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Obama DOJ’s War on Free Speech and Activism

7:12 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

A few days ago, rallies were held in cities all over the United States in support of veteran Chicano activist Carlos Montes, who had his home raided by the FBI on May 17. The rallies coincided with Montes’ arraignment hearing for felony charges, which were filed against him by the LA County Sheriffs and FBI after the raid.

The target of an ever-expanding government investigation into antiwar and international solidarity activists, Montes demanded that his charges be dropped. The District Attorney denied his request. Montes asked to see the search warrant and police report on the raid of his home. The District Attorney initially refused the request but then agreed to release heavily edited versions of the documents. Montes was also told he would not be allowed to show the documents to the press.

Tom Burke, a spokesperson for the Committee to Stop FBI Repression and a subpoenaed activist, explains that Montes allegedly was found to be in possession of a weapon that was not properly registered. Burke believes that if Montes hadn’t been a political activist or organizer he would have been contacted about a problem on the gun permit. But, the LA sheriffs chose to make an example of Montes.

Burke also notes, like twenty-three other activists subpoenaed thus far, Montes has a link to the organizing of marches at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

The FBI raided the Antiwar Committee office in the Twin Cities in Minnesota in September 2010. On the warrant for the raid there were seventeen names. Burke says Carlos Montes’ name appears on the warrant.

When Montes’ home was raided by the FBI & SWAT team, they smashed Montes’ front door, rushed in with automatic weapons while Montes was sleeping and proceeded to ransack his home, “taking his computer, cell phones and hundreds of documents, photos, diskettes and mementos of his current political activities in the pro-immigrant rights and Chicano civil rights movement.” They did this at 5 am in the morning.

“For people who have had their homes raided, it’s worse than being robbed because it’s the government coming in and taking the things that are nearest and dearest to you – your own writing, your own diary,” says Burke.

Rallies in eighteen cities were held in support of Montes and against ongoing FBI repression of activists. And because the judge did not drop the felony charges against Montes, another round of rallies will be held July 7 to again call for the charges to be dropped.

Recent articles in news publications like the Washington Post has given the repression against activists greater attention. At the Netroots Nation 2011 conference, a member of the audience asked at a panel session titled, “What the Government Wants to Know About You,” if he could get more information on what he read on the recently published Post article.

Marcy Wheeler of Firedoglake, one of the speakers on the panel, described to the audience how the activists are alleged to be “material supporters of terrorism.” She outlined how the grand jury investigation has been opened and recounted how an informant infiltrated the Antiwar Committee. She noted the activists are alleged to have connections to groups in Palestine and Colombia that perhaps have engaged in terrorist activities but concluded, “Chiquita has far closer ties to terrorism than any peace activists but nobody from Chiquita has gone to jail.”

Essentially, the FBI now has all this data and is able to use it to start investigations. The FBI can turn over any rock that they want to turn over and they can seek out whatever they want to find and piece together a case.

With the FBI moving to expand surveillance powers, it is cases like this investigation into activists that the new powers will effectively make legitimate.

Burke reacts to the news that the FBI is claiming new powers, “The FBI has been violating their own guidelines and their own standard operating procedures and instead of saying we violated what we set out ourselves, they decided to expand what they were allowed to do.

Why does the government want these new powers? Why does the Justice Department under Obama support a growing investigation into activists?

Burke suggests with the economy getting worse the American people are getting more frustrated, with the Congress’ approval rating getting lower and lower, the war in Afghanistan failing, stability in Iraq not being maintained and troops not being sent home, the Colombia war stagnating with no defeat of the insurgency—This “cumulation” is leading to more state repression against those fighting for change in the system.

The war on free speech and activism is apparent here at Netroots Nation as people like Lt. Dan Choi and Tim DeChristopher speak on panels and as individuals like David House are discussed during panel sessions.

Lt. Dan Choi, a soldier and gay rights advocate who engaged in an act of civil disobedience at the White House fence last year to push the Obama Administration to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is facing federal charges for exercising his right to demonstrate. While most people receive misdemeanors for protesting, for the first time since 1917, the Department of Justice under Obama is taking him to trial this August for speaking out.

Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who placed fake bids in a public land auction to disrupt drilling by energy companies, has been convicted of a crime. Although the land auction was ultimately declared illegal, the Obama Administration has gone ahead and pursued a case against DeChristopher. The prosecution pushed the jury in his trial to not consider his conscience but rather that he broke a law. They nudged the jury to obfuscate facts and, in fact, many key details on the auction were kept from the jury. And so, DeChristopher now faces up to ten years in prison.

And, David House, co-founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network, has been embroiled in a grand jury investigation that seeks to embroil him in espionage charges for being linked to WikiLeaks. House has been targeted consistently by the government for the past months. His lawful association with the Bradley Manning Support Network, which was created to raise funds for the legal defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower to WikiLeaks now being held at Ft. Leavenworth, has led the Department of Homeland Security stop him at airports and seize his laptop, camera and USB drive.

What is at stake with the targeting of activists is an American’s right to protest against the government and sometimes take bold action that could be regarded as adversarial. Those who believe in free speech and support a person’s right to protest must not ignore the cases the Department of Justice is pursuing against individuals in this country, who are being made examples to send a message to others that if they draw inspiration and display courage in the face of power they too might face the same punishment or harassment as these people.

*For video of Montes speaking at the rally on June 16, go here.

Interview with Dan Sinker, @MayorEmanuel, on the Next Generation of Political Parody

2:03 pm in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

One week ago, citizens from all over the world came together in New York City to discuss technology and how it is reshaping politics, governance and society at Personal Democracy Forum 2011. The roster of speakers touched on freedom of expression, freedom of information, open government, privacy, using technology to build social movements and how governments use technology to suppress citizens.

Dan Sinker, the person behind the @MayorEmanuel fake twitter account and creator of “an alternative reality real-time novel about a Rahm Emanuel that was not from our dimension” that unfolded during Emanuel’s successful run for mayor of Chicago, was one of the speakers at the conference.

I interviewed Sinker, a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago, for TheNation.com. We talked about how fake twitter accounts are changing the way people understand politics and whether what he did was part of the next generation of satire in America.

Sinker said of fake Twitter accounts:

They help us to laugh at things we might think are absurd, at things we might think are hard to stomach. They allow us to laugh in the face of adversity or the reality that we live. I think the other thing is that they  allow a new lens with which to see and understand politics. One thing about the @MayorEmanuel account is you had to know who was who in all of Chicago city politics to really get a lot of the references, to get a lot of the jokes.

He added the account didn’t spoon feed people so hopefully many who followed the account did some research to learn about the individuals whom this Rahm was naming during the campaign.

The thing about satire or parody, Sinker says, is people can “read in their own thoughts into the character” so you had a number of far-right wing characters embracing the character.”
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FBI Documents Show US Citizens Targeted for Interest in US Foreign Policy

9:12 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

Antiwar and international solidarity activists, subjects of a federal grand jury investigation that alleges they may have provided “material support for terrorism,” uncovered documents on FBI guidelines and investigation practices left behind in an activist’s home that was raided in September of last year. The documents illuminate how the FBI has conducted surveillance of the activists being targeted in the investigation and further prove the grand jury is being used as a tool to go after political groups.

On September 24 of last year, the home of Lindon Gawboy and Mick Kelly, an activist who helped to organize a mass demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in 2008, was raided and subpoenaed. Gawboy was awoken by FBI pounding on her door. She came to the door and asked for a search warrant. The FBI ignored her request for a warrant and proceeded to use a battering ram, which took the door off its hinges and shattered a nearby fish tank.

The agents raiding Gawboy and Kelly’s home emptied file cabinets and desks and stacked files around the apartments. They set up and went through individual documents taking files away that were of interest to them. At some point during this process, an agent’s papers on the investigation became mixed in with Kelly’s files. And, presumably by chance, Gawboy found the revealed documents just weeks ago.

The documents show the investigation was “predicated on the activities of Meredith Aby and Jessica Rae Sundin in support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a U.S. State Department designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO), to include their travel to FARC controlled territory.” Bruce Nestor, an attorney advising individuals that have been issued subpoenas in this investigation, explains “predicate” is a word that typically connotes “what’s necessary to begin an investigation into protected First Amendment activity.”

Current FBI guidelines, according to Nestor, actually do not require a predicate to begin a preliminary question. This means the FBI can send agents and law enforcement officers into public meetings undercover to gather publicly available information and store that information about activists in perpetuity.

Sundin, a founding member of the Twin Cities-based Anti-War Committee, says she traveled to Colombia to witness peace talks between the FARC and the Colombia government. She flew into Colombia on an airplane owned by the Colombia military. Sundin was interested in what it would take to end a decades-long conflict in a country that is the biggest recipient of US military aid in Latin America.

“What I find disturbing about the line of questions is its attempt to stir up a kind of 1950s Red Scare within the antiwar movement,” declares Sundin. In particular, the questions indicate the FBI was interested in information on the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

“It’s true some of us are socialists, but that’s not against the law. A lot of us have grievances with capitalism,” explains Sundin. “The government has no right to dictate to the antiwar movement who can and cannot be in our movement.”
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US Dept of Treasury Freezes Activist’s Bank Accounts

10:15 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

*Scroll down for audio interview

Update – 3:10 PM New York Time

Here is the press release just out. It indicates that this is actually much more sinister than was thought initially. The Department of Treasury is actually behind the freezing of funds.

On Friday, May 6, the U.S. government froze the bank accounts of Hatem Abudayyeh and his wife, Naima. It appears that this is being done by the Department of Treasury (Office of Foreign Assets Control).

Hatem Abudayyeh is one of 23 activists from Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois subpoenaed to a federal grand jury in Chicago, and his home was raided by the FBI in September of last year. Neither Hatem Abudayyeh nor Naima Abudayyeh have been charged with any crime. One of the bank accounts frozen was exclusively in Naima Abudayyeh’s name.

Joe Iosbaker of the National Committee to Stop FBI Repression said, “We are appalled at the government’s attempt to restrict the family’s access to its finances. Not only does the government’s action seriously disrupt the lives of the Abudayyehs and their five-year-old daughter, but it represents an attack on Chicago’s Arab community and activist community and the fundamental rights of Americans to freedom of speech.”

Joe added, “Apparently OFAC can block your assets pending an investigation on charges of “material support for a foreign terrorist organization” without a hearing. It’s a bit like a chapter out of George Orwell, they don’t need any evidence to freeze your assets and thus far they won’t even acknowledge that they are the source of the freeze. In the case of these activists, assets means money for food and rent.”

Bill Chambers, of the Chicago Committee Against Political Repression said “The persecution of the Abudayyeh family is another example of the criminalization of Palestinians, their supporters, and their movement for justice and liberation. The government’s attempt to conflate the anti-war and human rights movements with terrorism is a cynical attempt to capitalize on the current political climate in order to silence Palestinians and other people of conscience who exercise their First Amendment rights in a manner which does not conform to the administration’s foreign policy agenda in the Middle East.”

The National Committee to Stop FBI repression is urging activists around the country to take action by calling, The Office of Foreign Assets Control a division of the U.S. Dept of Treasury, Phone numbers 202-622-1649 or 202-622-2420. Demand that they unfreeze the bank accounts of the Abudayyeh family and stop repression against Palestinian, anti-war and international solidarity activists.”

***Original Story including audio interview with Joe Iosbaker appears below.***

Right before Mother’s Day weekend, the US government froze the bank accounts of Hatem Abudayyeh, a long-time Palestinian solidarity activist and organizer, and his wife, Naima. Abudayyeh is one of twenty-three activists from the Midwest in the US, who has been the subject of an FBI Grand Jury investigation since September of last year.

Hatem and Naima Abudayyeh have both been charged with no crimes. Naima Abudayyeh has not been subpoenaed and is not the subject of an investigation.
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Standing Up for Bradley Manning, Opposing FBI Witch-Hunts of Activists

11:21 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola


Coleen Rowley being interviewed at an action at the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. by Bill Hughes

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nearly one week ago, a few hundred activists participated in two protest actions, one at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the other at Quantico Brig, where Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower who leaked the “Collateral Murder” video and possibly other information like the U.S. Embassy Cables to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, is being held in solitary confinement. The two actions had a profound connection: Martin Luther King. Jr, who if alive today would be standing up for Bradley Manning and against the FBI witch-hunt being carried out on activists in Chicago and the Twin Cities area.

Coleen Rowley, the former FBI agent and whistleblower, who was awarded TIME’s “Person of the Year” Award in 2002 (along with two other whistleblowers who received the award as well), explains in an interview, “To the extent that Manning seems to be a victim of this much greater official repression, it does hearken back to the days when a civil rights leader could be targeted by the FBI.”

An organizer with the Defending Dissent Foundation (DDF), Sue Udry, reported on the two actions explaining that more than one hundred gathered at the FBI headquarters at noon. About thirty people with Witness Against Torture, who were Washington, D.C., for their twelve days of fasting action to call attention to the Obama Administration’s failure to close Guantanamo, were there in orange jumpsuits. CODEPINK, people with DDF, and others from a local civil liberties organization showed up to call attention to the injustice going on in the Midwest.

On January 25th, twelve anti-war and international solidarity activists will be expected to appear before a grand jury in Chicago. They and eleven others from Chicago and the Twin Cities area in Minnesota in the past months were subpoenaed. Several of the activists had their homes raided. Documents, cell phones, storage disks, computers, and children’s artwork were seized from their home. The subpoenas indicated the FBI was looking for evidence that the activists had provided “material support for terrorism.” And, recently, it was discovered that the FBI had an informant, who went by the name of “Karen Sullivan,” infiltrate an anti-war group in the Twin Cities.

Rowley says of the FBI investigation, “History is repeating itself.” War has produced pressure to find terrorists at home. She said the war that we were told was going to be fought over there so we wouldn’t have to fight it here has now turned inward. She cites as evidence not only the infiltration of antiwar groups by informants but also the Office of Management and Guidance’s plans to looks for “unhappy employees in the government” who might be “disloyal.” Also, she believes the GOP has plans for “McCarthy-like” hearings in the House (perhaps, to be lead by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).

The whistleblower, who spent twenty four years in the FBI before unveiling how the FBI had failed to take action on information provided by the Minneapolis, Minnesota Field Office on suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, recounts how the FBI informant “Karen Sullivan” became such a part of the Anti-War Committee:

If you go back to 2008 when this undercover actually came into Minnesota–and I was actually in two groups that she was first spotted at, not the Antiwar Committee, she was first spotted at a CODEPINK meeting where they were discussing that in the march on the [Republican National Convention] they were going to make big pink puppets. I mean, if you think about why would government even be spending its time sitting in a meeting talking about making puppets. That’s how unbelievable this is and I was actually sitting next to her. This was probably late spring of 2008.

Then she came to our banner peace vigils that my group–We had about twenty people and we held a red banner that said “Support the Troops, End the War” over a highway. Totally legal in Minnesota law. When I was sitting next to her, I said come to ours and hold this banner. She came four or five times to our vigil.”

At the US Social Forum in Detroit in June of 2010, she represented the Anti-War Committee. At the School of Americas Watch protest action, she helped lead the protest. At local meetings, she was taking leadership roles. This went on for two and a half years.

Rowley discusses how this happened during Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr. was a victim of McCarthyism in the late “50s and early “60s. That later turned into COINTELPRO. She recounted how “the COINTELPRO group actually wrote an anonymous letter to MLK”that basically blackmailed him on the eve of his acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize and suggested that he might want to commit suicide otherwise the FBI might release all this derogatory information they had.” Then the FBI went after feminists, antiwar activists, and advocacy groups like the National Lawyers Guild.

While the Church Committee did work to put strict restrictions on government agencies that would protect civil liberties in the late “70s, 9/11 provided the moment for government agencies to return to the days of COINTELPRO.

According to Rowley, in April of 2008, Attorney General guidelines were “eradicated” reversing the “presumption that you need level of factual justification” or something to show to support infiltrating or closely monitoring an activist group. This to her is largely symptomatic of the world created in the aftermath of 9/11, “Top Secret America,” which William M. Arkin and Dana Priest investigated for the Washington Post.

Part of it is, with 854,000 analysts, agents, consultants, operatives and contractors, 854,000 — Between you and I, the average salary has got to be close to $100,000 for each of these. They have to prove that they’re working. I can talk about the FBI that there are things called “work performance evaluations. And every so often there’s a periodic evaluation where you actually have to show your statistics and these are things like subpoenas served and arrests and convictions. And the emphasis is on “terrorism” because that’s the priority right now. So there’s a strong pressure to categorize many, many things as “terrorism.” And you’ve got to show that you’re doing something. In fact, some of those abuses that the IG were basically a slow work day. So they have to actually keep busy and they have to do things. So you’re going to this create systemic pressure toward opportunistic opening of cases, infiltrating, and even prosecuting.

It’s also quantity of massive data collection over quality, which actually is counterproductive. From the standpoint of law enforcement, what good does it do to collect all of this irrelevant data? All it’s doing is making it hard to focus in on any true terrorist threats.

She highlights how FBI wasting resources on infiltrating antiwar groups just might be why terrorists like Abdulmutallab, Shahzad and Hasan slipped past the FBI. If the FBI wasn’t sending people to infiltrate organizations like the Thomas Merton Center or protecting corporate profits by infiltrating and working to disrupt or stall environmental groups, they would have more of an ability to actually prevent terror attacks.

Following the action, activists traveled thirty miles south to Quantico Brig to support Manning. Udry reported activists were not allowed to hold protest on base property and were asked to hold the protest in a commuter parking lot across a street that led to the gate of the base. About seventy or more began the protest there, but, ultimately, those in this lot decided they had come all this way to deliver a box of humanitarian aid containing blankets, books, candy, etc to Manning and were going to deliver the aid.

Activists marched with banners and signs saying, “Free Bradley Manning,” to the gate of the base and were able to hold the rally there. Udry explained that marine personnel were very respectful and easy to work with. The activists had been told to not protest in this area, but, except for some marines going in and out, who were yelling nasty remarks, the marines operating the gate were “pretty cool about it for marines.”

The marines at the base would not accept the humanitarian aid.


From the action at the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on MLK Day. by Bill Hughes

Member of the Bradley Manning Support Network, Kevin Zeese, was one of the leaders of the march to gate of the base. He wrote in an article published on OpEdNews, “On Martin Luther King Day I joined 200 people at the Quantico Marine Base where Bradley Manning, an American citizen not convicted of anything, is being held in solitary confinement, not allowed to exercise in his 6 by 12 foot cell, not given a real pillow or blanket, with no contact with others except guards who make sure he does not sleep during the day after they wake him up at 5 in the morning.”

His treatment is what led Manning’s lawyer, David E. Coombs, to file a formal complaint alleging “the action of holding PFC Manning in Maximum (MAX) custody, under Prevention of Injury (POI) watch for over five months and recently placing him under suicide risk was an abuse of CWO4 James Averhart’s discretion, and a wrong within the meaning of Article 138, UCMJ.” It’s what led former commander of Headquarters Company at Quantico, David C. MacMichael, to object to the treatment of Bradley Manning.

In the letter, MacMichael wrote, “I wonder, in the first place, why an Army enlisted man is being held in a Marine Corps installation. Second, I question the length of confinement prior to conduct of court-martial. The sixth amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing to the accused in all criminal prosecutions the right to a speedy and public trial, extends to those being prosecuted in the military justice system. Third, I seriously doubt that the conditions of his confinement–solitary confinement, sleep interruption, denial of all but minimal physical exercise, etc.–are necessary, customary, or in accordance with law, US or international.”

On Manning and WikiLeaks, Rowley says, being a whistleblower herself, she is sympathetic to the need for releasing information when there is a case of illegal action on the part of the government. If, in fact, Manning leaked materials to WikiLeaks, she believes he did disclose evidence of war crimes so his action would be justified.

Rowley agrees the U.S. military code might provide cover for what Manning did. In the federal government, the government ethics code urges employees to disclose evidence of misconduct or wrongdoing.

Manning was caught “in a rock and a hard place.” The My Lai massacre was very similar. People know they are not supposed to be complicit with a crime but, on the other hand, if crimes are reported, those reporting the crimes will be held responsible. Rowley contends that if photos from Abu Ghraib had not gotten out and members of the military there had just complained to superiors of torture procedures would not have changed. Public disclosure forced the military to refine its operations.

As with FBI activists who are being forced to go before a grand jury in Chicago, a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has been considering how to pursue criminal charges in the WikiLeaks case. Julian Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, told Al-Jazeera’s David Frost in December of 2010 that they had heard from Swedish authorities that a “secret empaneled grand jury” is investigating how to move forward. Attorneys and lawyers have been developing scenarios for justifying the extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. from Sweden if Sweden successfully forces Britain to turn him over to Swedish authorities.

The top-down repression of people taking individual action against what they perceive as crimes–the activists being subjected to a witch-hunt by the FBI for mobilizing against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for sending individuals to form relationships with people in Palestine and Colombia, and the detention of Bradley Manning and the entrapment of Julian Assange in a seemingly endless cobweb of legal proceedings–can have the broad-based effect of discouraging independent action. But, people need not be discouraged from marching in the streets. They need not be discouraged from organizing lawful antiwar rallies or marches or trips to other countries or afraid of following their conscience when they witness criminal misconduct.

Activists who are exercising their rights are being subjected to a post-9/11 form of McCarthyism. Bradley Manning is being held as a “maximum security detainee.” The government is abusing its power and the only check on this power, especially when political leaders in democracy fail to object, are we the people, standing up to support the right for truth to win out and the rights of all people to be upheld no matter what people think about government and society.

FBI Continues to Target Activists in Chicago and Minneapolis (VIDEO)

1:02 pm in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

On December 6th, Chicagoans came out for an Emergency Response Rally organized by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression to support activists who have been targeted by the FBI in the past months. Those present stood in the cold and condemned U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been directing the FBI to expand its repression of activists in Chicago.

The rally specifically addressed the recent targeting of three young women who had traveled to Palestine last summer. On Friday, December 3rd, they were given subpoenas to appear before a Grand Jury on January 25, 2011. Since then, two more individuals have been subpoenaed. This new wave of repression came a week after subpoenas for three activists in Minneapolis -” Tracy Molm, Anh Pham, and Sarah Martin -” were re-activated and asked to appear before a Grand Jury again after refusing to speak to a Grand Jury in October.

The father of one of the Chicago women subpoenaed, Stan Smith, appeared at the rally and read a statement from her daughter, Sarah Smith, “Friday morning I received a phone call from an FBI agent. He asked if I had about 30 minutes to sit down and speak with him so he could ask me some questions. I asked about what and he said he was not at liberty to discuss it.”

“I felt there was something suspicious about him telling me he wanted to ask me some questions, but he would not tell me what these questions were,” read Smith. “I reiterated that it would be much easier for me to sit down with him if I knew why an FBI agent wanted to sit down with me. He then said it had to deal with a trip I took this last summer. He emphasized I think you know, which one I’m talking about.”

Smith noted, “I don’t think I need to speak in defense of her character. While she was in high school, Crain’s Chicago Business had a special edition called the “100 Most Influential Women in Chicago” and they chose my daughter as being one of Chicago’s six most influential and up-and-coming women high school students. Crain’s Chicago Business chose her partly because they saw she was willing to travel to different parts of the world and see for herself and to make up her own mind about what was happening over there. Evidently, the FBI thinks that there is something criminal in doing that.”

Subpoenaed activist Stephanie Weiner, who had her home raided by the FBI on September 24th of this year, lamented the fact that more activists were being subpoenaed and explained it was being done to put fear, intimidate and divide members of activist movements in the country. She outlined the fact that they are from many different movements: union, immigrant rights, justice, and Latin American and Palestinian solidarity movements.

Matt Brandon of SEIU Local 73 said, “When people can’t get together and peacefully protest without being threatened by arrest or a raid or a subpoena, it’s a sad state of affairs.” He provided a brief history of how dissent has been repressed in America and why it is important for all movements to come together and fight bac

The hunting down of activists began on September 24th when the FBI raided homes and offices of activists from Minneapolis and Chicago. Computers, phones, documents and other personal items were seized and the FBI officially subpoenaed 14 activists to appear before a Grand Jury. The FBI began to contact members of the “peace community” and ask them what they knew about the subpoenaed activists’ “material support for terrorism.”

The attorneys representing the activists have noted “the current definition of “material support’ can cover just about anything, like providing humanitarian aid that ends up in the hands of a group tagged as ‘terrorist’ by the US government, or posting a link to an informational website. The implications of this law, as it is being used, are troubling to anyone who does community organizing, or anyone who does journalistic reporting or academic research on wars, conflicts or controversial movements.”

Months later, the activists in Minneapolis and Chicago have not been charged with a crime, but they continue to face possible jail time if they refuse to go before a Grand Jury and participate in this “witch hunt.” They have yet to have their belongings, which were seized by the FBI, returned.

In the face of repression, activists across the nation have held actions in cities to show solidarity with activists who have been targeted. In Minneapolis, supporters held a protest outside Senator Amy Klobuchar’s office. And, a delegation of people has visited Congress to inform key House and Senate members of the FBI’s targeting of individuals engaged in activism.

In Chicago, those opposed to the FBI raids plan to meet with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). Members of the Committee have noted in recent weeks that some in Congress have been briefed on the actions of the FBI but, for the most part, few know what is happening to activists in Chicago and Minneapolis.

The Committee to Stop FBI repression designated December 9th as a “Call-In Day” and urged supporters and those concerned to call U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and demand that he end the “witch hunt” on activists in America.

Here is a video from the rally in Chicago on December 9th:

Chicago Activists Raided by FBI Refuse to Participate in “Fishing Expedition”

10:15 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola


Joe Iosbaker (left) and Stephanie Weiner (right) talk to the press about their subpoenas and the FBI raiding activists’ homes. by Kevin Gosztola

Weeks after the FBI raided their home, two Chicago activists, Stephanie Weiner and Joe Iosbaker, stood before a crowd of about 150 Chicagoans gathered outside the Dirksen Federal Building and declared during a press conference they, and twelve others who were subpoenaed, have no intention to go before any grand juries and participate in a "fishing expedition."

Weiner read a statement on behalf of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, a coalition formed in response to the FBI raids on activists in Chicago and Minneapolis. She recounted, "On September 24, the FBI raided the homes of anti-war and international solidarity activists and delivered grand jury subpoenas to activists across the country. The subpoenas claim that the grand jury is investigating violations of the 1996 law on the issue of "material support" of "designated foreign terrorist organizations."

Weiner, Iosbaker and three other activists had been called to testify before a grand jury on October 5th. He shared that he was outside the Federal Building at a press conference and not inside giving testimony to a grand jury, as he and Weiner had been scheduled to do, because they were given a postponement until October 19th. Three others submitted letters invoking their Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

Iosbaker reported, "Nine others who have dates scheduled for later this month have also submitted letters invoking their right not to testify." And declared, "Today, we are here to state to the press that we too have nothing to say to a grand jury."

The fourteen activists have not been charged with anything. That is why they were called before a grand jury — so the government could find information they could possibly use to press charges. Attics and other parts of activists’ homes have been searched, property has been seized, but none of the activists at the press conference spoke as individuals charged with committing any crimes.

Weiner explained to the crowd and press that were present, "One does not even need to be opposed to U.S. foreign policy to recognize that the government is working here to establish a dangerous precedent in targeting us. This case endangers the right of every person in the U.S. to organize for and express their views."

The statement appeared to encapsulate the reason for the outpouring of support and solidarity the activists have been experiencing. Reverend Dan Dale, senior pastor of United Church of Christ, read an interfaith statement by the Faith-Based Alliance of over thirty Muslim, Jewish and Christian organizations and over eighty religious leaders and clergy.

"We are people of faith and conscience who condemn the recent FBI raids in Chicago as a violation of the constitutional rights of the people in organizations raided. They are a dangerous step to further criminalize dissent," declared Rev. Dale. "The FBI raids chisel and bypass fundamental constitutional rights by hauling activists before grand juries under the guise of national security. An overly broad definition of "material support for terrorism’ in the June 2010 Supreme Court ruling concerns us as people of faith who continue to actively engage in humanitarian work and peacemaking."

Anne Sullivan, an individual who had been involved in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, and Miryam Rashid from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization of people of various faiths committed to social justice, peace, and humanitarian service both expressed solidarity with the subpoenaed activists. Sullivan reminded people of how Nelson Mandela and the ANC (which Mandela was part of) had been regarded as a "terrorist" organization by the U.S. government at one point. And, Rashid told the crowd and press:

"The AFSC has worked for over 90 years to end the wars and to help give voice to the most vulnerable members of society. This is not the first time that our government has come after Palestinians and the progressive community in Chicago. Recently, the target was Muhamma Salah and it was intended to make Palestinians afraid of helping their families who are struggling for civil rights and equality in Palestine. Now the target is Hatem Abudayyeh, a father and a friend to many of us and to many members of the progressive community in Chicago."

A man from the Michigan Emergency Committee to End War and Injustice was invited to go up to the microphone and give a few words on his organization’s support for the targeted activists.

Weiner shared how those targeted "have been very involved in the anti-war and international solidarity movements for many years" and "all worked together to organize an anti-war protest attended by tens of thousands at the Republican National Convention in 2008." Some even "traveled to other countries to understand [the U.S.] government’s role in places like Palestine and Colombia."

The Committee’s statement outlined the U.S. government’s history of using grand juries as tools of repression:

"The grand jury has been used as a tool of political repression against many movements for social change in this country. From the pre-civil war abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights movements, the movement against the war in Vietnam, the American Indian Movement, the Central America solidarity movement, the Puerto Rican Independence movement, animal rights and environmental movements, there have been many targets of political repression and grand jury inquisition."

In fact, on GreenistheNewRed.com, Will Potter has written regularly about the ongoing criminalization of environmental activism in America. Recent revelations on FBI surveillance of the Thomas Merton Center in Pennsylvania, which the FBI engaged in to connect antiwar activism to terrorism, is another indication of FBI involvement in the suppression of dissent. Finally, all one has to do is look at drafted legislation that was put together years ago (but didn’t pass) the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Act to see how government has been growing increasingly interested in obstructing dissent and activism.

Jim Fennerty, a lawyer representing activists subpoenaed, mentioned the government has, in connection to this case, been asking for "documents on how people are indoctrinated. You know, it’s amazing." And, he urged those present to call their congressman and express support for a new Church Committee to be formed to look into routine violations of civil liberties by agencies like the FBI in this country.

Despite the government’s history of political repression of activists, those subjected to raids displayed a sense of empowerment. The knowledge that over 60 demonstrations were held across the country in the past weeks to show solidarity gave them hope that the people will be there to help them through this injustice. It also gave them hope that there will be a groundswell of activism aimed at re-asserting the people’s right to fundamental civil liberties in America.

As Iosbaker said to the press, "I think the government never expected that thousands of people would speak up against repression after their home raids and subpoenas. I think that they are very surprised." And as Stephanie added, "The American people do not want laws that can be rolled out on a whim with no lawyer there, with no judge, and no charges. The American people don’t want America to go there. That’s what this is about."

On Monday, Minneapolis activists protested and declared that they would not be traveling to Chicago to testify before the same grand jury Chicago activists have been called to testify before either. TheUptake.org has coverage of the activists targeted in Minneapolis.

*Here is video of the statement raided activist Stephanie Weiner read at the press conference:

Hotel Workers Stage Sit-Ins as Part of Nationwide Action Against Hyatt Hotels

7:17 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

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Hotel workers from Chicago supported and participated in a nonviolent civil disobedience action aimed at calling attention to the Hyatt Hotel chain’s working conditions on Thursday evening. The action was part of a nationally organized plan to target Hyatt and call attention to its lack of fairness and respect toward workers.

 

Fifteen cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Honolulu, participated in the planned actions and, in total, hundreds of workers from these cities were arrested for disrupting business as usual in the cities.

 

Chicago Breaking Business reported on the workers’ struggle:

 

"…Labor contracts affecting 6,000 downtown hotel workers expired 11 months ago, and labor negotiations so far have been unsuccessful. While the contracts affect workers at several hotel chains in Chicago, Unite Here has focused its efforts on Chicago-based Hyatt, controlled by the Pritzker family, holding it up as an example of a hotel chain that is using the economy as an excuse to take advantage of workers…"

 

People began to gather for the Chicago action, organized by UNITEHERE Local 1, around 4:30 pm CT and the sit-in began around 5 pm CT. The workers marched down the sidewalk on Stetson Avenue and on to Wacker Drive.

 

About fifty to seventy-five workers sat down in single-file horizontal lines during rush hour. With about ten to fifteen people in each line, they chanted, "We are human beings. Enough is enough." And, all of the workers were wearing T-shirts signifying that they were with UNITEHERE Local 1 or they had a piece of felt pinned on their back to show what hotel they worked for in Chicago.

 

As they sat blocking the street, hundreds stood in solidarity with the workers on the sidewalks watching the action develop. The Chicago media were present. And, the police had the area heavily controlled.

 

Minutes into the sit-in, an officer gave the first warning to get off the street because the workers did not have a permit. A second warning game minutes after that. The officer cited, again, the lack of permit and their violation of a city ordinance as reason why they would be arrested if they did not move.

 

Gradually, the workers in the back of the group stood and marched off of the street. For those who understood what was to take place, this was not planned. Around two hundred workers were going to be arrested, but out of respect for a killed police officer, whose wake was tonight and whose funeral was tomorrow, the workers chose to scale back their action and show respect toward Chicago police who wanted to go pay their respects to the officer and his family.

 

The third warning came as the last lines left the street. The officer warned those still in the street sitting down that they would be arrested now if they did not leave. Seconds later, they were stood up by police. They put their hands behind their back and were escorted over to the side of a building down the street away from the front of the Hyatt.

 

The action ended about 5:30 pm CT and around thirty people were arrested.

 

Reports on the event highlighted the fact that this is an ongoing struggle. In June of this year, workers protested at "Hyatt’s first shareholders’ meeting as a newly public company" and their labor practices were compared to the "Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites" by religious leaders who were present.

 

And, in September 2009, around 200 workers were arrested when they demonstrated in support for "ongoing labor negotiations and for fired hotel workers in boston. At that action, the workers engaged in a sit-in in the middle of Chicago Avenue.

 

The Washington Post pointed out, in an article published before the action, that this union was "targeting one of President Obama’s biggest financial backers." But, at the protest, there were no noticeable signs of "friction," as suggested by this article.

 

However, workers were singling out Penny Pritzker, who serves on the board of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. Pritzker has donated a combined total of $56,240 to DNC Services Corp and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

 

The workers pledged to return and, given the history of the struggle against hotels in Chicago so far, it’s likely there will be another civil disobedience action in Chicago in the not-so-distant future.

 

 

Nonprofit Organizations Funded by Comcast Want You to Ignore the Possible Impact of the Comcast-NBC Merger on Media

10:30 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

Flickr Photo by andy_baker7

On July 13th, citizens from Chicago piled into a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) public hearing on the Comcast-NBC Universal merger to weigh in on the merger and give public comments that would become part of the FCC’s legal record for and against the merger. The legal record would be referred to when making a decision on whether to allow Comcast to merge with NBC or not.

 

 

The hearing was held at Thorne Auditorium on Northwestern University’s campus in Chicago. It was possibly the only public hearing the FCC will be holding on this merger in the country.

 

 

Each person in attendance had an opportunity to sign up and give two minutes of public testimony. About ninety people signed up. Most were from Chicago but some were from California and other parts of the country.

 

 

Those giving public testimony voiced their opinion on a media consolidation move that would put production and distribution into the hands of one company. This would make it a vertical merger. The merger would also mean that Comcast would control one in every five television viewing hours and could potentially push its competitors in the industry to raise prices on cable subscribers by charging them more for NBC content.

 

 

A person with the League of United Latin-American Citizens (LULAC) testified, "For several years, Comcast has been sponsoring our scholarship program." He explained that Comcast had sponsored community festivals, joined with residents to clean up neighborhoods, and helped plant flowers in the community, and said, "In these tough economic times, it’s hard to find corporate partners."

 

 

Comcast joined LULAC’s corporate alliance in 2006. Ironically, this was about the same time that LULAC was supporting FCC hearings in California, New York, and Texas on media diversity and the negative effects of media consolidation and concentration on staffing and programming as a result. In addition to LULAC, the Hispanic Media Coalition, the National Latino Media Council, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Institute of Latino Policy supported the hearings.

 

 

LULAC’s endorsement ran a bit contrary to what Green Line’s Ken Wang, someone who had personally testified before Congress on this matter, claimed. He spoke of California and said, "last year [there] was a breakthrough study conducted that measured the impact of local Spanish-language TV news and having that available Spanish markets increased Hispanic voter turnout by about 5 to 10%." He added, "Comcast is about to inherit NBC, which tried to dismantle five of the top ten Hispanic media markets in this country." LULAC did not address how NBC (or General Electric) might influence the way Comcast handled diversity if the merger went through.

 

 

A representative from a community college foundation that serves around 42,000 by working to provide scholarships said, "Comcast has been a considerable corporate power and good corporate citizen. I have had the privilege to work with two Comcast employees who have sat on our foundation board." She added that without the support of Comcast, "we would not be able to provide the help that we provide to our students."

 

 

Someone from the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council spoke about how their social service agency was benefiting from the help of Comcast and making it possible for them to help residents. Maureen Kelly of the Chamber of Commerce testified and attested to Comcast’s corporate citizenship. A young man from the Boy & Girls Club stood up to tell everyone about how Comcast had bought the club a new computer lab. And, a woman with Little Angels in Elgin, IL spoke of how the "facility for children and young adults with disabilities" was given a digital upgrade to their residents’ televisions and Comcast helped them transition efficiently and swiftly.

 

 

The tenor of the public hearing was like this for much of the hearing. Nonprofit organizations supported by Comcast flooded the microphones with talk of corporate citizenry and how Comcast had delivered on promises to them. They made a case for the merger without talking about Comcast the Internet Provider or Comcast the Cable Television Provider, which is what the FCC should be worried about first and foremost as it decides whether to approve of this joint venture or not.

 

 

The hearing focused on Comcast’s support for social services until Dr. Lora Chamberlin, a progressive activist with Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), said, "Corporate consolidated media at the present is deficient in progressive voices," and added, "It would only crucify on the cross of consolidation the local news, media unions, media jobs, media access, real media competition, diversity of media ownership, diversity of voices in the media, affordable internet and cable, both in innovation in content, technology and distribution, net neutrality and possibly even drive a stake into the heart of our beloved democracy."

 

 

She asked, "Is Comcast a social service agency or a media provider? I have to ask this. It seems like a great community partner but that’s not what we are talking about here. We’re talking about media consolidation."

 

 

Dale Lehman, who had done work with WZRE and was wearing a Democracy Now! T-shirt said, "Comcast’s role in this town doesn’t make for democracy or access." And, a resident of Chicago, Nicholas, said, "They spent all this money buying up all this goodwill with the social service agencies. That’s fine. I congratulate them on being successful. But, there’s more to [the merger] than just being a social service agency."

 

 

The hearing had to get through a good twenty to thirty people who had likely been charged with the task of pretending to be a citizen without a conflict of interest, without a stake in the future of Comcast, but eventually, there were dedicated media activists sharing very real concerns about what the merger would mean for communications in this country. And, they showed it was irrelevant whether Comcast had served the community well or not.

 

 

Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action, an organization with a vibrant history of activism in the city, testified, "Comcast has lobbied against better funding of Chicago public access station, has funded scare campaigns [in opposition] to community Internet referenda in the Chicago area, has tried to defeat network neutrality in the courts and in its Internet traffic policies, [and] has fired labor union organizers."

 

 

Steve Macek, an associate professor at North Central College and also someone affiliated with Chicago Media Action, explained that the merger would cost Chicago jobs and "undermine local journalism, limit consumer options, [and] place increased control over Chicago’s media in the hands of a company that is notorious for its abysmally low customer satisfaction ratings and its disregard for workers’ rights."

 

 

Macek wondered about the future of his students who are aspiring to become broadcasters and journalists and highlighted the fact that following AOL’s merger with Time Warner in 2000, the combined company laid off some 2,400 employees in the first year alone, which was about 3% of its "pre-merger work force." He reminded the FCC that this was at a time when "the economy was booming and media companies were flush with ad revenues." Comcast, according to Macek, employs 7500 people in the Chicago area so, if it were to trim 3% of its work force, that would mean about 225 workers would be cut. Yet, because Comcast will be taking on debt in order to merge, the cuts, Macek said, would probably be much more severe.

 

 

The loss of jobs, the increase in cable and Internet prices to consumers, Comcast’s opposition to net neutrality, and Comcast’s opposition to unions were all highlighted. But, one key issue, in the end, was paramount: What would happen to public access television if the merger was allowed?

 

 

Barbara Popovich, Executive Director of Chicago Access Network Television (CAN-TV), one of the largest and most widely used public access televison network in the country, stated, "In Chicago, Comcast has made good in its obligation regarding the public access, but Comcast’s support of public channels has been withdrawn in a growing number of places where government has failed to protect the public."

 

 

Popovich suggested that some type of government intervention may be called for especially if, as the Alliance for Communication and Democracy’s filed comments indicate, Comcast’s public interest assertions about the merger may be questionable.

 

 

Nick Karl from Kartemquin Films, a film company in Chicago that primarily makes documentary films, explained that he was "speaking on behalf of public access television" and how it had helped him launch a career in documentary filmmaking. He wanted the FCC to not forget the "role of public access channels" as a "vital public sphere for people who want a way to express their voice."

 

 

And, Vicki Cervantes, who said she was with a community media producers group, Enlojo, an all-volunteer group that does work in Latino communities in the Pilsen and Little Village areas of Chicago, said she was "very concerned about the protection of public access." She called on the FCC to do more to regulate and enforce regulations on public access so public access could remain protected and she echoed a point made previously.

 

 

"We do not believe the role of the FCC is to make decisions based on how generous a company may be to community organizations but on what’s good for democracy and media and democracy in this country, " said Cervantes.

 

 

Finally, it may be the proud member of the Chicago chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Greg Davis, who stood up to tell his story at the hearing, that citizens should aim to protect most when deciding whether to support or oppose the merger -

 

 

 

"In 2007, I produced a miniseries on original members of the Tuskegee Airmen that aired on public access channels. I am sure you all are aware of the history and denial faced by all of the original members of the Tuskegee Airmen when they returned to public life. That miniseries, while not perfect in its production, was only possible because we in Chicago had access to public channels that was independent of corporate control. The merger of Comcast and NBC is simply the combining of two mega giants already in the industry. Organizations like the Tuskegee Airmen need a method to broadcast their programs that can only be accomplished with open access to public channels."

 

 

 

The presence of nonprofit organizations indicated that Comcast is doing everything to make sure this merger happens. There really weren’t all that many people at the hearing who weren’t "working for" Comcast, who didn’t have a conflict of interest and stand to possibly benefit from a merger (although merging could mean Comcast has to cut funding to some of these nonprofit organizations).

 

 

The reality is that if this merger takes place Comcast will be the dominant Chicago cable provider and Internet provider and will own Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, NBC Chicago and Telemundo and, nationally, it will own at least 42 cable television networks, at least nine international channels, two broadcast networks, a number of digital media properties like Hulu.com, and Universal Studios/Production and Universal Studios Home Entertainment along with all of Univeral’s theme parks and resorts.

 

 

The merger will produce a behemoth that will dominate areas of production and distribution in this country. It also could potentially have all the features of a too-big-to-fail corporation, which means American taxpayers could end up supporting the new conglomerate if it takes on too much economic risk as a result of the merger.

Comcast-NBC Merger: Media Consolidation In the Name of Diversity

8:27 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

Photo from Free Press, which is pushing people to attend a public hearing in Chicago on July 13th on the Comcast-NBC merger and is opposed to the merger.

 

Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) put together a hearing on the possible merger of Comcast and NBC Universal on July 8th, which was held in Chicago at the Everett Dirksen Federal Building (the same building holding the US v. Blagojevich proceedings). The hearing, held by the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet (a subcommittee of the Committee on Energy & Commerce in the House of Representatives), invited "witnesses" to testify and provide insight into who might benefit from the merge if it went through.

 

The hearing held was not open to public comments. However, Rep. Rush, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN) asked questions of all the invited witnesses after an hour of opening statements.

 

The witnesses present included: Samuel R. DeSimone, Jr., General Counsel, Earthlink, Inc; Will Griffin, President and Chief Executive Officer, Hip Hop on Demand, Jonathan Jackson, National Spokesman, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Inc.; Paula Madison, Executive Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer, NBC Universal; Joseph W. Waz, Jr., Senior Vice President, External Affairs and Public Policy Counsel, Comcast Corporation. (Ms. Shirley Franklin, Senior Adviser for the Alliance for Digital Equality was invited but did not attend the hearing).

 

Initially, it appeared the merger would be framed as a debate about how it would impact consumers. The opening statements from representatives at the hearing highlighted how the merger could eliminate competition and limit choices in the marketplace. The statements made note of the fact that Comcast is "the nation’s largest video programming distributor, the largest residential broadband provider, and the third-largest home telephone service provider" as well as the fact that, "as measured by annual revenue, NBC is the fourth-largest media and entertainment company." The opportunity for a discussion of media consolidation presented itself.

 

But, Rep. Buyer seemingly headed off a real discussion on consolidation and said people needed to be careful to define what we think this merger will look like and get it wrong. He said there was a need to be careful because this is a dynamic industry. Rep. Buyer’s remark, if translated from marketspeak possibly meant worrying about what it could do to the marketplace of entertainment, news, technology and ideas is beside the point. (*Rep. Buyer may have been using talking points from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.)

 

So, instead of discussion on media consolidation, what emerged as the core of discussion and the wrapping that this merger would be packaged in so policy makers, industry representatives, concerned citizens and others would accept it was diversity. This was how it was framed and it became increasingly clear that Comcast and NBC Universal had been asked to make commitments to diversity by representatives if they wanted to get a merger deal and if they wanted representatives in Congress to work with them and make this merger happen without FCC or Department of Justice interference.

 

Griffin of Hip Hop on Demand [full statement] became the example of the type of media entrepreneur or mogul that representatives thought the merger could help produce more of. Griffin detailed his past, which included working at Time Warner during its post-merger integration with Turner, joining News Corp’s Strategy and Marketing group for a brief period of time, being advised by former Motown Chairman Clarence Avant, having a faculty advisor in law school who was Dennis Hightower, the first African-American President of Walt Disney Television, producing film with Reuben Cannon and Bishop TD Jakes, and partnering with Russell Simmons and Stan Lathan to create an launch Hip Hop on Demand on Comcast.

 

Griffin’s statement in support of the merger highlighted two reasons: "1) Comcast has the best Infrastructure of Inclusion to build upon in the media industry, and 2) African-American consumers and policy-makers have more potential leverage over Comcast than any other media company."

 

Griffin highlighted how Viacom’s UP and Time Warner’s The WB merged and "the first casualties were African-American shows" (Girlfriends, All of Us, Everybody Hates Chris). He attributed this to the fact that "advertisers have only been willing to pay for a limited amount of African-American impressions and will not pay for every African-American view generated." He further summarized, "The root of the problem is this: advertisers’ unwillingness to allocate minority marketing budgets in proportion to viewership ratings."

 

Convinced that Comcast would correct this problem, Griffin added that "some of the very systems at the core of the Comcast media empire were birthed by African-American media owners" and how "thousands of minorities in leadership positions at Comcast have been invaluable" to him as an owner of African-American Media.

 

This all became a point of debate during the question period as Rep. Buyer singled out suggestions that minority ownership would relate to minority programming. Rep. Buyer thought this claim defied economic principles, that total audience must be enough to cover production. But, it was maintained by Griffin that, while advertisers may have paid for all 10 million viewers of Seinfeld, a show with a predominantly African-American audience would maybe pay only 8 million of its 10 million viewers because advertisers have traditionally had a limited budget for minorities and have built this "defect into the market."

 

Rainbow/PUSH spokesman Jackson’s testimony [full statement] contrasted Griffin’s faith in the merger to correct the landscape for minorities. Jackson put the merger in the "context of economic emancipation" and wondered what "Comcast’s Return on Investment (ROI) in assisting in the economic empowerment of African American and underserved communities" would be and asked why it would be "good business for Comcast to address two of the nation’s most important challenges: creating jobs and helping to connect every American, especially people of color, to vitally needed news information and broadband internet services."

 

Jackson’s statement commented on media ownership:

There are three minority owners in the market, controlling a total of three stations, or less than 5 percent of all the commercial radio stations in Chicago: WJOB-AM 1230, controlled by Hammond, Indiana-based Vasquez Development, a Latino- female-owned company; WLTH-AM 1370, controlled by WLTH Radio, an African- American-owned company; and WVON-AM 1690, controlled by Chicago-based and African-American-owned Midway Broadcasting. Vasquez Development, WLTH Radio and Midway Broadcasting each own just a single station.

Media ownership in Chicago doesn’t reflect the diversity of its population. Racial and ethnic minorities are 37 percent of the population in the Chicago TV market; 38 percent of population in the Chicago radio market; and nearly two-thirds of the population in the city of Chicago. However, racial and ethnic minorities own less than 4 percent of Chicago’s full-power commercial radio and television stations. Women own just 6 percent of Chicago’s full-power commercial radio and television stations, despite comprising over half the population.

We want to make sure that independently owned and controlled minority cable networks don’t find it harder to gain carriage if this deal happens.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the civil rights community held out great hope that the emerging cable industry would be reflective of communities of color in programming, ownership and staffing. Our community hoped to not only own cable networks but cable franchises as well. But this simply hasn’t happened.

 

Jackson noted the need for corporate titans like Comcast or NBC who have the power to shape images and cultures to be held accountable for what they do or fail to do.

 

The witnesses for Comcast and NBC Universal, for the most part, detailed what they would do to build support for the merger. Madison of NBC Universal [full statement] said four diversity councils were being established and the geographic footprint of Telemundo would be expanded. Waz of Comcast [full statement] detailed commitment to continuing investment in broadcasting (which many communities of color depend upon) and announced that 10 new independently operated and controlled channels would be launched with a focus on ensuring minorities would end up as operators and controllers of this channel.

 

Rep. Boucher asked both witnesses for Comcast and NBC to specifically state that their increase in minority ownership and focus on diversity would actually result in diverse programming. Neither could commit. Madison, instead, took this opportunity to explain the industry had long way to go in order to be more diverse and inclusive but noted that shows like Undercovers, The Event and Outlaw (starring Jimmy Smits) would be coming on with minority characters.

 

It was Rep. Waters who put an end to this charade all in the name of diversity. She pointed out that the merger had flown under the radar until she requested an extension of the comment period. She said neither Comcast nor NBC had made any commitments to diversity but now that hearings were happening they were coming forward with ideas, many which were offered in the past week (the plan for creating 10 independent channels was offered days ago). She demonstrated that the corporations were only making concessions for diversity and consumers because there now existed a huge opportunity for both corporations to benefit.

 

Rep. Waters stated, "You don’t have diverse companies," and explained they need help to become more diverse. She called them out for not really answering Rep. Boucher’s question about minority ownership leading to minority programming. She went through a list of MSNBC and NBC news shows emphasizing the lack of diversity. She noted that if this goes through and there is no way to force the resulting entity to maintain certain commitments to diversity and the wider public, certain threats to democracy could present themselves. And, she closed by saying, "I want you to know you have failed miserably."

 

In conclusion, the hearing put on display the tactics Comcast and NBC Universal are using to get the merger through. First, they are already behaving as if they have merged. Two, they are selling it under the guise of increasing diversity and minority ownership.

 

Simply taking television genres with a predominantly white cast and changing the leads to people of color doesn’t necessarily mean a correction of past failures occurs. Cultures, audiences, opportunities, concerns, and interests could still be left out; the storylines could still be ones that do not speak to the people who have gained a level of representation. Also, it does matter if predominantly white people are reporting news and people of color are not and Comcast and NBC Universal should be made to address this reality publicly.

 

The resulting power of the merger is relevant, despite what representatives like Rep. Buyer claim. It will not only shape entertainment but will gain even greater lobbying power to advance free market initiatives in Congress that oppose Internet freedom (net neutrality) and create opportunities for increased profit. And, it will be able to absorb and co-opt alternative/independent news and programming and play a role in deciding who gets to access this news and programming.

 

*For more, read the briefing memo or talking points that were discussed at the hearing.

 

**The following videos show Rep. Maxine Waters in a video produced by Free Press questioning NBC’s Jeff Zucker on diversity and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asking questions about the Comcast-NBC merger.