Thursday, February 15, 2007

Look at the Birdie

Thanks to Doug, for giving me the idea for this piece

The tragic injury of the heroic Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, moved many people, and the circumstances of his death after his latest surgery occupied much of the media's time. I love animals, and the death of an animal like Barbaro, who was a champion, might have attracted my interest, and might even have taken up some part of my thoughts, if I hadn't realized that the media coverage of his death was at least partly an attempt to distract me from more important events.

The media started talking about Barbaro on about January 16th,coincidentally as the planning for the large national peace protest in Washington DC on January 27th was nearing its final stages.

Larger View Left

Larger View Right

The furor over Barbaro continued, through the attendance of over 500,000 people at the march on that Saturday, until he was put down on January 29th, the same day that many of the people involved in the protest march in Washington were lobbying congress to get them to vote to end the funding for the war. Well over 90% of all of the members of Congress, both House and Senate, or their staff, received a delegation from peace activists. There was a somewhat dramatic arrest made, of some of those activists, in the Rayburn House office building due to an overreaction by the Capitol Police.

Somehow, those events never made it into the mainstream press, but a horse being put down took up hours of the news during that time.

Anna Nicole Smith, similarly, has been portrayed in the media as a tragic figure. Her son's death in her hospital room a few months ago, and her "heroic" fight all the way to the Supreme Court for her inheritance rights has been played repeatedly over the airwaves. Her recent death in a hotel room of unknown causes caused MSNBC to ask the question that is apparently on all of our minds: Did Anna Nicole choke on her own vomit?

There is no question that Smith led a tragic life. She was a sad and compulsive woman, who seemed only to feel alive when the world was watching. Pandering to her compulsion, even after her death, is simply bad taste.

The events in the world at large continue to play out. A large-scale confrontation between the United States and Iran looms in our immediate future, unless someone changes course rapidly. This could drag us into a long and difficult war with a formidable enemy, at the very time when our military is exhausted and demoralized.

Headlines of Anna Nicole compete with the latest claims of "evidence" of intelligence showing that Iran provided weapons for attacks on U.S. troops.

O.J.'s latest public villainy distracts us from less publicized reports of the attempt of some Senate Democrats to fix that part of the Patriot Act that has allowed Gonzalez's latest attempt to limit prosecutions on political allies of the president.

What has happened to the media in this country? Why do important stories go unreported while frivolous tabloid crap gets shoved down our throats? Why do stories that are so big that they have to be reported get drowned out by provocative scandal? The simple answer is that the news is "ratings driven" and that people watch what they want to see, and the networks are just providing that. Bull. The networks put stuff on that they know will be distracting, and they do it on behalf of corporate interests.

A recent serious article rated the news content of the Jon Stewart Show as being "as substantive" as network news. This indicates to me not so much that the Jon Stewart show should be considered as an important source of news, but more that the content of serious network news programs has been dumbed down so much that the news content is no better than an admittedly good comedy show.

Similarly, the Republicans are refusing even to debate the war or the escalation on its merits. On C-Span over the last few days, during the House debates on the non-binding resolution, the Republicans have hammered on talking points over and over trying to frame the debate on the "Global War on Terror". They have characterized retreat from Iraq as defeat by the terrorists, as if the war in Iraq, and victory there, has anything to do with defeating Terrorism.

It seemed odd, that they are so much on the same page, until my friend Barbara pointed out on a local talk radio program this morning that they are literally reading from the same page. A memo from John Shadegg(R-AZ) and Pete Hoekstra(R-MI) to the Republican caucus was leaked and is posted on Steny Hoyer's Majority Leader web page, showing the talking points they were spoon fed. If the previous link breaks at some point, I have uploaded another copy of it here.

This also is a program of distraction. There are three levels of deception here.

First, within the framework of the "Global War on Terror" argument, the Republicans wave the flag, and talk about defeating Islamic Extremists. They state that radical Islamists pose a threat to Americans (true). They then state that the extreme views of terrorists help fuel the war in Iraq (also true). Their final premise is that the threat from terrorists is global in nature (true, and well supported by statistics in their memo). The Republicans then leap to two conclusions. Withdrawal from Iraq would cause an escalation of the violence, and Americans would be endangered at home. The argument is logically flawed. For those familiar with logic, it is a clear example of a fallacious argument. The facts presented in the premises are true, but they don't prove the conclusion.

Second, the framework of the argument itself is not valid. The Iraq war has never been about fighting terror, this is about oil. Iraq itself had nothing to do with terrorism until we invaded the country. The problem with global terrorism, exacerbated by our invasion in Iraq, is independent of any "success" or "failure" in that country.

Third, the debate isn't about withdrawing from Iraq at all, this is supposed to be a debate about whether or not to support the escalation. They are refusing to address the issue of escalating the war, or the mistakes made in Iraq, at all. They are, as Shadegg & Hoekstra state in the memo, afraid to debate the Democrats on the substance of the issue at all, because they know they will lose. It says in the memo, specifically:
The debate should not be about the surge or its details. This debate should not even be about the Iraq war to date, mistakes that have been made, or whether we can, or cannot, win militarily. If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose.

When we do leave, whenever that happens, two things will happen immediately. The insurgents will no longer be attacking Americans, and with us gone, they will be less likely to consider the Iraqi Military and Police forces as collaborators. There is sectarian violence, and there are terrorist attacks, but these are harder to stop because of cover in the form of attacks by insurgents on American forces and Iraqi security forces.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen when we leave. It is certainly a real, and even likely possibility that the violence in Iraq would dramatically increase immediately following our withdrawal. Would that be sustained? That is hard to say. It certainly is true however, that withdrawal of American troops would remove some of the motivation for violence. As I have said before, leaving will be difficult whether we leave now, or later. It is not a question of whether we will leave, but when. Our presence in Iraq is untenable, and cannot last.

The administration quietly moves corporate interests, American soldiers, and money around like pieces on a game board, while dangling salacious video of Anna Nicole to keep the public sedated. While hundreds of thousands of people march on the nations capitol, the numbers are under-reported, and the death of a horse is trumpeted to the people. For those of us that are paying attention, Republicans in Congress indulge in scripted misdirection on C-Span in an attempt to distract us from what is really going on.

This misdirection in the media is frightening. As Edward R. Murrow said of television in his speech at the RTNDA convention in Chicago, October 15, 1958:
"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Control of the media is the first step in controlling people. Mussolini knew that.

"Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels. A propaganda organization employs propagandists who engage in propagandism—the applied creation and distribution of such forms of persuasion."
—R.A. Nelson, A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States, 1996

Germany had Joseph Goebbels. America has Karl Rove.

Our story is not being told. The story of the Iraq war is not being told. Who will tell it? Bill Moyers said it best, in his remarks at the National Conference for Media Reform, in Memphis on January 12th of this year:
"This is the moment freedom begins. The moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it's time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself."

It is not too late to take back what is ours, before we slip into despotism. It is not too late to take back our freedom, to take back the soul of America. It is not up to politicians to decide our fates, but rather it is we ourselves.

Pick up a protest sign. Pick up a bullhorn. Pick up a pen. We have to win.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

Ripples in the Pond

First thanks to all those who provided photos & other resources for this blog. I will be creating a webshots album tomorrow (well, later today) with all the photos, create a link to it here on the blog page and email everyone on the short list a link. Too many pictures and links were sent to include everything here. I have tried my best to document accurately. If anyone has comments or feels that I left something out, please feel free to email me.

If you are looking for the video records of the events in Washington, please see my Peace Resource Page.

We have reached a new threshold in the struggle for peace. The events of the past few days were significant in many ways, and across the U.S., there were over 60 protests against the war in Iraq. In San Diego, over 2,000 participated in the event in Balboa Park. In other cities, apart from the nation's capitol, numbers at those events ranged from 200 in San Jose to over 3,000 in Los Angeles.

In Washington DC, the event was somewhat larger.

Most mainstream media outlets estimated the crowd at "tens of thousands" which was reported early, and most press outlets just seemed to run with that. There was no attempt at a credible estimate of the numbers. Event organizers, however, estimate the march as having over 500,000 people participating.

I am fortunate enough to have a family member that lives in Washington, and so with discount plane fare, was able to afford the trip. I arrived in Washington on the evening of Wednesday January 24th. Once I got settled, I called a few people that I knew were going to be in town, and made arrangements to meet a few people the next day.

Thursday morning I took the Metro (subway) downtown, and met with some members of Veterans for Peace (VFP) at their hotel. The four of us (Bruce, Will, Elliott, and myself) had a leisurely bite and coffee, and discussed a variety of things as well as plans for the next few days. For them it was old home week, with reminiscences of past marches and other protest events, while for me it was a learning experience. I am relatively new to activism, and am trying to emulate a sponge when I am around people with knowledge and experience.

Later that day a Veterans For Peace event "Support and Defend the Constitution" was planned at 2:00pm. The event basically was veterans and others affirming or re-affirming our oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. There was also readings from VFP's case for impeachment, and statements by several VFP members, including Colonel Ann Wright, who resigned her position in the U.S. Department of State when the United States invaded Iraq, and has been active in the peace movement ever since.

Following that, three of our original group (minus Elliott, he had to go do some more organizing - he's a busy guy) went tramping around DC with protest signs. I was mostly a tag-along, without an actual sign until later in the trip. We made a special trip to the White House, and posed with a large banner. The Secret Service (uniform division) made a special point of getting our names, though they were happy to get just our first names. When they asked if we planned any civil disobedience today, Will cheerfully told them "not today".

After that, we walked through the cold (by that time it was snowing) back to their hotel, and after checking my email and hanging out for a bit, I headed back.

Thursday night I found out through the grapevine (thanks Barbara!) that Elliott needed help with security at the stage area on the east end of the Mall, toward the Capitol. I volunteered to do a shift from 3:00am to 6:00am Friday morning. Though it was cold, it was something that needed to be done, though that pretty much wrecked me for anything else during the day on Friday.

Friday evening I went to a candlelight vigil, again in front of the White House, focusing on the torture issue. After that event, we went as a group to the Harrington Hotel, and met in a conference room arranged by Barbara. We started the evening as an eclectic group of activists from all over the U.S. (plus one Aussie and an American woman living in Rome).

There were a lot of different people there, Vets for Peace people, Camp Casey Alumni, various San Diego activists, Code Pink people, a variety of Freeway Bloggers, and a few progressively minded people we swept up off the street. The thing all of us had in common was the experience of working with, hanging with, or experiencing the consequences of knowing the amazing Barbara Cummings. We agreed to call ourselves "Friends of Barbara", and to join a yahoo group, which Barbara will set up. I will post a link to it once it's established.

Friends of Barbara

Colonel Ann Wright

Crowd shot

Friday night (or technically, Saturday morning) I again did security watch at the stage structure from 12:00 to 3:00. I managed to get a few hours sleep both before and after, however, and so was ready for the march the next day.

This was really one of the most amazing days, well, ever. The Metro was choked with activists, and a bunch of us got off at the Judiciary Square stop, and since we shared a tourists knowledge of DC, managed to direct ourselves to the Mall.

I arrived early, close to 9:00am. The excitement started to build early, and a sea of protest signs soon cut off the view of the crowd. At the rally nobody on the ground really had any idea of how big it was. The plan was for Veterans and Families to lead off, so Vets For Peace, Iraq Vets Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Vietnam Vets Against the War were all supposed to gather at the front and march behind the celebrities. I heard only some of the speakers because we moved to the staging area partway through the rally, and things didn't go according to plan, mostly because of the size of the crowd.

The number of people was really amazing. I was actually happy to be back in the main pack of the marchers, and we went slower than most because we were negotiating our banner, which tended to get caught up on people and things. The whole thing was electrifying. The number of marchers were so great that they blew through the police barriers (without incident) and past the original parade route. The streets were choked sidewalk to sidewalk with people, and when the first of us finished the march, the last of us were starting. We completely surrounded the capitol, possibly for the first time since the sixties.

Will & Bruce (Vets For Peace)

Peace March Security Marshalls

These should give some idea of the actual size of the crowd:

San Diego Veterans For Peace

Part way up the first side of the street, on the way up the hill, there was a pitifully small group of counter-protesters, at most 75 in number. Their slogans were ignorant, and possibly racist. One guy was wearing a gas mask and holding a sign that said "Hippies Stink". There were three or four people carrying signs with a picture of Saddam in the noose, with the caption "Sic Semper Tyrranis". Since this quotes John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin, they were either completely ignorant of history with no idea of the implications of the quote, or were aware of the underlying meaning and meant to imply something else. There was no incident, and they were not a significant influence on the march.

The exuberance and good spirit of the march is what made the most impact on me. There was no confrontation that I saw, save for a few words exchanged with the counter-protesters, and everyone that I talked to had a feeling of hopefulness. The police were relaxed, though watchful, and seemed a bit bemused that there were so many marchers. The other thing that struck me was the number of young people in the march. A significant percentage of the demonstrators were in their twenties or younger. This is hopeful for the future of the peace movement.

No words necessary

Several of our local San Diego VFP members went out for dinner afterwards, then we went our separate ways.

On Sunday I attended a series of seminars hosted by Progressive Democrats of America, United for Peace and Justice, and others, on how best to lobby your congressman. There were a variety of seminars offered in the morning, and I went to a lecture on the history of Iraq since the war, and an analysis of the current political situation in Iraq. The three presenters were Rusty Eisenberg, a peace protester and former history professor; Aaron Gilante, a journalist who has been to Iraq three times during the war, the last time in 2005; and Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi National living in Washington and working as a lobbyist trying to educate government officials about Iraq. It was really an amazing amount of information, and an excellent analysis that has answered a lot of my questions about the complex mess that is otherwise known as the occupation of Iraq.

The afternoon was spent with a series of speakers advising us about a number of ways of staying on message, and making sure the congress heard what it was we were saying. In other words: De-fund the war, bring our troops home, take care of them once they are home, no war with Iran, and investigate the shit out of the Bush Administration. After we heard the speakers, we broke up by state, and got some basic information about California, then actually broke up by district. The San Diego people all got together and we decided to go to all five of our congressmen together. The appointments were sequential, and we were able to attend all of them.

First, at 9:00am, we met in the cafeteria of the Rayburn building for breakfast, and to plan the day. I got there a bit early, and got some strange looks from the congressional staffers and lobbyists having their coffee, but it was sort of fun to watch them get more and more surprised as the cafeteria began to fill up with peace activists. There were probably over a hundred of us, scattered amongst the suits.

At 11:00am we went to the office of Duncan Hunter (R-CA, 52nd District).

I was a point person for this one, since I am one of his constituents, and had gone through something of an obstacle course, along with a few others, trying to get a meeting scheduled. I ended up getting the meeting arranged with his office. Hunter himself was out of town, campaigning for President in New Hampshire. Our meeting was with Vicki Middleton, his Chief of Staff. The meeting lasted about thirty-five minutes, and mostly Ms. Middleton just took notes and nodded. She did clarify some positions, but was somewhat evasive about his positions on pretty much everything. I myself know where he stands on most things, based on our recent correspondence. I think we did make an impact on her when I presented her with a pair of baby shoes with the name of Akea Hmza Mushad Alhgebr, who was an Iraqi child killed in the war at the age of 11 months.

On the way out of Hunter's office, there was a camera crew filming some kind of award being given to Congresswoman Woolsey for, as Jeeni Criscenzo put it, "Having a spine". Jeeni got interviewed, and then handed me the mike, and the camera started rolling and I did the best I could.

Our next meeting was not until 1:00pm, so we had decided as a group to attend a memorial service event. Several dozen people were in the courtyard of the Rayburn building near the reflecting pool. It was their intent to follow in spirit the example of the group known as the White Rose Society, a group of students that said "We will not be silent" and protested the Nazi atrocities during World War II. This event was to be specificially in remembrance of those that have died, and in protest of the atrocities of the Bush administration. Those gathered threw white roses into the reflecting pool in the courtyard of the Rayburn House office building, and said the name of one who has fallen.

The Capitol Police decided that the event was a threat. They blocked all the doors leading to the courtyard, and refused to let anyone else in to participate in this quiet and artistic protest. They repeatedly demanded that everyone leave. In the course of this, they threatened members of the media with arrest if they continued to take pictures. Those of us blocked from entering tried to explain the circumstances of the protest, and were ordered to clear the area.

We gathered on the steps overlooking the foyer leading to the courtyard and watched. Someone started to sing Give Peace a Chance, and we all just joined in. Then we sang We Shall Overcome. There were nine brave people
who chose to stay, including an associate member of Veterans for Peace, and as they were led off in handcuffs, all of us chanted "The whole world is watching" over and over.

There is a short article in the Washington Post, that got several pertinent facts wrong, but at least there was some media coverage of it.

Those of our group that remained went on, and we next went to see Susan Davis's assistant in her office at 1:00pm (D-CA, 53rd District).

There we were well received, and were assured that Congresswoman Davis was on our side. Her assistant seemed knowledgable about the issues, and about the specifice resolutions and bills we were concerned with, and with our concerns about investigation. There was however, no real commitment to vote any particular way on any specific measure.

Then at 2:00pm we met with Brian Bilbray (R-CA, 50th District).

Congressman Bilbray was arrogant, rude, condescending, and dismissive. The meeting in his office was a long thirty minutes. Once his constituents made the basic points, the rest of us spoke up on several issues. At one point, I did get a bit heated with Mr. Bilbray when he was cross-examining me about alternatives to the American occupation of Iraq. When we left his office, everyone was a bit tense. No, everyone was really pissed off.

At 4:30pm we met with Darrell Issa (R-CA, 49th District).

He, in something of a nice contrast to Bilbray, was charming. He does have a soul, and was moved by the gift of childrens shoes. These shoes represent a specific Iraqi child, orphaned in the war. Sadly, due to the loss of his parents, nobody, including the child, knows his real name. Issa did not budge in his positions, but did acknowledge mistakes made by the Bush administration. If things continue to worsen, though he did not say it, he may change his position.

At 5:30pm we were welcomed by Bob Filner (D-CA, 51st District) into our last meeting.

Rumor has it that he changed his flight to an earlier one so that he could meet with us, and he certainly pushed it timewise to the limit, leaving right at (or a little after) 6:30, probably being a bit late for a vote. He was attentive, serious, and paid attention to everything that was said. He was already co-sponsoring all the important pieces of legislation that we were concerned about so there was perhaps no overriding reason for our visit, but for us it was a necessary and welcome change from each of the other visits. He was himself a Freedom Rider in the sixties, which is something I didn't know until another San Diegan told me after our meeting.

His suggestions were for me some of the most important things I heard that day. To paraphrase him, he said that we should engage the middle. By that I mean that even though 70% of Americans believe that we should get out of Iraq, that doesn't mean that 70% of Americans are doing something about that. Engaging those people who know something is wrong but are pretending that nothing is wrong, may be the most important work we do.

Good places to engage these folks are places like the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, Elks lodges and other places where average Americans get together. These are the places that all the politicians visit, and that all the politicians get asked questions. If Issa, Davis, and Bilbray were questioned about getting out of Iraq in these places, they might reconsider their positions more than if peace activists or liberal talk radio ask about it.

I think his point is well taken. All in all the protest and the follow up with Congress was highly effective. It was a turning point for me. I have been dedicated to the peace movement for some time now, but I see a way to effective protest. Non-violence and education are the keys to this, and there are a number of ways we can step up the pressure and let Congress know that we are watching. The question is, how do we turn that middle into people concerned enough to get involved, even in small ways. How do we enlarge our base of support and affect the opinions of the people of the United States enough to get them to see that their way of life is threatened.

Jeeni Criscenzo's blog made a good point, in that civil disobedience actions may become more important as time goes on. I have learned a great deal about people, about motivations, about fear, and about courage over the last seven days. I know that it will take a great deal of courage to stand up and force this government of ours to recognize change, and after witnessing the overreaction of the Capitol Police against a few people throwing roses in a pond, I know that many of us must take heart. I have long said that I cannot afford to be arrested, since it would affect my employment, and I don't have the financial wherewithal to just pull up stakes, but sometimes risks must be taken, where appropriate. I don't know what I will do the next time people of good conscience are being led away in handcuffs. I do know in my heart, that it was those I saw standing up for their principles and being arrested that were courageous, and it was the police who were acting out of fear.