. The problem is not disclosure but the corrupting influence by corporations on elections," she said in an interview.
Whether by constitutional amendment or through the DISCLOSE Act, for many of these activists, the "For the People" summit is only the first step in what they expect to be a long process to engage Americans in the struggle for their democracy.