“Democracy is not for sale, we’re not too old to go to jail.” — Democracy Spring chant
Even though it was her birthday, Sue Sorensen wanted to get arrested.
And she did. At 75, it was her first arrest.
She was in good company. The mass arrests at the eight-day Democracy Spring demonstrations in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, where Sorensen was protesting, were the largest since the Vietnam War era. Also arrested were Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and actress Rosario Dawson.
Capitol Police made more than 1,240 arrests, according to USA Today. Many of those were seniors.
Not Too Old to Go to Jail
Sorensen is part of a group of activist elders who organized Elders Standing for Democracy Spring — part of the Democracy Spring demonstrations. The goal of their sit-in: drive money from politics and expand voting rights. Their means: Block the steps to the Capitol and get arrested to draw attention to the causes.
Sorensen weighed what it would mean to spend part of her birthday under arrest. “What more valuable thing could I do on my birthday then take a stand for my children and grandchildren?” she eventually decided. “It was very symbolic for me to be there and celebrate it in that way.”
“The whole focus behind this is to get big money out of our election process and eliminate voter discrimination,” Sorensen told Senior Planet.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s when protests were going on, we had small children,” she said. “That was not something I could have possibly done at the time. It took some getting my courage up.”
The charges against the protestors were crowding, obstructing or incommoding. Along with the other arrested protestors, Sorensen got a wrist band with the number of her arresting officer, a citation and a $50 fine. She had to surrender her IDs and was put in a holding pen while officers checked for outstanding warrants.
“It turned out this was a very good first experience,” Sorensen said.
A Positive Message
Sorensen worked alongside other activist elders to mobilize elders for the demonstrations. They sent email blasts and held weekly conference calls. They also had T-shirts printed that read, “Elders Standing for Future Generations.”
Sorensen, a co-founders with her husband John of Conscious Elders Network, flew to D.C. from Truckee, California. Other seniors came from Texas and Colorado, carrying hand-made posters decorated with photos of their grandchildren and slogans like, “I’m an elder speaking for the future.”
One of the organizers who worked alongside Sorensen was Lynne Iser of Elder Activists.org. Iser, 66, estimates that as many as half of the 5,000 or so Democracy Spring participants were seniors. She reached prospective protestors via her website and eblasts — but mainly on Facebook.
Iser has been a full-time activist for the last five years or so. “My experience with elders is they don’t want to be angry,” she said. “My response to that is to put forward a positive message of what we want. We want a thriving word, we want a just world, we want money out of politics.”
“Nothing is sadder than hearing my brother say, ‘There’s too much money in politics, but what can we do about it? You’ll never influence Congress because the lobbyists have already gotten to them.’ I want to bring back citizenship as something really sacred. It’s a responsibility to be a citizen,” she said.
An Intergenerational Effort
At the D. C. protests, which ended April 18, Iser saw a lot of respect and appreciation between the older people and their younger counterparts. “Our march route was a little shorter than the march route on other days,” she said. “They carried folding chairs for us. The Capitol Police moved some of those folding chairs so we had folding chairs in the holding areas” after being arrested.
“The Capitol Police gave us water. When I said, ‘How kind of you,’ they told me, ‘You paid for them.’”
Among those Iser helped mobilize were Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, 70, and her husband, Ricardo Rojas, 71, of Llano, Texas, who were there carrying pictures of their grandchildren.
“It’s not democracy if a few guys buy elections,” Rojas said. “It’s not democracy if only 30 percent of the people are voting. That’s not democracy. We’ve got to do something to change that.”
They’re already planning their next actions. “We are in touch with the elders and with Lynne. No matter what demonstration, no matter where, we will be there,” Rojas said.
“I don’t know if it will change within our lifespan, but we have to change it for our kids,” he said.
Photo: Democracy Spring
[Updated 4/5/16 to correct an error: John Sorensen did not accompany his wife Sue to April’s democracy Spring protests in DC.]