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Exposing ALEC’s “Corporate Sausage Factory” In Dallas

Posted in Journalism, MintPress News, and Occupy Wall Street

Originally published at MintPress News

DALLAS — We’d gathered at Eddie Deen’s Ranch to interrupt the American Legislative Exchange Council at dinner. I was wearing a pink cowboy hat, temporarily inducted into the CODEPINK Posse, an effort organized by the local branch of the well-known national rabble rousers for peace. About 30 of us stood along the sidewalk outside the Ranch, watched by a half-dozen police officers looking bored, a chatty police detective and a pair of startled horses held by two men dressed as cowboys. Overhead, an airplane circled, towing a warning about corporate corruption.

Powerful people in suits laughed at us and snapped smartphone photos as they disembarked from the chartered buses they rode to the Western-themed restaurant. It was July 31 and ALEC was in town for its 41st meeting. After the first of several days of corporate backroom deals at the Hilton Anatole, ALEC’s members wanted to pretend they were cowboys while they ate.

The buses kept coming and out poured some of the world’s most powerful: corporate executives, rich investors, state legislators and their families. Though they’d normally disdain public transportation — when they aren’t orchestrating cuts against it in the name of austerity — I imagined the atmosphere on the bus was jovial, as if the “1%” was on a field trip.

CODEPINK are no strangers to using humor to fight evil. Duded up in pink Western-wear, with faux handcuffs and a “RUN ALEC OUT OF TEXAS” banner, they were aiming for laughter. As the suits’ humor peaked, CODEPINK Dallas — mostly older women — began chanting, “WE MAY BE FUNNY, BUT YOU ARE CORRUPT!”

Speaking out is thirsty, thankless work in the Texas heat. After two hours, a Ranch worker dressed as a cowboy brought us all bottled water.

At a July 31, 2014 CODEPINK Rally outside Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Texas, activists hold a banner reading "Round Up ALEC and Run 'Em Outa Town." (Kit O'Connell)
At a July 31, 2014 CODEPINK Rally outside Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Texas, activists hold a banner reading “Round Up ALEC and Run ‘Em Outa Town.” (Kit O’Connell)

ALEC: Where the corporate sausage is made

For over 40 years, ALEC has had a corrupting influence on state politics. Its corporate sponsors and rich private investors write legislation, then their hand-picked, loyal legislators introduce those bills into law. The mainstream media rarely connects the dots, even when covering ALEC-related laws. And while many have heard of Stand Your Ground and its contribution to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, few are aware of ALEC’s sponsorship of that law in multiple states.

In the summer of 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy unveiled, bringing ALEC widespread negative attention for the first time in its four-decade-long history. The site features over 800 model bills and dozens of corporate sponsors. The agenda revealed was startling in its breadth: to name just a few of its policies, ALEC seeks privatization of education and policing, aides the Koch brothers in undermining laws that support renewable energy, and attacks the rights of unions and the retired.

On July 30, Jim Hightower, a former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and publisher of the popular newsletter The Hightower Lowdown, was on hand at the Community Brewery after a noon rally at the Hilton Anatole was attended by hundreds of activists, retirees and union members in honor of ALEC’s 41st national conference. After a rousing speech to encourage the crowd, he told this reporter, “The only way we’re going to take power back for ordinary working people to become a self-governing people again is to confront the corporate interests and to expose them.”

As much as protesters wanted to reach ALEC with their objections, another purpose of the week’s events was to expose the Dallas public to ALEC’s existence among them.

“Most people never heard of ALEC,” he continued. “This big rally we had at the Anatole hotel today, that showed to a lot of people maybe just driving by that there’s something out there called ALEC. […] If people see it, they will be disgusted by what’s happened. This is the most visible, the most ostentatious merger of corporate power with right-wing legislative power and they meet in secret. […] If you want to see where the sausage is made, we were at that factory today.”

I spoke with Connor Gibson, a Greenpeace researcher who studies ALEC and similar groups, about how a newcomer to the movement can begin to unravel this complex network of corporate corruption. “The most important thing to do is learn about ALEC [. …] It’s actually a really complicated organization. It’s state politicians, it’s corporate lawyers and lobbyists and it’s ALEC’s staff. They convene and have a weird governance and the more people understand that, the more people know what to look out for.”

He continued: “What to look out for, specifically, is the state bills that are going through our statehouses that are going to privatize our education, make it harder for people to emigrate to this country safely, keep fracking chemicals secret in natural gas extraction — these are some of the things that ALEC does. When you learn what is on ALEC’s roster of bills you also know what to look out for.”

“And then when you see something that looks like ALEC, you can compare with their language. And then you can call out your legislator if you think they’re doing ALEC’s bidding and that of the corporations that pay ALEC instead of being accountable to the people that elected them,” Gibson concluded.

Thousands gathered in the Texas Capitol rotunda to protest a proposed law to add devastating new restrictions on abortion access in the state. (Flickr / Do512 / David Weaver)
Thousands gathered in the Texas Capitol rotunda to protest a proposed law to add devastating new restrictions on abortion access in the state. (Flickr / Do512 / David Weaver)

A year of protest and police repression

Few of the thousands of Texans who came out last summer to loudly and passionately oppose the controversial anti-abortion law Senate Bill 5 would have identified it as a protest against ALEC, but the bill’s sponsor was State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, Texas State Chair for ALEC. Laubenberg became infamous for declaring during debates that emergency room doctors can use a rape kit to help victims “get cleaned out.” Just as with Stand Your Ground, remarkably similar laws attacking abortion have appeared all over the United States, tipping observers off to the right-wing coordination at their heart.

That’s where I first joined the struggled against ALEC. As a member of Occupy Austin, I became one of the many activists whose grassroots organizing in the hallways of the Capitol laid the groundwork for the famous people’s filibuster that kept the bill from passing in that session of the Texas Legislature. Of course, Governor Rick Perry spent tens of thousands of dollars on a second special legislative session to force the bill — renamed House Bill 2 — into law. We kept fighting, and it was here that I first realized how far police would go to protect ALEC’s interests.

Though State Troopers normally assigned to the Texas Capitol had initially seemed sympathetic to our cause — or at least respectful of our rights, after the first defeat dozens more were imported from around the state who lacked all such sympathies. As activists trying to raise our voices in democratic dissent, we were surveilled, harassed and arrested — some engaged in civil disobedience but others simply because State Troopers had identified them as leaders. When the bill finally passed, I participated in a symbolic sit-in that was violently disrupted. In addition to using pain techniques and humiliation — Troopers pulled down the pants of one woman in front of witnesses — activist Joshua Pineda was beaten until he bled onto the marble floors and required stitches in his head.

Later that year, I followed ALEC’s influence to Chicago, where they held their 40th annual meeting at the luxurious Palmer House Hilton. Activists caught ALEC’s security off guard by performing a Moral Monday-inspired banner drop before the meeting formally began. But police were soon ready and more than willing to enforce the corporate power of the “1%.” Days later, after Jesse Jackson closed out a union-led rally of thousands by reminding the police that they were his union brothers, those same officers attacked the hundreds of activists that remained after the unions left. Surging across their own barricades, Chicago Police Department officers openly punched, kicked and threw nonviolent demonstrators.

In Dallas a year later, police response to activists varied similarly between accommodating and repressive. Rich Emberlin, a detective from Dallas’ Criminal Intelligence division, followed activists throughout the four days of protest and established a firm but cordial relationship with the group, even helping them find a safe place to park at the Wednesday night protest at Eddie Deen’s Ranch.

On Thursday morning, Whytney Blythe and Joshua Carmona, activists working with Blackland Prairie Rising Tide, dropped a banner in the atrium of the Hilton Anatole, then locked themselves to trees inside the glass-walled facility. Writing later on her Facebook wall, Blythe claimed that a conversation with a sympathetic police officer led to the pair’s release without charges:

[H]e asked me, “What else do you protest?” And I said “Police brutality.” And he said, “Where?” And I said “Everywhere. My father was murdered by a cop when I was 14. I don’t want what happened to us to happen to anyone else, anywhere.” And he said, “I have a 16 year old daughter. If she lost me, she’d be devastated. I’d be devastated if I lost her. If something like that happened to me, she probably would be in there chaining herself up too.”

Thursday afternoon, CODEPINK Dallas gathered at Neiman Marcus’ flagship store to protest a special fashion show held for ALEC attendees. Before the protest began, I found myself with a need to use the store’s restroom, so I entered. I received permission and directions to the sixth floor toilets from a floor manager.

A pair of police were waiting for me at the entrance to the restroom. Dallas Police Sergeant Stephen W. Toth followed me into the men’s room, where he interrogated me as to my purpose as I attempted to use the facility under his watchful gaze. Despite my insistence that I was a journalist, there were five police officers and the store’s stop-loss manager waiting outside when I emerged. One was Detective Emberlin, who assured me I was not under arrest, just temporarily detained until the store could issue me with a criminal trespass warning banning me from the premises.

After giving these assurances, Emberlin left me alone with Sergeant Toth, another officer and the manager as I was led on a disorienting journey into the bowels of Neiman Marcus. As we descended an elevator to the basement, Toth told me bluntly that I had neither the right to remain silent, nor the right to refuse a search because my condition was now “like being under arrest.” With just one other officer and a manager as witnesses, I’d have had little recourse if he’d made good on those threats.

In the end, I was released with a 90-day ban from Neiman Marcus and all its subsidiaries worldwide.

I doubt there are many freelance journalists who can afford to shop there, but still, the message was clear in that moment of interrogation in the basement: Resist ALEC and you have no rights.

In this July 31, 2014 photograph, Dallas Police Sergeant Stephen W. Toth guards entranc to Neiman Marcus after depriving Kit O'Connell of his constitutional rights and banning him from the store. (Kit O'Connell)
In this July 31, 2014 photograph, Dallas Police Sergeant Stephen W. Toth guards entranc to Neiman Marcus after depriving Kit O’Connell of his constitutional rights and banning him from the store. (Kit O’Connell)

Police: ALEC’s victims and beneficiaries

Though they are used to enforcing ALEC’s secrecy and security, police officers are also victims of their policy, just like every other worker in the public sector. ALEC has coordinated nationwide attacks on public worker pensions through their model bills, from privatizing fund management to blocking pension managers from participating in socially responsible investment funds.

Brian Austin, a police detective from Madison, Wisconsin, is an outspoken critic of both Stand Your Groundand ALEC’s overall attack on the public sector.

“[ALEC] want us to get to the point where the moral component of taking a human life is out of the equation, the only question is whether it is legally justifiable,” he wrote for PR Watch. “[…] The law treats the rapist/serial killer the same as the neighbor with Alzheimer’s or the drunk college kid who mistakenly came to the wrong apartment.”

But he’s also a strong critic of ALEC’s overall attack on the public sector: “In order to get people to continue to vote against their best interests, the ruling class has to make them believe the average guy next to them is the enemy. […] It is how they can demonize our teachers, firefighters and police officers while they siphon trillions from our collective bank accounts.”

Another of the panelists at anti-ALEC events in Dallas, Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, has a focus on police abuse of the Constitution. He said the Bill of Rights Defense Committee creates “grassroots organizing networks.”

“We basically work around the country to build multi-ethnic and transpartisan grassroots coalitions that fight police department and intelligence agencies. We wrangle them through the rule of law into respecting constitutional rights, that’s the goal,” Buttar explained.

Like ALEC, his group crafts model legislation “for state legislatures, for city councils and grassroots groups […] that, implemented at the local level, help build a mosaic for constitutional rights one city at a time.” But ALEC’s model bills work to undermine those same constitutional rights and the local independence that Buttar depends upon.

“One of the biggest bills that ALEC is pushing recently are measures that deny cities the opportunity or authority to decline participation in federal immigration enforcement. So the broken federal immigration system has led to essentially a human rights crisis along the southern border in particular, as well as human rights abuses within a hundred miles of any border including the northern border.”

He noted: “This is particularly ironic because ALEC claims to promote local and state autonomy, yet at the same time it promotes federal authoritarianism with respect to immigration enforcement.” Buttar’s group, by contrast, has worked to provide alternatives for more humane treatment of immigrants.

But the attacks don’t stop with immigration. Buttar cautions that ALEC is just one element of a larger attack on constitutional protections. Due to right-wing support for the proliferation of surveillance and military technologies from the federal to the local level, every city’s police department has become “an enemy of the Constitution of the United States and We The People of it. [They’re] our enemies too, no less than ALEC.”

Kit O'Connell interviews political columnist Jim Hightower in Dallas, Texas on July 30, 2014. (John Rubino)
Kit O’Connell interviews political columnist Jim Hightower in Dallas, Texas on July 30, 2014. (John Rubino)

Scraps of a democracy

On the night that House Bill 2 passed and State Troopers violently ended our sit-in, the intersection between patriarchal police brutality and patriarchal state power over women seemed very clear to me. Greenpeace’s Connor Gibson was willing to make the same comparison between House Bill 2 and ALEC’s attacks on the environment. He described his admiration for ecofeminism, which “has to do with patterns of dominance.”

“The easy way to be introduced to the concept is the very visceral dominance we understand — male violence inflicted on women, something we’re all too familiar with in this country and others — those patterns are also applied to other things that we depend on and love. Like the ecosystems that we rely upon to live,” Gibson explained.

“I would say that that racism, that sexism — there’s a similar disregard for well-being and a lack of compassion that comes with anti-environmental activity.”

Our legislators are owned by corporate investors, and have neither compassion for nor allegiance to the people who elect them. The government uses its militarized police to scatter resistance, then rewrites the law to make resistance harder. I asked Jim Hightower whether we still live in a democracy and his answer was unequivocal: “Not at all.”

“I mean, corporate money rules! The Supreme Court unleashed a plutocracy. The five-man majority who did Citizens United and McCutcheon, more recently, all of those steps allowed corporate money to become the de facto sovereign of America. It’s now completely in charge,” lamented Hightower.

“And then the lobbyists and front groups like ALEC on top of that, are funded by the Koch brothers and other right wing families for their own benefit. There’s no altruism in this, it’s done by corporate interests pursuing their own interests and the people be damned.”

I asked what we can do about this, to which Hightower replied: “Exactly what we are doing.”

“Get in the face of power. Organize around issues like fracking, or a local environmental issues. Or for labor rights or consumer rights,” he urged.

But we should also organize for a more central issue: “the rights of students, and old folks and people with disabilities to be able to get into the voting booth. They’re even trying to shut us out of the voting booth — the most fundamental part of democracy is being denied to millions of people.”

“That’s not going to change if we sit around and wait on Obama and Washington to do it for us. They’re the ones doing it to us, really — passively if they’re Democrats and aggressively if they’re Republicans.”

“So we’ve got to do it ourselves, we’ve got to do the heavy lifting,” Hightower said, adding, “That has always been the truth of progress in America from the very start.”

Unless we keep speaking truth to the powerful like ALEC and its members, eventually we won’t have the right to speak against them at all.

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