Month: November 2002

Nickels Plays the City Council

The City Council had nearly finished its work on the city budget. After restoring a number of Mayor Nickels’ cuts to social services, they were left with the question of how much to cut funding to the mayor’s office. Certainly Nickels’ request for a 36% increase over the prior year was too much.

Last year the council had cited Paul Schell’s extravagant increases in spending as a reason to cut the mayor’s budget of $2.35 million back to its 1997 amount of $1.8 million. This pissed off Greg Nickels, who saw it, at best, as an attempt by the council to hamstring his administration and, at worst, as a direct personal insult. In fact, given the sorry state of the city’s finances, the passage of Tim Eyman’s anti-tax initiatives, and the sinking economy, it was prudent fiscal policy.

When Nickels drafted a new biennial budget earlier this year, he proposed a $1.45 million budget for the mayor’s office, claiming that it was time to restore the funds the council had cut last year. This amount, however, is a 6.5% increase over what Schell spent two years ago, when times were good.

Every other city department was faced with cuts, including the city council’s own administrative office. Nickels’ budget allocated the deepest cuts to arts and social service programs, while he funded a new vanity project: $1.5 million for sidewalk improvements, mostly in Seattle’s north end. Folks who thought they were voting for a Democrat when they voted for Nickels were shocked to find him fiscally to the right of Newt Gingrich.

Fortunately, the City Council has its priorities straight. (Or at least a slim majority of council members do.) Responsive to the voices of their poorer constituents and social service providers who are swamped with clients because of the economic downturn, the council voted to restore many of the cuts made by the mayor. A small list of the most important services saved by the council includes:

–$1.6 million for community health clinics that provide health care for low and no-income folks

–$1 million for smaller human service programs, including Community Voice Mail for homeless folks seeking employment and housing, Solid Ground for Homeless Families, eviction prevention services, and the North Helpline Food Bank (which also serves a lot of working poor and an increasing number of newly laid-off people)

–$500,000 for the Seattle Public Library’s book acquisition program

–$87,000 for childhood literacy programs

–$709,000 for public safety positions, including four crime survivor services positions and six community service officers who deal with everything from helping rape victims find services and support to dealing with minor juvenile offenders

–$75,000 for the Car Recovery Clinic to help low-income car owners whose vehicles have been towed

In addition, the city council transferred $600,000 from the City Light budget to set up a much-needed utility oversight board for the city council, and they voted to restructure some of City Light’s debt to save about $2 million a year in interest payments.

And, finally, the council put the $1.5 million sidewalk improvement program on hold, transferring that money to the social service programs listed above.

Nickels couldn’t prevent his pet project from being cut, but he worked hard to retain the funding to his own office. In recent weeks, social service providers lobbied the council, requesting a reasonable cut of $300,000 from the mayor’s office budget, which would still leave him with a generous 19% increase. Council President Peter Steinbreuck and Budget Chair Jan Drago, however, worked out a deal early last week to cut only $90,000 from the mayor’s budget. But in a meeting that included the whole council last Thursday, Judy Nicastro brought up cuts to the mayor’s budget again, proposing a $200,000 to $300,000 cut. After a vote was taken, Nicastro’s proposal passed 6-3, with Steinbreuck, Drago, and Margaret Pageler voting against it.

Nickels’ deputies were on the scene to witness this vote, and they were quick to take action. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis passed a note to councilmember Jim Compton. After reading the note, Compton called for a re-vote, saying he had changed his mind. Heidi Wills, in her typical wimpy fashion, also changed her mind. A second vote was taken and Nicastro’s proposal was struck down by 5-4, with Compton and Wills switching sides.

Now, reporters on the scene were naturally interested in finding out what was in that note Ceis passed to Compton. They asked Compton for a copy of it and he refused to release it. After filing a request with the City Clerk, however, they were given the text of the note, which read: “Jim. Because of the council’s vote on the mayor’s office budget, we can’t promise the money for Attack 16 now. Sorry.”

Attack 16 is the name of the fire engine at the Greenlake Fire Station that Compton had worked so hard to scrape together the money to save. When faced with blackmail by the mayor’s deputy, Compton caved in. What’s not clear is why Heidi Wills joined the forces of evil. Wills is not known for taking a strong stand on anything (except when it comes to saving circus elephants). Did the mayor’s office put pressure on her, or did she merely feel the need to vote with the more charismatic men on the council? You decide.

As for Greg Nickels, it’s clear that he isn’t the unassuming “nice guy” that our local political and media pundits had lampooned during his run for mayor against Mark Sidran and Paul Schell. Combine his aggressiveness with an atrocious sense of priorities and a lack of fiscal responsibility (as demonstrated by this farce of a budget and Nickels’ work overseeing Sound Transit when it sank into its financial mire) and Nickels could turn out to be a worse nightmare than Paul Schell.

Half A Million in Florence: Where was the US Press?

The atmosphere was “like a carnival,” an Associated Press reporter wrote, “with food stands, exhibits, and street theater along with the discussion of free trade and war.”

Over half a million people turned out in the streets of Florence, Italy to protest globalization and the impending war between the US and Iraq. The massive, peaceful street demonstration on November 9th was an unexpected climax to the four-day European Social Forum, sister to the World Social Forum held earlier this year in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Press from all over Europe and the world gathered to cover the event … but the US press fumbled the ball.

Most US newspapers print their stories from the two major wire services, Reuters and Associated Press. Both services ran stories on the demonstration and, not only did they accurately describe the celebratory mood of the marchers and the diversity of the crowd, they also accurately reported the two-prong nature of the protesters’ message.

Alessandra Rizzo of the Associated Press reported: “Protesters said they were motivated by opposition to a war in Iraq and the influence of multinational corporations, which they see as harmful to the environment and the poor.” Reuters reporter Luke Baker described the demonstrators: “As well as university-age students, older political activists and thousands of trades unionists, Saturday’s throng also included Italian World War II partisans and a US Vietnam war veteran who marched in the first row of the crowd.”

Baker also interviewed several citizens of Florence, many of whom turned out to watch or join the demonstration. One expressed scorn for the Florentines who closed their shops and fled the city, while another expressed pride that her city was hosting such an event. Baker pointed out: “the city’s famed museums remained open and offered free entry to the few tourists around.”

As to the numbers of people on the street, Baker reported: “Authorities estimated that some 450,000 protesters flooded Florence’s streets … But by dusk, the crowd had swelled to over half a million, many of them arriving on specially chartered trains and buses. Organizers estimated the gathering at around one million, making it one of Italy’s biggest ever anti-war rallies.” AP reporter Rizzo gave similar figures.

In stark contrast to the two wire service accounts, the articles posted by the two US newspapers of record, the New York Times and the Washington Post, took a darker tone.

The New York Times article, written by Frank Bruni, was the more comprehensive of the two. Yet Bruni did his best to downplay the festive atmosphere of the march. His focus from the very first paragraph was on “tense Italian government officials” thrown into a “jittery state of alert” and the 5,000 police ostensibly deployed to protect Florence’s architectural and sculptural treasures. Bruni, instead of communicating the reasons for the protest, ridicules them. Of one demonstrator, he says: “she used eyeliner to paint Y-like shapes on the brows of friends. They worried aloud that the results looked more like Mercedes symbols than peace signs.”

He also repeats the favorite assertion of right-wing, pro-business commentators in the US–that anti-globalization protesters are unfocused dimwits, who just want to protest for the sake of complaining: “Amadeo Rossi, 48, of Turin, Italy, said he was demonstrating ‘against the war in Iraq, the mistreatment of immigrants and the abuses of the Italian government–all of the problems in the world.'”

The Washington Post article, written by Daniel Williams, was even worse. Williams began his article with the same type of ridicule Bruni used: “A crowd of about 400,000 protesters from across Europe marched here today against a presumptive war on Iraq and plenty of other things as well–globalization, cultivation of genetically modified foods, commercial control of the Internet, copyright laws, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and liberalization of employee layoff rules.” While the protesters were able to connect the dots, Williams was not.

While the wire service reporters interviewed and quoted numerous people, Williams quoted only two, one a “French leftist” and the other a student, who said: “All the United States wants is oil to fuel their big cars.”

While Williams picked an anti-American quote, both he and Bruni ignored the main reason why so many people were in the street on that day: namely, to protest the foreign policy of one man, George W. Bush. The wire service reporters emphasized that the UN vote on Nov. 8th to pass Bush’s resolution against Iraq had boosted the number of people protesting in Florence. Baker (Reuters) reported: “Some placards depicted President Bush as Hitler and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as Mussolini.” The two US reporters, however, made little mention of criticism against Bush.

Instead, Williams and Bruni devoted a lot of space to describing the reaction of a few prominent Italians to the forum and demonstration, reminding us that film director Franco Zeffirelli and journalist Oriana Fallaci had scorned the demonstrators. They forgot to mention, however, that Nobel prize-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo had welcomed the protesters with open arms and actively participated in the forum.

We could put the dismal performance of the US reporters down to defensiveness; however, the British press was also present on that day. The BBC not only ran a very good article on the forum and demonstration, but they also posted a collection of photos from the Florence protest. One of the photos was captioned: “Enemy number one for most of the demonstrators was US President George W Bush.” Nor did they spare Tony Blair: “…the message behind the rally was a serious one: ‘Take your war and go to hell,’ one banner read. ‘Bush, Blair and Berlusconi–assassins’ said another.”

The BBC was not alone. The U.K. Independent also had a reporter in Florence, while The Guardian of London reprinted an edited version of Luke Baker’s Reuters article.

There’s no excuse for the US press to have done such a terrible job reporting on the Florence demonstration. But, as usual, the whole world was watching–except for us.

Sources for the above article: “450,000 in Italy March Against War,” Alessandra Rizzo, Associated Press, 11/10/02; “Half-A-Million March in Anti-War Rally in Italy,” Luke Baker, Associated Press, 11/9/02; “Florence Wary as Opponents of War Stage a Huge March,” Frank Bruni, New York Times, 11/9/02, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/10/international/europe/10DEMO.html; “Anti-War Activists Protest in Florence,” Daniel Williams, The Washington Post, 11/10/02, A26, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33332-2002Nov9.html; “Florence engulfed by world’s biggest protest against Iraq war,” Peter Popham, The Independent (online), 11/10/02, http://news.independent,co.uk/europe/story.jsp?story=350550; and “500,000 protesters march against war,” The Guardian (online), 11/11/02, http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,837593,00.html.

The Moscow Theater Siege

Now that Vladimir Putin has gassed his own people, we can expect the Bush administration to start bombing Moscow any minute, right?

Wrong. The speed with which the Bush administration and the US press have accepted the explanations of Putin and the Russian military for the deaths of 119 hostages in the raid on a Moscow theater is appalling. The spread of lies and justifications has been breathtaking.

The first lie that deserves to be shot down immediately is that the Russian military pumped gas into the theater in a desperate attempt to knock out the Chechen rebels because they had already begun to shoot hostages.

In fact, only two people had been shot. At 2 AM on the morning of October 26, one of the male hostages cracked under pressure and tried to attack an armed Chechen woman; he was shot in the eye and another hostage was seriously wounded. Both were carried out of the theater at around 2:30 AM to the waiting arms of the Russian military. At that point, the military must have known what happened and that the Chechens had not begun to summarily execute the hostages. After all, it wasn’t until 5:30 AM–three hours later–that the military began to pump gas into the building. The elaborate raid had been planned well ahead of time, with the military conducting a rehearsal the day before on another theater building in Moscow.

Another lie that needs to be refuted is that the effects of the gas came as a total surprise to the Russian military planners. In fact, Fentanyl is a calmative agent that has been tested by other nations for use in riot control, and it has been abandoned by many countries because of its potential lethality (although the US Department of Justice continues to do research on similar opiate gases, with funding from the Pentagon). Research on opiate gases like Fentanyl is highly controversial, with many experts asserting that opiate gases should be banned under the International Chemical Weapons Convention. The Convention permits only the use of gases whose effects wear off in a short time period. The fact that 145 people are still in intensive care in the hospital–many on respirators and dialysis machines because they have no lung or kidney function–is testament to that fact.

Now, Russian military planners have argued that they needed to do something to save the lives of the 750 people held hostage in the theater. The Chechens were armed and had explosives strapped to their bodies and other bombs planted inside the building. It was important to knock them out to prevent them from using the explosives to destroy themselves, the hostages, and the military personnel surrounding the theater.

Okay, but what about negotiation? The Chechens had already released some hostages, including all the children in the theater. Some of the surviving hostages described their Chechen captors as “polite,” passing out water to the hostages and saying “if you please” and “you’re welcome.” One Chechen woman sought to reassure the captives by saying that they would all soon be allowed to leave, while the Chechens themselves would have to stay and die blowing up the building. One Chechen woman captor was so frightened of her own impending death that she often forgot to point her gun at the hostages and spent all of her time praying to God. Many of the hostages learned the names of the their captors and engaged in conversation with them. Meanwhile the Chechens continued to negotiate over the phone with the Russian military up until the hour that the gas was pumped into the building. Even when it became apparent that a raid was under way, the Chechens who didn’t fall immediate prey to the gas decided not to detonate their bombs. And, yes, some of them wore gas masks.

The biggest lie of all is the important question that’s never been asked: why were the Chechens in the theater in the first place? The US is happy to believe Vladimir Putin’s assertion that they were just Muslim terrorists trying to kill lots of people.

While Chechnya is a largely Muslim nation, it’s not a fundamentalist nation along the lines of the Taliban. The women soldiers in the theater were clear evidence of that. In fact, the Chechens are rebel combatants fighting a war for independence.

If we visit the Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch websites and look up “Chechnya,” we can read all about what the Russian military and President Putin have been doing to that little republic for the past three years. Right now human rights workers are busy unearthing mass graves near former Russian military command posts. These graves are filled with suspected Chechen rebels and suspected civilian “collaborators,” whose bodies show signs of torture, beating, and execution without trial. As I write this, the Russian military is sweeping through Chechen towns and villages, scooping up all the men for “questioning.” Undoubtedly, a certain number of those men will disappear, only to be dug up later.

The war in Chechnya has been brutal. Civilians have been targeted, homes destroyed, whole communities displaced, and thousands of refugees driven out of their towns and into the mountains. The elected head of state of Chechnya has been branded a terrorist by Vladimir Putin and is now on a Russian military hit list.

Meanwhile, the whole international community has promised to ignore the human rights abuses in Chechnya in order to get access to Russia’s markets and Russian oil and gas. The Bush administration, in particular, is using Chechnya as a bargaining chip to win Putin’s support for a war in Iraq: you give us the okay to kill Iraqis, and you can have our okay to murder Chechens. That’s why so many Chechens were in a Moscow theater with bombs strapped to they’re bodies. They’re desperate, because their agonies have been largely ignored or used for cynical political ends.

Here in the US, few reporters and press outlets have questioned Putin’s use of gas or examined Russian human rights violations in Chechnya. It’s easier, instead, to reprint Russian assertions that the Moscow theater siege was their September 11th, while overlooking how Russia’s assault on Chechnya is similar to Saddam Hussein’s repression of Kurdish rebels in Iraq. At the same time, our press lets the Bush administration off the hook. If our government wants to condemn Saddam Hussein as a torturer and mass murderer who has gassed his own people, then surely Vladimir Putin deserves a closer look, too.

As a relative of one of the hostages told a British reporter: “We have to start talking to the Chechens now. Russians want peace, not war. But Putin is from the KGB. He does not negotiate.”

Meanwhile, Chechen rebel leaders have already vowed to stage more sieges in Moscow and other Russian cities. Continuing to ignore the problems that underlie these desperate acts is not only bad reporting, it’s simply irresponsible journalism.

Some sources for this article: “Standoff in Moscow theater had horrific finale,” Susan B. Glasser, Washington Post, reprinted in The Seattle Times, 10/27/02, A4; “The Survivors Dribble Out, All With a Story to Tell,” Sabrina Tavernise and Sophia Kishkovsky, The New York Times (online), 10/27/02, www.nytimes.com/2002/10/28/international/europe/28THEA.html ; “Hostage Toll in Russia Over 100; Nearly All Deaths Linked to Gas,” Michael Wines, NYT (online), 10/27/02, www.nytimes.com/2002/10/28/international/europe/28RUSS.html ; “Moscow Gas Appears to Be Opiate, US Says,” Jeanne Whalen and John J. Fialka and Marc Champion, Wall Street Journal (print), 10/29/02, A20; “Fresh questions over killer gas,” BBC (online), 10/31/02, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2382149.stm ; “Q&A: What is Fentanyl?” BBC (online), 10/31/02, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2380661.stm ; “Doctors: Immediate Aid Could Have Saved Lives,” Moscow Times (online), 11/1/02, www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2002/11/01/012.html ; and “US Agency Set to Issue Report On Nonlethal-Weapon Science,” John J. Fialka and Marilyn Chase, WSJ (print), 11/1/02, B2.

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