Month: June 1998

Gasping For Profits

Microsoft’s lawsuit dominates the headlines here, but elsewhere in the U.S., other companies are duking it out with the Department of Justice. Last week, the DOJ slapped Honda Motor Co. with a $17.1 million fine for violating the Clean Air Act.

No, it’s not just because Honda is an automobile manufacturer (although that should be reason enough). The California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) caught Honda disabling the pollution monitoring equipment on its cars and vans. So much for limiting green house gases.

But wait, Honda is not the only culprit! Last week, in a separate action, the DOJ also slapped a $7.8 million fine on Ford Motor Co. for tampering with the emission controls on 60,000 Econoline vans so they’d register better gas mileage. It seems many drivers really do care how much gas they pour into their automobiles, in spite of what car manufacturers say to environmentalists. Unfortunately, the DOJ’s tiny fines (which amount to only a fraction of each company’s profits for a year) are just a slap on the wrist for this deceitful, disgusting, and illegal behavior.

It’s estimated that thousands of tons of additional pollution are produced by automobiles with disabled emissions control devices. But of course, Honda and Ford are concerned more for the tons of profits they make every year from high sales volume, so they tinker with their cars to make them more appealing and less safe. For example, Honda reset the computerized emission control monitor on its cars so that it failed to trigger a dashboard light when emission levels got too high. In short, the bottom line rules; forget about the quality of the air we breathe.

The extent of the tampering is astounding. The Honda models involved in the suit include: 1995 Accord, Acura NSX and Acura 2.5 TL models, and 1996 and 1997 Accord, Civic, Prelude, Odyssey, and Acura models. This was no manufacturing error; it was company policy. If you own or know someone who owns one of those cars, send it back to the dealer and demand that it be fixed for free. Better yet, demand a new car. That ought to get someone’s attention.

And just in case you’re thinking that other car manufacturers aren’t as bad: in 1995, General Motors lost its own case involving emissions tampering on 570,000 Cadillacs. Many other types of cars, especially older models, spew greenhouse gases at alarming rates. Legal limits have been set for newer models, but they’re arbitrarily high in Washington State, while older model cars are not required to pass emissions tests at all. It took a diligent investigator at the EPA several years to nail Honda, after their cars routinely failed emissions tests in California, where standards are much stricter than they are here.

Park your car and take the bus, ride a bike, or walk. You’ll breathe a little easier.


I Want My Half

The City Council voted last week to put Key Tower on the block, because the city needs the money. Big surprise. Who could have foreseen it? Especially after the city gave away $73 million for a parking garage for Nordstroms, including a $23 million “incentive” over and above the cost to build the damn thing.

Last Thursday, Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag gave his approval to the Nordy garage deal. Yet he also criticized the city council for the lack of public debate and disclosure while they worked out the details of the scam with developers. The council held only one poorly publicized public hearing after the deal was already completed. Sonntag says that’s not illegal … just not very smart. As if we needed his opinion…

Yet one more disgusting detail has surfaced over the management of this money pit. If the city buys the garage (which they surely will–why else sell Key Tower to free up extra cash?), the city will be required to subsidize 50% of all parking validation coupons issued by Nordstroms and other retailers in the Pacific Place Mall. In effect, the city will be giving Nordstroms and other retailers half-price parking in the new luxury garage. Already, critics claim the garage won’t pay for itself. With this subsidy figured in, the operating loss to the city could be staggering.

On the other hand, folks could consider the new parking garage a public facility, and demand free access to it. Let’s see, the garage holds 1200 vehicles, and at least 600 of those spaces will be subsidized by the city (rented for us). A few of us could pitch tents in our favorite parking spaces. Why not? I want my share.


Things That Go Boom

There are 6,000 homeless people searching for a place to sleep tonight in King County, and housing prices are going up by the week. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the Cascades, there’s 177 underground tanks full of radioactive fluid on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation–and one-third of those tanks are leaking. How do these two issues connect? And who’s making the connections?

Last week, at a forum sponsored by the Seattle Independent Media Coalition (SIMC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), activists and independent media folks got together to discuss these two seemingly unrelated issues. Undeterred by the small turnout (around 50 people) on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, the presenters managed to get a lively discussion going about low-income housing, Hanford, screwed up budgetary priorities, and how to get these issues in front of mainstream folks.

This kind of work needs to be done, and it’s long overdue. Too many activist groups work on narrowly-focused issues and spend years banging on the same politicians’ door, without looking outward and attempting to make their issue relevant and visible to everyone. The best place to begin is by getting the word out to alternative media sources.

Seattle has a remarkably wide range of independent media projects underway, including: public access cable TV shows (Northwest Week, Earth on the Air, Network X, Deface the Nation, Citizen Vagrom, Crack the CIA and many others), on radio (Mind Over Matters on KCMU on weekend mornings), and print (ETS!, the Seattle Press, Washington Free Press, Black Autonomy, On Indian Land, and a number of independently published zines and newspapers). Often, activists gear their press releases to mainstream media outlets and bypass by the alternative media. But mainstream media is narcissistic. Journalists read other newspapers, even small ones, for leads and different perspectives on a topic. TV journalists watch each other’s shows to make sure they’re not being scooped by another station or some “little guy.”

Once a topic is covered in the alternative press, a signal is sent to the daily newspapers and TV stations: i.e., “here’s a problem you’re ignoring.” Then reporters, editors, and journalists get a little uncomfortable: “How are we going to address this issue? We can’t let those amateurs scoop us on this!” (It happens regularly with issues ETS! covers first.) Often, it provokes a dismissive or blatantly pro-business, two-paragraph short in The Times or 10-second spot on the Five O’clock News. But if the alternative press fires back with facts in hand, it’s harder for the mainstream press to keep dismissing the issue. Solid data, a no-nonsense insistence on basic human decency, a demand for absolute honesty, and a sense of humor (naturally) are all hard to resist.

But alternative media is also volunteer media; we need the facts, and we need it from people working on the issues. If those folks only talk to mainstream news outlets, they’re missing their best tool for long-term change: a strong, oppositional, critical, grassroots media.

Which is why now’s the time for more people, especially activists, to get involved in projects that bring together activists and independent media people. Kudos to SIMC and the AFSC for providing a place for this to happen.

To find out when the next Media/Activist Forum will be held, how to get in touch with members of the Seattle Independent Media Coalition, or to get a copy of SIMC’s Guide to Independent Media Sources in Seattle, contact Arlis at 206-632-0500, ext 112.


Racism, Alive And Well

Sponsors of anti-affirmative action Initiative 200 (including conservative Internet talk-show host John Carlson and Republican politicians) would have you think that racism is dead in Washington State. Think again.

Fifteen black dockworkers can tell you otherwise. Last week, they won an $800,000 out-of-court settlement against shippers and stevedoring companies operating in the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, and three locals of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The suit charged harassment based on race: the workers were physically assaulted, suffered racial slurs and jokes, and were passed over for job assignments. After they complained to the union, they suffered retaliation from co-workers and supervisors.

During eight days of testimony to a jury, the workers and their witnesses (including white dockworkers) gave examples of racism within the dispatch hall and on the job, and told how black workers were routinely passed over for training opportunities and promotion. The testimony was so emotional and compelling that U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess gave the companies and the ILWU the chance to save their sorry asses by going back into mediation with the workers to reach a settlement. Clearly, the Old White Boys network is still strong at the Port of Seattle, Mayor Schell’s former stomping grounds.

The fact that the ILWU was a major target of the lawsuit is especially unforgivable. Unions have been working hard in the last few years to reverse declining union membership. One of their strategies has been to promote the face of “New Unionism” as one that’s predominantly female and non-white. Local unions can be proud of drives to organize farmworkers, daycare workers, nurses, retail workers, and temps. But the destructive spectre of racism and white privilege still remains in some workplaces, including our own longshore local. And it scares people away from all unions.

It’s bad enough when bosses act this way, but when a local union turns out to be full of racist jerks, it’s time for a real shake-up to happen (and soon).

In Bed With Assholes

Allan Nairn, investigative journalist for The Nation, has made more discoveries of links between U.S. intelligence and Indonesian intelligence units, particularly the notorious KOPASSUS Group 4, responsible for the detainment, torture, and disappearance of pro-democracy activists.

Colonel Chaiwaran, the commander of Group 4, admitted to Nairn that he regularly reports to Col. Charles McFetridge, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) attache at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. Other members of the Indonesia military have told Nairn that Group 4 men have been trained by U.S. intelligence and that, with U.S. support, KOPASSUS was expanded from 3,000 to 4,800 troops early this year, in anticipation of “domestic instability.” The Pentagon helped train these new recruits through 24 of their Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program exercises, in secret violation of a U.S. Congressional order.

Furthermore, Nairn writes, Defense Secretary William Cohen praised the head of KOPASSUS, Lieutenant General Probowo (Suharto’s son-in-law) in January during a visit to Indonesia, where he met with leaders of all the Indonesian intelligence agencies. Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth took Probowo with him twice to prison meetings with Xanana Gusmao, head of the resistance movement in East Timor.

Information has also leaked regarding U.S. military support for General Wiranto, the head of the Indonesian armed forces, the country’s Defense Minister, and the real power behind new President Jusuf Habibie. Wiranto controls the BIA, the armed forces’ intelligence unit, which has also received training through the Pentagon’s JCET. In recent weeks, the BIA has been responsible for arresting labor activists calling for an increase in the minimum wage, ransacking the offices of labor, student, and women’s organizations, and the arrest and torture of the chief field organizer for Megawati Sukarno (an opposition political leader). One U.S. official told Nairn that the BIA is using a new torture technique in East Timor: breaking the hips of political prisoners.

In response to massive protests, the new Indonesian government has released some political prisoners, yet many more of the abducted remain missing, and more activists are continuing to “disappear.” U.S. newspapers, however, are happy to print tales of new political freedoms in Indonesia, without covering the brutal realities that Indonesian activists face everyday. As the repression continues, students, labor leaders, and political activists are bravely demanding elections, a complete change of government, the end of corruption among the wealthy and well-connected, and economic reparations from Suharto, his family, and cronies, who have looted this island archipelago for over 30 years.

Information for this piece came from an article Allen Nairn wrote for the June 15-22 issue of The Nation.


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