Citizen Volunteers Expose Hidden Corporate Influence
Ninety-six years ago, my great-grandfather Chester A. Graham, a Quaker who served as an ambulance driver in World War I, made a vow upon arriving home. He dedicated himself to helping to create a world where international disputes could be settled through peaceful means. Decades later in his self-published autobiography The Eighty-year Experience of a Grass Roots Citizen, he reflected on President Eisenhower’s 1961 speech warning about the military-industrial complex: “The escalating military influence, both in our society and in our government and the general drift toward terrorism and totalitarianism, have caused me to have grave concern for our representative government based on democratic principles.” Fifty-five years after he penned those lines, his concerns are still relevant today.
Private corporations that profit from war and mass incarceration have too much political power. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on lobbying and campaign contributions to ensure taxpayer money goes toward more weapons, prisons, and immigrant detention centers.
The political influence of these corporations has only become stronger in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which overturned campaign finance restrictions and allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums on political elections.
Governing Under the Influence (GUI) is a nonpartisan, strategic education and action project organized by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Started in October 2014, the project aims to spotlight corporate influence by training citizen volunteers to bird-dog (to follow and ask presidential candidates questions in their early public appearances in New Hampshire and Iowa) with a goal of influencing their positions. Too often the topics of state-sponsored violence and incarceration are not addressed by the mainstream media in political campaigns. When we bird-dog presidential candidates, we ask whether or not they will allow corporations to guide their decision making. By doing so, we educate and inform the candidates, the media, and the public about the issues.
Most people don’t know that the military-industrial complex is driving our nation’s foreign policies. The United States has spent over $1.6 trillion the past 14 years to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Top Pentagon weapons contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman altogether spent over $62 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies in 2013 alone (source: opensecrets.org). In return, these five contractors made $142 billion in defense revenue for fiscal year 2013 (source: defensenews.com). The biggest beneficiary that year was Lockheed Martin, which received over $44 billion in contracts. Lockheed Martin manufactures the most expensive weapons system in history: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter combat aircraft. Each plane costs over $100 million, with a projected total program cost of $1.5 trillion.
Another example of elected officials “governing under the influence” is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a membership organization composed of hundreds of state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists from nearly every industry who work behind closed doors to write model legislation for public policies and introduce thousands of bills every year across the country. In the early 1990s ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force pushed legislation to privatize prisons and bolster mass incarceration policies, such as mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws. The two largest private prison companies in the United States—Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group—are contributors to ALEC and profited from these policies. Together they have spent $32 million since 2002 on lobbying, and almost $3.5 million on federal campaign contributions since 2004.
One policy that benefits CCA and the GEO Group is the immigrant detention quota that requires the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain an average of 34,000 immigrants every day. The quota was included in the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010 and now costs taxpayers over $2 billion a year. GUI volunteers have brought this issue to the attention of the presidential candidates. When asked about the policy, none of the candidates had ever heard of the detention quota.
Here is an example of our candidate bird-dogging: a high school student from Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, Iowa, asked Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, “What steps will you take to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on government mandated bed quotas … in private non-union prisons which profit from exploiting immigrants, prisoners, and their workers?” Clinton was shocked and responded, “I’ll look into that question.” She then added, “Nobody has ever asked me that before.”
Several months later, during an immigration policy speech in Nevada, Clinton said:
A lot of detention facilities for immigrants are run by private companies, and they have a built-in incentive to fill them up. There is a legal requirement that so many beds be filled. People round up people in order to get paid on a per-bed basis. That just makes no sense to me.
By the time Wisconsin governor Scott Walker dropped out of the Republican primary race in September 2015, our GUI project staff had trained over 800 citizen volunteer bird dogs and asked candidates over 200 questions in Iowa and New Hampshire (at press, these numbers had increased to 1,047 volunteers trained and 337 questions asked). During our training, we use role-play scenarios and group discussions to teach volunteers the best skills and techniques for interacting with candidates who dodge questions. We’ve trained high school and college students, community activists, and Quakers from diverse backgrounds.
My first experience of bird-dogging was with Republican nominee Rand Paul at the University of Northern Iowa. I intended to ask him about police militarization. It was just two months after unarmed black teenager Mike Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Since the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Department’s 1033 program has allowed military weapons to be transferred to state and local police departments including mine-resistant and armored vehicles, aircraft, body armor, grenade launchers, night vision equipment, assault rifles, and ammunition. I was prepared to ask Senator Paul how he would address this program if he were elected President.
I sat with my cousin in the second row of the crowded auditorium, repeating my question for Senator Paul over and over again in my head and hoping not to mess up. At the end of the speech, he surprised me by skipping questions and leaving the stage to shake hands and pose for pictures. I was shocked. Without hesitation, I grabbed my cousin, and we navigated our way to the front of the crowd filled with students and television cameras.
I reached out my hand and shook his while my cousin recorded me on video: “What steps will you take to make sure the acquisition of military equipment by police is driven by public interest? [Does the Waterloo Police Department in Iowa need] a $250,000 BearCat?” (A BearCat is a ten-passenger, bulletproof, armored vehicle; Waterloo has a total population of 68,000.)
He responded, “Surplus equipment shouldn’t be brand new. We found a third of this equipment was brand new, which means they’re just churning the equipment. I also object to the 12,000 bayonets given to them [police]. What are police gonna do?”
Even though his answer avoided the heart of my question, I walked away feeling a sense of empowerment, like my voice really did make a difference, as though I was actually being listened to.
These experiences have been repeated by GUI volunteers throughout this caucus and primary season. One volunteer asked Donald Trump how he was going to “prevent corporate cronyism from corrupting our government.” Another asked Martin O’Malley about Pope Francis’s recent call to end the nuclear arms race and how he was going to address huge profits made by weapons contractors. A bird dog asked Scott Walker how small businesses were supposed to compete with the lobbying power of Pentagon contractors, while yet another asked Chris Christie about government plans to expand our nuclear weapons capabilities. (To see how presidential candidates have answered these and other questions, visit our website at afsc.org/gui.)
Every volunteer has his or her own reasons for getting involved. My own inspiration was a family history of Quaker activism. My grandfather Roy Hampton opted for alternative service as a conscientious objector with AFSC and he and my grandmother Martha worked in small villages in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico to help build irrigation systems and schools. His cousins spent months in jail after refusing to enter the military draft in the early 1950s, and they were part of a group of Friends who migrated from Alabama to Costa Rica after it abolished its armed forces, founding the Friends community of Monteverde. My great-grandfather Chester Graham (mentioned at the beginning of this article) was incredibly dedicated to social justice his entire life. He wrote:
To be a radical, by the very origin of the word, means to go to the roots of all issues in our thinking and behavior. I want to work actively, intelligently, creatively and courageously to help generate the Kingdom of Heaven on earth in the affairs of people. When dealing with problems in society, I want to be part of the solution, not a part of the problem. I am not satisfied to merely be a liberal or a progressive, if that means merely putting bandages over festering sores.
Like him, I am not satisfied with putting bandages over the festering sores created by the United States’s endless wars. Through my work with GUI, I have met many others who feel the same way: people willing to raise their voices to bring attention to corporate power and the military-industrial complex. My great-grandfather passed away before I was born, so I never had the chance to meet him, but it often feels like I am following in his footsteps. One day I hope to pass these experiences on to children of my own.
This version has been slightly edited from the print version to correct a caption and timeline.