On a blustery day in January, I stood in City Hall Park with interfaith colleagues to mark the two-year anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission with protests and a call for an amendment that would reverse the court’s century-long application of the 14th Amendment to corporations, making them “persons” for due process and equal protection. In a 5-to-4 vote in January 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations also have First Amendment rights and that the government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech, clearing the way for corporations and other special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.
As snow and sleet pummeled us, and Parks Department plows encircled us, we sang and chanted, holding up signs that read: “Corporations Are Not People,” “Money Is Not Free Speech,” and “This is what a real person looks like.”
Why did we members of Occupy Faith, one of many Occupy Wall Street (OWS) working groups, care so much to expose ourselves to the elements? Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent, expressed it best:
“Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
He was concerned that the majority decision’s approach to the First Amendment would “promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve,” crippling “the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process.”
President Obama’s statement read: “The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
Last month the New York City Council joined localities across the country in passing a resolution opposing the Supreme Court’s decision and supporting an amendment to the Constitution to provide that corporations are not entitled to the entirety of protections or rights of natural persons, specifically so that the expenditure of corporate money to influence the electoral process is no longer a form of constitutionally protected speech.
We are now witnessing the influence of so-called “super PACs” (political action committees) that can raise unlimited sums of money to mount direct attacks on candidates and advance the outcome of a political issue. In the spirit of an Occupy Wall Street “teach-in,” political satirist Stephen Colbert registered a super PAC called “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” with the Federal Election Commission and is demonstrating how it operates, to the delight of his viewers and the consternation of his detractors.
I have also joined Occupy Voices, a new OWS working group that is reviving protests songs of past struggles and composing new ones. How inspiring it was to lift our voices in song! Here are lyrics, sung to the strains of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” that we introduced last month:
We’re so happy, we so sunny ’cause we’ve got money.
We got our share and we don’t care if it’s not fair.
For the Supreme Court of our great nation
Made us people, made us human, made us persons.
Now we can buy the votes when we need them.
We get our say, we get our way, ’cause we can pay.
The power in the world is become
Connected with the banks and those who fill
The corporate ranks.
And we shall reign forever and ever!
Tax loopholes, political goals, screw those in need,
Bank bailouts and rules to flout,
Top one percent, we’re heaven sent.
And we shall reign forever and ever!