In the Koch Brothers’ Backyard
This summer while visiting my hometown of Wichita, Kansas, I attended a screening of the recently released documentary film Citizen Koch. I have come to develop a special fascination in the Koch brothers. Every day on my way to high school, I used to drive by the headquarters of Koch Industries, one of the most profitable privately-owned companies in the world, but had no idea what was going on behind the massive black glass-and-granite façade. Not until recently have the Koch brothers come out from the shadows, now well-known for using their vast amounts of wealth to fund right-wing causes across the country. I went to Citizen Koch not only to see the movie, but also to get the reaction from local residents.
Citizen Koch made headlines last year when its funding was pulled by Independent Television Service which had picked up the film. As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported, the documentary was likely dropped due to fears that it would raise the ire of David Koch who sits on the boards of PBS stations WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston. According to the filmmakers Carl Dean and Tia Lessin, “it was censorship, pure and simple.” The directors initiated a Kickstarter campaign to recoup the lost $75,000 and in a month raised $170,000. It is now being distributed by Variance Films in theaters across the country.
Jeff Wicks organized the screening of the film which took place July 22, 2014 on the east side of Wichita, not far from where Charles Koch has his home. Wicks described himself as “just an average citizen,” although he is also a Democratic Party precinct captain. After receiving an email about “the movie the Koch brothers don’t want you to see,” he figured, “we’re right in the Kochs’ backyard.” He arranged bringing the movie to town through Tugg, a new crowdfunding website that allows people to attract independent movies to local theaters. Wicks created a Facebook page for the event, the local Peace and Social Justice Center put it in their newsletter, and it quickly sold out.
The film looks at Scott Walker’s election as a textbook example of the growing role of money in politics after the Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates for corporations to make unlimited donations to campaigns. The largest donations to Walker outside of Wisconsin have come from Koch Industries’ PAC and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. Not long after being elected Governor, Walker forced through so-called “right-to-work” legislation in Wisconsin, traditionally a union stronghold. The filmmakers captured footage of the large demonstrations against the bill in 2011 that were held at the state capitol building in Madison.
The film’s charm comes from the voices of ordinary Wisconsin residents speaking in their distinctive accents punctuated with an occasional “Ya know?” The filmmakers talk to hairy bikers, Christian conservatives, public school teachers, and prison guards. They cover the 2012 campaign of Buddy Roemer, former Louisiana Governor who ran in the 2012 presidential primary but was prevented from participating in the Republican Party debates. They shadow the Tea Party Express bus as it tours through Wisconsin. Much of the focus is on those who traditionally vote Republican but were members of public sector unions and objected to Walker’s tactics. One woman said she viewed Republicans as the “party of the common man,” and was staunchly pro-life, but voted for Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in the 2012 recall election. Her support and that of many other union backers was not enough in the face of millions that poured into Wisconsin from Koch front groups. Walker won 53 percent of the vote.
My parents, still living in Wichita, were more than happy to have an evening with their two-year-old grandson while I spent a night at the movies. I took the opportunity to talk with local residents who could speak at length about the political maneuverings of the Kochs in Wichita, and in the state of Kansas. With a population of 385,000, Wichita is historically a working class town. The city saw its boom in the wartime 1940s when thousands came to work in the air plants. The aircraft industry thrived in the following decades, providing well-paying, unionized jobs. But since 2000, as many as 20,000 jobs have been cut and one of its major corporations, Boeing, has left the city. Today, Koch Industries has some 3,000 employees at their headquarters building, most of them administrators who carry out the central operations of the company. Throughout Wichita the Koch name is imprinted on several prominent buildings―the Charles Koch Arena where the Wichita State University men’s basketball team plays; the Koch Aquatic Center at the North Branch YMCA; and the Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
After the film, I talked to Nancy Ogle, a local attorney, who said the Citizens United decision was “terrible.” She appreciated the documentary, but given the title she expected there would be more about the Koch connections in Wisconsin. When I asked what she thought about the Koch brothers, she replied, “I’m hardly proud they’re from Wichita.” She expressed her surprise that many in town still don’t know who the Koch brothers are and the political groups they support.
Flora Bishop, who described herself as a “long-time Democrat,” recalled the 2012 election when the Kochs “purged” a dozen moderate Republicans from the Kansas state legislature. She gave the example of Jean Schodorf, a Republican state senator defeated in the primary after the Koch-backed Kansas Chamber of Commerce PAC made a large donation to her opponent who portrayed her as not doing “anything to stop Obamacare.”
“It’s true they create a lot of jobs, and that’s good for our community, no doubt,” admitted Jenna Engels, President of the Sedgwick Democratic Women. “But they spend too much money on politics. They fund too many groups like Americans for Prosperity that fight against the public welfare, and support people who are trying to take away voting rights.” Here, she is referring to Secretary of State Kris Kobach who has pushed through restrictive voter ID laws in Kansas.
Citizen Koch makes brief mention of voter regulations forwarded by Scott Walker in Wisconsin which this past April were ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. Yet in Kansas, Kobach’s requirement for state-issued identification still stands and may determine the fate of general elections in November. Frank Smith, a local activist, told me after the movie the filmmakers did a “good job,” but there is more to be said about voter ID laws in states like Kansas. “Kris Kobach is a Koch brothers stooge,” he stated emphatically. “What he has done has not only disenfranchised minorities, he has disenfranchised poor people in general. He’s even disenfranchised women, because they’ve been divorced and they retake their maiden name, or because they didn’t put their married name on their voting registration. And they don’t even know it until they get to the polls!”
Dorlan Bales bemoaned the “huge influence” of the Koch Brothers in his city. He works at Sunflower Community Action, an immigrant and working class community center located in the heart of the African American and Latino communities in Wichita, a world apart from the Kochs. “They isolate themselves physically and geographically,” he said. He cited the expansion of the Koch “campus” currently underway which includes an eight-foot wall surrounding the property. The city actually allowed the company to move an entire city street a quarter of a mile to the North to accommodate the new offices and further insulate themselves from the public. When finished, the project will add an additional twenty percent of space to what is already a million square foot building.
Lori Lawrence and Jane Byrnes were at the movie promoting an upcoming protest at the Koch headquarters. “They barricaded the whole place in,” said Lawrence, “but they can’t keep us off the street.” Barnes reflected on how the Kochs tout themselves as local job providers. “We have cushy jobs in Wichita, Kansas,” she commented, “that keep us in denial about what they do worldwide.”
A MoveOn volunteer, Jan Swartzendruber, felt there was an unwritten code of silence in Wichita. Local residents are “shy” about saying anything critical about Koch because they employ so many people and have donated so much money. “It’s almost sacrilege to say something negative about them.”
“I think they have a grand plan to absolutely undo all of the Great Society,” said Jenna Engels. The Koch brothers are intent on rolling back the major labor and civil rights gains of the 20th Century.
As I found, perhaps no one knows the political machinations of the Kochs better than those in their hometown. What Wichitans have long known, the rest of the country is becoming aware of: the Kochs wield tremendous clout and their reach is only growing.
Brian Dolinar currently lives in Urbana, Illinois, although he originally hails from Wichita. For a decade he has been a writer for the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. He has taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published two books on African Americans during the Depression.
Jane Mayer on Citizen Koch censorship: