Ten years ago, a then-state senator with ties to white supremacists named Russell Pearce introduced model legislation to his colleagues in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that would later become SB 1070, Arizona’s infamous “show me your papers” law. While legal challenges have largely defanged provisions that authorized police to racially profile Latinx people as undocumented immigrants, SB 1070 and copycats passed in five other states are considered some of the most anti-Latinx and anti-immigrant measures in recent memory.
This week, ALEC is holding its annual policy summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, bringing together conservative state lawmakers, right-wing activists and corporate interests behind closed doors to develop model bills for state legislatures across the country. A coalition of civil rights and racial justice groups filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the Arizona State Legislature alleging that a group of Republican lawmakers is violating of the state’s open meetings law by participating in the summit. ALEC claims to be a nonpartisan group that values “public-private partnership,” but critics argue it’s essentially legislating in secret, leaving the public with little understanding of how the bills it generates are drafted.
The coalition also released a report characterizing ALEC as an incubator for efforts to protect white supremacy and corporate power by co-opting state-level lawmaking. ALEC’s press office and a spokesman for the Arizona Senate Republicans did not respond to a request for comment by the time this article was published.
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“The story of ALEC is the story of a white supremacist political and economic elite harnessing their control of the means of government to perpetuate their own power,” said Rachel Gilmer, co-executive director of Dream Defenders, a Florida-based racial justice organization, in a statement.
ALEC’s secretive meetings have long been criticized for quietly advancing corporate interests by short-circuiting the democratic process and injecting pro-business bills directly into state legislatures. For example, ALEC model bills and resolutions often contain the same talking points promoted by the pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industries. Others push for lower taxes and privatization. ALEC “task forces” comprised of lawmakers and those who pay hefty membership fees to meet with them draft these model bills in closed-door sessions and distribute them nationwide.
However, as Republicans face an increasingly diverse electorate and a number of growing movements have loudly confronted settler colonialism and white supremacy, ALEC and its members have pushed model legislation targeting activists and voters of color. From voter ID laws designed to suppress the Black vote with “surgical precision” to laws aimed at criminalizing climate protests and silencing the movement for Palestinian rights, a number of right-wing efforts to thwart challenges to white and corporate power can be traced back to ALEC, according to the report.
“Far from being content with 46 years of circumventing democracy by providing pay-to-play private access to lawmakers for its corporate and conservative members, ALEC is still brazenly attacking the movements that dare to advance human rights and protect the environment,” said Dominic Renfrey, the advocacy program manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), in a statement.
A “Deterrent” to Indigenous Protest
CCR, a legal aid group, is currently challenging a Louisiana anti-protest law that was pushed by the fossil fuel industry but has ALEC’s fingerprints all over it. Since the Indigenous-led uprising at Standing Rock challenged the Dakota Access Pipeline, ALEC members in states across the country have passed laws that define private fossil fuel projects as “critical infrastructure” and severely enhance criminal penalties for trespassing or interfering with them. ALEC’s model “critical infrastructure” legislation was inspired by two Oklahoma laws passed in March 2017, shortly after police forcefully cleared the protest camp at Standing Rock.
ALEC and the fossil fuel industry then promoted the legislation nationwide, including in Louisiana, where the Bayou Bridge Pipeline — a southern leg of Energy Transfer Partner’s Dakota Access system that bisects the sensitive Atchafalaya Basin — was met with protests last year. Louisiana’s politicians are famously beholden to fossil fuel interests, and lawmakers quickly passed a critical infrastructure bill as activists launched a nonviolent direct-action campaign. Just days after the law went into effect, three activists in kayaks were arrested and charged with felonies.
In the following weeks, more than a dozen activists and one journalist were charged under the anti-protest law, including Anne White Hat, a Native activist and lead organizer of the campaign against the pipeline. White Hat was arrested for allegedly trespassing on a pipeline construction site deep in the swamp, but prosecutors hit a snag. The construction site was located on private property, and White Hat and other activists had written permission from its owners to be there — but the pipeline company did not.
As Truthout has reported, state laws allow pipeline companies to seize private property, but in this case, Energy Transfer Partners had not completed the eminent domain process required to build on the site in question. It remains unclear whether prosecutors will pursue felony charges against White Hat, but if they do, she could face up to a decade in prison.
Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun
ALEC argues critical infrastructure laws protect the public, lumping private oil and gas pipelines in with water treatment plants and other utilities. However, Melanie Yazzie, an assistant professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico and a founding member of the Indigenous group The Red Nation, said such laws are actually meant to send a harsh message to those spurred to action by the climate crisis.
“What this really does is it criminalizes Indigenous land defense,” Yazzie told reporters on Tuesday.
Indigenous people are at the forefront of the climate justice movement to halt fossil fuel extraction and protect communities and critical ecosystems, and Yazzie said the anti-protest measures act as a “deterrent” to their work, part of a larger pattern to suppress Indigenous activism across North and South America. The threat of prison time could prevent some activists from directly confronting the fossil fuel industry — even as a deepening global climate crisis demands it.
“We’re looking down the barrel of the gun right now,” Yazzie said.
The deterrence strategy is also being deployed against advocates for Palestinian rights. ALEC members are at the forefront of right-wing efforts to conflate criticism of Israel’s government with anti-Semitism. In October, emails obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy revealed that conservative lawmakers met with pro-Israel lobbyists at an ALEC conference this summer and discussed replicating a controversial Florida law that supposedly addresses discrimination and hate speech against Jews in public education in other states.
While the Florida law adds Jewish people to the state’s nondiscrimination statute, it also echoes the Israeli governments political talking points in a broad definition of anti-Semitic speech that critics say is meant to stifle criticism of the occupation of Palestine. For example, “focusing peace and human rights investigations only on Israel” or “blaming Israel for all inter-religious political tensions” are “examples” of anti-Semitic speech. Of course, there is more than one side to the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that’s why it’s the subject of hot debate at schools and universities.
“Students for Justice in Palestine is now treated the same way as the Ku Klux Klan — as they should be,” wrote Florida state Rep. Randy Fine in an email to lobbyists and fellow ALEC lawmakers.
Students for Justice in Palestine is part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which puts international financial pressure on Israel to end the oppression of Palestinians and comply with international law. ALEC has accused BDS of “economic terrorism” and anti-Semitism. In reality, many in the BDS movement are students and professors from a variety of backgrounds, including many Jewish activists. ALEC has supported the proliferation of anti-boycott laws in 27 states, most banning publicly funded institutions from contracting with businesses that participate in BDS, according to the report.
Dima Khalidi, founder and director of Palestine Legal, said Black, Arab and Muslim people are particularly impacted by anti-BDS laws. In Texas, for example, a Palestinian-American speech pathologist serving Arabic-speaking students lost her job at a public school because she could not sign an anti-BDS oath in good conscience.
“ALEC’s attacks … are part of a much broader pattern of oppression to suppress an intersectional and increasingly diverse movement for Palestinian rights,” Khalidi said.
ALEC boasts nearly one quarter of state lawmakers among its membership, and hundreds of its model bills have become state law around the country. Not all of its model legislation is so controversial; one recent model policy on industrial and medicinal hemp, for example, mimics bipartisan legislation passed by Congress. However, Renfrey said ALEC operates in a right-wing echo chamber that circumvents the normal legislative process, and information about its legislative and corporate membership is not readily available. As a result, far-right initiatives quickly spread at the state level.
“What they do is they vacuum up the most conservative and pro-corporate laws they see, or ideas for laws, and then they create the platform for you in one fell swoop to talk to thousands of lawmakers from almost every state,” Renfrey said. “With that you have spread an idea in one fell swoop across the nation.”
In several high-profile cases, people of color have found themselves in the crosshairs of ALEC-generated legislation. In 2012, ALEC lost several major corporate members after facing national controversy over its support for Stand Your Ground laws that became infamous after the killing of Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager gunned down by a security guard in Florida. SB 1070 and its racist origins also put the group under mounting scrutiny.
Headlines in 2012 announced that ALEC was changing course and quitting the “culture wars” to focus on less controversial legislation. But the following years saw the rise of Black Lives Matter, growing support for BDS and the uprising at Standing Rock, movements driven by people of color who challenge entrenched structures of power. Power, it seems, has responded — and ALEC has played an ever-present role.
“Maintaining this system by necessity requires maintaining economic and political control over the lives of Black, Brown, immigrant, and poor people, and the murder of Trayvon and many others like him is a symptom of this situation,” Gilmer said.