Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Protestors vs. Police: Anarchists claim victory in G-20 marches

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Safely home after protesting for two full days, and being among the first American civilians ever attacked with a sonic cannon, two Portlanders are calling their efforts a success.

Wearing black T-shirts reading "The G-20 is full of jagoffs" (a common Pittsburgh insult, apparently), Paul McCarrier and fellow Portlander Jordan (whose last name we are withholding) recounted their experiences in the Phoenix office on Monday, just hours after returning home (see "Protestors Head to the G-20 Summit," by Jeff Inglis, September 25).

During an unpermitted march on September 24, police used a sonic cannon (technically known as a Long-Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD) in an attempt to disperse 1500 or so marchers protesting against capitalism and G-20 policies they say harm the world's people. A high-volume combination of high and low pitches, the sound made McCarrier "sick to my stomach and weak" when it was directed at where he was standing. Jordan, who was not targeted directly, says the low frequencies bounced off buildings and echoed throughout the area. "You can feel it in your skull, rattling your eardrums around," he says. (Hear a sample of the sound, recorded by McCarrier, at thePhoenix.com/AboutTown.)

But both pronounced the device a failure, because it did not break up the march. Police also used rubber bullets and pepper gas (a vaporized form of pepper spray).

While police were eventually able to split up the march, protestors regrouped a short while later and continued on their way, according to news reports from Pittsburgh. "It was empowering," McCarrier says of his realization that a group of unarmed protestors was able to stay on the streets in the face of overwhelming police strength. (And in the face of emergency ordinances that allowed people to openly carry assault rifles but not gas masks or PVC pipe.)

They were able to do so, McCarrier says, by being collaboratively organized and by using technology, such as Twitter and text messages, similarly to how Iranian protestors communicated back in June.

The following day, protestors also succeeded at keeping the streets, even as violence flared. It began peacefully enough, with Buddhist monks and others marching to protest the harsh military junta ruling Burma. Even that group was surrounded by armed riot police, to intimidate "anyone who wants to even be associated with any sort of dissent or protest," McCarrier says.

Later in the day someone broke a window at a BMW dealership, and that likely provoked a startling move, caught on a bystander's video camera: Military personnel clad in camouflage snatched a protestor off the street in broad daylight, stuffed him (without bothering to search or handcuff him) into the back of an unmarked car, and sped away.

"They probably did that to scare the shit out of people," McCarrier says. "It was after that that people started throwing rocks at the cops."

"We stretched them thin," says Jordan, noting that on Friday night, police radios carried messages indicating vehicles had run out of fuel and officers' radios' batteries were running low. At one point, dispatchers announced that cops were no longer responding to calls throughout most of the city, to be able to focus on activities in the university area. There, police surrounded dormitories and fired pepper gas through the hallways and into the courtyards.

McCarrier says police also fired pepper balls, which the Boston police stopped using in 2004 after one killed a 21-year-old college student celebrating the Red Sox clinching the American League pennant.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter covering the protest and police response was arrested, according to the paper's report, which described police surrounding a group, ordering the people to disperse but giving no route for them to do so, and following them even when they tried to leave.

But despite the difficulties, "the anarchists won," McCarrier says, basing his claim on the fact that marchers were in the streets for more than 12 hours on both September 24 and 25. Police spent an estimated $32 million on security and equipment for the weekend, which amounts to roughly $16,000 per protestor. McCarrier and Jordan say that money could have been much better spent helping the people who live in Pittsburgh and building up community organizations.

They are both looking forward to future opportunities to exercise their "rights to freedom of speech and assembly," and wondering what the police will do differently next time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Press Releases: Freedom isn’t free

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Campaign-finance reformers often object to the idea that money equals speech. But even for progressives, it does indeed. "All our donations dried up" after Obama was elected, says Matt Power, producer and editor of LibertyNewsTV, a five-year-old monthly half-hour progressive news-and-commentary program based in Portland and aired on public-access channels in Maine and around the country. The program being distributed for October will be the series's last.

The election of the president who promised change suggested "the adults were in charge again," Power says, and so support dwindled for a program that often attacked George W. Bush and his policies.

For example, FreeSpeechTV, a clearinghouse for progressive videos, used to give Power $1600 a year to support LibertyNewsTV's $8000 annual budget. For the coming year, though, it offered $75, Power says. "That's a sign of the times right there."

But he's not done making videos, and has plans to create a progressive-themed series for the Web or broadcast. "We need to create different versions of reality" to show "a positive vision of what the world could be," he says. Specifically, as Marxist as it may sound, "What would make the most people the most happy?"

Power draws inspiration from Michael Moore, who he says has "managed to break out of the documentary mold" by "introducing whole new ideas that people have never even heard before."

If a donor appeared and wanted to bankroll LibertyNewsTV again, he would go right back to it. But since that seems unlikely, he's submitting all the past episodes to the Internet Archive (archive.org) so the public will be able to access them in perpetuity.

(Disclosure: I appeared on an episode of LibertyNewsTV earlier this year explaining my "Take Back Barack" initiative, which suggested that Obama was drifting to the center and even the right, and that we needed to pressure him to stay progressive.)

• WGME Channel 13, Portland's Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate, sent a news photographer to the September 13 ANTI-SAME-SEX-MARRIAGE RALLY in Augusta, armed with a handheld video camera. He didn't conceal the camera, but neither did he disclose his employer, nor his intent to broadcast the footage he shot. Turns out, it was a pretty smart move ? absolutely newsworthy moments the station aired included Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone declaring that it was a "duty" of all good Catholics to oppose same-sex marriage, and saying that any Catholic who did otherwise was "dissenting from the teaching of the church." The station also got Marc Mutty, the diocese's spokesman who is on leave to run the anti-same-sex-marriage campaign, to admit that people who oppose marriage equality fear being publicly identified because they might be viewed negatively for their beliefs. "In today's society, being a bigot is a really nasty thing," Mutty said on camera, unintentionally hitting the nail precisely on the head.

• And for those arriving late, I reported (with help from Al Diamon and Lance Tapley) on the AboutTown blog September 9 that Richard Connor made no money as the middle-man in a real-estate deal by which New York developer John Cacoulidis bought the PRESS HERALD BUILDINGS near City Hall in Portland and a Portland developer bought a floor of the Chestnut Street parking garage. Rather, Connor paid $6.3 million and sold them right away for that exact sum. In all, he paid $17.9 million for the real-estate portion of the deal with the Blethens, and got back more than one-third of it right away. He'll get more when he sells the Kennebec Journal building in Augusta; he is planning on keeping the South Portland printing plant and probably the Waterville offices of the Morning Sentinel.

Global Outrage: Protestors head to the G-20 summit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As President Obama prepares to ask representatives of the world's largest economic powers for more money to help reverse the global recession, thousands of activists will take to the streets to protest the policies of the G-20 and its members, who are meeting in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday.

Paul McCarrier, a Portland activist and anarchist who also protested at the 2008 Republican National Convention (see "Judge Dismisses RNC Protest Case," by Jeff Inglis, February 6), helped organize a contingent from New England who have traveled to Pennsylvania and are already setting up for several days of community festivals, marches, and protests.

On the agenda for this week's official talks will be whether the G-20 nations, which include the US, China, Europe, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, will give as much as $1 trillion to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, international groups that invest in developing nations. Protestors, including McCarrier, will be arguing that those groups' projects "destroy local economies" by increasing dependence on foreign aid rather than teaching self-reliance.

"We need to stand in solidarity with people who live in the global South, whose lives are being destroyed," McCarrier says, explaining his motives for protesting. (Activists gathering are from many groups who represent a wide range of populist, anarchist, progressive, and other perspectives.) The 24 finance ministers and central-bank executives who sit on the G-20 board "shouldn't have the power to decide things for all six billion people," he says.

While activists and officials alike say they hope the demonstrations remain peaceful, McCarrier and others are anticipating aggression by police, and are bringing gas masks and other equipment for "defensive" purposes.

There will be thousands of police and National Guard troops stationed in Pittsburgh, according to plans reported in that city's alternative newspaper, City Paper, and its daily, the Post-Gazette.

Those officers have been getting trained by London police, which protestors object to because at the G-20 meeting in that city in April, police assaulted a man who was walking home from work; the man, who had not been involved in the protests but rather worked within a police-erected security cordon, died minutes later. Three autopsies have been done, and a London officer has been interviewed in the ongoing manslaughter investigation.

Pittsburgh city leaders have also taken some odd steps aimed at curbing demonstrations. The city council refused to ban the wearing of masks, but according to the Post-Gazette the council did approve special powers meaning police can cite anyone carrying PVC pipe, carabiners, and even gas masks in the city, if officers believe they will be used to disrupt public order.

Noah Williams, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project, says the city has ordered 1000 canisters of tear gas, "which is a strange move if you're not planning on using tear gas."

McCarrier is concerned that police will try to suppress the public outcry, noting that the city, as many cities do, requires a permit for a march. "You have the right to express yourself any way the government sees fit," he says wryly.

Williams says the groups he is coordinating with want to create "a space where the people the decisions are going to affect will have a voice," but admits he is not sure the G-20 delegates will get the message.

"They certainly have not shown a history of listening to the people whose interests they're supposed to have at heart," he says.

To follow G-20 protests and related news, visit resistg20.org and g20media.org.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A decade gone by: Where Portland has come since 1999, and why we can't really even imagine what's coming in 2019

Published in the Portland Phoenix

This week, we at the Portland Phoenix celebrate 10 years of serving Portland and Maine as your news, arts, and entertainment authority. And we celebrate a decade of you, our readers, giving us your attention in an increasingly jam-packed media world.

Portland is a small place that has a lot packed into it. (We actually kinda like that description of ourselves as well.) And we have managed to cram a lot into this issue — it's our annual Fall Preview issue as well as a celebratory anniversary edition — and we hope you'll check everything out.

But before you get there, let's start with the predictions then-staff writer Alex Irvine made five years ago, in our fifth-anniversary issue. He listed five themes that had been covered throughout the Phoenix's first five years that would still be current in five years' time (that is, now). And he went four-for-five.

GAMBLING Yep. Another proposal is in development now.

WATERFRONT The Maine State Pier mess is no more solved now than then, and statewide, working waterfront is still under serious land-use pressure.

DIRIGO HEALTH Whether as an example of how to reform healthcare, how not to, or something in between, he was right on.

MERCURY The environmental toxin is still an issue, but not much under discussion these days. We'll call Alex wrong on this one.

GAY CIVIL RIGHTS Oh yes, for sure. If you don't know that, plug into a Webtube.

In this issue, we look back at the past 10 years. Shay Stewart-Bouley mulls over how diversity has changed in Maine since 1999, and cartoonist David Kish offers us some ideas for new niche products we at the Portland Phoenix might create.

Then there's Deirdre Fulton's review of selected of stories we've been telling you about for a while, updating them with where they are today.

If you're wondering what life is like if you work at the newspaper, the only person who worked full-time at the Portland Phoenix from 1999 all the way through 2009, Marc Shepard, has graced us with funny tales he claims to remember from our history.

And our arts writers have reviewed what has happened in Portland since the turn of the millennium. Sam Pfeifle tells us about the 10 most influential bands of the past 10 years; Megan Grumbling recounts the losses and the incredible gains Portland's theater community has seen; Ken Greenleaf looks at the state's artistic scene and notes a few changes; Lindsay Sterling explains how Portland became such a foodie center.

And while Al Diamon gives us a peek at what Maine might be like in 2019, we'll take a slightly less dystopic view. Here are five key issues that will occupy us for some significant period of the next 10 years, and our predictions for what might have happened by 2019.

UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE Maybe we'll have solved it by then.

GAY CIVIL RIGHTS Full legal equality will have been in place for some time, nobody will be worse off, and many people will be better off.

GLOBAL WARMING This will be the crisis of the age, requiring political, economic, and social will like no worldwide challenge before. Its effects will reach into every aspect of our lives — transportation, communication, even food — and will require a concerted international effort to address.

GAMBLING Pro-gambling efforts will continue to propose increasingly better deals for Maine, in hopes of getting their mitts on at least some of our cash. Perhaps by 2019 they'll have offered to just give us our money back at the door.

STATE BUDGET CUTS If Maine's budget forecasters don't improve their skills, there might be precious little left to cut from services to the needy, and politicians will have to consider cutting tax breaks for the wealthy.

We recognize that looking forward is largely for entertainment value, but our looks back showed us exactly how much really does change over time. It doesn't always seem like it, we agree, but Portland is a very different city — very much for the better — today than it was in 1999. We'd like to think we've had some small part in that improvement, and we're definitely proud of how we've helped explore and explain it to you.

Thanks to our readers, writers, staff, advertisers, and friends. Thanks for sticking with us for 10 years, Portland. And thanks, in advance, for the next 10, and beyond.

Party Politics: Snowe: A party of one

Published in the Portland Phoenix

US Senator Olympia Snowe has maneuvered herself into a position where she is the only hope Democrats have of getting a "bipartisan" agreement on healthcare reform. But it's really less that she's being bipartisan than that her bloody-minded Republican colleagues have left her as the last remnant of a system in which the two parties disagreed but found middle ground on which to govern together.

As we have told you before, Snowe is seen as politically crucial to President Barack Obama's efforts to fix our nation's broken healthcare system, but has stuck fast to her idea of compromise — in which a public-option plan would only be available if competition did not improve some yet-to-be-specified amount over some yet-to-be-specified period of time after a bill was passed (see "Snowe Misses the Point of Healthcare Reform," by Jeff Inglis, July 10).

Of course, with Snowe's major campaign donors coming from the insurance and medical sectors, it's unclear what specifics would be suitable to her. (And it's worth noting that many of the hardcore public-option Dems are heavily indebted to labor unions.)

Snowe was able to reshape the financial bailout and economic-stimulus package because the Republicans refused to be bipartisan. She is again a party of one on healthcare reform, less by her own doing than because she has been abandoned — not only by the rightmost ideologues in her party but even by fellow "moderate" Republican Senator Susan Collins. Long a fence-sitter, Collins took to CNN Sunday to tell State of the Union viewers that she opposes a public option, even if it were delayed and watered down along the lines of Snowe's proposal.

Now Snowe herself has gone even farther, outright asking Obama to drop the public option, saying on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday that there is "no way" a plan with a public option can pass Congress. And she may be right about the vagaries and perversities of how Congress works. But with that declaration, she made clear that while the Democrats retreated on the public option in hopes of getting a bipartisan agreement, they are likely now to end up with neither.

But in the wake of recent polls showing strong public support for a public option, and even one showing that nearly three-quarters of doctors favor a public option or just outright single-payer healthcare, Democrats are starting to climb back, with many saying it's important to have a public option in some form, specifically because of the need to provide competition to health-insurance companies.

It remains to be seen if Snowe will support a bill with a public-option trigger like the one she originally proposed, or if she will instead stick with her new request that any sort of public option should be "off the table." It also remains to be seen whether anyone else joins what we might as well start calling the Snowepublican Party.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Portland Phoenix 10th Anniversary on WCSH's 207

Aired on WCSH's 207

video

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Your Money: Here comes the FairPoint bailout

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We thought the bailouts were over. They're not. FairPoint Communications, the nightmare that has become northern New England's landline provider, is seeking tax dollars that could help it fulfill the promises made to regulators in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont when the company spent $2.3 billion to buy Verizon's systems here.

FairPoint is in serious trouble. Next week, officials from all three states will hold a rare joint hearing with the company, which has been scheduled for several weeks but is likely to include discussion of an anonymous e-mail sent August 14 to regulators in all three states alleging that FairPoint faked test results regulators relied on to determine that the company was ready to take over from Verizon. (Monday, FairPoint issued a strong denial based on its own internal investigation.)

Vermont is considering revoking the company's license to conduct business. In July the company threatened bankruptcy. Its business model still depends on customers leaving more slowly than they left Verizon — when in fact the company's terrible service has caused a customer-departure rate higher than Verizon's, and incurred $3 million in poor-performance fines from state officials.

But you don't enter the picture until we look at FairPoint's promises, which are enforceable because they are also orders from the three states' utilities regulators. As part of its proof that the Verizon takeover was in the public interest, the company must pay a minimum of $131 million by March 31, 2010, to expand broadband Internet coverage in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont (even if other companies offer better, faster, or cheaper broadband in the same area). And it must pay a further $114 million before March 31, 2013 to do even more.

FairPoint is asking for nearly $38 million in federal economic-stimulus money (out of $7.2 billion approved to broadband expansion) to provide coverage to areas of all three states that the company "otherwise would have been unable to serve within an identifiable timeframe," according to a company press release. Under federal rules, the company will have to contribute $7.5 million of its own in matching funds to those projects.

But because of a loophole between the states' requirements and the federal rules for doling out its money, tax money could be used to meet the company's existing obligations. The states only require that FairPoint spend certain amounts within the timeframe — regardless of how the company gets the money. The feds require that the company prove "that the project would not have been implemented during the grant period without federal grant assistance."

But what the feds call "the grant period" ends three years after the government approves the application, expected to be late this year. FairPoint's commitments to the states don't end for another year beyond that.
FairPoint probably can't get federal money to cover what the states already require be spent before March 31, 2010. But the states' rules allow it to claim it was going to spend all the rest of the money just before the 2013 deadline. And then the company could say it was bringing forward, into the federal "grant period," work originally slated for 2013 — in which case the rules appear to allow federal money to fulfill state demands.

Indeed, Maine and New Hampshire regulators more or less admit that their requirements don't cover this possibility. "It's all in terms of expenditures," says Andrew Hagler of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, adding that the federal rules are the only way to will prevent FairPoint from subverting taxpayer money to meet its prior corporate obligations.

Leave it to Vermont to set the bar. The state that acted first on the e-mailed tip that FairPoint might have faked its test results is taking the hardest line about double-dipping. The money FairPoint promised to Vermont is "a separate, standalone obligation to the state," says Stephen Wark of the Vermont Department of Public Service. He said he would be "surprised" if the feds allowed it, adding that "generally, the rule is you cannot supplant" money already committed, and replace it with federal dollars. "That is what we're going to hold them to," Wark says.

Good thing, too, because if it's up to the feds, they're not talking. Mark Tolbert, spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the broadband stimulus money, referred the Phoenix to "eligibility and matching" documentation that didn't lay out whether double-dipping in this way would be allowed.

Labor of Love: No rest for these union activists

Published in the Portland Phoenix


Most of us will sleep in on Labor Day. Not the Southern Maine Labor Council, who will be working hard to remind us what the holiday's actually all about.

They'll start at the ungodly holiday hour of 8 am with a breakfast at the Maine Irish Heritage Center hosted by the Southern Maine Labor Council, the Western Maine Labor Council, and the Metal Trades Council. After 45 minutes of chow, they'll head upstairs for a labor-music performance by Nine to Nine, a singing group with an odd name for union types. There will also be an exhibit of photos by Brunswick-based documentary photographer Guy Saldanha, who has visited and photographed labor sites around the world, and across Maine.

The big attraction, though, will be Wilma Liebman, a woman whose name most of us haven't heard. She's the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, who will be receiving the "Working Class Heroine Award" for her efforts on behalf of workers' rights.

Liebman, one of only two serving NLRB members (three seats are vacant), has spent 12 years on the board, and was chosen by President Obama to lead it shortly after he was inaugurated.

We caught up with her on the phone from Washington DC last week, just as she was heading to Australia to deliver a keynote address at the 19th World Congress of the International Society for Labor and Social Security Law.

She holds out hope for unions not just in the workplace (and notes that the percentage of organized workers in the private sector is in "obvious decline") but in the nation's public sphere, calling union activism "a political counterweight to the political influence of corporations."

While not taking a stand on the Employee Free Choice Act and other labor-related legislation (the board, as a quasi-judicial body, stays out of legislative debates), Liebman says she hopes "things will not be made worse between labor and management."

As far as general principles, she says seeking a balance between corporate and individual power is "both a matter of democracy and a sound economy." Specifically, "if you address the inequality" that exists in society, then increased purchasing power for workers will help boost the economy out of the recession.

At the moment, she says, she sees a sort of "holding pattern," in which everyone is mostly waiting for the outcome of the legislative process. Key to the success of whatever law is passed, Liebman says, is shared understanding. "If the business community could acknowledge that workers have rights — not just to a voice in the workplace but to a standard of living," and labor can recognize "the terrible competitive pressures" of doing business today, both will be better able to work together.

But as the agency tasked with making sure they do, the NLRB is facing its own "crisis of confidence," she says. Three board members' terms expired in December 2007; George W. Bush made three appointments; the Senate never acted. Obama made three nominations in July, but the Senate has been busy with other business.

In the meantime, Liebman says, "our authority to act as a two-member board has been challenged in several circuit courts." Though she and fellow board member Peter Schaumber have nearly 500 decisions with no other members available, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in May that the two-person body did not have the power to make rulings. Three other federal appeals courts, including the Boston-based 1st Circuit, have ruled that it does. The matter is likely to go to the Supreme Court to be resolved.

Portland Labor Day Breakfast | September 7 @ 8 am | Maine Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray St, Portland | $25 | 207.892.4067