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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Elephant in the Room in L.A. City Hall

This article was originally published on on Thursday, January 29, 2009:

There was a very large elephant in the L.A. City Council chamber on Jan. 28th, but unlike the proverbial pachyderm, everyone was talking about him. His name is Billy, and he's a 23-year old Asian elephant who has lived many years in a 0.6-acre, concrete enclosure at the L.A. Zoo. For 2 years, he has been alone; since the Zoo (under public pressure) sent their female elephant Ruby to a sanctuary when her mental and physical health was declining. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has said "elephants should be in sanctuaries and not in zoos", requested a review of the exhibit. The subsequent Dec. 2005 report advised expanding the yard space to 3.0 acres and getting softer substrate. On April 19, 2006 the Council approved a massive building project, meant for several elephants, called "the Pachyderm Forest." But in Dec. 2008, they halted construction to consider Councilmember Tony Cardenas' new motion to close the exhibit and send Billy to roam a spacious elephant sanctuary instead (i.e. P.A.W.S., in San Andreas, where Ruby is.) Cardenas made the motion in Nov. because he felt that when the Council approved the project, they did not have all the information. "This city can't afford to build a $40 million elephant mortuary," he said in Nov.

On Weds., L.A. City Hall's council chamber was so packed it was standing-room only (with spillover encouraged to go to another room, and watch on closed-circuit TV). Animal lovers came out en masse both for and against the proposal, both sides seemingly convinced that the other side doesn't care about animals. Passions were intense, and many of the over-40 public comments made (20 on each side) were full of vitriol against their opponents. A further 60-plus requests to speak, (about 30 pro and 30 con) had to go unfulfilled. Council President Eric Garcetti warned those assembled three times not to boo during speakers' remarks (it was the L.A. Zoo crowd booing). There was cheering, clapping, groaning, jeering, and some speaking out of turn. You could even say "it was a zoo". But meanwhile, back at the actual zoo, solitary Billy probably spent much of the time bobbing his head up and down, in the unnatural repetitive motion called "stereotypy", which is a sign of schizophrenia in humans and something close to it in zoo animals. The L.A. Zoo has claimed it isn't a sign of mental illness at all, but apparently they didn't look up 'stereotypy' in that kooky radical troublemaking book: Webster's Dictionary.

See my Jan. 24th video of Billy's head-bobbing:

Or another user's video of it, with voice-over explanation:

Cardenas' motion failed 11 to 4; the expansion of the elephant exhibit will continue and Billy has to wait for it. One way of looking at this is that the "Free Billy" movementpicked up 2 votes from the original 13 to 2 vote approving the "Pachyderm Forest." But they also lost progressive Councilmember Bill Rosendahl's expected vote. He has explicitly stated before he's "not for elephants in the zoo," but Rosendahl voted to keep building because the report from City Administrative Officer Ray Ciranna convinced him that it would cost more to discontinue the project now than to finish it.  (Similarly, an L.A. Times editorial last weekend recommended continuing even though it had opposed the project in 2006 for fear it might not be large enough. The Zoo touts the new Times op-ed even though it's the kind of lukewarm endorsement we heard at the beginning of the Iraq War: well, it's a terrible idea, but we're in it now, so we can't pull out.)

In any case, the Council vote is not very surprising in the face of busloads of personnel and supporters co-opted by the Zoo; 27,000 signatures the Zoo gathered (they have a little advantage there, since their rivals don't have an established, 113-acre entertainment attraction of their own in which to gather signatures); and a Fairbank & associates opinion survey reporting that Los Angelenos, 3 to 1, favor the completion of the exhibit. Councilmembers faced with all that are, in the end, politicians, and almost half of them are up for re-election on March 3rd.

But this Fairbank poll is interesting. It was likely commissioned by the L.A. Zoo, which issued a Jan. 26th press release about the results. If you ask me, it looks like a push poll, since the questions match many L.A. Zoo talking points, asking: whether respondents "agreed that closing the habitat and shipping Billy to a distant location will deprive schoolchildren and their families of the opportunity to learn about the threat of extinction facing Asian elephants"; whether they favored the Zoo "teaching wildlife conservation, breeding additional Asian elephants and helping prevent the extinction of the species" by building a new habitat; and whether they minded "hundreds of job losses that would result from shutting down the project in the middle of a deep economic downturn." I'm not sure if that was exact poll wording, but that's how the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) relayed it. It's amazing, actually, that in each of those cases 30% did resist the way the Zoo wanted them to answer. Apparently, the survey also made a point of reminding respondents that voters had passed a Zoo Bond Measure to improve animal exhibits. (Which many "Free Billy" types seem to think is a fabulous idea, actually; several of those commenting at the meeting remarked there are other inadequate exhibits at the zoo.)

What GLAZA doesn't say is whether those surveyed were asked: if they knew that 13 elephants have died at the L.A. Zoo in 30 years; whether they knew that half of those had never reached age 20; whether they knew that all but one of those 13 showed "various states of degenerative joint disease and fatal orthopedic disabilities associated with lack of mobility due to close captivity", per Rep. Dennis Kucinich's letter to L.A. City Council urging closure of the exhibit. (Yes, I know, he's not from here, but he speaks against injustice and cruelty everywhere.) I also wonder if the survey mentioned that it was after years of condemnation, and new American Zoo Association rules for elephant management, that GLAZA proposed to expand its elephant enclosure.

As an L.A. Zoo member and a PETA member, I was getting emails from both camps. So I compared the arguments made by both sides in advance of the City Council meeting. The Zoo had trotted out animal TV show host Jack Hanna, who spoke in generalities in a video on their site. He exclaimed that the L.A. Zoo had "phenomenal habitats from day one". Really? It would seem even the zoo would disagree, considering how much money they put into reforming their three great apes exhibits and now their Pachyderm Forest. He estimated that the new exhibit's design is 10% of their total area. Well, actually the proposed 6 acre site is 5% of their total 113 acres. And only 3.6 of those will be roaming areas for the elephants. Incidentally, Kucinich's Nov. 2008 letter noted that the home range of a male Asian Elephant in its natural state is 200 sq. km. - 235 sq. km. The smaller number of those two is 8,237 times the outer perimeter of the new exhibit.

Hanna went on to make the kind of illogical comment one used to hear at the height of the Bush Administration: i.e. what are you protesting in the streets for, things can't really be as bad as you say, or people would be out in the streets! In the video Hanna admits how bad zoos used to be in past decades, but assures viewers "that's no longer the case," because "people in their communities are demanding the best for the animals." His thesis being; so ignore those people in the community demanding the best for Billy!

Sounding alarmingly like Fox News, the video asked Hanna what are the "intentions" of the activists who want Billy removed from the zoo. (Asking the favored 'A' side what the disfavored 'B' side is all about is a patented Fox News propaganda device.) Hanna didn't worry about putting words in the opponents' mouths, though, and speculated that they want to "put everything back out in the wild". Granted, some elephant advocacy groups cite how elephants live in the wild, but obviously, that's for comparison, to illustrate how far off their needs are from a typical captivity. And to show that being able to roam on sanctuary acreage and bond with other elephants is at least closer to that state than the current or planned L.A. Zoo exhibit.

Amusingly, Hanna borrowed another favorite Fox News angle: dismissing "celebrities" for involvement in a political cause. What do you call Jack Hanna if not a celebrity? And moreover, musician Slash and actress Betty White have also leapt to GLAZA's defense.
Zoo Trustee Betty White claims that those concerned that Billy might die a premature death at the zoo "would rather see species die out than to thrive in accredited zoos." 

Now, is that fair? Her two-page message in the zoo's winter newsletter goes into detail about "animal activists" (it must be 'activist' that's a dirty word, because she likes the word 'animal'). She accuses them of wanting "to remove all elephants from all zoos. And let's not kid ourselves, folks, it will not stop with elephants. Giraffes will be next. If they win this battle, they will not stop until zoos themselves are extinct."

That kind of alarmist rhetoric sounds like the Prop 8 campaign: if you allow gay marriage, then next it'll be polygamy, pedophilia, and bestiality! They'll be teaching our children to be gay in schools! Run for your lives!

White is no fool and I applaud her decades-long activism, even if she doesn't applaud others', but could we have a rational argument, please? Clearly, zoos are in no danger of disappearing. Maybe we can eventually get rid of the substandard ones - the roadside zoos, the ones with wholly ignorant staff, the ones that don't breed their animals or have any conservation aims - but White and GLAZA reject such zoos anyway. Merely asking the L.A. Zoo to prove they have the ability or expertise, in light of their elephant track record, ought to be seen as completely reasonable and no nefarious motives necessary. A zoo is like a hospital, or a university. Some departments might be brilliantly successful; others might be total failures. You should look at them case-by-case. I think the Zoo has done quite well for its great apes. 

Also, one often sees happy family units there (koala bears, snow leopards, various lemurs, etc.). See baby koala here:

But not all animal exhibits are created equal --- meerkats, for instance, one of which was depicted in The Lion King, live in colonies of 20-50 in the wild. They have such a sense of social responsibility that they rotate guard duty. The L.A. Zoo exhibit now has one meerkat, because all the others have died.

It is totally fair game for the general public to scrutinize how well different areas of the zoo are working, just like they do their police or school board. And the institution has the right to defend itself. But they don't get to say only their opinion is valid. Hospitals screw up in services to humans, and you don't necessarily have to be a neurosurgeon to notice it. At the meeting, as in their publicity, GLAZA frequently claimed that they were the only proper authority as to whether their animals were thriving as they should. Not cool.

The zoo brought out longtime staffers, and some fired-up volunteers, to be mightily offended, offended I tell you, by the accusations of past cruelty in curbing elephant behavior and of negligence in the deaths of a dozen elephants. But they did not provide an alternative explanation. It would be so much more reassuring if the L.A. Zoo admitted that the elephants didn't just die because of bad luck. One would have more faith that they have learned what to do and that, going forward, they will understand and be able to meet the needs of elephants (for exercise, soft substrate, stimulation, social bonds).

I was not initially sure which side to be on regarding this Pachyderm Forest. But the Zoo has talked me into it, or rather, out of it. Though I'm a dues-paying member - and you'd think, as such, owed a straight answer - I have been sent emotional appeals that vilify their critics and skirt the basic issues, which ought to be simple enough to lay out. Is the projected exhibit large enough? How much space will each elephant have and how much do they need according to AZA? Is there evidence that it's even possible to breed elephants in captivity? Instead, we get red herrings.

At City Council on Weds., several witnesses from the Zoo side derided the involvement of "celebrities" sitting across the aisle from them and urging Billy's release: Cher, Lily Tomlin, Kathryn Joosten ("Desperate Housewives", "The West Wing"), Bob Barker (who offered to pay $1.5 million to transfer Billy to P.A.W.S. near Sacramento), Kevin Nealon, Robert Culp (who a year ago tried unsuccessfully to sue the City and Zoo Director John Lewis), and I also thought I saw Anjelica Huston. The Zoo crowd was able to scoff because their own publicity gimmicks -- Betty White, Jack Hanna, and Slash -- did not show up that day. But the Zoo staff who spoke also put down their opponents as uninformed busybodies, despite the expert witnesses present who are critical of the Zoo and its plans. Since the mainstream media narrative of the elephant exhibit pits celeb amateurs against L.A. Zoo professionals, we should look at some of those on the "Free Billy" side:

1.) Dr. Joyce Poole: a wild elephant biologist and author of Coming of Age with Elephants, Poole made the crucial discovery that male elephants experience "musth" (regular sexual periods of extreme aggression). In 2005, she discovered that elephants learn to make sounds by imitating each other - the only land mammals besides primates to do so. She has worked with Cynthia Moss, the animal behaviorist at the center of two PBS Nature films on African elephants. And Poole was named the director of elephant conservation and management for the Kenya Wildlife Service.

2.) David Hancocks: a zoo architect and zoo director for thirty years, Hancocks wrote the book A Different Nature, an analytical and comparative history of zoos. He is an expert on evaluating the design of different species' exhibits. He is not "anti-zoo", he values the potential of zoos to do good; but he is an advocate for habitats and programs that serve the animals.

3.) Dr. Jennifer Conrad: a former L.A. Zoo vet who treated animals on five continents, including elephants in Asia and Africa, Conrad was also head veterinarian at a wildlife sanctuary. As a result, she created "The Paw Project" in Los Angeles to rehabilitate big cats' paws which had been damaged by the discredited practice of declawing; she led teams of surgeons in operations on circus tigers and the like to help reverse their crippling. She also works as an on-set vet for films.

These are impressively credentialed people who think the L.A. Zoo is not doing right by its current, past, or future elephants. Others urging the Council to remove elephants from the L.A. Zoo included two spokespeople from the Shambala Elephant Reserve, and Will Travers (Jr.) of Born Free USA, this country's legislative advocacy arm of the famous wilderness reserve in Africa.

Their theme is not some abstract notion that zoos are evil, but the very practical concern that Billy's health and life are in danger. On Weds. a large blow-up photo of Billy's foot was presented by Councilmember Rosendahl to the L.A. Zoo vet seated with Zoo Director John Lewis in the Council's inner circle; when the vet was asked if this meant Billy may be developing foot problems, like the zoo's elephants Gita and Tara who died at the zoo in the last 4 years, the vet couldn't say. It seemed he had no updates on the condition of Billy's feet, despite all the firestorm and all the publicity effort by the zoo about their excellent elephant management. But we heard assurances that the keepers give him daily foot care.

Rosendahl requested that Dr. Conrad be allowed to give a contrasting opinion; she answered that she doubted the zoo staff were even able to give Billy foot care right now, since he had been in musth, "in rut", since Nov., and was too dangerous to work with. She told the Council he's "in musth an abnormally long time". (Indeed, whenever I visit, no matter what time of year, he seems to be in musth: it's evident by the liquid streaming from his eyes and the urine that dribbles down his leg. )

Conrad asserted that the reason for his long musth is that "he's fat, because he can't exercise."

Bizarrely, the Council did not discuss what one might think would be at least a compromise: ship Billy out temporarily to P.A.W.S. while the exhibit is being built, thus letting him run around on acres and acres of grass instead of a hard surface and, hopefully, protect his feet from dangerous infections, give him exercise, and help him get a break from musth. The Zoo cheerleaders (who filled rows of the chamber, attired in green T-shirts, with a pep rally energy) were insistent that Billy belonged in "the only home he's ever known", and that "he loves his family." It's a little like saying Steve McQueen's character in Papillon enjoyed his cell, right in the middle of the scene of him  going crazy in solitary.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cheering Change, Booting Out Bush, and Beyond - a D.C. Diary

This article was originally published on on Tuesday, January 27, 2009:

I have never seen so many people so happy, so hopeful, so full of energy, and so united.
Being in D.C. for Inauguration Week was an experience like no other. I got to see Barack and Michelle Obama, and Joe and Jill Biden, close-up as they walked by my section of the parade route – incidentally, all of the above except Barack looked in my direction and I believe must have seen my “Arrest Bush & Cheney” sign. But the excitement was not about star-gazing. I live in L.A., I know how people are at premieres and such. That was not the vibe. In D.C., we were there to Witness, to use our senses (i.e. of the freezing cold) to make sure we weren’t dreaming when the loudspeakers joined those two words “President” and “Obama.” Above all, the excitement was the communal experience. We were thrilled to see how thrilled we all were, to meet people from all over the country, to be so crowded it took 40 minutes to exit a subway station. It was thrilling because it felt like democracy.

First of all, there was the considerable honor of being able to share this openly emotional moment with so many kazillions of proud and beaming African-Americans. To celebrate their victory in particular, and to realize how fully it signifies a universal victory, was profound. Moreover, there was the exuberance that we the people had pulled this off, in spite of many powerful forces and Fox News, fear-mongering, smear campaigns, voter suppression, electronic voting fraud, and history. There was also the enormous relief that after struggling for almost 8 years against a hostile, capricious, and monomaniacal government, finally someone was going to listen to different ideas, and actually make an attempt to pull us back from the precipice.

The joy was only heightened by the exhilarating feel of the defeat of madness, a.k.a. the Bush-Cheney regime. Not that I wasn’t worried that they were going to try to pull something. But that was part of our job, the 2-million-strong citizen brigade; to show them they were outnumbered and out-passioned. My taxi driver had deplored the expense of the Inauguration and asked why we couldn’t just watch it on TV. He overlooked the importance of an actual throng being on hand to ensure that much-ballyhooed “peaceful transfer of power.”

Inauguration pilgrims did not generally seem to agree with the party line that the outgoing president had suffered enough. Time columnist Nancy Gibbs described him as “unloved by more of his fellow citizens upon leaving office than any modern President including Nixon”, but it’s almost as if the reality of a 22% approval rating had not hit the media elite until they heard the crowd boo Bush from the Mall.

Even the MSNBC commentators, who conservative ideologues are always trying to diss as too ideologically liberal, tried to scold the American Republic for caring more about the damage that has been done to their country than about Washington ceremonial etiquette.

On Bush’s exit, MSNBC followed the usual corporate media line -- trying to ignore dissent and keeping up a superficial chatter -- while the crowds sang “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” to the departing helicopter.

Gibbs’ column claimed “Bush may not be popular, but there aren’t crowds calling for him to be hanged or accusing him of raiding Fort Knox”.
She needs to get out more.

During Inauguration Week, activists from peace and social justice groups converged on D.C. to give Bush the boot and to express their hopes for real change under Obama. Those who are perpetually out of the loop tried to downplay them, or to pretend they would not be welcome amidst the festivities. This was not the case.

On Sat. Jan. 17th, a dozen members of the national groups World Cant Wait and also Veterans for Peace got the attention of visitors to the Newseum, the popular D.C. museum about the media: “When we got inside people did a huge banner drop from the 2nd floor that said prosecute war criminals Bush and Cheney,” a World Cant Wait write-up of the event later reported. “There were quite a bit of people inside and they were completely shocked. People outside and inside were very responsive for the demand to Obama to arrest Bush and Cheney. Then World Can't Wait hung out near 18th and Constitution with a banner that read, ‘From Gaza To Guantánamo: Stop The Endless Wars of Terror and Torture’. Tons of people were taking pictures with the banner. So many in fact that we had a hard time leaving because people kept wanting pictures.”

The activists also handed out 2,000 premiere editions of a new tabloid newspaper, War Crimes Times, to Newseum attendees. (This is a separate venture from the similarly-named free paper War Times/El Tiempo de Guerra, a tabloid which began in Feb. 2002, is bilingual, is financed by Center for Third World Organizing, and after close to 3 years became an online journal, still continuing at:http://www.war-times.orgWar Crimes Times is brand new, partly funded by Veterans for Peace, and specifically focuses on bringing U.S. war criminals to justice:

The Inauguration edition of War Crimes Times featured articles and commentaries by Retired Col. Ann Wright (a longtime member of the military who resigned her post as a diplomat in protest over Bush’s war), Jesselyn Raddack (the Justice Department ethics lawyer when John Walker Lindh was interrogated), Center for Constitutional Rights head Michael Ratner, and various other legal experts laying out arguments for war crimes prosecutions of key members of the Bush Administration.

The next day, war crimes of the Bush Administration were also enumerated in a panel discussion in Georgetown with Ray McGovern (retired CIA officer who served under various presidents), David Swanson (founder of leading impeachment, now prosecution, advocacy site, Col. Ann Wright, and Jesselyn Raddack. New strategies were developed and the struggle for accountability renewed.

On Mon. Jan. 19th, Martin Luther King Day and the end of Bush’s term, a “Shoe Bush” protest began in Dupont Circle with some cathartic shoe-throwing at a giant inflated Bush doll with a Pinocchio nose.

The shoe-throwing was, of course, a condemnation of the former ‘commander-in-chief’ and also a tribute to Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who threw a pair of shoes at Bush’s head on Dec. 14th at a press conference in Baghdad. Though not the first Western anti-Bush activists to utilize shoe symbolism since that incident, the Jan. 19th ‘Shoe Bush’ protesters in D.C. wanted to bid farewell to Bush by borrowing from Muslim culture, where to show anyone the bottom of your shoe is to express your utter contempt for them.

(Although Bush had brushed off al-Zaidi’s act as that of someone trying to get attention, the BBC and the British paper The Guardian reported in Dec. that al-Zaidi’s family claimed his arm and ribs had been broken and he had suffered internal bleeding while in custody. The judge who saw al-Zaidi in court then also told the Associated Press that the accused appeared to have been beaten. The Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve has recently reported that al-Zaidi is seeking asylum in Switzerland because he fears for his safety in his Baghdad prison. Yet Bush expected us to buy that al-Zaidi would risk such negative consequences, and worse, just for “attention”.)

The Shoe Bush rally featured speakers like Debra Sweet of World Cant Wait, CODEPINK co-founder Gael Murphy, Col. Ann Wright, ( ) and representatives of other peace and justice organizations such as Arrest Bush 2009, Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, D.C. IndyMedia, and the International Socialist Organization.

World Cant Wait, which has trademarked orange as “the color of resistance” and who frequently appear in orange jumpsuits and black hoods to dramatically remind Americans of the torture done in their name, provided the 300 or so at the rally with a disturbing demonstration of waterboarding and a lesson about torture.

Some presenters mixed their serious political message with humor, including Hartbeat Ensemble, a theater group from Hartford, CT, which did a skit about Obama’s moral dilemma if people like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton try to dissuade him from ending the war in Iraq; Grandmothers for Peace, who sang a protest ballad demanding Bush’s prosecution; and a cadre of CODEPINK women in flounced skirts, who showed off the can-can routine they were dancing that weekend outside various inaugural balls: “Yes We Can-Can End the War.”

The highlight of the event, however, was when 200 or so of the activists then marched, loudly, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., prosecution banners and peace flags aloft, and when they arrived, clustered as close as they could get with the Inauguration structures up, and hurled their footwear at the White House gates. There was much rejoicing. Bystanders snapped pictures delightedly, a few audibly commenting on “how clever” the symbolic protest was, and the whole time the activists remained outside the White House (CODEPINK sang repeatedly), tourists stayed and watched. Many of those watching clamored, giddily, to get pictures with a big-headed Bush in prison costume and chains.

Other events on the afternoon of Bush’s last day in office included a “die-in” by a coalition of activists lying on the ground as a visual reminder of those killed by Bush’s wars; an anti-war and anti-torture street theater “freeze” in busy Union Station; and an Inauguration Eve ceremony outside the White House by spiritual believers (and in some cases, just humorists) who came with sage to purge wicked spirits from the building.

On Jan. 20th, Inauguration Day, some peace groups held vigils before the main event, while a coalition of activists with “Arrest Bush” signs joined the crowds waiting on the parade route on Pennsylvania Ave. One reveler asked to borrow my own homemade “Arrest Bush” sign to make a music video with some of the exuberant dancers on the street. I ended up leaving the sign with another parade spectator who wanted it.

Numerous other Inaugural celebrants asked to take a picture of me with my 2nd sign (which read “Arrest Bush & Cheney” on one side, and “No-One is Above the Law” on the other). The same phenomenon was reported by a group of “Arrest Bush” activists who’d been walking through D.C. on Jan. 18th, according to an email by David Swanson of the activists “were absolutely dumfounded by what they had just experienced. They'd spent the day at the train station in D.C. and on the streets of D.C. as excited Obama celebrators poured in by the tens of thousands, and they'd been unable to walk a dozen steps without people stopping them to have their photo taken with an "Arrest Bush" sign.”

And on that most unusual Inauguration Day, I swear to God, the ex-president who throughout his presidency, has been protected by ludicrously-named ‘free speech zones’ keeping protesters away from him at public appearances, finally saw a bunch of those “Arrest Bush” signs by the FBI Building.

After breakfast at the White House with the Obamas, Bush’s motorcade drove up Pennsylvania Ave. to the Capitol. His head turned toward and lingered on an unmissable sea of “Arrest Bush” placards.

Meanwhile, CODEPINK ladies in their favorite hue moved through the bustling crowds handing out pink ribbons – the kind you tie around your finger so you won’t forget something – to remind us to remind Obama to remember his promises.

Their flyer lists 7 Obama promises to keep track of: ending the war in Iraq, rejecting the Military Commissions Act, holding unconditional talks with Iran, abiding by Senate-approved international treaties, working to eliminate nuclear weapons, and of course stopping torture and shutting down Guantánamo. Obama did indeed show good faith on his first full day, Jan. 21st, by issuing executive orders to begin the closing of Guantánamo and the end of U.S. use of torture; his Admin. has declared they will use “direct diplomacy” with Iran; and yesterday Obama signalled a foreign policy shift when in his first formal interview he told Al-Arabiya Network that "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy." Groups that pressured for these changes are of course urging us to write him our thank yous for these first steps and our encouragements to continue this vein.

Still, the unwillingness of CODEPINK and other progressives to just leave it all up to Obama shows that demands for Bush Admin. prosecutions are not personal or partisan. (CODEPINK, for one, is explicitly non-partisan in their registered status.) CODEPINK, Progressive Democrats of America (which used the pre-inaugural weekend for a panel-filled, national organizing conference), and their confrères just want us to stay awake, to make sure we achieve the change we seek. And consistent with that aim, they demand prosecutions to prevent the recent presidency’s crimes from happening again.

“This is not a fantasy, boys and girls,” David Swanson told AfterDowningStreet members. “The New York Times' Scott Shane and Attorney General Mukasey agree with me that prosecution is now going to be hard to avoid. When even Nancy Pelosi has figured out where we're going, you know the winds of change are blowing strong.”

AfterDowningStreet and its allies have a petition requesting Attorney General-Designate Eric Holder “appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute any and all government officials who have participated in War Crimes”. They have 20,000 signatures so far and will deliver the petition after Holder’s confirmation process. Add your name here. You may also want to take steps to make sure Holder gets into the job first, by signing a People for the American Way petition against Republican attempts to block Holder’s confirmation.
A Jan. 26th PFAW alert featured a call by Barbra Steisand to defend Holder in the face of Republican attacks. She feels Republicans want to throw their weight around; she did not mention that they might be against him because he says he values the rule of law. In other words, they could see getting rid of him as self-protection.

David Swanson finds the roots of the movement to hold the Bushies accountable in Obama’s inspiring oratory. “That's the dangerous thing about telling people that anything is possible,” quips Swanson. “They'll end up insisting on what they really want. And they want lots of new laws, but they very dearly want us to start enforcing the old ones too.”

Sunday, January 25, 2009

US Media Accused of Racist Gaza Coverage

This article was originally published on on Sunday, January 29, 2009:

“I would give most of the American media an F minus”, says Brian Becker, the National Coordinator of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). He spoke to me on Jan. 16th in Washington, D.C. at a protest ANSWER organized outside The Washington Post offices. 

ANSWER (which tends not to do street theater but to hold fairly straight-forward marches and rallies) decided to “send a dramatic message that this is not acceptable” and so members brought a wheelbarrow full of copies of The Washington Post and dumped them all over the institution’s front steps.  Click here. About 60 activists stood on the sidewalk outside the Post offices for a couple of hours at the end of the coldest day Washington had experienced in years, and accused the Post of extreme bias and racism against Arabs.

Though Becker criticized the corporate media as a whole for its coverage of Gaza and Israel-Palestine issues, the Jan. 16th protest sponsored by ANSWER and MAS (the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation) demonstrated at the Post in particular because, at the height of Israel’s assault on Gaza, four major protests against Israel’s actions took place in Washington and the Post did not cover any of them.

“Not one word has been written about any of the protests”, Becker complained. While the Post is usually seen as one of the four most prestigious and influential newspapers in the U.S. and is expected to cover important national issues and debates on foreign policy, their news blackout on the protests also had a local component: “The Post prides itself on having very strong local coverage,” Becker claimed. “The Arab-American community, which is an important part of Washington, D.C., came out in tens of thousands and were totally ignored by the Post.”

The snub that instigated the “Dump the Post” protest was The Washington Post’s refusal to report on the large D.C. protest against the carnage in Gaza on Jan. 10th. That march drew about 30,000, one of the protesters, Renee, told me; and was part of a National Day of Emergency Mass Action coordinated by ANSWER and its coalition partners. Click here.

On that day, hundreds of thousands of Americans came out for peace in cities across the country – I saw at least 10,000 participants of various races and walks of life rallying in Los Angeles, for instance, yet the Washington Post, which Becker alleges sent a photographer and journalist and interviewed him at the D.C. rally, pulled the article that their correspondent wrote even though the reporter had called Becker for a final fact-check.

“It’s as if the Washington Post can’t see Arab people, either the suffering people in Gaza or the Arab-Americans right here in D.C.,” said Becker.  “We think that is an act of racism and bigotry, the same way the African-American community, decades ago, was treated as an invisible force by the Washington Post.”

“There’s a consensus within the media and the political establishment that Israel must be supported and defended always. Corporate-dominated media has been awful because they are just” repeating the U.S. government position, which Becker describes as: “Every time the Israelis attack Gaza it’s considered self-defense; every time the Palestinians shoot back it’s considered terrorism.” Becker pointed out that at the same time, the corporate media “failed to cover” Israel’s 18-month blockade of the Gaza Strip, a blockade which “by all international standards is an act of war.”

“That’s not news coverage, that’s propaganda.”

Similar protests were organized against bias in media by other ANSWER chapters: in California, the San Francisco Chronicle was picketed on Jan. 15th for grossly underestimating the number of people who turned out for that city’s Jan. 10th protest, ANSWER-SF issued a statement about the San Francisco Chronicle’s performance:

“On the day after 10,000 people marched and rallied in San Francisco on January 10 to demand ‘Let Gaza Live,’ the San Francisco Chronicle reported the demonstration had been just ‘more than 1,000 people.’…Immediately after the march…the Chronicle’s website featured the march as its top story under the headline, ‘Thousands Protest in San Francisco.’ By the time the Sunday paper was printed, however, the number of participants had been reduced to ‘more than 1,000.’”

ANSWER-SF also claimed the paper was sent “irrefutable video and photo evidence that they had massively undercounted the number of people” but the Chronicle did not correct their estimate. ANSWER-SF also noted that the Chronicle had promoted in advance the pro-Israeli counter-protest.

In Chicago, ANSWER protested the local ABC News station for what they saw as biased coverage of the Chicago protests. Becker criticized the Chicago Tribune’s reporting as well.

Becker believes that the media’s censorship and under-representation of the protests on behalf of Gaza is actually worse than the similar way the media downplayed the protests against the Iraq War. At least there was “some difference of opinion” about the Iraq War, Becker recalls, but on the issue of Israel’s right to do whatever it wants, “U.S. media is united.”

Though Israel-defenders like the Anti-Defamation League criticize ANSWER’s protests about Gaza as if the protests were merely about Israel and therefore anti-Jewish, Becker, like ANSWER members and other activists I’ve spoken with at L.A. protests, holds the U.S. to be utterly complicit.

“Israel functions as an extension of American power,” Becker explained, claiming that the U.S. “uses Israel as a bludgeon” against others in the Middle East “considered to be an enemy by the U.S.” -- countries which, according to Becker, just want self-determination.

The blockade against the people of Gaza was a joint endeavor, he believes. “The US and Israel used food and medicine against the people for having voted the wrong way”, in other words, for having voted for Hamas.

It was outrage at this ‘special relationship,’ as U.S. joint actions with Israel are officially called, that spurred representatives of Jews Against the Occupation and also of Partnership for Civil Justice (a legal organization for civil and human rights), as well as two-time U.S. Congresswoman and former presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, repeat presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and Rev. Graylan Hagler, the National President of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice, to speak at the Jan. 10th protest rally in D.C.

Rev. Hagler is featured in the anti-war documentary Finding Our Voices: Stories of American Dissent, and his organization is the 1.2 million-member “clergy component of the mainline Protestant denomination United Church of Christ,” a church which, according to Wikipedia, has had many famous members such as Howard Dean, Bob Graham, theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, best-selling author Dean Koontz, and also Oprah Winfrey. In fact, even Barack Obama is on Wikipedia’s list of notable names connected with the United Church of Christ.
An argument could be made that some of that might be newsworthy, but the Washington Post begged to differ.

Interestingly, some Gaza protests outside the U.S. have also been ignored by American mainstream media. Even when Time magazine’s commemorative issue (Feb. 2) on Obama’s inauguration ran an article on Israeli peaceniks, “Lonesome Doves,” its sub-title read: “After the Gaza offensive, Israel’s peace activists are losing heart, numbers, and influence.”  Its author, Tim McGirk, claimed that “inside Israel, peace demonstrations gathered only a few hundred protestors.” And yet, reports from alternative sources such as the Jewish Peace News and Democracy Now! reported that 10,000 Jews and Arabs attended a demonstration on Jan. 3rd in Tel Aviv. This salient information has not been reported widely, and certainly not in that Time article; instead the article’s only photos of protesters showed a huddle of pro-war demonstrators holding giant Israeli flags.

Indeed, outspoken media critic Jon Stewart skewered the corporate media’s one-sidedness on the region early in the Gaza offensive, in a Daily Show segment that has circulated the web.

Back in L.A., ANSWER-L.A. held a teach-in on Palestine on Jan. 24th: “The U.S./Israeli War on Gaza & the Cease-Fire: The Real Aims Behind the Media Lies.” About 75 activists attended to hear talks by Jerusalem law professor Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kervorkian, of the Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa; community organizer and UCLA Ph.D. student Rana Sharif, of the Palestinian American Women’s Association; and Yousef Abudayyeh, founding member of the National Council of Arab Americans and National Coordinator of the Free Palestine Alliance.

Several of ANSWER-L.A.’s most active organizers shared their thoughts on the media’s behavior toward Gaza. Longtime ANSWER-L.A. spokesperson Preston Wood explained that U.S. corporate interests reflected in the media “are united to oppress and dominate all of the Middle East,” and that part of the U.S. mass media’s agenda is “to undermine the right of people in that region for sovereignty and self-determination.”

Carlos Alvarez, candidate for L.A. Mayor on March 3rd in opposition to vocal Israel-defender, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, criticized the U.S. media for lopsided coverage and recalled that “very few media outlets did stories” on the Israeli bombings of U.N. shelters, when Israel “told people to go there, sent messages ‘evacuate your house within 20 minutes and you should go here’ and then they bombed the place they’d told them to go.” He recalls that when the media did cover this, “we heard that rockets were being fired from there, but the U.N. denied that.”

Muna Coobtee, ANSWER Steering Committee member and a presenter at the forum, was matter-of-fact about the unanimity of the U.S. media on Palestine. “It’s not a big huge conspiracy, it’s actually very overt. The line of the media is very much in line with U.S. foreign policy.”

Coobtee noted that prior to Jan. 10th, the second National Day of Emergency Mass Action on Gaza, (the first having been Dec. 30th) there had been a “surprising” amount of coverage of the frequent protests, considering expectations people in the movement have about the corporate media. She believes such coverage happened because there was “such worldwide opposition”, because “the protests were so widespread,” and because of “the extreme nature of the attacks” by Israel on Gaza. At the same time, she noted, the U.S. media tended to “make 2,000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators equal 200 pro-Israeli demonstrators, or maybe even film from the side of the Israelis.”

However, Coobtee says “there was very minimal coverage about Jan. 10th,” which was the largest day of protest of all, when a total of hundreds of thousands came out in many different cities.

Alvarez agreed that “there was more than average coverage before Jan. 20th”, though it was “problematic, because they often put a big fat equal sign between Israeli and pro-Palestinian protesters, even though there’d be thousands of pro-Palestinians and only a handful of Israeli” counter-demonstrators. Right at the peak of the protests on Jan. 10th, though, Alvarez saw “a complete suppression” of coverage; “suddenly you weren’t hearing anything about those protests.”

Wood added: “it’s been a long-standing practice to try to ignore the expression of anti-war sentiment, to try to minimize dissent in this country.” He thinks all people who care about peace and justice should be outraged that “the media in the U.S. have once again ignored the suffering” of civilians in the Middle East and downplayed the reality of the events in Gaza, which are particularly shocking” and include “the most flagrant violations of international law, such as use of depleted uranium and fragmentation bombs that literally rip the flesh off of children.”

Although the ANSWER Coalition was one of the most central groups organizing these recent anti-war protests for Gaza (just as they also played a key role in pulling together the even more massive protests against the war on Iraq), they are by no means alone in continuing to be concerned about peace and justice in Gaza. The Bail Out the People Movement (which joins labor, Latino, and Black organizations working for the rights of ordinary people during the economic crisis) gave public talks in L.A. about Gaza on both Saturday and Sunday. Also in L.A. this past weekend, a benefit concert raised money for humanitarian aid to Gaza, as did a pre-ceasefire L.A. event featuring Cynthia McKinney, the former Congresswoman and the survivor of the Israeli-military ramming of her humanitarian-mission boat. (McKinney is part of the Free Gaza Movement, an international group of activists who for some months had been giving their time and risking their safety to attempt to bring aid by sea to the blockaded Gaza Strip.)

In D.C., the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is holding a grassroots advocacy training and lobbying conference for activists from all over the country on Feb. 1st & 2nd.

The Palestine Media Project continues to monitor media coverage of Israel-Palestine issues and to analyze its trends (and biases).

ANSWER-L.A.’s Preston Wood remains optimistic. He thinks that despite media silence, the anti-war voices opposed to the U.S.-Israeli actions “will be heard…. The movement cannot be stopped.”