Kai Newkirk, Pro-Democracy Leader Speaks about Day 16 of His Fast
How can we oust big money from politics? Utilizing all the tools in our toolbox.
From small-scale actions targeting banks during Occupy Wall Street led by high school students to political organizing trainings to this summer’s 480-mile long March for Democracy, Kai Newkirk and 99Rise have orchestrated ongoing projects calling for an end to corruption. Their end game? Putting a stop to big money’s hold on politicians and the obstruction of the power of the people’s vote.
We sat down with Kai to discuss his vision for a long-term political strategy for the pro-democracy movement in the United States and his experience on his 17-day fast leading up to election day.
Youngist: Gandhi articulated fasting as very much a last resort in a long-term organizing strategy. How do you see your fasting in terms of being a part of a strategy within nonviolent civil resistance movements?
Kai Newkirk: Gandhi did talk about it as a last resort, until death and in that case, it should be. I see fasting as another powerful tool within a set of tools for nonviolent civil resistance that we can use effectively in this moment to help strengthen our organization while appealing to a broader public. Especially, at a time where there is a challenge of people feeling motivated, but there is an urgency around engaging around the upcoming election. We have to use every tool at our disposable to contest every space even if there’s only a little space. It seems like 99Rise’s role within a broader pro-democracy movement is to defend the right to vote, sometimes very explicitly in terms of combating voter suppression but also more broadly in that it should mean something when you do vote. Voting should be determinant rather than a sideshow to the money election. We are defending that sentiment.
We feel like if we did one part of the work without the broader project, there is a contradiction there. We would be defailing that which we are defending, in my view, especially when looking at the legacy of profound sacrifices so many people have made to advance universal suffrage. I think that we have to use the right and defend the right to vote for everybody. Even if we understand all the ways in which it’s being compromised, we have to use it. As the movement against Citizens United has grown, we are seeing some of the pillars of the structure sway towards our side.
We need to make a distinction sometimes when it comes to politicians who are making moves to show they might be on our side. The fast is a way to embody the urgency to create enough of a paradigm shift that we might be able to actualize universal suffrage, and have the vote matter.
What does your day-to-day looks like during your fast and who are the folks supporting you in this fast?
A lot of phone calls and meetings, trying to figure out if we could do an encampment, but after the first week I realized I needed to slow down. I have slowed down and spent more time lying and sitting in bed and either making phone calls or communicating with folks over text, Facebook and email.
Another person who is fasting is a retired attorney named Steve Bass who is on his 13th day. He told me that you really need to sleep more as time goes on. Sleep is tremendously restorative. When I’m waking up in the morning, that’s when I feel the best. But if I’m walking around for more than 30 or so minutes I need to go sit down. I’ve lost more than 15 pounds so I really need to rest.
We have a nightly conference call with folks who are working on the campaign throughout California. There is another long-term faster in Sacramento who is a civil servant and is on day 9. Then there are 50 or so people who fasted for a day all over the country in solidarity – in D.C., Chicago, New York and elsewhere.
My days in the last week I’ve spent time in bed, meditating.
How have you gone about building your support network?
We have done some days when we will go out to a park or a public space and try to get people to sign the Pledge for Democracy.
People from Dolores Huerta to the Courage Campaign have implicitly endorsed or supported the campaign by promoting it on social media or donating or sending their moral support. So, we have seen this fast as something that is complementary to broader progressive Get Out the Vote work and more specifically people who are fighting to end corruption in this country
Can you speak about the goals of the fast are? What might prompt you to break fast, if you have plans to?
The purpose of the fast is to motivate people and get as many people out to vote as we can, and thinking about that as a tool to support the pro-democracy fight via supporting candidates who are better on that issue, and who are better at other progressive issues. In terms of a metric to try to meet, the primary purpose is to reach as many people as possible but we wanted a way to acknowledge that so that’s why we developed the Democracy Pledge, which people can sign and say that on November 4th they will vote for pro-democracy candidates who want to end corruption. We wanted a symbolic goal that would speak to our broader goals as a movement and so we picked 28,000 as symbolic to the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.
When I started I would commit to continue to fast until 28,000 people had made that pledge or the polls closed. We knew it was a long shot to get there because our own network is not big enough yet to generate that number of pledges, so we were going to be reliant on allies and media to reach a broader pool of people. Many people will see something and say: yeah, that’s cool, I’ll vote and take it seriously. However, not everybody will take an additional step of signing a pledge or sharing it with their community.
We knew that was a long shot but that we did want to set a goal, so, somewhere close to 1,200 have signed the pledge now so, I highly doubt we will pass the goal by the end of Tuesday. I am prepared to go through the fast until the end of the polls, but at that time, we just want to meet as many people as we can, and if we don’t reach the goal, we will be breaking fast. I’m going to have some fresh juice.