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Choices, choices

The American government has been spending a lot of money lately.  The Federal Reserve backed a $29 billion guarantee to help J.P, Morgan Chase buy Bear Steans.  Then the Fed took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, pledging up to $100 billion per agency.  Most recently, the Fed loaned a cool $85 billion to A.I.G., apparently so it doesn’t go under.

Now news comes from East Africa, via the United Nations, saying that nations in the horn of Africa need $700 million to make sure that 17 million people don’t starve to death, according to the BBC.

Note that that is million, not billion.  East Africa needs $700 MILLION.

Just to put into perspective the enormous difference between a million and a billion:

  • a million seconds is one week, four days, and change.
  • a billion seconds is 31 years, 251 days, and change.

So, million and billion sound alike, but are actually, well, an order of magnitude different.

I know we need to invest some money to save the economy.  But maybe just a smidgen to save 17 million people would be a good idea too.  I’m just saying.


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DC Field Notes, Day 2

I thought I was good at geometry, and at walking, so it didn’t occur to me that I would have trouble navigating the circles that are littered across DC.  However, the crosswalk lights seem designed to stymie human movement.  To go across a circle, like, for example, Dupont Circle, which I seem to need to cross five times a day, you have to cross two rings of traffic on each side, and each ring operates on its own traffic light.  So, you cross the outer ring, wait on an island for a while, then cross the inner ring, walk through the circle, and repeat on the other side.  It’s like concentric frogger.  As Brian Lehrer of WNYC Radio fame (fame?) says, Please Explain?

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The Power of the Image: Sean Bell

I was reading an article about Sean Bell the other day, on the CBS 2 News website. Accompanying the story was this image:

It’s a pretty ambiguous image. The text says “Police Shooting” at the top, not specifying whether Sean Bell shot the police or was shot by them. He looks sort of grim – not smiling, alone, almost like a mug shot. And did you notice that the right side of his head looks a little weird? Flat, maybe?

Yeah, that’s because that’s where someone at CBS edited out his wife. That shot of Sean Bell is actually taken from this image:

That’s Sean Bell, his wife Nicole Paultre-Bell, and one of their daughters. Presents quite a different, well, picture than the top image, doesn’t it? A family man, with his beaming fiancee and chuckling little girl.

Flicking through the channels, if you saw the words “Police Shooting” over the shot of the somber, unsmiling Sean Bell, you might assume that he shot a cop, and keep on clicking to something more entertaining. If you saw the words “Police Shooting” over the shot of him with his family, you (a) would not ever think he did the shooting, and (b) you would be sad. You would think oh, what a shame, that nice family man was killed by police. Just remember that when you’re watching the news. They could have used this picture instead.

At the rally and march for Sean Bell today, I saw filmmaker Byron Hurt, who made the great documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which aired earlier this year on PBS. I asked him why he was there, and he said that as a Black man, he feels like it could be him next. And he talked about the fact that the media paints Black and Latino men as violent and as criminals, and that these representations puts fear into the head of the police. Fear that leads them to see guns where there are none, and to shoot unarmed men.

I teach media literacy, so I think about the power of images a lot. But seeing the doctoring of Sean Bell’s image, and talking to Byron Hurt, I was reminded that portraying Black and Latino men as criminals, as threats, isn’t just wrong. It’s lethal.


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How Quickly We Forget

I had the opportunity to speak at last weekend’s Left Forum (formerly the Socialist Scholars Conference), on a panel called “Doing Independent Reporting: A Tribute to Brad Will.” Given that frame, in preparing my remarks I considered the reporting on Oaxaca, where Brad was killed, and the recent coverage of popular uprisings in Mexico. I also wanted to offer a critique of the independent media, and think through what we can be doing better. And that brought me to thinking about Atenco.

Like the mainstream media, the independent media is episodic. We focus on the breaking news, the arrest, the murder, the riot. I like to think that at Wakeup Call, the morning news program for which I am a producer, and at other independent media outlets, we dig deeper into the root causes of these flareups. But even when we manage to do that, we rarely follow up on a story until the next big flareup. Atenco is a case in point.

On May 3rd of 2006, there was a confrontation between flower vendors in Texcoco and the police – the police wouldn’t let them sell their flowers in the town square. They called for help from their neighbors in Atenco, who blocked the road the runs along Atenco and leads to Texcoco. The police came to move the blockade, and couldn’t, despite intense violence. A fourteen year old boy was shot and killed by police.

The next day, May 4th, allies flooded into Atenco, along with reporters from the mainstream and independent press. So did more than 3,000 police. After a second day of intense police violence against reporters and protesters, there were some 300 plus arrests. At least five women were raped by police, on the busses where the arrestees were being held, in front of their fellow protesters and reporters.

Allow me a momentary side note. Some news reports say that 5 women were raped, some news reports say nearly 50. In talking to people who were at Atenco, and others who are close to the story, they say that this disparity in numbers comes from a difference between how the women on the ground define rape, and how it is defined by human rights organizations. Not all of the nearly 50 women in question were penetrated by a penis. Dozens were stripped naked, beaten and touched and penetrated by fingers – to me, and to the women in Atenco, this is rape. Anyhow, quibbling about the numbers is asinine. I just wanted to preempt any doubts about the validity of the stories from Atendo, in case you investigate the story further, as you should.

As the news started to filter out from Atenco, about the arrests, beatings, hospitalizations, and rapes, there was an outcry from the independent media, in the US and all over the world. From NarcoNews to Wakeup Call to Democracy Now! to the BBC, the story of the murder and the rapes spread through the internet and the airwaves.

The attacks at Atenco raised the consciousness of people in the US, at least, about the diversity and continued struggle of the popular uprisings in Mexico. Of course, many people on the US left were familiar with the Zapatista movement. The beautifully written declaraciones, and the glamour of the masked rebels in the jungle, fed the North American need for inspiration. The Zapatistas do what most of the US left has not managed to do; they are creating their own systems and alternatives, fighting for self-determination, for the right to be left in peace. Their example has sparked some much-needed reflection in the US left about our work, and its often reactive tendencies.

It also sparked a lot of Zapatourismo, young and idealistic people visiting the revolution on summer break. Some great work has come out of that exchange, and so have a fair number of problems. I’m not going to go too far into that now. Point being, the attention on Atenco raised awareness about groups besides the Zapatistas that stand in opposition to the government, including the Frente del Pueblo en Defensa de La Tierra in Atenco. Essentially, Atenco reminded people in the US about Mexico.

And then attention shifted from Atenco to Oaxaca. The Associacion Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, or APPO, was fighting a pitched battle of ideas, and battle in the streets, seeking the ouster of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The conflict in the streets drew many independent reporters, including Brad Will, an American videographer and friend of mine who was killed by paramilitaries in Oaxaca. Professor Emilio Alonso Fabián and Esteban López Zurita were also killed in Oaxaca that day, October 27, 2006. Brad’s murder brought an astonishing amount of media attention to Oaxaca. It was also used as a pretext for an invasion of Oaxaca by the PFP, or Federal Preventative Police, and rachetted up the repression of organizers, activists, peasants and journalists living and working in Oaxaca.

Now, it’s nearly a year since the attacks in Atenco. There are 9 women, arrested at Atenco, five of whom were raped by police, still in jail in Santiaguito. Last May, the attention of the global activist community, the global independent media community, was focused on Atenco. And in Santiaguito, people were protesting outside the jail every day. But the prison is far from town, and the visitors have dwindled away. Now, the 9 women prisoners from May 4th are essentially alone, and feel forgotten. And it pains me to say it, but they mostly have been.

The conflict in Oaxaca continues. Journalists and organizers are living underground or in exile, moving from house to house with their children in the dead of night. The people who continue to work and speak and fight are doing so at great, very real risk to their lives. And they too have been forgotten.

Why? I could say that it’s a question of resources. Because there are relatively few progressive, independent media outlets, we often feel as if we have to tell every story, and that doesn’t allow for much follow up. I could say that it’s a question of time. We talk at Wakeup Call about doing a regular segment called That’s Old News, following up on what we were covering last year, or six months ago. It’s a good idea (if I do say so myself), but we don’t have the staff to make it happen. But more than anything, I think, its a question of habit, the gut urge to cover the breaking news. That’s important, to cover the breaking news that most media outlets ignore. But we also need to teach our audience to stick with a story. Speaking as a newsmaker, I hope you ask that of us, and push us to give you the consistent information needed to stay with a story and demand change.


On May 4th, it will be a year since the nine women arrested at Atenco will be in prison. They have yet to be sentenced, and are essentially still awaiting processing. When they are given the rare opportunity to go before a judge, the very police officers who raped them are in the room. In October, Amnesty International condemned the sham investigation into the rapes and violence at Atenco, and demanded a federal inquiry. We are all still waiting, and our nine sisters are waiting in prison.

As of today, it has been more than ten months that they are in prison. Think of what your life was like ten months ago. Think of all the people you have met, the conversations that have changed your life, the places you have been, the meals, the walks, the dreams. Now imagine that you spent all those months in one room.

At the Left Forum panel, Brandon Jourdan said that we as independent media makers must learn to fight the battle of the story, and not just cover the story of the battle. We are not doing that well enough. We report from a different perspective than the mainstream media, and often cover different stories, but we too often fail to construct a narrative that we choose, rather than one dictated by the dates on which our people die or disappear.

I don’t want to be like most of the press and leave you without a job to do or an action to take. I am waiting for friends closer to the Atenco story to give me information on:

  • government officials to whom you can write;
  • how to donate funds to their case and their commisary, and;
  • the addresses of the prisoners so you can write them and let them know we remember their names.

While you’re waiting for those action points, you can come out on Thursday March 15th to a night of videos, discussion and food:

In honor of the March 15th international day of action against police brutality the Amor y Resistencia and In Our Hearts Collectives, present videos and speakers featuring:

Maka, an activist from Mexico City who was involved in media projects in Oaxaca during the uprising.

Videos about the Uprising in Oaxaca, and the seizing of the media by Oaxacan Radical Women in 2006.

Legacy of Torture: A documentary about the case of the “Panther 8”, eight former Black Panthers arrested January 23rd, 2007 on charges related to the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer. Similar charges were thrown in 1973 when it was revealed that police used torture to extract confessions.

Representative from “Friends and Family of Daniel McGowan” speaking about the recent FBI crackdown on Environmental Activists known as “the Green Scare”.

Vegan Mexican Food and home brewed soft drinks, courtesy of the ‘Brewing up Trouble Action Faction”.

$5.00 Suggested Donation. (money raised will go to mexican anarchist collectives supporting political prisoners in Oaxaca no one turned away for lack of funds)

Come early for food and drinks!
Thursday, March 15th, 6pm at:
Ad Hoc Art space,
49 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, NY.
(‘L’ to Morgan Ave. Bogart Exit) (for directions)

Like the Zapatista sisters say, abajo y la izquierda, con todo el corazón.

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Some Ladies Musack

So not quite a real post, but I spun some ladies music on WBAI 99.5 FM the other day, as part of the station’s two days of programming celebrating International Working Women’s Day. You can listen to the set online, if you’re so inclined.  Featuring Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Feist, Jolie Holland, Mirah, and a whole bunch of other great women artists.

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Ready, Aim, Fire: The Politics of Arson

Two Seton Hall students were sentenced today to five years in prison for setting a fire that killed three of their fellow students.  Three deaths, five years.  The two young men, Joseph Lapore and Sean Michael Ryan, could be out on parole in as little as 16 months.

Daniel McGowan is also going to serve prison time in an arson case.  He participated in an two arson attacks at a tree farm and a lumber company.  He didn’t kill anyone.  Yet the shortest sentence he faces is longer than the 5 year maximum term that the two Seton Hall students will serve.

I am not someone who thinks that prison is a place that teaches people lessons, and I don’t think that the Seton Hall students should be thrown in prison for life and the key tossed away.  But I do think that their sentencing highlights the political motivations behind the prosecution of McGowan and his fellow defendants allegedly affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front.

McGowan is an environmental activist from New York, known to many for his work as a spokesperson during the Republican National Convention in 2004.  In December 2005, McGowan was arrested for his role in two arson attacks that took place in Oregon in 2001.  His arrest came as part of a series of arrests around the country, targeting environmental activists alleged to be part of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front.  He faced a trial that could result in him spending the rest of his life in prison.  He has now reached a plea agreement with prosecutors that will give him a sentence of somewhere between 8 years and 63 months, aka 5 years and 3 months.

So how does this compare to the Seton Hall students?  Well, the actions of Lapore and Ryan killed three people: John N. Giunta, Aaron Karol, and Frank Caltabilota, Jr.  More than 50 other students were injured, including some who were severely burned.  Lapore and Ryan set a paper banner on fire in their dorm, celebrating a victory by the Seton Hall basketball team.  The banner caught a sofa on fire.  Rather than run through the dorm banging on doors, alerting sleeping students to the fire, the two fled.  The three students that died were killed by smoke inhalation, deaths that could have been prevented.

There were no sprinklers in the dorm; the deaths led to a New Jersey law requiring all dorms to have sprinklers installed, the first of its kind in the nation.

Lapore and Ryan have said that the fire was a “prank that got out of hand,” a claim rejected by family members of the dead.    Phillip Giunta, father of John, told ABC News  “I don’t think it was an accident. I don’t think it was a prank. I think that’s bull.”   Lapore and Ryan, in their plea agreement, acknowledged that they had tried to cover up their role in the fire, convening a group of students at a local Dunkin Donuts the day after the fire and encouraging them to lie to investigators.

McGowan, in contrast, has never said that the fires he was involved in were anything as frivolous as a prank.  In a statement to the judge when entering his plea agreement, McGowan said in part “I hope that you will see that my actions were not those of terrorist but of a concerned young person who was deeply troubled by the destruction of Oregon’s beautiful old-growth forests and the dangers of genetically modified trees. After taking part in these two actions, I realized that burning things down did not fit with my visions or belief about how to create a better world. So I stopped committing these crimes.”

The young man who harmed property only, perhaps misguided but certainly principled, will serve at least 5 years and three months.  Prosecutors are seeking the full 8 year sentence, with a possible “terrorism enhancement,” according to a website coordinated by McGowan’s supporters.   The two young men who got drunk after a basketball game, lit a banner on fire, fled the scene, killed three and injured dozens, could be out of prison in 16 months.


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The Balkanized World of the Not White Not Man

Last week, Mark Fisher wrote an article for the New Yorker Magazine about WBAI Radio host, Bob Fass, and his legendary show, Radio Unnameable. The piece, called “Voice of the Cabal,” showcased the worst of the New Yorker – the facile, elitist gloss, and the unthinking, casual racism.

The premise of the piece is that Bob Fass, who has been the host of the on-again, off-again Radio Unnameable since the 1960s, has been slighted by the new regime at the station. Radio Unnameable came on the air in 1962, broadcasting on the overnights 5 days a week with an eclectic freeform mix of talk, sound clips, music, callers, and ramblings. As the article notes, Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan were regulars on Fass’s show for years, and Fass attracted a loyal following of listeners and callers, known as the cabal (hence the article’s title).

Now Fass is on one night a week. And Fisher insinuates, although doesn’t quite have the balls to come out and say, is that the “balkanized schedule” of shows now on the station has forced him out. Fisher cites, as proof of this balkanization, the names of several shows on WBAI: First Voices Indigenous Radio, Out-FM, Joy of Resistance (“multi-cultural feminist radio), Beyond the Pale (“progressive Jewish politics”), The Largest Minority (“issues affecting people with disabilities”), Afrikalidoscope, and Asia Pacific Forum. He then says “Fass’s show is one of the few on the station seeking a broad audience.”

Fisher’s snarky parentheticals suggest that he didn’t take the time to listen to any of the programs he names, but chose to read their titles and one sentence descriptions and decide that those programs are narrowly targeted, not seeking a broad audience. Had he taken the time to listen, Fisher would have learned that those shows seek to educate people inside and outside of the communities that produce the shows (women, First Nations people, or people with disabilities, for example) about the issues in those communities. That’s not narrow targeting, it’s education. Also, the Asia-Pacifica region is certainly not small, nor is the entire continent of Africa. And unfortunately we still need to remind people like Fisher that women are not a narrowly focused balkanized audience, even if a feminist radio show were only trying to address that half of the population.

Therein lies the racism of the article. Fisher assumes that a show by a white man tied to the Greenwich Village community was a show with a broad appeal, while the shows he names are “factionalized” and esoteric. It’s as if whiteness, white maleness, is the blank slate on which all other identities can be grafted. Fass with, without a doubt, an innovator and a pioneer. Much of the rambling talk radio now on all the airwaves can be traced back to Fass (but don’t blame him, it’s really not his fault). But not everyone wants to listen to “experiments with noise and silence,” “an improvised melange of live music, speeches, and random phone calls.”

Fisher writes that “much of the station’s white, liberal audience has drifted away,” while “managers and program hosts went at one another with lawsuits, personnel purges, and fights over race, ideology, and how to appeal to the city’s growing Black, Latino, and Asian populations.”

It’s true that there have been years of infighting at WBAI, and the Pacifica Network overall. I should know, I’ve been an unpaid producer at the station since 2000, six years that sometimes elicit a laugh from the people who’ve been in those trenches since the sixties. And it’s great to see the station featured so prominently in a magazine that I love despite myself. It’s certainly never been known for its down to earth sensibility. I love it because the New Yorker regularly features some of the country’s best narrative non fiction from people like Katherine Boo, the grim environmental reporting of Elizabeth Kolbert, and yes, the investigative work of the irascible Sy Hersh.

This piece by Fisher, however, will not be entering my personal pantheon. To conflate WBAI’s broadening of its content and the diversity of its producers with its downturn from its 60s heyday is outrageous. WBAI isn’t the only place that’s changed since the 1960s. The politics of the country have changed just a little too. Many devotees of Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan now listen to NPR, where, incidentally, Bob Dylan’s recent album has featured prominently in recent fund drives. And a lot of them probably don’t want to listen to freeform sound collages.

Meanwhile, the media hasn’t changed enough. Although you might not know it from most of the mainstream media, there are thousands of serious, hardworking, creative and dedicated journalists and broadcasters of color out there. In 1962, there were few on them on WBAI. 44 years later, there are many. WBAI should be commended for doing what almost no other broadcast outlets does: truly representing the city whose airwaves it uses, at least demographically. Radio newsrooms are just 6% people of color nationwide. There’s a story.

Radio is an amazing, creative and stimulating thing. It’s one of the greatest joys in my life, to listen to and to create. I am truly appreciative of people like Bob Fass who might have made radio that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but who made radio that was weird and different and and not like anything else. And I’m appreciative of all the people past and present working their asses off for no pay to keep community media outlets like WBAI alive and kicking. Just think of all the untapped ideas out there, all the freeform crazy creative innovations that the women and people of color out there will bring to the airwaves when we finally bust those doors down.

When I was out working on a story today, the woman I was interviewing was asking what WBAI is like now, and said she listens to NPR these days. And she mentioned Radio Unnameable, and how it was just IT. I hope that someone’s reminiscing about Wakeup Call 40 years from now. I hope that I can contribute to something that’s as incredibly indelible as Radio Unnameable. But I hope that person is still listening to WBAI, and I hope some young person is in master control, making a kind of radio that never, ever crossed my mind.


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