US citizen mobilisation, dreaming big against Trump

2018-02-01 15:43
A person waves from a window as UltraViolet, a national women's group, projects a message on the 12th Street side of the Trump International Hotel before President Donald Trump gives his State of the Union Address in Washington. (Alex Brandon, AP)

A person waves from a window as UltraViolet, a national women's group, projects a message on the 12th Street side of the Trump International Hotel before President Donald Trump gives his State of the Union Address in Washington. (Alex Brandon, AP)

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New York – The organisation may have only five employees and a small office in the Empire State Building, but its ambitions are huge: Holding the Trump administration accountable and fighting what it sees as the erosion of democratic norms in the United States.

Far from the noisy street protesters and the politically fractured Congress, Integrity First for America quietly showcases a new citizen zeal ignited in the United States under US President Donald Trump.

Bankrolled by Democratic Party donors, and uniting investigative journalists with top-flight lawyers, IFA is sharpening its talons against what spokesperson Brett Edkins calls the erosion of civil norms and elected leaders undermining fundamental rights.

Its creation highlights the liberal US climate under Trump: Political opponents of the Republican president, shocked by a victory they thought impossible, are wondering how best to mobilise against the unthinkable.

Posters that read "We, the people" – the first three words of the US Constitution – hang in IFA's lobby, which they share with a large law firm.

Results

Just months after the non-profit started to take shape last summer, IFA's work is already showing results.

In October, they filed a lawsuit against 25 white supremacists and hate groups behind the racial violence that rocked the country last August in Charlottesville, Virginia. The case was filed in the name of 10 victims.

"The first case we are bringing is an example. It's not against politicians, it's against resurgent groups of violent racists," said Edkins, 33.

The case is about "bringing transparency" to far-right groups, shining a light on their resources and fundraising, "and making sure that hate and bigotry does not become normalised" – even if it takes years to wind through the courts, Edkins said.

IFA is now working on a second investigation which it hopes to announce in the coming months.

The group is "looking at various public officials from Trump down and their private financial ties on the Charlottesville case", said Edkins. He hopes the case will "have a major public impact in 2018".

The refusal of the first US president, who never held any government job, to divest from his real estate empire has enraged Democrats, fueled suspicions of corruption and allegations of conflicts of interest.

Silicon Valley funds

But if IFA is just one of several non-profit groups, media organizations and politicians determined to skewer the administration, it says its battle is far bigger than Trump.

"We are only now seeing all the weaknesses built into our democracy," says Jeff Pillets, 57, an investigative journalist head-hunted for IFA.

"In a way, it was inevitable. If it had not been Trump it would have been someone else," he said.

As a journalist Pillets investigated the businesses of Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, and calls his work for IFA "hard-hitting investigative stuff."

"They are very serious about what's going on in this country. They are very much interested in keeping this administration accountable," Pillets says.

The idea of creating an association allied to a law firm was born out of the success of the American Foundation for Equal Rights. That group, set up on similar lines in 2010, got same sex marriage equality restored in California, Edkins said.

It was then a question of sourcing the funds.

"Our initial money came out of some folks in Silicon Valley," and from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman in particular, says Monica Graham, IFA's board chair.

The businesswoman, who herself donated $1m, belongs to the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of high-income individuals who first met in 2010 concerned over the destabilizing concentration of wealth and power in the country.

Set up with a budget of $2-3m in 2017, IFA is looking for new donors, including contributions from ordinary individuals.

"I have got to go around and start rattling that tin cup because this suit against the white supremacists is really expensive," Graham laughs.

So what else lies in the future for IFA? New ideas pop up every week, but they don't all lead to weighty investigations.

"We have gone down a couple of rabbit holes," says Graham. "It really has to be something that is really endangering our democracy."

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