New Orleans Andrew Breitbart was the face and force behind a number of high traffic websites during his career, ended suddenly with a fatal heart attack more than a year ago. He played a role in helping set up the liberal Huffington Post, but at his death was best known for his “big” sites, especially Big Government, a right wing love feast. To goose the traffic on these sites, Breitbart courted controversy including releasing cellphone photos that became the undoing of Anthony Weiner, now a former Congressman from New York City, and potential candidate for Mayor there, but perhaps his best known escapades were based on his partnership with the even more controversial conservative activist and videographer, James O’Keefe, especially his ACORN takedown.
Interestingly, I interviewed Andrew Marcus, the director of a documentary about Breitbart, called Hating Breitbart, yesterday on my weekly “Wade’s World” show on Friday morning’s at 9AM, since the movie was appearing at the Little Rock Film Festival. Marcus’ route to the movie had been circuitous. Coming out of film school in Chicago he became fascinated with filming protests because of the “human drama” that always emerged through the camera. He created a blog on protest films, and next thing he knew he was filming Cindy Sheehan, the Iraq war casualty’s mother, protesting at President George Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch, and in the process the experience radicalized him as he witnessed what he saw as a double standard of lax reporting by the national media about the protests and the infrastructure that made them possible. From there it was a short leap to catching the Tea Party as it grew and to then bonding with Breitbart, who he met while filming him speaking at a tea party, and gathering the footage that becomes Hating Breitbart.
Marcus confirmed in our conversation that Breitbart was in many ways apolitical. He liked a good fight and wanted to build his business, so he was a happy warrior in some ways who became a conservative darling. Certainly Breitbart’s real passion, shared by the director, was poking the rest of the media in the eye. All of which seems natural to me, because he wanted to make his web-voice stand out in the herd. Marcus, and perhaps Breitbart and many on the right, see the media’s indifference not as incompetence, but conspiracy, not as laziness, but bias and design. Ironically, this view would find much common cause on the left as well, where victimization can also be a common complaint. Marcus’ “hating” theme comes from his perspective that the antipathy stirred by Breitbart discolored the true man, but Marcus is surely aware that the “hating” from the right as well and the demonization of politics, politicians, and organizations, like ACORN, is equally obscuring.
Marcus seemed defensive about questions concerning James O’Keefe and his relationship with Breitbart, wanting to define O’Keefe as a “freelancer” and ignore the factual history of Breitbart’s dissembling about his financial and professional relationship with O’Keefe for months before admitting to it, which is anything but something described in the common vernacular of publisher to freelance journalist. Marcus wanted to have questions about O’Keefe and his plummeting credibility around fake presentation of video on ACORN, legal settlements in San Diego for harm he inflicted on an ACORN worker, and the fiasco he was involved with in tampering with phones in Senator Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans field office, referred to O’Keefe directly. At one point he even offered to give me O’Keefe’s phone number on the air, which would have been a huge privacy breach that I declined. He was disturbed that people didn’t understand that the final settlement on the Landrieu case was for a misdemeanor and not a felony, which is hardly the point. I asked if O’Keefe had any questions now about how stupid a stunt it was, but the answer was again a phone number for O’Keefe. He also expressed amazement that people saw O’Keefe’s fake pimp video promo getup on his ACORN assault as “racist.” Wow!
All of which inevitably leads to the conclusion that he got so close to the subject that he lost perspective. What in some situations might have been an interesting and nuanced film about contradictions often missed by participants but shared by activists on both sides of the line, seemed increasingly to have been an attempt to hoist a banner on a battleground now abandoned by a warrior for another lost and forgotten cause.
Hating Breitbart Audio Blog
First team of EPTAG / ACORN doorkockers after a successful afternoon on the doors. — in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Edinburgh Jon Black of the Edinburgh Private Tenant Action Group (EPTAG) had done a nifty bit of research to figure out where the giant cooperative ScotMid owned apartments that they were renting. He figured that the 100-year old coop had regularly owned the flats above where they had their small grocery stores, so he systematically did the research on where the tax records showed their property and then searched for the apartments above ScotMid and eventually had a list of almost 100 units worth trying to doorknock.
EPTAG also had a great issue and Keir Lawson, another EPTAG stalwart, had already proven it would work because he was also a ScotMid tenant. Renting his flat, the leasing agency for ScotMid charged him 120 pounds for various administrative and cleaning fees. All of which are illegal. Keir had demanded his money back on that basis, and Retti, the letting outfit, had meekly returned his money. In short, EPTAG had a great handle to begin the conversation with Scotmid tenants.
After another hour of going through doorknocking fundamentals, the volunteers broke into three teams and a little after 6pm with the far northern sun still high in the sky and the rain breaking, we all started bushing the bells on the doors near Stockbridge to see if we could talk our way into the entry hall and knock from the fourth floor down. Our brand new ACORNistas were excited and nervous, each for different reasons, as they tried to remember their points and prepared to ask for dues for the first time on the doors.
Keir told me after the first half-dozen doors that his heart was still pounding and his feet were already hurting, but he still felt great about the reception we were getting that was so much better than he had expected. One person was a clear “yes” for the meeting in two weeks. Another would have been ready to join on the spot and had heard of EPTAG’s work, but was following his wife to London in 2 weeks where she had a better job. People talked freely. There were issues. No one liked the leasing group.
Before 8pm after all of the doors were hit, the numbers were good. Almost 45% were “at homes” and we had close to 35 visits with more than 20 positive responses and a clear dozen “yesses” for the meeting in two weeks. The reception to all of the teams had been excellent. Our crew was excited about coming out again on Sunday to mop up the list.
And, importantly, Jon Black and his team had signed up the first member. Just as promised, she was so excited she tried to give them the dues in cash first before they got her on a “standing order,” which is something like a bankdraft in the US and Canadian banking system. Jon and Liz had then tried to jokingly compete on their team for who led the raps and got the next members, which is also what the organization wants and needs.
There was celebration at the pub later with great good spirits as we summed up the work over the week. They proved they could get on the doors and make it happen and had their first member “in the open field.” For my part, I walked away with a bottle of great local scotch available nowhere else. We all had great memories and high expectations for the future of ACORN Scotland!
Hitting the Doors in Scotland Audio Blog
Edinburgh There’s nothing like good old fashion, benefit campaigns to light the fire under organizing drives, and it seems that the Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group (EPTAG) has a number of great handles to choose from in moving to accelerate the growth and power of the organization. Later today I’m joining a half-dozen of the EPTAG activists for a couple of hours of doorknocking training and then putting flesh to the wood on the doors, targeting a list of 100 tenants where we are starting a mini-drive to move them into action. With all of the handles they have, it seems like it should be like shooting fish in a barrel.
First, there’s the matter of certain fees that are being charged to this group of tenants by the leasing agency (letting agency, as they call it) for the large landlord, which is ironically a giant cooperative enterprise with many far flung operations called Scottish Mid. These fees for certain basic services add up to more than 100 pounds (roughly $150), and there is no question that they have been outlawed by the National Government, yet by either habit or design, many real estate leasing companies around the city continue to collect them as routine, leaving tenants in private housing no choice but to pay. The EPTAG task is straightforward. Introduce the organization, explain the fees and the plan to get a refund from the agency, enroll members into the organization and the fight, and away they go by setting a meeting, filling out the forms, taking action, and then inevitably collecting a 100 pound reward for their collective action. Sweet!
Perhaps an even larger organizing handle looming within EPTAG’s reach has to do with rental deposits, that can be quite hefty for first and last month’s rent and so forth. Deposits are legal certainly, but in Scotland they have to be held, essentially in trust, by a 3rd party to ensure that when a tenant leaves the property there is a fair settlement and refund of the deposit when appropriate after the 3rd party satisfies everyone that the terms of the lease have been met. Not surprising to anyone who has ever been a tenant and certainly predictable for anyone who has ever organized tenants, surveys in Edinburgh indicate that perhaps only one-third of the local private landlords are actually turning over the deposits to a third party, while the vast majority are just pretending it is business as usual and hanging on to the money.
There’s a kicker though that creates a great organizing tool for EPTAG, not totally dissimilar to the kind of campaign that ACORN Italy has run in Rome and elsewhere. If the tenant determines that the landlord is holding the deposit and not turning it over as required and moves to initiate that transfer, when successful the tenant collects a refund of three times the level of the initial deposit. Jon Black, one of the EPTAG leaders and one of our ACORNistas, as they sometimes jokingly call themselves, collected over 800 pounds or $1200 in exactly that way, all of which indicates to me and excitingly to EPTAG increasingly, that there are not only rights that have to be won, but gold in those hills for sustaining and expanding the organization.
All of this is just a warmup, since there will undoubtedly be a laundry list of issues that tenants have with their landlords, which will keep the members active and organizing, while EPTAG and hopefully the emerging ACORN Scotland, keep pulling more benefits for our members out of our organizing bag of goodies. And, building power, too? It doesn’t get much better than this!
Edinburgh Tenant Organizing Audio Blog
Activists from Citizens Initiatives
Prague Having been to Prague before in the winter and the fall where rain, cold, and snow were the default conditions, a sunny spring day was a surprise. Looking out the window from the 13th floor of the cooperative apartment block where organizer Michal Ulvr lived the endless buildings in yellow, blue, and green were somehow beautiful now where they had seemed depressing before.
All of which left me in good mood although unprepared for the contrasts of the day. After a brief visit to the site of Occupy Prague last year and a walk by the national government building where normally there is a daily protest, although it seemed to have been called off for spring, our first meeting was with a group of four women activists who were pushing initiatives around corruption, which they saw as a central, core issue in changing government. Talk of organizing and alliances with ACORN Czech were a hard slog. There experiences had been hard and their patience was exhausted. One woman, an accountant, said they were working towards a revolution that came from the streets. The others with experience in coffee roasting, beauty salons, and organic farming, were equally adamant. They proposed what they called “chaos.” An eruption for change that would come from the streets, cleanse government, and let them start anew. The problems of building a popular democratic base in an organization seemed a waste of time to them. They were in a hurry. People were afraid and apathetic. The notion that in chaos, others who were better organized would organize the new government and direct it, were a diversion.
And, of course who was I to say. I might have felt I was in a time-warp back to the 1960′s, but these women had seen governments in Prague rise and fall in the streets before, so talk of revolution was more a part of common conversation for them than I could have imagined. They occasionally were putting a couple of thousands of people on the street to follow their call. We would just have to see.
On the other hand we were meeting in the space of the Alternatives Below, essentially an organization that worked with many of these groups, that advocated change coming from the bottom and in the words of Professor Illona Svihlik, our last meeting at close to 9pm, was more of a “think tank” working with mayors, groups, and anyone who would try something different be it a cooperative, green space, or participatory budgeting plan. She was a bridge to many diverse forces. I had seen her 18 months before advising a group of labor and party leaders. We listened to a discussion of the problems of debt where she was on a panel speaking before our visit.
ACORN Czech could be a bridge to all of these groups as well, but that would take a clearer focus, and their core of 55 activists were being pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions between all of these various forces and their own struggles with the gallery, sustainability, and the challenges that are formidable for a volunteer group of organizers. It was exciting to spend time with all of these folks for a couple of days, but while there I couldn’t help wondering if ACORN or any of the others would be able to hunker down sufficiently to the daily grind of building a base, community by community, member by member, so that people in Prague could win day to day, even as so many seem to be waiting for the revolution next time.
Chaos & Revolution Audio Blog
Prague Meeting with 15 people in the AKORN Gallery in Praha 2, near the center of town, on a cool, but surprisingly clear evening, there was great good will but it was not always easy going. The ACORN, or AKORN as they call it here, activists and organizers were enthusiastic and had invited others to discuss a more comprehensive community based organizing drive.
The gallery itself was a new venture. A combination art space, coffee house, and meeting area for activists, young artists, and passersby, that they had opened within the last month and were staffed between 10 in the morning and 6 in the evening. It gave them a presence without giving them a deeper base. In the first month it was, predictably, a fledgling affair, where hopes were high, but revenues still meager and the rent coming due.
Three women had been active in Occupy Prague and similar efforts. They had experience going door-to-door, but had not had any success with it, and blamed the system, fear, apathy, and in general the people themselves for not taking action. None of that was unusual, but their Occupy time had hardened their skepticism once they were down to 20 people and holding onto one tent space near the square. I wasn’t sure that I was able to convince them that another way was possible.
One man told an interesting story of the US-funded National Democracy Institute (NDI) and its funding of a community organizing experience. There were paid organizers, there was doorknocking, there were many meetings, and even a few small actions of a sort. People responded well to the systematic methodology. There was optimistic and concrete results, typical of any solid community organizing experience. Then the project pulled the organizers out and the organization and activity quickly dissipated. I’m not sure what the NDI was trying to do. Their mission is supposedly to promote civic participation and engagement. The notion of sustainable organization that might have been an empowering tool for people in the Czech Republic didn’t seem to have fit in their scope, or at least so it seemed in this telling. The sum product was to intrigue those who knew of the effort, but frustrate them as well, all of which made my job harder.
One man wanted to talk about how to reclaim a factory that he had lost. There was interest in translating my books into Czech and how that could be done. There was interest in seeing if more support could be gained from local churches. It was that kind of evening.
We had a long conversation with a number of the organizers after the general meeting about a project they were trying to promote in Guinea in western Africa around “agro-circles,” a technology developed in Slovakia, many here felt to be more affordable, environmentally adaptable, and critical to increased food production in that country. We have been going back and forth on these questions for months between English, Czech, and French with great confusion. The project would be difficult under any circumstances, and finally there was agreement on who was doing what, when, and how, and the very limited role that ACORN International could really play in a rural development project outside of our expertise.
The hard part of all of these discussions was moving people to act and go forward, rather than dwell on the great movements and disappointments of the past. Getting people to try something different is never easy, and at the end of the evening, I would have to say that a stalemate is different than a decision to move forward, and I’m not sure people were yet ready to really change their organizing process in order to see something different happen here.
Pushback in Prague Audio Blog