John Bonifaz and Bringing Democracy Back to the People
By Heidi V. Buttersworth
“The defining issue of our time” says John Bonifaz “is whether our democracy is, in fact, by and for ‘we the people’ or by and for corporations.” Bonifaz is the co-founder and director of Free Speech for People, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the premise that constitutional rights are intended to protect people, not corporations.
Bonifaz started his activism at a young age, advocating in high school against the proliferation of nuclear arms, growing up in a family where social justice was pursued, learning from legends of various civil rights and social justice movements. It was during law school, however, that Bonifaz recognized that all social justice movements – for livable wages, civil rights and environmental protections – were all being drowned out by the excess of money flowing into the political system. And so, once again, he acted.
Bonifaz founded the National Voting Rights Institute (NVRI), which pursued a litigation strategy to bring this argument before the courts. Years later, Supreme Court rulings in major campaign finance reform cases – Randall v. Sorrell and Citizens United v. The Federal Election Comission among them – would deal a severe blow to NVRI’s mission, and after merging with the research organization DEMOS in 2007, the company dissolved in 2009.
Bonifaz says that people need to understand the consequences of the Citizens United decision, in particular. “It decimated over a century of protections against corporate money being funneled directly into the system, and it gave strength and legitimacy to the concept of ‘corporate personhood’. Both of these effects, he argues, are testing our democracy to its core.
With unlimited amounts of corporate money now allowed in the system, Bonifaz argues that politicians face a fearful situation when raising money to run for elected office. “If they do not vote in the corporate interest, virtually unlimited resources will be dispensed to see that they do not remain in office”. This influence has the potential to render the people’s voice inaudible.
Free Speech for People was born out of a need to address both consequences of the ruling. Bonifaz says the “erroneous concept of ‘corporate personhood’” is increasingly being used as a legal defense against consumer protections and campaign finance regulations. The organization uses innovative techniques to further the fight against both corporate personhood and the excessive third party financing it enables. One of these campaigns calls for the revocation of charters for corporations who have acted recklessly and in contradiction to their approved charter. “There is a mechanism in every state” Bonifaz says “by which corporate charters can be revoked.”
They are seeking, for example, to have the corporate charter of Massey Mining revoked. Bonifaz says that Massey Mining’s negligence may have caused the deaths of its own employees during the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia. If proven in court, charter revocation could be the next step.
The confluence of his actions and the spirit of the Occupy movement was obvious to Bonifaz, who visited New York and posted videos of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations on his organization’s website. When asked about Occupy Boston, Bonifaz says “I am inspired and amazed by Occupy Boston, Occupy Wall Street, and all of the other Occupy protests happening around the country. This shows that we are in an historic moment in this country and that, when people come together, we can create change and take back our democracy. I stand in solidarity with Occupy Boston and I look forward to visiting Dewey Square soon.”
Learn more about Bonifaz’s organization, Free Speech for People, at www.freespeechforpeople.org