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Ohio protest.

Jon Strange's First Hand Account of the 
Columbus Ohio Iraq Protest Town Hall Event


On February 18, 1998, I attended a televised pep rally for the United
States Government. I had the time of my life. While the conditions of the
Town Hall Meeting in Columbus Ohio that Wednesday afternoon don't suggest
much fun (TV cameras, paranoid CNN producers, metal detectors, Secret
Service agents, three stuffy suits lecturing on the merits of US Foreign
Policy, segregated seating, screened question-and-answer sessions, and
uptight moderators), a few hundred people with their heads on straight
managed to turn this into one of the most memorable events in modern media
driven politics.

>From the moment the Town Hall Meeting was announced, it was clear that it
was a sham. All the same, as events unfolded and details were made known,
the true depravity of mainstream media and international politics was
exposed. For starters, the meeting, though allegedly a public forum for
discussion between US citizens and the Clinton Administration's "Defense
Team": Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Secretary of Defense William
Cohen, and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, was actually controlled
entirely by CNN. This was not a public forum, a lesson in participatory
democracy, or a chance for the people to make their voice heard, it was a
manufactured event designed to increase the ratings of a corporate media
giant and the ratings of a shaky presidency.

OK, so the meeting was set up jointly by the most influential news network
in the world and the most powerful government ever to ignore the rights of
independent nations around the globe. Did that mean we were going to be
intimidated by their size and power, and timidly let this dog-and-pony
show be broadcast around the world? No. Were the odds against us having
any real impact on the Town Hall Meeting itself, or on US policy on Iraq?

Tickets for the meeting were distributed on a first-come, first-serve
basis, starting at 2 PM the day prior to the meeting; a time inconvenient
to most working people and many students. 
Two types of tickets were issued: approximately 1,000 red tickets were
given to Ohio State University faculty, ROTC cadets, veterans and other
military personnel, and local politicians. Approximately 5,000 white
tickets were made publicly available. 
Though the Town Hall Meeting was billed as a democratic forum, only
red-ticket holders were permitted to pose their questions to the panel
(Albright, Cohen, and Berger). White-ticket holders were excluded from the
microphone, and therefore, from public discourse. The undemocratic nature
of this exclusion notwithstanding, this ensured that the only questions
asked came from military personnel, conservative OSU professors of
Military History, and others not interested in rocking the boat. (A few
rowdy leftists did slip in, but we'll get to that later.) 
Anyone who managed to clear all of these hurdles and had a question they
wanted to ask was required to have their question screened by a CNN
The stands of St. John's Arena were filled with OSU ushers, local police
officers, and plainclothes Secret Service agents, all of whom kept a
watchful eye on the crowd throughout the meeting. 
Signs and banners were prohibited from the venue. 
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Town Hall Meeting was held at 2
o'clock in the afternoon, and the audience was required to be seated by
1:30. Again, this interferes with most Americans' schedules, whether work
or school. 
Yep, the odds were against us having any impact. But, by a combination of
smart organizing, luck, and loud voices, we managed to entirely undermine
the efforts of the Clinton Administration, CNN, and OSU to present a
smiling picture of patriotic Americans ready for war. Here's how we did

The night before the Town Hall Meeting, my friend called me up and told me
to head over to the local food co-op for a strategy meeting. A group of
about ten of us showed up; some punks, some OSU history graduate students,
members of Anti-Racist Action, and an OSU professor. The OSU professor had
managed to secure a few red tickets, and was hoping that either he or his
friends, the grad students, would be able to ask a question at the Town
Hall Meeting. We decided that the best use of our efforts would be to
write a few questions out in preparation. We came up with four in-depth
questions which were all highly critical of US policy on Iraq, focusing on
issues of double standards in US foreign policy, the devastating effect of
economic sanctions on Iraqi citizens, the lack of international and
national support for the US plan to bomb Iraq, and the lack of clear goals
that could be achieved through a bombing campaign.

But we didn't keep these tickets for ourselves - we turned them into a
flyer titled "Questions You Won't Get To Ask At The Town Hall Meeting,"
and made 1,400 copies to distribute at the meeting to red and white ticket
holders alike. We hoped that by giving them to red ticket holders, we
might see our questions presented to the Defense Team (Albright, Cohen,
and Berger), even if we weren't doing the asking. We wanted people with
white tickets to have them so we could introduce some doubts about the
structure of the meeting, and to present our critique of US foreign
policy. Most importantly, we came up with a name for our "organization,"
and put it at the bottom of the flyer - Columbus Coalition for Democratic
Foreign Policy.

The day of the Town Hall Meeting, about 200 people met up at a spot on
OSU's campus, and we walked to the arena where the meeting was held. We
chanted and held banners as we walked: "1-2-3-4 We don't want your racist
war!" "Iraqi children are under attack! What do we do? Act up! Fight
back!" You get the picture. As we walked, I passed out extra tickets that
I got by waiting in line all day the day before. In all, I was able to
hand out 28 tickets to some people who looked like they were ready to
raise some hell.

We got to the arena, handed out our flyers to anyone who would take them,
focusing especially on TV camera crews and news reporters. It always helps
your cause if you can make a reporter's life easier. Do their work for
them -- it guarantees better coverage, and gives you more control over
your image.

A bunch of us made our way through the metal detectors and past some
pretty extensive searches to our seats up in the white ticket section, far
from the stage and the real action. Or so we thought. Moments into the
meeting, with the CNN cameras rolling, a few of the women in our group
stood and rolled their shirts up to reveal slogans they'd written on their
stomachs - FUCK WAR. They wore camouflage and had giant X's painted over
their eyes. That was the first disturbance. 

When Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen, and Mr. Berger walked in, our
group of about 25 stood up and booed them. We kept it up, heckling
Albright through her opening statements, booing her and calling her a
liar. Then we unfurled the banner that my friend had snuck in, wearing it
under her floor-length skirt as a "slip." It read, simple and bold, "NO
WAR." Chants we had used in the march earlier resurfaced, the big one
being "1-2-3-4, we don't want your racist war!"

For some reason, they let us get away with all of this. Maybe the security
guards and police officers thought that eventually we'd get tired and stop
being so rowdy. Maybe they were too surprised. Usually, when this kind of
real protest happens, people are arrested and taken away. We're all still
amazed that they let us keep going. Though we didn't exactly stop and ask
permission. Throughout the rest of the meeting, protestors throughout the
arena made enough noise that the three administration goons were silenced.

It's important to explain that we only chose this rude and disruptive
behavior because we had no other choice. Our voices had been deliberately
excluded from the public discussion, as controlled by CNN. The event had
been set up to minimize dissenting voices, so we had to take any
opportunity to make ourselves heard. Chanting and heckling was the only
way to do that.

Until our golden opportunity came -- a shot at the microphone. A member of
the CNN production team came up and asked us to please be quiet, and said
that we were disrupting the meeting, that we were interfering with the TV
broadcast, and that people couldn't hear over us. After we explained to
her that we had no voice in the Town Hall Meeting unless we took it
ourselves, she offered a bargain we couldn't refuse. She told us that we
could send someone down to ask a question at the microphone if, in
exchange, we would quiet down. Since I had a list of prepared questions
(our flyer), and since I was a clean-cut white guy wearing a tie, I was
the perfect candidate for CNN's pretty TV picture needs. I waited in the
hallway while CNN producers and Secret Service types argued over whether I
would be allowed onto the floor and up to the microphone. Finally, they
led me to a producer responsible for one of the mikes. She looked my
question over, decided that it was ok, and told me to wait. Finally the
big moment came -- I stepped up to the mike, nervous as hell.

"Why bomb Iraq when other countries have committed similar violations?" I
asked Secretary Albright. I brought up examples of Turkish bombing
campaigns against their own Kurdish citizens, Saudi Arabian persecution of
religious and political dissidents, Israel's brutal policies against
Palestinians, and Indonesia's systematic slaughter in East Timor. Albright
gave a generic response, saying that the US was aware of these situations
and dealing with them. I raised my hand, and incredibly, they let me speak
again. I asked whether it was anything more than political convenience
that made the US label one country an "enemy" and another an "ally."
Albright tried to make me look bad by saying that I was defending Saddam
Hussein, which clearly I was not. Then I delivered the soundbite to end

"You're not answering my question, Madame Albright." She looked stunned.
She sat, silent, her eyes wide open, and leaned back into her chair as if
she'd had the wind knocked out of her. It was awesome.

Though I had my hand raised to go on, someone from CNN lead me away from
the mike. I couldn't believe I had been allowed to go on as long as I did,
though they did cut my microphone off several times during my brief
conversation with Albright.

I went back up into the stands, into white ticket territory, and joined my
friends for another half hour of heckling. We watched someone get jumped
by 3 or 4 police officers, beaten, and dragged out of the arena, simply
for holding up a sign. Security officers came and told us that if we
didn't quiet down, they would eject us from the meeting. Funny thing is,
they kept coming back and telling us that it was our last chance. They
never did take any of us away.

The last person to step up to the mike was Rick Theiss, who had been
dragged away early on in the event for trying to shout his way to the
mike. Against all conventional wisdom on how to deal with protestors, they
let him come back. He pointed out the many ways in which the Town Hall
Meeting was undemocratic and designed to present an image of monolithic
support for bombing Iraq. He asked the panel how they could sleep at night
knowing that they were killing innocent Iraqis. It was the perfect note to
end on.

Though the Town Hall Meeting was completely undemocratic, and was arranged
to silence dissent and promote the United States and its plan to bomb
Iraq, it offered a ripe opportunity for protest. First of all, the
presence of TV cameras probably kept security goons a little tame. I can't
think of any other reason why they didn't just cart us off from the moment
things got hectic, which is the standard practice. They just kept giving
us more leeway. Secondly, the meeting was broadcast around the world LIVE.
Though CNN did cut to a commercial while Rick Theiss was getting beat up,
they didn't have any choice but to let the cameras keep going -- they
couldn't edit things out or distill soundbites to downplay the level of
dissent. Our protest was given even more power since it was broadcast
worldwide. Saddam Hussein was watching it all live. Iraqi TV rebroadcast
the coverage throughout the following few days. CNN chose the time -- 2 PM
-- to coincide with prime time in the Middle East and in Europe, 6 to 8
time zones away. This meant that we weren't confined to a basketball arena
in Ohio, but that we were able to tell the whole world that there are
Americans who oppose the United States' war plans.

We left the Town Hall Meeting convinced that our protests had been a
success. The immediate effect we had on the national debate was evident in
the national nightly news, and in newspapers around the world the
following day. We accomplished more than we could have ever imagined, with
limited organization and limited resources. In 18 hours, we saw our ideas
go from a small group of people talking at the community co-op to
international TV. When he was asked why he didn't support US military
involvement in Iraq, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said "Not even Ohio
supports it."

The odds were against us that day, from the limited preparation time to
the media control of the meeting, to our small numbers. After the Town
Hall Meeting, I realize that the debate between working within the system
and outside of the system is moot. You have to do both for it to work. I
learned that it's important to do what you can, and to use all the
resources and tactics you have available. Make allies and use them, from
professors to riot grrrls to skinny white kids willing to wear a tie,
because each of these voices can say things that the others cannot, and be
heard in ways that others cannot. Don't just have people willing to play
the game and look nice for the reporters, have people who are ready to be
loud, shout, look scary, and get in the way of the process. 

Make the media think that they're using you; any control you can take over
the media is to your advantage. If you use as many tactics as you can
think of, one of them is bound to work.

And it did work for us, better than our wildest dreams, producing an
international media-relations disaster for the Clinton Administration. Of
course, Albright, Cohen, and White House officials were quick to proclaim
what a shining example of American democracy the Town Hall Meeting was. If
they had their way, we'd never see "democracy" like that again. Don't let
them have the last word. 

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