It was a scene that a young, militant Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. could not have envisioned 30 years ago. At the national convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Baton Rouge, Chavis was participating on panel about reforming the criminal justice system with, among others, Mark V. Holden, the senior vice president and general counsel of Koch Industries, Inc.
The company is owned primarily by Charles and David Koch, billionaire brothers known for their strong libertarian views, their major donations to ultra-conservative causes and opposing President Obama’s major initiatives. In fact, a major profile of the two brothers, the New Yorker observed, “In Washington, [David H.] Koch is best known as part of a family that has repeatedly funded stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular. With his brother Charles, who is seventy-four, David Koch owns virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, whose annual revenues are estimated to be a hundred billion dollars.”
The article stated, “Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies – from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program – that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.” According to the Associated Press, “With a fortune estimated at $41 billion each, Charles and David tie for fourth on Forbes’ list of the richest Americans, and tie for sixth on Forbes’ worldwide billionaires list.”
In the strangest of bedfellows, representatives of Koch Industry and Chavis, who served a little more than four years of a 34-year sentence for conspiracy and arson in the 1970s as leader of the Wilmington Ten (the charges were thrown out on appeal for prosecutorial misconduct) and now president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), are working together on reforming the criminal justice system. That irony is not lost of Chavis.
“Thirty years ago, I probably would have been one of the ones questioning my leaders on why it would be necessary to sit with conservatives,” Chavis said. “But over the years, I’ve matured.”
He has matured to the point where his focus is on results, not rhetoric, Chavis said. “For me to sit on the stage with the general counsel of Koch Industries, I think, was providential and very fitting because this is the one company that appears to be serious about criminal justice reform,” Chavis said. He said criminal justice reform should be broad-based and include everything from racial profiling to disparate sentencing and prosecutorial misconduct.
Chavis said, “I don’t think you’re going to be able to reform the criminal justice system with rhetoric. A lot of people over the last several years have talked about criminal justice reform, but haven’t put up any money and haven’t done anything that will create a bi-partisan coalition to make it happen.” Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries, said the company has been working on criminal justice reform for the past 12 years. “It would be short-sighted for us as a company to just say, ‘Hey, someone made a mistake in the past – don’t even bother applying,” Holden told the SCLC delegates. “You would miss out on a lot of talent, opportunities, and people who could do great things for our company.” He said, “Charles Koch [the chairman of the board of Koch Industries] has already made it clear that this is his key priority this year. Whether this happens or not, we don’t control that – it’s up to Congress.”
In a Politico column co-authored by Holden and Charles K. Koch, they wrote: “Reversing overcriminalization and mass incarceration will improve societal well-being in many respects, most notably by decreasing poverty.
Today, approximately 50 million people (about 14 percent of the population) are at or below the U.S. poverty rate. Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society – especially for the disadvantaged.” They said, “To bring about such a transformation, we must all set aside partisan politics and collaborate on solutions.” For many, however, the Koch name has come to epitomize partisan politics. The Washington Post reported, “The filings show that the network of politically active nonprofit groups backed by the Kochs and fellow donors in the 2012 elections financially outpaced other independent groups on the right and, on its own, matched the long-established national coalition of labor unions that serves as one of the biggest sources of support for Democrats.
“The resources and the breadth of the organization make it singular in American politics: an operation conducted outside the campaign finance system, employing an array of groups aimed at stopping what its financiers view as government overreach. Members of the coalition target different constituencies but together have mounted attacks on the new health-care law, federal spending and environmental regulations.” Despite their right-wing politics, the Koch brothers have been making inroads into Black America. They donated $25 million to the United Negro College Fund, a move that was roundly criticized by some and applauded by others. Georgia-Pacific, a Koch subsidiary, has been a longtime supporter of SCLC, and Benjamin Chavis has signaled his intention to enlist Koch Industries to advertise in Black newspapers.
Luke Charles Harris, an assistant political science professor at Vassar College, said, “Now more than ever, it has become clear that organizations that take this sort of money are poor substitutes for the groups that sustained Black people throughout the legal revolution to dismantle segregation in the U.S.” Harris added, “One has to look at the ways that the Koch agenda undermines our battles to fight against structural racism, and the contemporary manifestations of white supremacy. Their track record across the board is horrific on these matters. “They are bad news for poor people, for unions, for people locked in the bottom of the economy, and for voters who want to exercise their right to weigh in in an important way on the issues that genuinely affect them.”
Chavis acknowledges the Koch brothers conservative politics, but sees working together on criminal justice reform as an opportunity to influence them. “I believe as a result of this movement that’s now emerging for criminal justice reform, I think that there’s an opportunity to have a discussion with the Koch brothers about their politics,” Chavis said. “If you want to change America, we have got to have an inclusive discussion, not an exclusive discussion. Am I saying there’s the potential to have a progressive dialog with the Koch brothers? I believe the answer is yes.” But Harris believes Chavis is being naïve. “The Koch brothers already know what progressive Black folk think,” he said. “And they have spent countless millions of dollars establishing and fueling an agenda that essentially reverses the imperatives that Dr. King gave his life for: imperatives like the right to a fare wage, and the right to vote.”
Patrick Delices, a Pan-African scholar and professor at Hunter College in New York City, said he understands Chavis’ frustration with slow rate of Black economic progress.
“Historically and currently, the reality is that liberals at the corporate executive level and the political leadership level have failed to advance considerably the economics, politics, and culture of Black folk. Thus, it is in our best interest to engage with other people and groups who can perhaps offer to us a better deal,” he stated. “With that said, it is up to us to have a clear understanding that when we meet, negotiate, and engage in a business/political transaction with other people our interest/empowerment must come first, not the needs of other people.”
Regardless of what his critics believe, Chavis is convinced that he is taking the correct path to being effective. “To my progressive brothers and sisters, I would say come and join me in getting the brothers and sisters out of prison,”he said. “Let’s get the question of prosecutorial misconduct resolved. Come join me. Let’s not just wait until the next incident of police brutality happens. Come join me, let’s reform the whole system.”
By George E. Curry