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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? Consider: 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 producer. 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 it: 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 all: "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. -- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- This is a discussion list run by Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To be removed/added, email firstname.lastname@example.org, NOT the whole list. 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