CALCULATED CHAOS: Inside the Mobilzation that Rocked Pacifica, by Van Jones


To some observers, the broad protest movement that erupted this summer to defend Bay Area community radio station KPFA (94.1 FM) looked like a near riot.. To others, the grassroots action that reversed the station’s shutdown looked like the deliberate work of a well-organized and media-savvy coalition of professional activists. In reality, our movement–which drew in thousands of ordinary people, commanded front-page media attention, and won the support of celebrities and government officials–was neither pure chaos nor pure calculation. Like all popular movements, the “Free KPFA” mobilization was a lot of both. At this point, we should neither mystify nor deify the struggle, but examine it critically. We can apply the resulting lessons in our ongoing fight to establish democratic, community control of the entire Pacifica network–and eventually of the U.S. media establishment as a whole.colorlockbw

Pacifica Power Grab

The events that led up to Pacifica management’s shutdown of KPFA have been well-chronicled in MediaFile and elsewhere. Suffice it to say that this year the 50-year-old organization’s board went on a power trip: consolidating its power, firing outspoken KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya, and then dismissing any broadcaster with enough guts to tell listeners the truth about Pacifica’s “internal issues.”

But on July 13, Pacifica management went too far. That day, its security guards pulled dissident newscaster Dennis Bernstein from the air–live–and switched off all local broadcasting. Then Pacifica executive director Lynne Chadwick had Berkeley police officers arrest Bernstein and the co-directors of the KPFA news department, along with 50-plus community protesters who rushed to the station in response to Bernstein’s on-air cries. The next day–while broadcasting tapes shipped in from the Pacifica Archives–Pacifica management announced an indefinite lockout of the entire KPFA staff.

Apparently, Pacifica’s board leaders assumed that any local reaction to their heavy-handed tactics would be shallow or short-lived.

23 Days That Shook Pacifica

They miscalculated. Mass protests erupted immediately and continued throughout the lockout; the number of protesters regularly swelled into the hundreds and sometimes thousands. All five Bay Area Labor Councils, representing a quarter-million workers, passed resolutions siding with KPFA staff and supporters. The Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco city councils approved resolutions denouncing Pacifica management. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano all publicly called for Pacifica’s board leadership to step down.

The Joint Audit Committee of the California Legislature voted to hold public hearings on Pacifica management’s conduct. Progressive telephone company Working Assets set up a toll-free line to the desk of Pacifica Board Chair Dr. Mary Frances Berry.  Local media outlets, CNN, and The New York Times gave the pro-KPFA forces overwhelmingly favorable coverage. On July 31, more than 12,000 people marched in support of the station.

In the face of the growing backlash, Pacifica management publicly backed down July 28, ultimately turning over the keys to the building, reversing some dismissals, and letting the KPFA staff run the station without censorship.

The Key: Worker-Community Solidarity

Two critical factors made this stunning victory possible. The first was the solidarity of KPFA’s paid and unpaid staff in the face of outrageous bullying by national management. The second was the willingness of a broad array of community forces to insert themselves dramatically into the struggle–not only to win justice for staff, but also to reform both Pacifica and KPFA.

I was one of those community activists. I saw KPFA as the only major radio station addressing local survival issues and as an invaluable asset for progressive forces. But initially, finding an effective way to get involved was tough. During the first days of protests, hundreds of concerned community members flocked to the station. Numerous speeches were delivered over a great outdoor sound system. But there was no petition to sign. No up-to-date literature. No one consistently organizing demonstrators into working groups. No plan to win.

The street in front of the station was being used as a stage for speechmaking by radio personalities and prominent supporters–not as a staging ground from which to launch a broader movement. Hundreds of people milled around in front of the station, asking each other, “What’s the plan?” “Where can I plug in?” “How can I help?”

Chaos: No Plan and No One in Charge

This mass confusion was a reflection of the fact that no single organization was capable of absorbing or directing the huge outpouring of concern and support. In a typical labor dispute, the union organizes community support and gives it direction. But the issues at stake here far transcended anything as simple as negotiating wage and benefit packages, and the Communications Workers of America union local showed little interest in playing the role of community organizer.

KPFA’s 200 or so unpaid workers (whom Pacifica management had successfully pressured CWA to exclude from union membership), were still in the process of organizing themselves independently. They were in no position to give the community forces much guidance either.

The main KPFA listeners’ group, Coalition for a democratic Pacifica, was passionate, committed, and extremely knowledgeable about the underlying issues. But many newcomers found CdP’s lengthy meetings unproductive or alienating. And while CdP ranks swelled, they didn’t diversify–membership remained largely Berkeley-based, white, and middle-aged.

KPFA’s Local Advisory Board, the official body for listener input, never created an open forum to educate newcomers or plug them into the fight. (In fact, the LAB didn’t meet during the lockout–or for several weeks afterward.)

Media Alliance, whose paid staff had been working on KPFA-related issues for months, had no volunteer committee on local media issues into which it could pull people. Another important group, Friends of Free Speech Radio, was highly effective as a small circle of political allies, but it did not attempt to transform itself overnight into a mass protest organization.

Lastly, there was KPFA’s Steering Committee. Composed of 11 voting members and 11 alternates from KPFA’s lower management, union staff, unpaid staff, and listening community, this committee was established prior to the lockout to negotiate with Pacifica management. The struggle to balance dozens of conflicting interests left committee members too overextended to organize the hundreds of new people who suddenly wanted to get involved.

Thus, at the very moment that the fight to reclaim KPFA took on a mass character, no single organization could combine the structure, skill, and political orientation needed to guide the upsurge in popular support.Huerta

Miguel Molina, Dolores Huerta,
Aileen Alfandary and Larry Bensky at the July 31 March.

Activists Adapt and Overcome

And yet, committed activists and organizations quickly adapted to the chaotic environment, solving problems one-by-one. A strategy emerged: Forge a united front of all forces opposed to Pacifica management’s power grab, and overwhelm the Pacifica board with a tidal wave of protests in the streets, the courts, the media, and the halls of government. Perhaps our counter-offensive would shatter the board’s cohesion, force the leadership to resign, and undo the apparent plot to convert the whole network into a purveyor of NPR “lite” and muzak. We felt that, minimally, a huge show of support could upset any plans to sell KPFA.

The first major challenge facing the Free KPFA movement was managing the intense media interest in the lockout. KPFA’s Aileen Alfandary, the b trumpet Institute for Public Accuracy’s Norman Solomon, Media Alliance’s Andrea Buffa and Belinda Griswold, We Interrupt This Message’s Hunter Cutting, and progressive public relations expert Karen Stevenson worked as the mobilization’s press team. They generated countless press releases, press conferences, and interviews, skillfully highlighting the issues of censorship and free speech, which have broad resonance in the Bay Area. The visually compelling image of hundreds of protesters wearing white gags underscored those themes.

Culture As a Weapon

A second challenge was keeping protest activity going. Toward this end, MA’s staff was active in coordinating daily protests and maintaining “Camp KPFA”–a tent city on the street outside the boarded-up station. Activists also staged regular outdoor cultural events, which included folk, salsa, and hip-hop music. And on July 19, Friends of Free Speech Radio produced a major concert featuring Joan Baez and Spearhead’s Michael Franti, which attracted 3,500 people and netted about $80,000.

A third challenge was responding to Pacifica leadership’s bogus claim that it was simply acting to diversify KPFA’s “middle-aged, white, male” listenership. We knew the truth: Under Nicole Sawaya’s leadership, KPFA’s audience had been growing, with youth and people of color getting more actively involved. To get these facts out, a few dozen activists of color organized and led a July 21 pro-KPFA march of 500. The protest went through part of Oakland and back to the station. Youth of color threw several hip-hop shows at La Peña Cultural Center to support the Free KPFA movement.

Bringing in Reinforcements

A fourth problem was finding a way to plug in seasoned, committed organizers who did not want to risk arrest, protest everyday, or sleep outside on asphalt. To strategically involve organizations such as the Black Radical Congress, the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop, Fireworx, and STORM/Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, MA convened an emergency meeting July 25 at La Peña. Through the new emergency committee formed there, some of the Bay Area’s leading activists were able to plug in to functional working groups. National strategy, outreach, and direct-action working groups met and carried out their work between meetings of the full committee.

Our fifth problem was that–in a movement that boasted 40 or so “official” demands–nobody could easily or quickly explain what we were fighting for. MA’s emergency committee distilled this laundry list into four simple points:

1. Resignations: Those who led Pacifica into this crisis must step down to give the Pacifica Foundation a fresh start.

2. Democratization: Change the bylaws to increase local community control of the stations and introduce some form of elections to Pacifica’s board.

3. Restoration: Restore uncensored programming, and restore jobs to all fired and disciplined employees and unpaid staff.

4. Transformation: Revitalize, improve, and diversify KPFA programming by involving new voices and grassroots organizations more thoroughly. Restore the Third World Desk and Gender Desk. Increase diversity of the paid staff.

This short list, expressing the pro-KPFA constituencies’ most heart-felt concerns, gave our working committees an ideal organizing tool. (On August 1, we added a fifth demand–Preservation: No sale, transfer, or encumbrance of KPFA or any other Pacifica asset by this board.)

Marching 12,000 Strong

Our sixth challenge was to powerfully demonstrate the full breadth of support for KPFA. Two organizations with experience at pulling off major demonstrations–the International Action Center and the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal–put aside old differences and joined forces with several other groups, including Alliance Graphics, Inkworks, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, KPFA staff, Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, and St. Joseph The Worker Church, to plan a big march. Organizers believe that the protest–which drew 12,000 people July 31–would have been twice as large if Pacifica leadership hadn’t started waving the white flag a few days earlier.

With our community radio station shut down and in enemy hands, our seventh challenge was communicating directly with thousands of KPFA supporters. Many organizations and individuals effectively used web pages and listservs to keep people informed and mobilized; this was a critical factor in the movement’s success.

Missed Protest Opportunities

There were other problems we couldn’t solve. For instance, protesters had the capacity to fill the jails night after night, but the Berkeley police refused to make mass arrests. Even when 100 protesters blocked the on-ramp to the freeway for an hour July 14, the police simply rerouted traffic. The commander told us he wasn’t going to help us make headlines. (In hindsight, blocking Berkeley BART turnstile exits might have forced the police department’s hand.)

Some suggested that we force mass arrests by nonviolently blocking the entrance to Lynne Chadwick’s Berkeley home, just blocks from the radio station. But leading activists wisely calculated that the risks outweighed the benefits: One brick thrown would have severely discredited us and given Pacifica management days of sympathetic press. Activists instead planned a major sit-in at the office of Fineman and Associates, Pacifica’s San Francisco PR firm. But our planning took too long. While there were pickets and protests outside Fineman, Berry surrendered one day before we were going to shut her spin machine down.

Difficulty Maintaining Unity

Our overarching challenge was maintaining united fronts both among the pro-KPFA community forces and between those forces and the KPFA staff. At our best, we put aside political differences and personality conflicts for the sake of saving KPFA, reached consensus on a common plan of action, and put in hour upon hour of work to move forward strategies that would let us win. We employed every method we could think of–street protests, civil disobedience, legal challenges, political lobbying, microradio broadcasting, Internet organizing, and a media campaign–and were able to tap the talents of young people, experienced political organizers, artists, journalists, and anyone else who was willing to roll up their sleeves and participate.

But when Pacifica management ordered the KPFA staff back to work, it took away the magnet that had been holding our forces together. The less hard-core supporters thought we had won the fight for Pacifica and went back to their regular lives. The mainstream media coverage turned less favorable, because many mainstream journalists couldn’t understand what we were still complaining about now that KPFA was back on the air. Without a clear, unifying goal–and with more time on our hands to discuss strategies for wresting Pacifica from the hands of its national management and board of directors–we reverted to some old habits of division.

KPFA listener groups such as the Coalition for a democratic Pacifica and North Bay for KPFA developed their own, sometimes competing, plans for winning back Pacifica. All the groups, including MA, had trouble coordinating and sharing information with others, except on an informal basis. Even within groups, there was difficulty maintaining the spirit of consensus that had developed during the lockout. Suffering from fatigue and some frustration, MA ended up dissolving the emergency committee it had organized–to the dismay of several committee members.

In addition, some online attacks, slanders, and misinformed rants by people on our own side created confusion, fed mistrust, and demoralized activists. One respected Latino programmer even quit KPFA after someone posted an elaborate story accusing him of being in bed with a private Latino company trying to buy KPFA. This accusation spread like wildfire. Given the history of disruption and dirty tricks directed at local protest movements (often by government agencies), one would expect Bay Area activists to be more skeptical about postings that seem designed primarily to stir up controversy or create suspicion. We could eliminate a lot of e-madness by taking the time to speak directly with the people implicated in the latest Net gossip before passing it along.

The unity between the KPFA staff and pro-KPFA community forces also suffered a blow when KPFA went back on the air. Many of the more radical community activists argued that the KPFA staff was making a strategic error by allowing Pacifica to diffuse the crisis and going back to work with key demands unmet. (Pacifica management still hadn’t rehired Nicole Sawaya or Larry Bensky.) Other activists saw the station’s return to the airwaves as an opportunity to use the radio as an organizing tool–to educate people, provide them with action alerts, and activate them in case of another crisis. Meanwhile, the KPFA staffers returned to a tense and short-staffed workplace still under threat of a sale, and became overwhelmed with work.

But after all the work community organizers and political activists had put in to save KPFA, we were not about to watch the station return to business as usual. As we continued the fight to democratize and transform Pacifica, we insisted that KPFA also must be transformed through a major boost in community involvement in and power at the station.

A few days before the station reopened, MA’s emergency committee, in collaboration with reformers among KPFA’s paid and unpaid staff ranks, generated a nine-point Emergency Proposal for the Transformation of KPFA. Overnight, nearly 100 local activists–including Angela Davis–signed on. The proposal called for including community representatives and unpaid staff on KPFA’s program council, which determines what gets on the air. It also called for turning the 4 to 5 p.m. time slot into a dynamic public affairs show aimed at young people and people of color. And it demanded accountability mechanisms for paid staff, including a review every two to three years of department heads by staff and community members. Many of these proposals had been backed by insurgent forces inside KPFA for years, but had never gained the support of the KPFA union staff.

Once back inside the station, KPFA’s staff implemented many of the “transformation” proposals. The 4 to 5 p.m. slot was immediately turned over to a new public affairs show, despite the difficulty of producing such a show without any funding. And unpaid staff representatives were seated on the program council. But resistance cropped up quickly to the idea of including community members on the program council.

Some staff members are more receptive than others to community involvement. Organizations of unpaid staff, such as the KPFA People of Color Coalition, have tended to promote broader and more radical demands within the station and work more comfortably with community-based activists. Their workplace organizing efforts are independent of–and often opposed to–the paid staff’s union. Nonetheless, there is a continuing tension between community-based organizers, who tend to see KPFA as a potential tool for inspiring and mobilizing diverse communities, and those inside the station, who are not sure they want activists and organizers to be involved in decision-making at their workplace.

But most listeners and activists marched, slept outside, and went to jail to save “free-speech community radio,” not just to save the jobs of the KPFA staff. And there can be no community radio without the permanent inclusion of community forces. Bringing those forces into KPFA more meaningfully will result in more relevant, exciting, and politically challenging programming. This aspect of the fight for a more democratic, diverse, and progressive community radio station will not be won only through concessions from the national Pacifica board; it will also require a difficult ongoing dialogue with KPFA staff to establish effective and transparent means for community input. A first step in this direction will come when the program council seats two representatives from community organizations at its weekly meetings.

Why Did We Fight? What’s Next?

Given that KPFA–even now–is far from perfect, why did so many people fight so hard to save it? Because KPFA has been the Bay Area’s sole progressive radio voice, consistently addressing tough social issues. Pacifica management was not honestly trying to improve diversity and audience size at the station; it was merely using those issues as an excuse to sell the station or tame it. Had Pacifica management gotten away with that, Bay Area activists would have lost a critical information source–and what is potentially the strongest instrument for mass mobilization in northern California.

For myself–and for many of the people of color and youth who got involved–the fight was not about what KPFA used to be or is today. We fought for what our station–with the power to reach six million people–can become. We dream of a radio station like Radio Freedom in South Africa, or Radio Libre in Latin America: a liberation station that can excite and inspire millions of ordinary people to fight for change on a revolutionary scale. And we dream of turning the entire Pacifica network–five independent, listener-supported signals that can reach one in five U.S. households–into a family of liberation stations.

Now that we have KPFA back, we must keep fighting to make the station and the whole network everything that it can and should be. And we must continue working to effect these changes democratically: from the bottom up, not the top down.