The billionaire Koch brothers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars because they don’t want the government messing with Americans’ lives or businesses. But a film coming out this week aims to show that they’re perfectly willing to put their own thumbs on the scales of other people’s freedom, often with heartbreaking consequences.
“Koch Brothers Exposed” lays out in one easily understood narrative a lot of previously reported stories about the political machinations of Charles and David Koch. To show why their actions matter, it adds the human touch — the people who have been hurt as the fabulously rich brothers from Kansas pursued their ideological goals.
The hour-long documentary is an updated version of a Robert Greenwald film originally released in 2012.
With a premier in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday night, “Koch Brothers Exposed” is one in a series of left jabs aimed at the Kochs this week. A new book, Sons of Wichita, is also being released Tuesday, and activists are ramping up their efforts todisseminate news about the brothers, who are currently tied for fourth on theForbes 400 list.
Perhaps the documentary’s most powerful moments come in showing how the Kochs’ activism, generally advanced under the cloak of libertarianism, harms real people even as it boosts the bottom line of Koch Industries.
One segment looks at the town of Crossett, Ark., and a particular road where at least 11 people from 15 homes have died of cancer, according to residents quoted in the film. They happen to live just downstream from a Georgia Pacific plant run by Koch Industries. The film shows steaming, sludge-filled water flowing toward their homes. Residents complain of the smell and of breathing problems, and point to non-smoking relatives who have died of lung cancer.
Meanwhile, Koch-founded groups have poured millions of dollars into the campaigns of politicians who aggressively target the Environmental Protection Agency, and Koch Industries has paid massive fines for polluting.
In one segment revived from the original version, filmmaker Greenwald focuses on North Carolina’s Wake County school board elections in 2009, a hyper-local event that would seem to be too small to draw the attention of a couple of billionaires. Yet that year, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity backed enough candidates to take control of the board and then vote to end the school district’s long-running, successful desegregation plan.
The film demonstrates how the candidates’ platform of ending “forced busing” and promoting “neighborhood schools” closely echoed the words and arguments of segregation’s defenders decades earlier. And it shows a family struggling with the end of desegregation: Teenager Quinton White explains what it’s like to be forced to switch schools and lose the ties to his former teachers, all because two billionaires opposed busing.
“I strongly feel that it’s racism, I strongly feel that it’s segregation, and it was all by surprise,” says White. “The school board’s decision to do segregation has really made it difficult for students like me to adjust and kind of grow,” he adds.
The documentary is loaded with irony. It notes that the Kochs, two extreme anti-communists, owe their massive head start in life to a father who made his initial fortune working for Stalin’s Soviet Union. It details how two men who claim their highest ideal is freedom try to restrict it for others by limiting access to voting and pushing to keep wages low.
A Koch Industries spokesman did not answer HuffPost’s request for comment, but in the past the company has pointed reporters to its own web page responding to attacks. When asked about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hosting this week’s premiere, the company’s counsel told Politico that it was an abuse of taxpayer resources.
“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that Senator Reid and Representative Pelosi have teamed up with Robert Greenwald, a failed Hollywood producer who now makes obscure partisan attack videos,” Mark Holden said to Politico. “Mr. Greenwald made a series of videos about Koch back in 2012 which were filled with lies, distortions, and misrepresentations about Koch.”
Perhaps the key point of the movie is to show how successful the Koch brothers have been in engineering laws and court rulings that benefit their cause. For instance, the Kochs helped fund 12 different organizations that wrote amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling of 2010, which lifted restrictions on contributions to independent political groups. The film also notes that both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas have attended the Kochs’ closed-door retreats. (Watch the clip, above.)
With the Citizens United ruling, outside groups began pouring cash into elections. The Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity alone is expected to spend at least $125 million in the 2014 campaigns.
“After Citizens United, we had a feeling the Kochs were going to escalate, but we had no idea at this level,” Greenwald told HuffPost. “So we decided to do a ‘Koch Brothers Exposed’ 2014 edition.
“We wanted people to understand the Kochs were part of the reason that we have Citizens United, how they were part of it, and different ways they are taking on different battles and increasing the money into existing battles,” he said.
The Kochs’ efforts to undercut the minimum wage are especially galling to Greenwald, who devoted a section of the film to the issue, featuring a young mom trying to raise her son on a bottom-dollar income.
“Take a guess on minimum wage — they’re fighting minimum wage increases — on how long it would take a minimum wage worker to make what the Koch brothers earn in an hour. Working full time, 76 years,” Greenwald said. “For a minimum wage worker to make what they make in a day? 546 years.”
But the point is not just to tear down the Kochs, the filmmaker said. The point is to get people to push for their own version of change, even if they don’t have billions to spend.
That’s why the film also highlights some progressive wins against the Kochs’ goals. In that North Carolina school district, residents were so outraged at the resegregation of their schools that they mobilized, protested in the face of arrest threats, and voted out the candidates backed by Americans for Prosperity after just one term.
In the case of the Keystone XL pipeline that oil interests, like Koch Industries, would like to see built from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf coast, the movie credits public pressure with the fact that the Obama administration still has not approved the construction, years after it was scheduled to do so.
While “Koch Brothers Exposed” is not entirely new, its latest release is likely to draw greater attention than its first go-round. In large part, Greenwald can thank Reid for that, since the Senate majority leader has taken to launching near-daily broadsides against the Kochs on the Senate floor.
“Senator Reid is quite a fighter, so that’s been quite something to see him go at them,” Greenwald said. “I’m pleased to see that he is taking a very strong stance, and the importance is that we have to change the system.”
Greenwald said the film will be made available for free on the Internet and optimized for easy sharing, down to Instagram clips.
“It’s the only way to go, honestly, if you want to have impact,” he said, adding that progressive advocates have to reach out to “people who disagree with you, who don’t have information, who aren’t sure what they think, any of those people. You must find ways to meet them.”
When more Americans meet the Kochs, Greenwald thinks, the days of their political power will be numbered.
“This is something that can be fixed,” he said. “It can be fixed by legislation, and it needs to be.”