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FOIA Fest for journalists, activists

How much does CPS spend on standardized testing?  How is the CHA spending federal subsidies it’s getting for housing units that it’s failed to occupy?  What’s happened to the clients of mental health clinics that were closed?  Which schools are losing students to urban violence?

With journalistic resources increasingly strapped, there’s “a lot of untapped potential” among community groups and activists to get information using the Freedom of Information Act, according to Steve Franklin, president of the Headline Club (and director of the Ethnic News Project at Community Media Workshop).

Along with journalists, organizations and individuals challenging cutbacks in education, housing and human services, and those working on violence and criminal justice and many other issues, are among the potential audience for the Headline Club’s FOIA Fest, a series of evening programs taking place this Monday through Wednesday, Franklin said.

Monday, March 11, 6 to 8 p.m., Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association will speak at an opening reception at Columbia’s journalism department, 33 E. Congress, second floor.  Along with its own investigations, BGA regularly holds FOIA clinics as well as trainings for “citizen watchdogs” and “education watchdogs.”

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Civic Lab plans ‘design hack’

Civic Lab, a new civic engagement project which aims at developing educational programs on local issues and online tools to encourage community involvement, will hold a “design hack” on Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Read/Write Library, 914 N. California.  Pizza lunch will be provided.

Initiated by long-time activist Tom Tresser, Civic Lab aims at operating a storefront “civic hacker space” to hold classes, conduct research projects, and create online tools for civic engagement.   It’s needed because while big money floods our elections, citizen anger and alienation is growing, Tresser said.

The first planned project is a TIF Report, with citizen journalists investigating the use and abuse of tax increment financing and producing ward reports for print and online distribution.

Also envisioned are classes in civics basics – how to read a property tax bill or a city budget, how to write a letter to the editor or run for office – and collaborations with activists and programmers to develop new tools.

One might be a phone app to allow participants at rallies to sign up for updates on particular issues or from particular groups– potentially a big improvement over hastily scrawled and often illegible sign-in sheets, Tresser said.

More on movement building

For those interested in  more on the discussion of movement building featured yesterday, we’ve posted Mel Rothenberg’s paper at the CANG8/Occupy Counter-Summit on Labor and Occupy: Insights from Wisconsin, which fleshes out his analysis.

From 1968, a long view on movement building

After demonstrators were arrested and roughed up in an unsuccessful attempt to march to McCormick Place on Sunday, I thought it would be interesting to check in with Mel Rothenberg.  He has the distinction of leading the only demonstration that succeeded in marching to the International Ampitheatre, where the Democratic National Convention was being held, in 1968.

Now a retired professor, Rothenberg has been politically active through the intervening decades, most recently with Chicago Jobs With Justice and the Chicago Political Economy Group.  This gives him a long view on movement building and social change. (He and I worked together on the Chicago bureau of the Guardian, the independent radical newsweekly published in New York, in the 1980s.)

Chicago 1968 “was very different,” he says.  “It was a shock.  Everybody, the demonstrators and cops, were uncertain about what would happen.” At last weekend’s NATO protest, “both the authorities and the demonstration organizers had much more control of the street action, and the media had already orchestrated its coverage ahead of time.”

Big differences

“In 1968 the mayor was completely unprepared and the city was completely on edge,” he says.  In contrast to media pre-coverage this time – featuring scary headlines which almost surely depressed turnout – in 1968 “the media was trying to keep things calm, pretending nothing was going to happen.”

Also different was the police department: “In ’68 there was a lot of overt racism in the department — the Klan was operating openly; there were conflicts within the police department.” There had been major riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark. “The authorities were in a panic.  There were National Guard and state police, and it looked like for a while that the city would be put under martial law.”

Rothenberg helped organizet the Bourbaki Brigade, a contingent of mathematicians, who marched about 100-strong through Bridgeport to the Ampitheatre at 42nd and Halsted.  “It was very tense,” he recalls.  “There were neighborhood thugs threatening us, and the police in between, both protecting us and threatening us.”

The police “were making decisions on the spur of the moment – they didn’t know what was happening either – and they decided to let us through; we were a small group and not very threatening, mathematicians, college professors.”

The next day was supposed to be the big march to the convention site.  “It was supposed to be peaceful.  We brought our kids.”  A huge crowd gathered in the park across from the Conrad Hilton, and someone (later revealed to be a police infiltrator) climbed the flagpole and took down the American flag.  “That was the signal, they attacked us, there was tear gas, there was chaos.”

A big flop

This year, he says, “I don’t think Obama or NATO came out very well.  All the attention was on the demonstrators. The summit was a big flop.”

“There was no popular support in Chicago for NATO, no outpouring of sentiment to support NATO.” And “no one except city officials and p.r. people thought it was going to help the city.  It was a bust from the point of view of helping the local economy or getting favorable international attention to Chicago.”

“About the only thing they accomplished was to avoid a disaster,” Rothenberg said.

As for the protests, they turned out thousands of people – certainly far more than the 2,000 reported by the police – and wove together a range of social concerns with the issues of war and militarization.

But Rothenberg says there needs to be more attention to building a sustainable movement that goes beyond occasional demonstrations to actually challenging and changing policies.

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The anti-muckrakers

Ever since the muckrakers of the Progressive Era – since McClure’s Magazine published Ida Turbell’s “History of Standard Oil” and Lincoln Steffen’s “The Shame of Minneapolis” in its January 1903 issue – investigative journalism has exposed the machinations of the powerful.

A few years ago a coterie of young conservatives decided to take up their own version of investigation journalism.  But they employ it to attack groups working to empower regular folks, and their methods feature deception and subterfuge — especially trying to trick staffers at community organizing groups into saying something embarrassing or worse.  It’s slash-and-burn journalism.

It worked with ACORN, where – as we noted in a 2009 post, Framing ACORN – Editor and Publisher found that “a bountiful crop of misinformation” was taken up by the FOX News echo chamber and repeated endlessly “without fact-checking” in the mainstream media (with metropolitan newspapers being a notable exception).  It led to the defunding and collapse of that organization.

Now the New York Times reports on a “sting” at two New York affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Chicago-based organizing network founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940.

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Occupy Austin, Occupy Bronzeville

Occupy Austin and Occupy Bronzeville, joined by people from Occupy Chicago, will begin a new drive to occupy foreclosures at actions on the West and South Sides tomorrow.

They’ll rally with tenants of a foreclosed building who are resisting what they say are illegal attempts to evict them from a 12-unit rental building, just two weeks after foreclosure.

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Progressives to meet

Miguel del Valle and Delmarie Cobb are calling a meeting of local progressives Saturday to assess the new political situation, which seems to be shifting daily. It’s Saturday, October 15, 2 p.m., a NEIU’s Center for Inner City Studies, 700 E. Oakwood.

A panel discussion will feature Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader, Toussaint Losier of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Phil Jackson of the Black Star Project, and electoral organizer Rebecca Reynolds.

“The political landscape in Chicago has shifted beneath our feet in the past year,” del Valle told Extra. “Progressives–those who believe in and work for progress for all Chicagoans–must now look around at our new circumstances and reevaluate.

“What are our biggest challenges–both as a movement, and as a city? How can we ensure that our voices are heard, louder than ever, in the halls of power? Those are the questions we hope to address at the forum on October 15.”

Peacemaking: From West Bank to West Side

When he was on the West Bank with a Christian Peacemaker Team in 2005, Chicago organizer Elce Redmond realized the problems people faced there were similar to those faced by people back home – and solutions might be similar too.

Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition, will give the opening keynote for CPT’s 25th anniversary Peacemaker Congress, Thursday, October 13 at 8 p.m. at Evanston Reba Place Church, 533 Custer.  The congress runs through Sunday the 16th.

In 2005, Redmond’s team was providing “peaceful accompaniment” for Palestinian schoolchildren who faced bullying and attacks by adults (“they were mostly from New York,” he says) living in Israeli settlements there.  “I was struck that the same situation happens on the West Side of Chicago, kids trying to get home from school and facing gangs and violence.”

Back home, Redmond began organizing the Austin Peaceforce, with parents and community volunteers trained in nonviolent strategies who are deployed to defuse conflicts and prevent violence.  Today they have a regular presence in Austin schools, including parent patrols after school.

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  • Telling people’s stories, an ethnic media success September 2, 2015
        By Stephen Franklin Community Media Workshop   A 3-year-old child died on a plane from Chicago to Poland. This, Magdalena Pantelis instantly knew, was a story her readers would care about. But she needed more detail to write about it for the Polish Daily News, the nation’s oldest daily newspaper in Polish, founded Jan. […]
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