Freedom of Speech at Risk—How to Challenge the Establishment to get Media Justice: Midwest Social Forum

Last weekend at the Midwest Social Forum, a workshop was held on the issue of media justice and the ways in which progressives can work towards a movement for racial justice in the media.

In light of the fact that five corporations determine the content of most broadcast and print media, Karen Bond of the National Black Coalition for Media Justice and Chicago Media Action along with Salim Muwakki of In These Times conducted a workshop at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee last Sunday focusing on the issue of media justice and ways in which it can be worked towards. The workshop offered an overview of how white progressives and the “media reform” movements often fail to understand the need for media justice, with Karen Bond explaining that it is difficult for white people to understand how institutions such as the media work against the aspirations of people of color. Media justice was framed as an issue that cuts across all issues and the two panelists urged people to incorporate media justice work into their organizing.

Salim Muwakki began the workshop by explaining how the number one issue of media justice is the question of addressing slavery’s racial legacy. He explained how people of color have been systematically excluded from the media and that they remain the most oppressed sector of United States’ society and as such, the status of people of color can be seen as an indicator of how democratic media is in the United States. Poverty, education, and incarceration—all issues which have tremendous effects on people of color and how they are portrayed in the media—are never examined by the corporate media as part of a racist system, with many in the corporate media having “race fatigue” that sees racism as “old news.” While some media outlets have report on prisons and how high incarceration rates threaten the viability of the African-American community, the coverage has been inadequate compared to the scope of the problem due to the exclusion of African-Americans from the media. Muwakki reminded the audience that the movement for media reform, which has grown over the past few years and gained considerable support in white progressive circles, has often not incorporated justice and has often viewed white supremacy as the status quo and has not offered much opportunity for people of color. As such, Muwakki expressed the opinion that media justice has to have a distinct part separated from the movement for media democracy and explained that media activists need to reach out and facilitate a dialog with people of color. Muwakki advocated for a two-tiered approach for achieving media justice that not only seeks better coverage and representation in the corporate media but also includes building racially just independent media outlets.

Karen Bond expanded this discussion by describing how recent media policy has continued to exclude people of color from the media and encouraged racist beliefs through the media’s negative portrayals of people of color. She explained that with only five corporations owning the majority of the media that it is easy for such racist portrayals to be seen as the status quo and that it is essential for folks to continue to challenge this. She cited the 1996 Telecommunications Act as being partially responsible for these portrayals, describing it as “a major media power grab” that has since limited the diversity of voices in the media. She explained to the audience how many corporations spread stories written by one reporter across a variety of media outlets, thereby limiting voices and perspectives that the public hears. As an example, she cited Clear Channel and their massive radio that which includes the ownership of many stations in communities of color and the effect that Clear Channel’s ownership has had on limiting free speech. The audience was encouraged to consider the fact that journalism is protected in the United States constitution as a government watchdog and explained that people need to realize that once journalism is no longer protected that freedom and democracy will essentially be gone as well. In this vein, she urged people to work against media monopolies and to monitor media ownership by people of color and to work to ensure more ownership of media outlets by people of color in order to prevent the limiting of voices.

Karen Bond offered a variety of suggestions on how to incorporate media justice work into the everyday organizing work being done by progressive groups. She encouraged the audience to incorporate media justice work into their organizing as a key component of organizing and urged every group to dedicate people to working on this issue, as she argued that it is impossible to succeed without accurate media coverage. She also encouraged organizers to develop better relationships with the media as a means of generating better coverage. As a means of securing better coverage, she asked the audience to get involved in the fight to save public access and to get involved in advocacy work dealing with media policy. The importance of “localism” was stressed and expanded to not just encompass local content but also local ownership, with Bond arguing that local ownership is key if people are going to have success in holding the media accountable. She also urged the audience to exploit the mainstream media whenever given the chance as its reach is unmatched by the independent media.

Media justice was also discussed extensively last year at the National Conference on Media Reform held in St. Louis.

Counter Military Recruiting: Midwest Social Forum

At the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee, three individuals representing the broad range of voices active in the counter-recruiting movement discussed various tactics and methods that can be used to build more effective counter-recruiting campaigns.

As the antiwar movement has debated how best to bring about an end to the United States occupation of Iraq, activists across the United States and in Grand Rapids have started campaigns to challenge the military’s recruiting efforts. The efforts have arisen for a variety of reasons ranging from high school student’s objection to predatory recruiters harassing them in their schools and at their homes, an understanding that the racism implicit in the military’s targeting of youth of color exposes the racist foundations of the United States’ occupation of Iraq, and the pragmatic idea that in light of the military’s difficulties meeting its recruiting goals that preventing a few recruits from joining the military can have a direct affect on the military’s capacity to wage the war in Iraq. It was out of this context that Will Williams of Veterans for Peace and Madison Area Peace Coalition, Peter Blewett of the Milwaukee School Board, and Adam Breihan a youth organizer with Peace Action Wisconsin shared their experiences doing counter-recruiting with an audience of activists and high school students at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee.

Will Williams, a veteran of the Vietnam War and long time participant in the antiwar movement, opened his comments by reminding the audience of the fact that the military is feeling pressure from the antiwar movement and cited the recent arrests of activists doing counter-recruiting leafleting at the Taste of Chicago and the arrest of a veteran wearing a “Veterans for Peace” t-shirt at Veterans Administration facility. Williams explained that military recruiting efforts have increased due to the ongoing occupation of Iraq, the lack of the draft, and the No Child Left Behind Act that requires schools to supply the military with their students’ information in order to aid recruiting efforts. He then pointed out that due to No Child Left Behind, schools are apart of the military-industrial complex and must therefore be considered an appropriate terrain of struggle for antiwar activists. Williams explained that there are difficulties in organizing against military recruiting in the schools, especially with parents who are not engaged and therefore are unlikely to demand that recruiters stop harassing their children and the belief of school administrators that the military is good. In organizing in Madison, this has been particularly true, as school administrators have argued that the military is good as it offers “scholarships” to students who would otherwise be unable to get into college. Williams explained that his group has overcome this opposition in part by highlighting the fact that military’s money for college in exchange for service is more of a “contract” than a scholarship. His group has also been successful in engaging parents by educating the public about the ways in which military recruiters are avoiding local limits on the number of times they can visit schools (currently each branch can only visit each public school in Madison 3 times a year) by serving as voluntary “teacher’s assistants.” Not only due recruiters functioning as “teacher’s assistants” function as recruiters when they teach physical education classes using climbing walls or allow shop students to work on Humvees, but they also violate teachers’ union contracts and undermine school regulations by failing to be accredited. Near the end of the workshop, Williams remind the audience that the same facts regarding military recruitment hold true in Iraq as they did in Vietnam and that it is “minorities and the lower class who are the ones that who die for this bullshit.”

Milwaukee School Board member Paul Blewett expanded the dialog on counter-recruiting and offered his experiences in getting the Milwaukee public school system to adopt policies that limit their disclosure of student data to the military. Citing recruiter dishonesty in helping potential enlistees cheat on entrance exams and fake drug tests and recruiters doing things such as showing up at a Milwaukee high school students’ 16th birthday party in a military Humvee, Blewett explained how he was able to make military recruiting a privacy issue that gained the support of a coalition consisting of groups such as the Wisconsin branch of the ACLU. Blewett led an effort that developed clear guidelines restricting when military recruiters can visit Milwaukee high schools and how they conduct themselves as well as adopting a policy for the Milwaukee Public Schools that emphasizes students’ ability to “opt-out” from having their information released to military recruiters (and also made it so that students under 18 can fill out their own opt-out forms without needing their parents’ to fill them out). In addition, for students who do not fill out the “opt-out” form, the data released to the military by the Milwaukee Public Schools no longer includes students’ phone numbers and addresses. Unfortunately, there is still a need for a statewide policy as the state releases the names, addresses, and phone numbers of student in the state. Blewett emphasized the fact that school districts who chose not to comply with No Child Left Behind’s military recruiting provisions risk losing federal funding, but that school districts can alter the nature of information released and urged workshop attendees to organize in their communities to get their school boards to adopt policies of “active notification” with separate “opt-out” forms and outreach efforts to parents instead of the “passive notification” of “opt-out” procedures buried within dense school policy guidebooks. Blewett distributed sample resolutions and policies for those interested in working on the issue and directed attendees to the National School Board Association for additional sample policies. (The group ACTIVATE has the sample policies for use by antiwar activists in Grand Rapids).

Adam Breihan, a June 2006 graduate of Riverside High School in Milwaukee and organizer with Peace Action Wisconsin, explained how students at his high school began organizing against military recruiters. Breihan told the audience that from the time he started high school to when he graduated this year he saw an increase in military recruiting within his school in response to the ongoing war in Iraq with recruiters becoming omnipresent during his school’s lunch periods, in the school’s guidance officers, and in class rooms. Moreover, due to No Child Left Behind’s student data disclosure provisions, Breihan and his classmates began receiving “piles” of information from recruiters despite never requesting it. This increased in recruiters, coupled with the sexual harassment of one female student by recruiters and Breihan’s own experience being physically stopped by a recruiter who made him late for class while attempting him to join the military. In response to the military’s tabling, through which the students realized that the military was targeting students of color, students at Riverside High School formed the Milwaukee Youth Liberation Army to approach military recruiters from a two-tiered approach targeting recruiters from the bottom through grassroots tabling across from recruiters when they were in the school (or once per week when they were not) and distributing information and showing anti-recruiting videos, and from the top by approaching the school board with testimony of parents, students, and others about the ways in which recruiters operate and the need to restrict them. Breihan encouraged people doing counter-recruiting work to table within schools, to get parents involved, and to look at teachers as potential allies. Breihan also reported that they had success in organizing “Books not Bombs” rallies and Not Your Soldier” rallies outside of recruiting centers.