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By Evan Harmon

KCPD warns Occupy KC to immediately take down all structures

Police officers from the Kansas City Police Department showed up at the Occupy KC camp in Penn Valley Park to inform the Occupiers that all structures, including tents, will no longer be tolerated. Read on…

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Community garden just one tool in the quest to revitalize Kansas City neighborhoods

By Jeff Johnson

Except for a stint in the Air Force, Patti Griffith has lived on the same block in the Lykins neighborhood of Kansas City’s Northeast for 62 years. The changes she has witnessed have been mostly of heartbreaking decline since her childhood days, when she enjoyed visits to a nearby penny candy store.

Sometimes the changes came rapidly, like the time many years ago when a row of pretty houses across the street from her home went up in flames, one by one in a matter of days, the victims of some kind of rivalry that played itself out in arson.
For the winter, it doesn’t look like much of a garden or a farm, but this sign marks an area where neighbors will again this spring share ground to cultivate hope, where previously there was a serious prostitution problem. Photograph by Beka NobleMore often, the decline progressed gradually. As families moved away, absentee landlords took advantage of plummeting home prices and lax code enforcement, and as Patti said, “People seemed to stop caring about the neighborhood.” In a scene repeated in many urban core neighborhoods, vacant homes and abandoned properties sprouted up like weeds in an untended garden. Lykins seemed doomed to perpetual decline, and the current foreclosure crisis has only made the situation worse.

But a few years ago, some families moved into the neighborhood with the intention of reversing the decline and of creating a “neighborhood of hope.” Last year, they established a large neighborhood garden across the street from Patti’s home, where that row of pretty houses once stood, but which had since become a haven for prostitution. Patti said that before the Lykins Neighborhood Farm was established, she couldn’t walk her dog in the area for all of the broken glass and dirty condoms.

Not anymore. The new community gardeners cleaned up the area, added lights, and built plant boxes that any resident of the neighborhood could use. Patti proudly gave me a tour of the transformed lots and explained that having a bunch of residents out in the evenings tending the garden chased away the prostitution problems. “I don’t know where they went,” said Patti, “but I’m glad they’re gone.” It was clear she was looking forward to the spring when the garden would grow for its second season.

Another long-time Lykins resident gushed over the fish fry that the self-described Urban Farming Guys had put on for the neighborhood a few months ago, serving tilapia they had raised in a hydroponic pond beside their house, down the street from the community garden.

Raising their own fish (and goats, chickens, and sunflowers) is just one aspect of the radical departure that these families have made in their transition to a rather atypical urban lifestyle. The new families in residence are associated with a non-denominational church, The Rock, and their efforts to revitalize the Lykins neighborhood are inseparable from their evangelical zeal to establish an organic network of house churches. It’s a holistic approach, where the phrase “church life” would be considered redundant, and these neighborhood reformers have staked their very lives on the project.

Ryan Kubicina is the Rock’s pastor, and he also runs their community development corporation called Rock Solid Urban Impact. When he talks about the neighborhood, he eagerly discusses–without transition–the importance of bringing fathers back into the lives of children, the various methods of financing the purchase of foreclosed properties, and “making connections, one heart at a time.”
This house, a stone’s throw from Patti Griffith’s, has been vacant for several years, and is one of many, many vacant houses in the neighborhood. Photograph by Beka NobleThis Evangelical, church-based plan is, of course, not a pattern that would work for all would-be urban neighborhood reformers. But in fact, there is no one correct model for revitalizing neighborhoods that will work in every part of the city. Each is unique, and each needs its own approach.

Neighborhood decline is a complex problem, and it calls for a complex solution, a solution that must reckon with racism and poverty and education and crime, not just vacant houses. And there is no single method, no single organization that can be effective by itself. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote: “If poverty is a complex set of negative feedback loops, then create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops.”

In order to reverse the decline of its urban neighborhoods–an effort critical to the overall health of the city–Kansas City needs a complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops. Some people have been working on these issues here for a long time and have done great things. Community development corporations and neighborhood associations have worked together with Legal Aid of Western Missouri to litigate hundreds of homes away from absentee bank landowners that were allowing the properties to deteriorate.

Recently, more voices and efforts have been added to the cause and will undoubtedly contribute to the solution. Last week, the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce announced its plan for urban neighborhood revitalization as one of the Big 5 Proposals put forward last year. Mayor James called for an expensive, but ambitious 6-block-by-6-block plan to restore the city’s core neighborhoods. And a bill that would establish a land bank in Kansas City to deal with vacant properties has cleared committee and may very well have the support necessary to become law.

A wide variety of revitalization tools are available, and additional tools are being considered. What is needed is an evaluative process that can determine which tools and groups work well and which ones need to be modified or cut. For example, the receivership ordinance that Kansas City passed not long ago has critics saying it has simply not delivered.
This run-down property was rented to problem tenants until the Rock Solid community development corporation purchased it from the absentee landlord. The house will be demolished and the land will become an extension of the neighborhood gardens. Photograph by Beka NobleFor those looking to reverse the decline of Kansas City’s urban neighborhoods, much can be learned from the Lykins neighborhood, both from its successes (violent crime is way down since 2007) and from its continued obstacles (metal thieves continue to destroy A/C units). Each neighborhood can learn from the others.

For Ryan and his parishioners, their motivation is essentially linked to their particular faith, but their gift to the neighborhood is hope. The residents I spoke with, who gushed over the improvements to the neighborhood, weren’t members of the Rock Church, and they weren’t even inclined to be involved in their neighborhood association. “I’m not a meeting type person,” explained Patti. But they were hopeful. And when you visit a neighborhood that has suffered like Lykins and find residents (and even the mail carrier) sincerely hopeful, that is an accomplishment.

Another group exploring solutions to Kansas City’s neighborhood and vacant property problem is a group of community leaders called the Post Foreclosure Committee. The agenda at last month’s meeting included a presentation by Charles McLaughlin, who rehabs houses in Kansas City that would otherwise remain part of the problem and then helps people get into genuinely affordable homes.

Charles explained that he had tried starting a trade school to provide skilled labor to expand his efforts beyond rehabbing just a few houses at a time. This is the kind of thinking that the entire city should get behind. Charles is part of the solution, and his company is aptly named Hope Properties.

Among those listening to Charles at that meeting was a representative from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Hopefully Charles was really heard, and voices like his will continue to be heard by those that decide where funds are directed and which tools will be utilized.

Lykins Neighborhood Photo Gallery. Photographs by Beka Noble.


The more you know: Corporate personhood and the Citizens United ruling

By Evan Harmon

The issue of corporate personhood and the Citizens United ruling are two of the most common topics within the Occupy Wall Street Movement. But what do these terms mean? And why do they matter?

Illustration by Marc Saviano

Corporate personhood is the idea that a corporation should be granted some of the same rights people have. While corporations have been given some legal rights as early as the 18th century, the idea gained steam when the Industrial Revolution resulted in a proliferation of limited liability corporations.

Back then, under common law, owners of businesses were held liable for the businesses’ debts and wrongdoing. However, with limited liability corporations, the corporations could break the law and the owners could not be held liable because of the corporations’ limited liability status; but neither could the corporation be prosecuted since it was not considered a person subject to the law. Applying some form of personhood to corporations, therefore, was justified as a convenient legal fiction intended to hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing when otherwise they would not be subject to the legal system.

But since then, this basic idea that corporations should be considered legal persons so that they could be held accountable has been gradually corrupted by new interpretations of corporate personhood that have the effect of expanding the rights of already powerful corporations instead of keeping that power in check.

In the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision (2010), the Supreme Court nullified decades of hard-fought campaign finance laws limiting the corporate manipulation of elections by taking the very dubious position that money is speech, and that since corporations are “people,” many types of restrictions on corporate spending on campaigns are unconstitutional.

Because of these additional rights granted to corporations, the already muddied waters of U.S. elections will have a never-before-seen level of corporate money flooding the campaigns, influencing politicians, and making a mockery of the democratic process.

Reaction to the Citizens United ruling was swift and widespread. Politicians, academics, journalists, and citizens around the country decried the decision. An ABC-Washington Post poll showed that 80% of the respondents op- posed the ruling. Many made light of the odd ruling by asking Why, if corporations are people, could they not be put in jail or given the death penalty? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert regularly satirize the effects of Citizens United on campaign finance laws with the creation of their own Super PAC, which they use to show how easy it is to get around what few campaign finance laws remain. And John McCain has stated, “there’s going to be, over time, a backlash … when you see the amounts of union and corporate money that’s going to go into political campaigns.”

Advocacy groups quickly sprung up calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling and abolish corporate personhood. One of these groups is Move to Amend which is a nonpartisan national organization with local chapters across the country, including Kansas City.

These groups, with the help of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, are successfully bringing this issue to the forefront. City councils and state legislatures across the country are considering, or have already passed, resolu- tions calling for various combinations of either ending corporate personhood, ending the equivocation of money and speech, or overturning Citizens United.

In February, President Obama announced support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, but not specifically corporate personhood or the treatment of money as free speech like many are calling for.


Occupy KC’s first arrest: Bill Drummond

By Greta Moore 

Bill Drummond learned the hard way that waving an American flag on the steps of a fed- eral courthouse can be an arrestable offense these days. Drummond joined the nation-wide Occupy the Courts protest on January 20th in Kansas City where he would soon become the first member of Occupy KC to be arrested.

“I didn’t go there wanting or expecting to get arrested,” Drummond says. “I went to the Occupy the Courts event believing I was within my rights to do what I was doing.”

Occupy KC activist Bill Drummond. Photography by Beka Noble

Move to Amend, with support from the Occupy Wall Street Movement, organized the Occupy the Courts rally to protest the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United ruling which overturned many campaign finance laws on the grounds that campaign contributions, even from corporations and unions, are a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

Drummond, an activist and an artist, says, “The twist in the situation—where I went wrong—I did not know that the day before in New York a federal magistrate ruled that the area around a federal courthouse can be considered a special security zone.”

Though organizers of the event applied for a permit, U.S. District Judge Lewis Ka- plan denied the request and ruled that the area outside federal courthouses is not a public forum, saying that it is a potential terrorist tar- get. And so, as the all-too-familiar story goes, that is why free speech protections don’t al- ways apply on the steps of courthouses.

Apparently, the security at the Federal Courthouse in Kansas City got the memo.

“The security guard was shooing people off the steps, and I thought, it’s a federal courthouse, you can’t shoo people off the steps,” recalled Drummond. “I asked Deb- bie Borel to go with me. ‘C’mon Debbie, lets go up there and wave our flag and show our signs around.’ They came and intercepted me and Debbie half way down. That’s where the confrontation started.”

During the confrontation with courthouse security guards, Drummond remembered the words of inspirational activist Mohandas Gandhi, “First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they beat you, then you win.” Drummond laughed, “I think, I at least got through the first three steps. I was man handled.”

The security guards asked Drummond and Borel to stop demonstrating on the court- house steps. Drummond told the guards, “I have a right to be here. This is my court- house.”

Borel backed off when the guards grabbed Drummond and dragged him inside as he waved his American flag. The other demon- strators chanted to security personnel from across the street, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

“As soon as they got me in and that door was shut, they knocked me down,” Drum- mond says. “It took three or four times to hit me on the back and behind my knees to make me face-plant, but they did it. I went down with the flag and everything. Then it took four of them to separate me from that flag. The fat security guard put his knee on my back and kept me that way until I couldn’t breathe. The U.S. Marshals were surrounding us at that point.”

After Drummond was completely re- strained and his American flag removed from him, the security guards took him to the U.S. Marshals’ jail within the courthouse to handle the processing.

“As soon as I was with the Marshals, the entire situation changed,” Drummond says. “They were polite and respectful. They didn’t want me. They didn’t know what to do with me. They called the prosecutor; he didn’t want anything to do with me. They realized at that point things had gone too far and were trying to treat me as nice as possible. That’s why I spent so little time in there. They re- leased me on my own recognizance, and I was given a citation. I am going to have to appear in court for the least possible infrac- tion–failure to obey a lawful order from a federal officer.”

Drummond resists praise and asserts that he isn’t a hero. He is more concerned with how his interaction with law enforcement affects the Occupy Movement and Move to Amend.

“The worse thing that came out of this, for me, isn’t getting brutalized; the worst part is I brought shame on our family. I gave a chance for the enemies to define us as characters who need to be controlled and put down. And if that precedent is established, it won’t be one demonstration, it will be every demonstration that needs to be put down. This is where the game is right now. It’s not who can push the most buttons, it is who can be the most rea- sonable with content. Talking about the issues is a bigger victory than a rally at the court- house,” said Drummond.


Will Occupy KC (still) Be Relevant in 2012?

By Jeff Johnson


Who besides Occupy will lead the fight against excessive corporate power? Who else will lead the march to force government to represent its own people? Here in Kansas City, as elsewhere in the nation, Occupy has stood up and demanded change.

Before Occupy, before these people began sleeping in the parks, there simply was no voice loud enough to challenge the corrupt system of the ruling elite. Since then, at least among the informed, the conversation has changed. The principles chanted by the Occupation, including here in Kansas City, are now part of the political landscape.

The protesters at Occupy KC do not plan to give up just to become so much political history. Talk to those that have been Occupying Penn Valley Park, sleeping in tents in freezing temperatures, or those that work in the Direct Action and Media workgroups, for example, and they will convince you of their intention to keep fighting till real change is accomplished. What’s more, the mettle of these Occupiers is such that, as time goes by and they realize that their efforts are going unnoticed or falling flat, they will change their tactics. They have every intention of remaining relevant to Kansas City.

The relationship between Occupy KC and the City of Kansas City has been nothing short of remarkable. No arrests. No real confrontation of any sort. An honest-to-goodness, mutually-respectful cooperation. That by itself should put Occupy KC on the map.

Recently, Occupy KC sortof adopted the Kansas City Community Centers, because they recognized a need. Not content to just demonstrate and organize, they want to contribute immediately in a meaningful way. If Occupy KC wins not even one more convert from all of their future protest actions, at least they will have sent volunteers to help out the underfunded and too often ignored program that is supposed to serve the vulnerable youth of this city. If that isn’t an indication of relevance, then nothing is.


Are you kidding? What difference can a bunch of naïve, preachy do-gooders make? The ruling class did not become the ruling class by accident. They have deliberately chosen their position, they have worked hard to arrange the rules in their favor, and it will take a lot more than illegal camping and monthly marches to reverse decades of the deliberate concentration of wealth and power.

Now, ideally, if these naïve do-gooders had to fight just the ruling class, they might have a chance, because, as one of their signs aptly explains, 99 to 1 are pretty good odds. Unfortunately for the Occupiers, though, their biggest challenge is convincing the 99% to join them.

The 99% long ago abdicated their role in government. They don’t even believe they belong in power. “What, tax the rich? That will scare the job creators!” “Participate in local government? No way. We’d miss the 6 o’clock news!”

No, Occupy KC doesn’t stand a chance against such wholesale helplessness. What’s more, the Occupiers are frequently their own worst enemy. Even if Kansas Citians were listening, Occupy KC consistently fails to articulate a clear message. Just some vague anti-capitalism rant. Useless to the working and the unemployed alike. Irrelevant to the poor. Irritating to the middle class.

Occupy KC is a piggy back protest, comprised mostly of permanent local activists, culled from various failed protests, jumping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon for their own agendas. Spend any time in their midst and you quickly realize they expend more effort fighting with each other than fighting their declared corporate enemies.

In short, the enemy is entirely too powerful, too smart and too prepared; the people simply have no interest in fighting for their fair share; and Occupy KC is doomed to self-imposed irrelevance at best, and to fatal infighting at worst.


The political irony of Occupy KC is that everyone in the 1% knows all about them, whereas vast numbers of the 99% have only the vaguest notion that Occupy even exists, and huge percentages have no idea what Occupy stands for. If Occupy KC continues like this, of course it will have no impact on the lives of Kansas Citians.

Not that they lack in potential. A bunch of really capable, intelligent, sincere people are associated with Occupy KC, and many influential people in this city are rooting for them. Heck, Henry Bloch sympathized with Occupy KC recently.

It’s just that, well, Occupy KC’s job is really hard. How do you communicate about complicated issues with masses of people who digest news in micro-bites? How do you compete with calculated misinformation spread by professional propagandists? How do you wage a war on monied politics with practically no money?

No easy answer. No answer at all really, yet. But it almost surely comes down to whether the Occupiers of KC can avoid excessive in-fighting , whether they can avoid costly confrontations with the city, and whether they can figure out how to unite effectively with other groups in Kansas City, on the Left and on the Right.

They must gradually increase their outreach, eventually to every neighborhood and every ethnic and socioeconomic group. They must focus, unrelentingly, on the common ground that all citizens who are not among the elite share: that power must be in the hands of the people; that everyone must pay their fair share; that those most helpless among us must be cared for; and that those in elected office should listen to citizens, instead of to money and privilege.

IF Occupy KC can bring such a focus to this community, it will achieve undeniable and lasting relevance.


Unequal political influence and citizen nonparticipation are the unforgivable sins of American governance

By Jeff Johnson

Our Constitutional Framers left a number of serious political inequality issues to be sorted out by later generations. One was slavery, a problem it took a civil war to resolve. Another was who should be allowed to vote, a right gradually expanded to include non-property-owning, non-white, non-males.

Yet another, and the subject of this article, is the issue of unequal political influence. Notwithstanding the sentiment expressed in the Declaration of Independence that All Men Are Created Equal, the vast majority of people in this nation have little influence over their government compared to those relatively few that exert disproportionate power.

There are two causes of this inequality, and the Occupy Movement is concerned with both. The first is that most people choose not to participate in their own governance; the second is that our campaign finance and lobbying systems allow a relatively few people to exert political influence well beyond their numbers.

The People Have Abdicated:

How to Engage Citizens in Their Own Government

Regarding nonparticipation as a cause of political inequality, a pillar of the Occupy Movement is the attempt to include people in the process of self-governing, through General Assemblies, Working Groups, and the leaderless organizational arrangement has been so derided. Occupy has, in its own political micorosm, created a structure, which if expanded on a national scale, could help solve the lack of participation in government that otherwise makes having a democracy irrelevant.

But that is a big if. To accomplish meaningful participation, the following must be overcome: people don’t care, they feel helpless; they don’t have time; and they are not informed.

The People Don’t Care, But They Can Be Inspired

People need to be inspired. Individuals like Tyler Crane, who organized Occupy Kansas City, and Mary Lindsay, who leads the local chapter of Move to Amend, are good examples who, through their immense energy and optimism, inspire others to get involved and make a difference. They are like missionaries of democratic action to the masses. We should assist and otherwise support such people who, because they are ordinary citizens and are impassioned about being involved in the community, can be highly effective at inspiring legions of otherwise complacent people to become more active citizens.

The People Feel Helpless, But They Can Be Empowered

People are convinced that they cannot make a difference; that they cannot compete with corporate political marketing. This contributes to a sense of cynicism, and discourages citizen involvement, which becomes a huge, self-fulfilling prophecy and a powerful gift from the people to the ruling class. Ratification of a constitutional amendment that would limit corporate control of campaigns will help greatly, and by sheer numbers, the people should be unstoppable. But modern political habits undermine the power of the people in two ways: divisiveness, and undervaluing local political involvement.

Unity vs. Division

Division tends to take precedence over unity. Political “discourse” modeled by media talking heads is factional at best and outright hateful at worst. And this counterproductive method is so pervasive through American politics that even groups that should unite do not because they are too stubborn to look past their own views.

If, for example, the Tea Party and Occupy were truly savvy, they would rush to align on the areas where they agree, get those things accomplished, and sort out the rest later, in the same manner that the Framers found enough common ground to write a Constitution while setting aside the trouble spots for the future. And yes, there are areas of agreement between Tea Partiers and Occupiers.

Ideally, our culture should establish a common sense rule of courtesy that every political discourse end by focusing on a point of agreement. This would reduce the animosity between people of differing views, and it would serve to reinforce the common ground. Sounds like pie in the sky, unless one thinks of it as part of a civics curriculum in school. Along with teaching how the three branches of government interact, we would teach young people how much more productive politically it is to always find common ground, instead of focusing entirely on where we differ.

Local vs. National

Another modern political habit that undermines the power of the people is the unfortunate tendency to undervalue local political action, especially as compared to national politics. People have limited time, and directing too much attention to the national spotlight detracts from the input people might otherwise have on their local scene. The Republican presidential primary contest is essentially American Idol, an apparently highly entertaining spectacle, but largely disconnected from the political reality of people at home.

When Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer spoke recently in Kansas City, he did not mention the Citizens United case as a threat to democracy. Nor did he emphasize the importance of voting for President. His concern was that people need to be “involved in their community’s life.” “Otherwise,” he said “the document, the Constitution, will not work.”

To ignore this warning, and to focus on division instead of unity, is to self-dilute to ineffectiveness the power that should be in the hands of the people.

The People Don’t Have Time, But They Can Be Accommodated

As admirable as is the dedication of local activists Crane and Lindsay, it is not reasonable to expect all citizens to devote as much time and energy to community action. Many people have very little free time available. How can these people participate meaningfully in their community’s life? A solution could involve tools such as social media and remote video in order to streamline involvement. Perhaps it is not practical to expect people to physically assemble in order to participate in the political process. The technology available to us, combined with the motivation and innovation of activists, should produce a method for large percentages of people to participate together, but remotely, in making decisions that affect everyone.

The People Are Not Informed, But They Can Be Taught

People cannot effectively participate in self-government if they are not properly informed on the issues. Civics instruction in American schools is inadequate. This should be a renewed priority. Students should understand the importance of involvement, and they should understand how the government is supposed to work and how they can participate.

Occupy should continue with Teach-Ins. It is a fantastic way to engage people in the process of becoming an informed citizen. As the Movement continues to organize, the Education Workgroups should increase in importance, and certain individuals should be tapped to regularly instruct. As people join, they often ask how they can contribute. One way to engage each person that wants to contribute is to give them the assignment of becoming well-versed enough on a subject of local political importance that they can instruct others on that issue. That way, part of an involvement in the Movement is an ongoing process of teaching each other.

Political disenfranchisement in this country is largely self-imposed. The solution is greater than legislation, Constitutional Amendments and court rulings. The solution to political inequality requires getting citizens involved in the political process.

Unless people participate in their community, and therefore know what the community’s needs and resources are, it will not matter whether corporations can or can not spend unlimited amounts to influence elections. We complain while the Supreme Court carefully protects the Freedom of Speech of Corporations. Yet, through complacency, we waste freedoms we are born into while Syrians die fighting against real repression.

The People Have Been Usurped:

Time to Counter Improper Influence in Government

Occupiers complain that too much wealth is controlled by too few people; that this extreme inequality of wealth gives unfair political advantage to the rich; and that corporate money and lobbyist efforts drown out the input of ordinary citizens in the political process. The perception by citizens that they cannot compete with corporate political marketing contributes to a sense of cynicism, further marginalizing citizen involvement.

The problems are stated accurately, but the solutions are not self evident. Regarding solutions, many within Occupy say that we should “get money out of politics”, and that we should – through a Constitutional Amendment – undo the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United and its precedent, that we should establish that “money is not speech” and “corporations are not people.”

The first idea – getting money out of politics – sounds appealing, but in reality is not a solution. The second – rejecting the Citizens United decision and its precedent through Constitutional Amendment – is a very good idea, but on its own would not solve our campaign finance and political influence problems.

There is no doubt that an unrestrained flood of money into elections is unhealthy for American democracy. But to say that we should fix campaign finance by “getting money out of politics” is as useful as saying that we should end obesity by getting calories out of food. Just as every sustainable diet still involves eating, so too, politics will always involve money. If Citizen Joe puts up a couple of signs in his yard saying “Vote for Schmoe,” he is spending money to support a candidate, and this should be protected speech. It should also be protected speech when a candidate wants (or his supporters want) to collect money so as to put up a bunch of signs saying “Vote for Schmoe.”

There is no good reason to prohibit reasonable political spending. The hard part is finding the healthy and workable middle ground between good-for-democracy spending and an unlimited torrent of corrupting cash.

Interestingly, the “middle ground” that Missouri has staked out allows unlimited contributions to candidates, but requires disclosure of who made the donation and where they work. So when potential Republican candidate for Governor David Pence received a $100,000 contribution last month, Missourians could readily see, via the state’s online database, that the check came from Capital executive Robert O’Brien. Those arguing in favor of Missouri’s unlimited donation scheme say that the money would get to the candidates secretly if limits were in place. This way, they argue, citizens know who is giving and how much, and they can evaluate the candidate based on his disclosed donors.

This arrangement that Missouri has settled on is presumably perfectly acceptable to our Supreme Court. Whereas, when Vermonters attempted to limit campaign donations, the court decided that their limits were too low and struck down the statute.

Congress and the states have over time made various attempts to strike a balance in reforming campaign finance. The courts have frequently interfered with those efforts. The recent Citizens United case is one of the most disruptive interferences, and one result is a chorus of proposals for a Constitutional Amendment to override this judicial limitation on campaign finance reform. Citizens United struck down a provision in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002) that prohibited corporations from using their treasury funds to pay for broadcast ads for or against a candidate within 60 days before an election (or within 30 days before a primary).

The modern lead-up to this controversy began in 1974 following the Watergate scandal. Congress passed the Federal Election Commission Act, which placed limits on political contributions and on campaign spending. In 1976, the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo let stand the FECA contribution limits, but struck down the spending limits because of free speech considerations. The Court also invalidated regulation of money spent on ads that do not explicitly suggest a vote for or against a candidate, known as “issue ads.” The political result of this “money equals speech” doctrine was that eventually large amounts of unregulated money were being spent during campaigns on ads that were obviously for and against certain candidates, but since the ads did not use specific phrases like “vote for,” they were legal. McCain-Feingold was passed in part as an attempt to close this “soft money” gap in campaign regulation.

In declaring this part of McCain-Feingold unconstitutional1, the Supreme Court chose not to distinguish between corporations and actual persons for the purposes of free speech in campaign spending. This case did not establish corporate personhood, but broke from a line of precedent that did allow for limitation of corporate intrusion into elections. And although it is true that getting money completely out of politics is impractical, and not even desirable, it is absolutely true that getting corporate money out of politics is critical. Justice Stevens wrote in his Citizens United dissent that “the Court’s opinion is…a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

Now, what is needed is an entirely new framework for financing elections if we want to level the playing field for potential candidates, and an entirely new set of rules restricting lobbying if we want to provide for meaningful citizen input in the political process. A campaign finance concept similar to what is known as Clean Elections is needed, and strict anti-revolving-door rules should be adopted, but this will require more than a Constitutional Amendment that overrides Citizens United, or that merely eliminates corporate money from elections.

This does not mean that it is a waste of resources to support, for example, Move to Amend, an organization promoting a Constitutional Amendment to declare that money is not speech and that corporations are not people. To the contrary, it is important that everyone support this and all efforts working toward ending political inequality imbedded in our flawed campaign finance system. However, a wider solution is needed, way beyond just addressing the Supreme Court’s limitations set by Citizens United v. FEC and Buckley v. Valeo.

Fn. 1. With the exception of Thomas’ idiotic partial dissent, at least the majority in Citizens United did not disagree with every portion of McCain-Feingold at issue in the case.