Historically, organizing to get big money out of politics has been driven largely by older, white, and male leaders, frequently missing the voices of those who are the most marginalized by the failings of our democracy. Public discussions about money in politics and corporate rights have felt disconnected from people’s everyday realities, focusing on concerns like the increasing amounts spent on elections, the donors and companies benefitting from the pay-to-play system, and Supreme Court cases like Citizens United, which have blocked our representatives’ ability to rein in the influence of big money. Too often, efforts to limit the dominance of corporations and and big money, and even conversations about these problems, have failed to consider how our big-money system hurts Americans marginalized by systems of oppression like structural racism and white supremacy, heteronormativity, transphobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. This post discusses how Free Speech for People and Demos are actively addressing this issue by creating a space for trans and queer activists to talk about how big money affects their advocacy, and by providing Centering Marginalized Communities: A Framework for Intersectional Money-in-Politics Events, a framework for similar public discussions that center voices and communities marginalized by systems of oppression.
From our perspective, to talk about the problem of money in politics without reference to systems of oppression is to miss the forest for the trees. Our problems are bigger and deeper than how big money is influencing candidates by way of giant Super PACs, which are supposed to be “independent” of candidates, or even how many hours per day your senator spends fundraising. Inequality can be felt more viscerally, and on a day-to-day basis. People with marginalized identities are underrepresented in the halls of power, and often face huge disparities in their control of wealth, including racial wealth gaps and gaps in the wealth controlled by trans people as opposed to cis people. Meanwhile, wealth and political power are concentrated in a disproportionately white donor class. And while our children are taught about the promise of “one person, one vote,” that ideal does not reconcile with a country that disproportionately polices, terrorizes, and disenfranchises people of color, including the queer and trans organizers of color we remember when we celebrate Pride this month.
In an effort to talk about the concentration of wealth and political power more intersectionally, and to organize with folks who haven’t always been included in money-in-politics organizing, Free Speech for People, Demos, Black and Pink, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and other groups hosted a public discussion in Boston about how big money in politics and the expanding power of corporations affects queer and trans people and communities, and their ability to build power. The event focused on how our big-money system entrenches existing inequalities on the bases of wealth and race and gender identity, and how corporations are claiming more and more privileges of corporate personhood, including “constitutional rights” to profit and to discriminate against queer, trans and gender-variant people. The discussion placed the stories and experiences of queer and trans organizers at the center.
After the Boston event, several money-in-politics organizers and groups expressed interest in hosting similar conversations. As a result, an event was held in DC on June 25th, the fourth anniversary of Shelby County vs. Holder: the Supreme Court case that unleashed voter ID laws in places across the country with a history of discriminating against people of color—laws that have kept trans and gender non-conforming people from the polls since 2013. Speakers discussed how big money in politics and voter suppression tactics act as barriers to political participation by queer, trans, and gender-variant people. As a resource for organizers interested in convening similar conversations, we created the Centering Marginalized Communities. It is intended to be a flexible resource, with one guiding principle: make space for and center the voices of communities marginalized by systems of oppression, and people directly impacted by political inequality. Too often, their perspectives have not been heard.
There are many ways the concentration of wealth and political power hurts advocacy for queer and trans liberation, both from the thousand-foot level and day to day. As founding director of the national organization Black and Pink Rev. Jason Lydon pointed out at the Boston event, the legal concept of “personhood”—including corporate personhood—has been used throughout our history to protect wealthy elites and deny the humanity of other-ed people. In many parts of the country (though not in Massachusetts), judges applying this legal doctrine are chosen through elections that are completely susceptible to the influence of big money. In our criminal law system, private prisons and related businesses that profit from continued over-criminalization have an interest in judges who are “tough on crime.” Unfortunately, those with an apparent interest in the continued over-criminalization of poor people and people of color include, in some cases, labor unions. While labor unions can empower working-class people by aggregating smaller electoral contributions into sizable donations that claim candidates’ attention, this power is being used by some law enforcement and corrections workers unions to support policies that hurt queer and trans people of color. In Massachusetts, a prison guard union is Governor Charlie Baker’s top contributor, after Charlie Baker himself and the Republican Party; the union’s unequal wealth and influence help entrench policies that dehumanize incarcerated LGBTQ people and people of color.
Unsurprisingly, the influence of the prison industry reaches all political parties. In California, one private prison company donated over $25,000 to the Democratic Governor of California, Jerry Brown, in 2010, and over $50,000 in 2014. Another private prison company donated over $60,000 to Brown’s campaign in 2012. Governor Brown’s re-election campaign also received over $2 million from the California prison guards’ union. Governor Brown subsequently vetoed legislation (overwhelming passed by the state house and senate) that would have prevented the use of private prisons as immigration “detention centers”—jail cells known for their inhumane conditions, including poor healthcare and education. Guards at private prisons have been known to sexually abuse transgender immigrant women, cis-women, and other queer people.
Speakers at the DC event also discussed criminalization of queer and trans people of color. One of the event’s speakers was Emmelia Talarico of No Justice No Pride, a collective of queer activists in DC, many of whom took action at Pride Weekend. The demands of No Justice No Pride center people and communities who have historically been most marginalized by Capital Pride and a corporate and wealthy “donor class”—including affluent members of the LGBTQ+ community in DC. These demands include barring corporate entities that inflict harm on historically marginalized LGBTQ2S people from participation in Pride events, rather than celebrating them, and for Capital Pride to take a strong position against state violence and end its endorsement of the Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. On the panel, Emmelia pointed out that in DC, queer and trans people of color are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement for “walking while trans.” Shayla Schlossenberg of HIPS specified that when these folks are convicted of felonies, they’re sent to federal prisons, which are not accountable to DC community members. Chris Fields of ReThink Media noted that those convicted of crimes are often barred from voting.
The speakers at the DC event highlighted what racial wealth gaps and disparities in wealth controlled by trans and gender non-conforming people actually mean for folks’ daily lives. Lourdes Hunter from the Trans Women of Color Collective pointed out that many queer and trans folks of color not only live in extreme poverty, but are also in debt, and do not have the privilege of inheriting generational wealth. How can the money-in-politics community expect them to participate in democracy reform advocacy until they have housing and security?
This is just the beginning. Other democracy reform organizations and organizers are already supporting the call to be more intersectional; some are working to bring similar events centering queer and trans folks. We hope the framework for organizing is a helpful resource for organizers interested in making the problem of money in politics more accessible and relatable to everyone, including populations who are most hurt by it. Please contact Jasmine Gomez at Free Speech for People with questions about centering marginalized communities in the democracy reform movement.
Written By: Allie Boldt, Demos and Jasmine Gomez, Free Speech For People