The so-called “resistance” to Donald Trump’s administration has been growing since the day of his inauguration, taking on anything from LGBTQ rights and immigration policy to health care, racial justice, prison reform, and imperialist foreign policy. In our Front Lines series, Fusion speaks to activists leading the charge in all kinds of ways.
Sarah Zapolsky doesn’t consider herself an activist—she tells me as much almost immediately upon picking up the phone. She’s not some lurking Deep State agent performing work slow-downs to stall legislation: She’s a mom, a researcher, and a nerd. But, as a proud government employee acquainted with the standards of her industry, she also knows when something is done sloppily—and how easy it is to punk someone who isn’t doing diligence.
There are a number of whimsical ideas on the website collecting proposals for Trump’s border wall, as a journalist for the Center for Investigative Reporting discovered earlier this month—in part because a few government employees, fluent in how these contracts are usually supposed to be granted, were digging what the center referred to as a “bureaucratic pothole.” One proposal, drafted by a State Department social scientist, imagined a wall of cacti manned by foxes that could smell “smugglers, terrorists, and haters.”
By the constraints imposed by the original process, Customs and Border agents were required to read and answer all questions posed by potential vendors. A huge number (for example: “Could we build a wall of solar panels, which meets the proposed border wall requirement, sell the energy generated back to Mexico, and have that count as that country paying for the wall?”) were obviously posed in jest.
Since early March, when the call for proposals was initially released, the bidding process has been stalled three times and altered to prevent just these kinds of flagrant proposals. Sarah Zapolsky, one of the women sending them, estimates that up to 75% of the original 700 “interested vendors” were pranks. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I read you were at HUD—have you worked for the government long?
By training, I’m a researcher, specializing in low-income and vulnerable communities—like older women, women in poverty. I haven’t always been a government employee. I was in food nutrition and analysis for a year and a half, and then at citizenship and immigration at DHS for two and a half years. Now I’m a social science analyst at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I’m a survey researcher, and I work with big government datasets. You might not know this, but a lot of these datasets, you can’t have access to them unless you work for the government.
But make it totally, completely clear, I’m acting as a civilian here.
And what brought you to this project?
Well, to do my job, I have to learn how to do government contracts. That’s tons of training. And fast-forward a bit: I’m reading GovExec [a public news site geared towards federal employees], and they’re saying they’re going to open up the bidding for this stupid border wall, and then four days later, close the bid.
And I was like, “What?! That’s insane.” I’d never seen that before. I was so insulted, you don’t give somebody a $20 billion dollar project, and only four days to respond. And this was happening around the first Muslim travel ban, which I had to explain to my kid.
And having worked in Citizenship and Immigration, the part of the DHS that’s, like, “Give us your tired, your poor,” it had a real impact on me. And of course, everyone at DHS had no idea. They were running around, trying to figure out if it was legal, if it would work. And the answer, of course, was no.
Having been on the receiving end of [government contracts], if you go out to people who are pre-approved, even then it’s a tremendous amount of work. They were going to have to slow this down. Under that proposal structure, they had to read everything you received. It was a requirement. So if they didn’t read everything, they would have been publicly not following the rules.
So it was like, “Oh, you want our ideas? Okay! Here are our ideas.” I registered as an interested vendor; there were a handful at the time. (I wasn’t the only one who had this idea.) And it spread through social media, and then there were 200. That’s when the GovExec looked at it and was like, “Some people appear to be punking the procurement.”
There were two contract specialists taking all of that. Like, two guys with an email address who had to answer all these questions. And eventually they did what they should have done initially. There are certain eligibility requirements now.
Did people need guidance on how to make these fake proposals?
I mean, I have multiple graduate degrees, and then weeks and weeks of procurement training and certification. The federal contract process is complicated! And I also have sworn ethics; I’m not trying to get in trouble, I like my job. This wasn’t to clog the system, the goal was to do exactly what they said, and show how stupid the way they did it was.
I gave people pretty short instructions, just to point out the opportunity. You can’t just write to DHS and say, “Don’t build the wall!” Get into the system. Make people laugh.
And then, of course, they had to hire a big firm [to help them with the proposals], which I know is a big pain in the ass. And each time they have to change the process they have to make it public.
Do your bosses know anything about this? It sounds like you aren’t really aligning yourself with the idea of civil servants staging, like, work stoppage or protest.
I mean, I hope not, and I don’t, really. This is something I do on the weekend, never on company time, never on government equipment. Life is bizarre at HUD right now—they’re trying to bring in Ben Carson, for god’s sakes!—but as much as I admire my bosses I haven’t mentioned anything to them. And it’s not like I’ve really done anything that would get me in trouble.
I mean, it’s sort of surreal. You watch Trump talk about the Deep State and people slowing down legislation and it’s like, I just got this idea on the weekend. And for two reasons, it really got me: One, the idea of spending that much money on a wall is appalling and useless. And two, the procedural sloppiness: It’s like amateur hour. That’s not a Deep State organized resistance. It was so much easier than it should have been.
Obviously as an American and a government employee, I love my country. But this was like a slow lob of a tennis ball—you just have to hit it. It’s a cat toy for contractors.
When anyone talks about the wall now I kind of giggle. Which was the point. It was a ridiculous idea. And the news landscape is so bizarre, it’s a flood. Something like this might have gotten more attention before all that, but barely anyone noticed besides that guy at Reveal. And it’s not like I’m actively scanning for ways to disrupt the government.
Is there wisdom you’d want to share with people who don’t have your intimate relationship to something like the government subcontracting process?
That’s a tougher one. I’d say, when you call your Congressperson, they do listen. Yeah, it’s a staffer, but they’ve never seen anything like this inside the Beltway—in terms of people reaching out, everyday folks, crashing the server with emails. Having been on the receiving end of that, I know. They’re looking at their phones lighting up, like, “What is happening to my office?”
And: You don’t have to be an activist to act. You don’t have to, like, go and protest and camp on Wall Street for the rest of your life. If you have a good compass and you see something that’s not right, you can do something. Remember, in the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone just laughed at him.
Unless, that is, you want to take 80 or 90 hours of training on federal contract regulations. Trust me, it’s a hoot.