One Hundred and twenty years ago last week, our Supreme Court perpetuated a major miscarriage of justice in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested in a "white-only" railroad car in New Orleans because he refused to vacate his seat. He was 1/8th black, and by Louisiana law he was required to use facilities for "colored" patrons. For those who have forgotten, in the middle of last century, there were still laws of this sort operating in Washington, DC. Laws like this governed use of water fountains, rest rooms, buses and trains, eating places, schools, dressing rooms in stores, etc.
Mr. Plessy was triggering a test case against these laws which were being enacted across the south. Remember, this was less than 30 years after the Civil War. To its great shame, the Supreme Court ruled against him, thus giving legal standing for segregation which lasted more than half a century. It was finally overthrown by the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 which said separate schools were not equal, and thus the integration era was born.
Even in the late 1960s integration was still an issue in New Orleans. My late husband and his light skinned friend Booker Brooks were doing organizing work for the American Federation of Teachers in Louisiana. Late one evening they stopped at a bar or cafe for a late meal and some liquid refreshment. The proprietor refused to serve them and asked them to leave. They sat there. Soon a cop car and officer showed up. They were asked to leave again, but continued to sit. Soon another police car arrived, and another, and another. Finally there were 7 cars and their officers and even a Captain trying to deal with the situation. They continued to sit there. Finally, the police gave up and left. I don't remember if they were actually served or not, but they sat there together and were not moved.
Once again the Supreme Court has ruled with a narrow 5 to 4 decision against the rights of citizens. The infamous "Citizen's United" case established the rule that Corporations are People, and Money is Speech. The impact of this ruling is that corporations can give as much money to the politicians they support as they wish, and the source of the money does not even have to be identified.
This combined with efforts throughout the country to make it harder for young people, the elderly, and people of color to vote has brought a sad state of affairs to our electoral process. The people are fighting back however. There are efforts nationwide to put forth an Amendment to the Constitution clarifying that Corporations are not the same as natural persons, and that money should not be a protected form of speech. In addition locally we have the effort to put Initiative Measure No. 70 on the November ballot.
The purpose of this initiative is to give DC voters a chance to vote on whether or not they want big money in our political process. The Summary Statement of this Initiative says "This initiative, if passed, would prohibit corporations and other business entities from making direct contributions to principal campaign committees, exploratory committees, legal defense committees organized in support of public officials, transition committees, inaugural committees, or constituent-service programs."
Our departed Chairman of the City Council is to to have had a war chest of around $800,000. Other candidates like Vincent Orange and Jack Evans have more than $300,000. On the other hand, there is one party, the DC Statehood Green Party which does NOT accept corporate campaign contributions. The national Green Party follows the same rule.
If you want to get big money out of our politics, look for I - 70 on the November ballot and vote YES.
However, there is just one problem. This Initiative will not be on the ballot unless it gets enough signatures on the petitions. The magic number is around 24,000 signatures, but because of errors, duplications, etc. the effort is being made to collect 37,000 signatures. These must be submitted no later than July 9, 2012, but the organizers want to try to get them collected by July 1, as they need to be double checked, organized and numbered. With 20 names per sheet, that is a lot of sheets to organize.
Only registered voters may sign the petitions, and only residents of DC, 18 or older may circulate them. Also, the circulators must witness all signatures. No leaving them on bulletin boards. DC Public Trust is the organization sponsoring this activity and should be contacted if you wish to help circulate the petitions.
Passing an Amendment to the Constitution is a long difficult process. There is some talk that the Supremes may feel that this was not such a good decision after all. Perhaps they will modify the ruling if related cases are heard in the next few years. At any rate let us hope that it will not take the Supreme Court another 62 years to correct a mistake so dreadfully dangerous to our democracy.