When Donald Trump swept into the White House this past January, he left those of us who prioritize facts, transparency, immigrant rights, and equality feeling overwhelmed and unsafe. In an ideal situation, the government would be addressing our concerns, but since the new administration is merely exacerbating them, many are looking to private-sector advocacy groups for help. That’s where Lisa Graves, Vicki B. Gaubeca, and Heidi Beirich come in—three brave and brilliant social justice detectives working diligently to keep America great. They seek to shed light where there was previously none, bringing their discoveries about the unsavory side of political influence, escalating border tensions, and radicalized racism to the attention of reporters, lawmakers, law enforcement officers, and activists. Sometimes change comes quickly, but more often than not, the enemy counters or simply adapts to the changing environment, and the war wages on. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” One thing, however, is immediately clear: Armed with facts and hell-bent on protecting the public, these women are soldiers in the cultural trenches, and we need them now more than ever.
Lisa Graves: The Dark Money Diviner
“I don’t know what Donald Trump thinks, aside from what he tweets, but I think he is deeply deceitful and deceptive. Throughout the campaign, he talked about draining the swamp, and instead, he’s stocking the swamp and locating it in the Rose Garden, just outside the White House,” says Lisa Graves. And she would know. Graves is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a watchdog group with a nose for sniffing out corporate bad guys, enlisting whistleblowers, and shedding light on secretive, misleading campaign contributions, known as “dark money.” She’s the country’s foremost expert on big-money political shenanigans, with decades of experience in government. (She served in Janet Reno’s Justice Department, and worked with Senator Patrick Leahy to vet President George W. Bush’s nominees to the federal bench.) Graves comes off as congenial and polite, but don’t let her well-cultivated demeanor fool you—she’s a legit badass.
Working out of an office in Madison, WI, Graves and her gang of 12 staff members hound D.C. baddies at every turn, constantly looking, as Graves puts it, to “uncover corporations and CEOs who want to keep their influence on politicians and on public policies secret from ordinary Americans, whose rights and opportunities are being undermined.” They truly follow the money, which means extensive research in-office and in the field, resulting in about 3,000 public records requests each year for information from state and local governments, which gives them the ability to scrutinize communications between corporations and public officials. Graves points to “the terrible Citizens United decision” for generating so much work—the 2010 Supreme Court case on campaign finance brought about a huge change that enabled wealthy individuals and big corporations to pile unlimited amounts of cash on political campaigns, without disclosing their identity.
Graves offers up, as a particularly gross example of this kind of dark money, her 2012 discovery of the funding sources of a non-profit group called Independent Women’s Voices. The group, which is still in existence, first stepped into the spotlight by throwing its weight behind conservative Scott Brown’s bid to replace liberal lion Ted Kennedy in the Senate. Massachusetts was suddenly flooded with pro-Brown robo-calls and TV ads featuring these “independent women’s voices.” Graves and her team looked into public records, which, at the time, revealed a list of the non-profit’s top contributors. “The funders weren’t from Massachusetts, they weren’t independent, and they weren’t women,” she says. “It was actually fewer than a dozen wealthy men’s voices.” Graves’ group blasted press releases to the media, revealing that almost 90 percent of IWV’s funding came from men, and that all of their donors were Republicans. Laughing a little, she adds, “It’s hilarious and outrageous.” The organization has since changed their privacy settings, but these traditional dark money contributions have, in recent years, been “enhanced” by an even more treacherous trend.
“The funders of ‘Independent Women’s Voices’ weren’t independent, and they weren’t women. It was actually fewer than a dozen wealthy men’s voices.”
“In 2011, right after the Tea Party election, a lot of states became more right-wing, and a lot of right-wing legislation started passing really quickly,” explains Graves. “It turned out [those right-wing lawmakers were funded by a] group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which had been operating for a number of years in obscurity.” Fueled by the money of notorious billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, the organization was bringing together corporate lobbyists and elected state officials for highly secretive meetings. In the meetings, lawyers from member corporations would propose legislation that served their business interests—often in direct opposition to public interests—and the lobbyists and legislators would then vote on these “model bills.” If the proposed bill was approved, the legislators would dutifully introduce it on the floor of their state legislature to become law, and ALEC would reward them with lavish campaign contributions. One bill was even submitted by a lawmaker still on ALEC letterhead (oops). Graves was among the first to pull back the curtain on the group, revealing their deeply disturbing practices and membership list. As a result of their exposure, Coca-Cola, Ford, Expedia, the AARP, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car were among the corporations to cut their ties to ALEC.
Sadly, ALEC is still around, cranking out corporate-written bills, which, Graves concedes, “is symbolic of the normalization of corruption that has infected public policy. Many of the most regressive, right-wing CEOs and companies have used it to advance their narrow and extreme personal agendas.” It’s a trend that will surely only increase. “They were thrilled with Trump’s election,” Graves says. “They were jubilant at their meeting last year, about the idea that they have ALEC people influencing the government, at every level, including the Trump administration. A number of people who he has chosen for leadership positions have strong ALEC ties, including his Vice President, Mike Pence.” Luckily, this only inspires Graves to work harder. “Even though we live with a post-fact President, most Americans are not beyond facts and care deeply about wanting our world to be a better place,” she says. “I fundamentally believe in democracy. Some might think that’s naïve. But I feel like the core principles of our democracy are under assault.”
Vicki B. Gaubeca: The Border Rights Fighter
Vicki B. Gaubeca is taking a decidedly rational approach to the Trump dilemma. “I think a lot of us are just sort of like, OK, reality has set in,” she says, “and now we have to figure out the difference between the political rhetoric and what might happen.” As Director of the Regional Center for Border Rights for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, located in Las Cruces, she is tasked with keeping an eye on the officials who regulate those going back and forth across the U.S.’s southern border. It’s easier said than done. The U.S. Border Patrol is one of the largest police forces in the world, with 21,000 agents. Gaubeca’s group is on call 24/7, traveling the border, inspecting immigration-holding facilities, compiling research data, giving guidance to law enforcement, and occasionally bringing lawsuits, looking to correct illegal behavior on the part of the government. Now, her job is about to get much more difficult.
“The Border Patrol union came out in strong support of Trump. It was the first time they ever came out in support of a candidate,” Gaubeca says with a sigh. During the Obama years, her organization was able to get a number of reforms in place, including the new requirement that immigration officers safeguard and inventory the belongings of deported individuals. She wonders whether the union’s support of Trump was pushback for the progress she’s fought for. But one of her biggest battles is fighting the public’s misconceptions about the border. “People think that it’s violent or that we’re just a rural, arid desert,” she says. “Few know that there are 15 million people living here, some in large urban areas like San Diego and El Paso, which are among the safest cities in the nation and are vital centers of trade, commerce, and tourism.” Of course there are problems, too, with conflicts arising between border agents and the communities they serve. The worst cases are violent: Since January 2010, at least 50 individuals have died at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, according to ACLU reports. At least 19 of those were U.S. citizens, and six were people standing on Mexican soil. When asked why these shootings happen, Gaubeca says flatly, “In most of them, [the officers] allege that the person was throwing a rock.” She explains that the border patrol’s go-to legal defense is that “the agent was standing on U.S. soil, but the bullet landed in Mexico, so, well, that’s outside of the U.S. Constitution.” She adds, with no small amount of sarcasm, “I suspect that there’s some underlying racism in it since I don’t think that argument would fly if that person was a Canadian citizen standing on Canadian soil.”
“I remember a time when we were just neighbors with Mexico. But the narrative about Mexico has changed dramatically. It’s very discouraging.”
Soil, and the laws governing particular patches of it, underpins the broader fight Gaubeca finds herself in the middle of. There is an archaic statute still on the books, which allows the border patrol to set up checkpoints “within 100 miles of the border.” They started going up a couple of decades ago. “It’s really preposterous that they even exist,” she says. “Traffic is pulled over and the border patrol agent goes up to your window and asks, ‘What is your citizenship?’” Graves points out that, according to ACLU research, the checkpoints have resulted in “very few arrests of immigrants who were in the United States without proper work authorization. The vast majority are American citizens, arrested with small quantities of drugs.” The community pushback against the checkpoints is often motivated, in part, by day-to-day concerns that wouldn’t even occur to most Americans, like the dramatic drops in real estate values caused by the huge traffic snarls around the checkpoints, or the impact on local retail. “People don’t realize that a lot of Mexicans travel up to do their shopping in the U.S.,” she says. But the checkpoints, and their propensity for racial profiling, are too frustrating for many. This has had a chilling effect on the economies of the border region, and Gaubeca works tirelessly to mitigate the fallout. Now, however, there’s mounting pressure on the progress she can make.
“Build the wall!” is now a familiar refrain. Gaubeca scoffs good-naturedly at the ignorance behind the chant, and explains that “the wall” already exists, except in places “where you physically can’t build a structure, because there is a river, or a canyon, or sand dunes. Or, it’s just an uninhabitable place that, to get there, would be like walking in the desert for days.” But there’s a bigger issue. The wall is a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist. Net migration from Mexico to the U.S., according to Pew Research data, is currently at a negative, with more Mexicans leaving the States than coming in. Gaubeca is wistful in her contemplation of the disparity between this reality and its perception. “I remember a time when we were just neighbors with Mexico. But the narrative about Mexico has changed dramatically,” she says. “It’s very discouraging.” Yet, Gaubeca is optimistic. “My hope is that we can get back to being neighbors,” she says. “I do think that we have these fundamental, core principles of justice, and equality, and that’s not necessarily true for other countries in the world. I’ve seen that that’s not always true. But, I still believe it’s true. I still believe we can get there. I think that’s what keeps me going.”
Heidi Beirich: The Neo-Nazi Hunter
Heidi Beirich is the Director of the Intelligence Project at Southern Poverty Law Center and is, among other things, America’s top neo-Nazi hunter. “I lead the division that tracks hate and extremist groups,” she explains. “We have a team of 16 people who work constantly to monitor their websites and publications. Our goal is to compile this information for the public, so we are all aware of what these folks are up to and the threat they pose.” SPLC’s quarterly publication, the Intelligence Report, provides comprehensive updates to law enforcement agencies, the media, and the general public.
During Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, his campaign, on multiple occasions, posted or repurposed materials that could be traced back to the kind of groups Beirich tracks. There was the anti-Semitic image of Hillary Clinton with a Jewish star and money, under the banner, “History Made: Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Then there was Pepe the Frog, a cartoon hijacked by white supremacists, who made an appearance on Trump’s shoulder in a mock-movie poster advertising “The Deplorables!” Beirich’s team led the fight to draw attention to the importance of these incidents, harnessing the power of SPLC’s social media and press machine, to hold Trump and his supporters accountable for their incriminatory associations. “Although we like to think that Donald Trump is this phenomenon that came out of nowhere, he’s not,” Beirich says. She argues that racism has always been a part of conservative tenets. “If you think of conservatism as conservation of existing principles, then, if the status quo is to discriminate on the basis of race, that becomes something you are conserving, right?” she says. “I don’t think it’s a [coincidence] that Republicans have been the ones to attack affirmative action, bussing policies, and so on.”
“People don’t realize the size of the white supremacist movement. Stormfront – the oldest and largest hate site on the web – has 300,000 registered users.”
Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes far-right hate groups into 11 different categories: anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, anti-government, Christian identity, Holocaust denial, Ku-Klux Klan, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead, and white nationalist. “People don’t realize the size of the white supremacist movement,” Beirich says. “Stormfront—the oldest and largest hate site on the web—has 300,000 registered users.” If you include other sites, “we’re talking about a few million people.” Beirich views them as an “existential threat” to the United States, stating, “White supremacist thinking, since the founding of the country, has always been the thing that has hampered real democracy. Whether it’s slavery, the way our voting was warped by slavery and the three-fifths rule, or the re-imposition of black oppression after the Civil War, which really was legal until the mid-1960s when we passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration Act,” she says. “We didn’t have a real democracy, if you just think about citizens being able to vote, until those things were upended.”
Beirich’s job is also getting harder, due as much to changes in technology as to changes in the White House. “With Dylan Roof, the Charleston church shooter, we have our first-ever completely online-radicalized white supremacist mass murderer. He had no connection to groups at all. He went online, he read websites, and that’s how he learned to hate black people,” she says. “It’s literally a kid who spent two-and-a-half years in his room reading what his stepmom called ‘Internet evil.’ I’m not sure how you find that guy.”
Southern Poverty Law Center is located in Montgomery, AL, in the heart of the Deep South. Does she worry about her safety? Well, sorta. “At my home, I have to deal with cameras, and sometimes security guards, protecting me,” Beirich says. “Most of the white supremacist leadership knows me by photo, and I know that because they put terrible things about me on the Internet.” She laughs when she says this, but the danger is clearly real. There’s a track record of violence against SPLC; about 40 people are currently in prison for trying to either blow up the building or kill co-founder Morris Dees. “We get anonymous death threats and hostile phone calls and shitty emails all the time,” Beirich says. “Sometimes they specifically name people like me and sometimes they don’t. It’s a reality that we take into account.”
Like Graves and Gaubeca, Beirich draws courage from her convictions: “It’s a little hard to explain. But you become very passionate about things that you know are just so wrong, and yet they live on, regardless of how many times they’ve been shown to be destructive and terrible,” she says. “We’re talkin’ about things like genocide here. To think that that stuff lives on is just, a) unacceptable, and b) somebody’s gotta take care of it. Somebody’s gotta do it.”
By Ian Allen // Illustration by Ashley Seil Smith
This post originally appeared in BUST’s April/May 2017 print edition.
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