A Protester Meets with Utrice Leid 5-4-01
Date: Fri, 18 May 2001 00:53:39 EDT
Subject: A Protester Meets with Utrice Leid
On Friday, May 4, Utrice Leid announced on the air that she had met with a protester and that the meeting had been fruitful. My name is Paul Surovell, and I am that protester. I am coordinator of leafletting and the daily vigil for the Concerned Friends of WBAI.
What follows is a public letter addressed to Utrice Leid which summarizes my recollections of our meeting. I invited Utrice to attach her own comments to the letter, but she has thus far declined to do so.
When I handed Utrice the letter, she expressed displeasure over its existence, and she opined that we had agreed the meeting was to be kept "confidential." I replied that if I had been asked to keep the meeting confidential, I would not have participated in it.
Before you read the letter, let me take this opportunity to invite all who support free speech at WBAI to join the Concerned Friends' leafletting campaign and daily vigil by contacting me at:
(Paul Surovell) 973-763-9493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is my letter to Utrice Leid:
To: Utrice Leid, Interim General Manager, WBAI
From: Paul Surovell, Concerned Friends of WBAI, coordinator of leafletting and the Daily Vigil
Subject: Summary of Our Discussion on May 2, 2001
I want to thank you for inviting me up to the station on May 2nd to discuss the issues that have driven so many listeners, including myself, to protest so many actions and policies of your interim administration and the Pacifica board.
I decided to put this summary in writing because I received so many inquiries about our meeting from members of the Concerned Friends of WBAI and other listeners. I have also been informed that on Friday May 4th, you reported on the air that you had met with a "protester," thus disclosing that our meeting took place. In light of this public disclosure, I feel an obligation to share the contents of our meeting with other listeners, and so I have prepared the written summary that follows.
However, before I release this summary to the public, in the spirit of openness, I am inviting you to add your own comments and recollections of our meeting to this document. Please send any such comments to me by Thursday, May 16th, and I will attach them in full to this document. If I receive your comments after the 16th, I will re-issue the document with your comments attached.
At the outset, I would like to express my appreciation for the generous amount of time (close to an hour and a half) that you gave me, and for your willingness to exchange views with one who is in total opposition to the firings, bannings and censorship that have taken place under your administration, and who is supporting a listener boycott of the WBAI fund drive as a tactic to convince management to reverse those policies.
A few days before our meeting, you approached me at the daily protest vigil outside the station at 120 Wall Street, where I have stood almost every weekday since mid-January. We met there again on May 1st and you invited me to come upstairs for "a talk." We met in the station on May 2nd, and the following day, May 3rd, I returned to the daily vigil outside the building at 4:30 PM. I put on our sign that reads: "Utrice Leid Stop Your Firing, Banning and Censorship at WBAI." The struggle continues. And hopefully the dialog will too.
What follows are my recollections of our meeting.
I opened the meeting by handing you my Concerned Friends of WBAI business card. You looked at the card and asked, "Who are the Concerned Friends?" When I began to explain, you said, "Oh that's all right, I'm not interested in the Concerned Friends, I just want to hear what you have to say." I responded that I felt it important that you understand that my daily presence at the protest vigil in front of 120 Wall Street was as a member of the Concerned Friends of WBAI.
The Firing of Bernard White and the Cancelation of "Wake-Up Call"
I recounted that my life has not been the same since I first heard of Bernard White's firing on a broadcast of "Building Bridges" during early January. I explained that Bernard White and "Wake-up Call" were a part of my life for many years and they had been taken away from me without any justification. I looked to "Wake-up Call" for guidance, information, and a connection to the world. "Wake-up Call's" politics of social activism were my politics and they were gone. I stated that I feel injured and deprived as a result of Bernard's firing and the cancelation of "Wake-up Call."
You countered by asserting that Bernard White was fired for "cause" and the cause was that he was organizing a "takeover" of WBAI that was illegal, undemocratic and would have jeopardized WBAI's FCC license. You said that Bernard had been repeatedly warned against these actions but he persisted, and thus in effect, he "asked" to be fired.
I responded that this story has no credibility with me, because if Pacifica had such evidence, it would be willing to put it in writing, and it has never done so. You said that legal requirements and "procedure" prevent Pacifica from disclosing matters in Bernard's personnel file, that if Bernard wants to receive such a written explanation, he could go through the "grievance procedure" and he would receive a written explanation. I said that if Pacifica was prepared to put such charges in writing it could send a letter to Bernard with the written charges and publicly announce the existence of the letter, giving Bernard the option of disclosing its contents. You said this was not possible because of "procedure."
I further countered that the story has no credibility with me because if Bernard had committed an act so egregious that it put WBAI's license in jeopardy, then it is beyond belief that Bessie Wash would have authorized you to reinstate Bernard at any time, as she did. Why would she allow such a person to return?
Management Practices under Valerie Van Isler and Utrice Leid
Our discussion then turned to management practices under Valerie Van Isler. You described a number of serious deficiencies and inequities, including the failure to provide health insurance for many employees, vast differences in pay among paid staff and Ms. Van Isler's opposition to the union on various issues. You expressed outrage that a "progressive" organization like WBAI would not provide decent health care for all of its staff. You stated that the discrepancies in pay and benefits were largely based on who was "in" and who was "out" with the general manager. You stated that these problems were being addressed and would be corrected under your administration.
I responded that I had heard reports of many of these problems and that I believed that any efforts to remediate them were laudable, but that I had also heard a report by Mimi Rosenberg that you were refusing to recognize unpaid WBAI staff as part of the union bargaining unit. I wondered if this would perpetuate a system of inequities among staff. You responded that you had no choice, since the NLRB had ruled that unpaid staff were not part of the bargaining unit. I responded that my understanding was that the NLRB had ruled that management was not legally obligated to recognize unpaid staff, but that management could include them if it chose to do so. Misrepresentations of the Concerned Friends of WBAI We then moved on to a discussion of what I asserted were your misrepresentations of those of us who are protesting the firings, bannings and censorship at WBAI, and the direction of the Pacifica board.
I identified three characterizations of the protesters that you have made repeatedly:
- that we are violentI also objected to your use of the phrases "defecating on the station" and "vomiting in public" as vulgar, incendiary language that has no place in public debate.
I stated that with regard to the allegations of racism, violence and the intent to destroy the station -- all of these were not only misrepresentations, but they were in fact the opposite of what is true.
I said that the people in the Concerned Friends of WBAI are not only multi-racial, but they are among the least racist of any group in our society. We are also among the most peaceful and non-violent people you will find in our society. And to say that we want to destroy the station simply turns truth on its head -- we are hoping to restore WBAI by reversing the firings, bannings and censorship that have already destroyed free speech radio at WBAI.
I said that I found it hard to believe that you actually believed the allegations you make against us, and I asked for examples of where we had engaged in racism and violence.
You said that racist calls are being made to the station and that there was an incident where a staffer's girlfriend was followed home by someone. I responded that if someone committing such acts claimed to represent us, he/she was an agent provocateur seeking to discredit us.
The other example of racism which you cited was that Mimi Rosenberg allegedly kicked you and called you a "f--ing bitch."I said even if one assumes for argument's sake that the incident occurred as described, there is no basis for characterizing it as racist.
When I asked for examples of violence, you described two.
The first occurred several months ago during the sit-in protest over the LAB meeting in the hallway outside the station. One of the demonstrators broke away from the others and forced his way into the doorway of the station. I said this was a case where an individual broke away from the group and acted on his own. It was stupid and counterproductive, but was it "violent?" I don't think so.
The other example of violence that you cited involved the demonstration by African-American women outside your apartment building in Brooklyn. You said that some members of the group "broke into my home." I asked whether they broke down the door to your apartment or entered through a window. You responded "they broke into my home."
After several more requests for a more specific description, you explained that some members of the group went into the lobby and hallways of your building, passing out flyers that denounced you, to your neighbors. When I asked how this constituted "breaking into your home," you replied that the Diallo case has firmly established that a person's home begins on the steps of the building in which they live. And since these women passed that threshold, they "broke into" your home.
The Fund Drive Boycott
I challenged your allegation that we are trying to "destroy" WBAI by advocating a boycott of the Fund Drive.
I said that boycotts do not destroy their target institutions -- they are strategies to pressure management to respond to the demands of the boycotters. In our case, our boycott demands on WBAI management are primarily the reinstatement of the fired and banned staff and an end to censorship. On a national level, the boycott seeks the resignation of the Pacifica board of directors.
You responded that the boycott was more like the economic sanctions imposed on Cuba and Iraq and you said that the boycott had led to the "militarization" of our movement. I objected to your use of the word "militarization," because it implies that we are preparing to commit acts of violence, which is what military organizations do. I said that you had to be aware that this language was misleading and your only purpose in using it was to create a false, threatening image of us to frighten away listeners and the public.
You repeated your belief that we were "militarized" and that the boycott, like the boycotts against Cuba and Iraq, needed military power to implement its objectives
I disputed this and said that boycotts were a legal, non-violent form of protest used frequently by progressive movements seeking peaceful change. I cited the grape boycott, the boycott against South Africa, and the numerous boycotts of the civil rights movement, such as the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King.
You warned that a boycott would deprive union workers on the WBAI staff, many of whom have children, of their livelihoods. I said if this happened, the onus would be on management, which could easily unblock a huge flow of funds by responding to our demands. You also suggested that we reconsider the boycott because other listeners who have different program preferences will take our place. I said that is a risk we take. You also said that our boycott had little impact in February. I said I had heard you say this before, but that I had not seen any real numbers.
Congressman Major Owens
The Major Owens incident came up. You emphasized that producers do not "own" their programs or their air time and that as General Manager you had the right to walk into Ken Nash's studio to interrupt his program. You noted that he had not made an effort to speak with you prior to his show, even though he had prepared to denounce your firing of his co-host Mimi Rosenberg.
I said that as General Manager, you certainly had the power to do what you did, but I did not think that, in the context of a 40-year tradition of free-speech radio, you had the right to do what you did.
You reiterated your version of the events, that Ken Nash "elbowed" you in front of 5 witnesses. You also maintained that Major Owens was not cut off the air, but that you just wanted to ask him some questions.
I said that Ken Nash and listeners who heard the show disagree with your version of what took place.
You talked about how Ken Nash's failure to speak to you before airing the programming was unacceptable journalism. I said that, perhaps it would have been better journalism to include your side of the story, but it doesn't follow that the program had to be censored by you or anyone else.
The Pacifica Board and Pacifica Nightly News
The issue of the Pacifica board came up briefly. I mentioned that the Concerned Friends of WBAI and others were seeking to halt the direction that the Pacifica board was attempting to take the network. You asked what I meant by that. I said I believed that the board's intent is most clearly revealed in what has happened to Pacifica National News, which I believe has been largely mainstreamed and is now a ghost of what previously had been a hard-hitting, independent, alternative news program.
You said that you understood my criticism of PNN, but you said that the Pacifica board has nothing to do with PNN. I said I was under the impression that the board determined the management of PNN, which determines editorial policy. You said it is not the board but the executive director of the board that is responsible for management. I said of course, but the executive director is appointed by and is accountable to the board.
You said that it was true that previous executive directors cow-towed to the board, but that Bessie Wash was independent and was standing up to the board. If you gave any examples of this independence, I do not recall them.
My Appeal to Utrice
Toward the end of our meeting, you began to talk about the philosophy you applied to "Talkback" when you were on the air. You emphasized that you would never tolerate the disrespecting of any caller's ideas -- that everyone has a sacred piece of real estate: their mind. I said that was a wonderful philosophy. But I said it was very difficult to be in your presence to hear about the "old Utrice" that so many of us loved -- in light of your current policies and actions that we find antithetical to that philosophy.
As I was about to depart, I appealed to you. I said, "Utrice, please, I am pleading with you -- please bring everyone back together. Reunite the WBAI family. Let go of the history of personal rivalries and animosities. Let it go...."
You said it was too late, it was impossible. Too much had happened, the old staff could never be reunited. I disagreed and said it was possible, especially if a person with your immense abilities and talents set her mind to it.
I thanked you for being so generous with your time and you replied, "This doesn't have to be the last time we meet."
Here's hoping that we meet again in a WBAI where the family has been reunited and free speech has been restored.
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