A Sanctuary for Dissent

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from "The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them" (Hyperion), by Amy Goodman with David Goodman. For more information, visit Democracy Now or Written Voices.

rulersThe troops marched slowly up the road, their U.S.-made M-16s in the ready position. It was November 12, 1991, a day that would forever be seared into my memory, and into history. I was in Dili, the capital of East Timor, a small island nation 300 miles north of Australia. East Timor had been brutally occupied by Indonesian troops for sixteen years, since they invaded in 1975. The Indonesian military had sealed off East Timor from the outside world and turned it into their private killing field. A third of the population -- 200,000 Timorese -- had died. It was one of the worst genocides of the late twentieth century.

I had just attended mass at the main church in Dili with Allan Nairn, journalist and activist, then writing for The New Yorker magazine. After the service, thousands marched toward the Santa Cruz cemetery to remember Sebastian Gomes, yet another young man killed by Indonesian soldiers. The people came from all over: workplaces, homes, villages and farms. They traveled through a geography of pain: In almost every other building, Timorese had been held or tortured, disappeared or killed. Whether it was a police station or a military barracks, a hotel or an officer's house, no place was beyond reach of the terror. Not even the church was safe. It was about 8 a.m. when we reached the cemetery.

We had asked people along the way: "Why are you marching? Why are you risking your lives to do this?"

"I'm doing it for my mother," one replied. "I'm doing it for my father," said another. "I'm doing it for freedom."

In the distance, we heard an eerie, synchronized beat. Suddenly we saw them. Many hundreds of Indonesian troops coming up the road, twelve to fifteen abreast. People grew very quiet.

We knew the Indonesian military had committed many massacres in the past, but never in front of Western journalists. Allan suggested we walk to the front of the crowd, hoping that our presence could head off what looked like an impending attack. I put on my headphones, took out my tape recorder -- I usually kept these hidden so as not to endanger Timorese caught talking to us -- and held up my microphone like a flag. Allan put his camera above his head, and we went and stood in the middle of the road, about fifteen yards in front of the crowd. By visibly showing the tools of our trade, we hoped to alert the troops that this time they were being watched.

A hush fell over the Timorese. Those in the back could run, but the thousands of people in front were trapped by the cemetery walls that lined both sides of the road. The main sound was the rhythmic thump of boots hitting the road as the troops marched in unison toward the people. Children whispered behind us. Then, without any warning or provocation, the soldiers rounded the corner, swept past us, raised their U.S.-made weapons and opened fire.

People were ripped apart. The troops just kept shooting, moving their guns from left to right, killing anyone still standing.

A group of soldiers surrounded me. They started to shake my microphone in my face as if to say, this is what we don't want. Then they slammed me to the ground with their rifle butts and started to kick me with their boots. I gasped for breath. Allan threw himself on top of me to protect me from further injury.

The soldiers wielded their M-16s like baseball bats. They slammed them against Allan's head until they fractured his skull. For a moment, Allan lay in the road in spasm, covered in blood, unable to move. Suddenly, about a dozen soldiers lined up like a firing squad. They put the guns to our heads and screamed, "Politik! Politik!" They were accusing us of being involved in politics, a crime clearly punishable by death. They also demanded, "Australia? Australia?"

We understood what was at stake with this question. In October 1975, Indonesian soldiers had executed five Australia-based television journalists in an attempt to cover up a military incursion leading up to the December 7, 1975, invasion of East Timor. On December 8, Australian journalist Roger East, the only other Western reporter left in East Timor, was dragged out of a radio station in Dili down to the harbor and shot.

Almost exactly sixteen years later, as Allan and I lay on the ground surrounded by Indonesian soldiers, we shouted, "No, we're from America!" They had stripped us of our possessions, but I still had my passport. I threw it at them. When I regained my breath, I said again, "We're from America! America!"

Finally, the soldiers lowered their guns from our heads. We think it was because we were from the same country their weapons were from. They would have to pay a price for killing us that they never had to pay for killing Timorese.

At least 271 Timorese died that day, in what became known as the Santa Cruz massacre. Indonesian troops went on killing for days. It was not even one of the larger massacres in East Timor, and it wouldn't be the last. It was simply the first to be witnessed by outsiders.

A Sanctuary for Dissent

Going to where the silence is. That is the responsibility of a journalist: giving a voice to those who have been forgotten, forsaken, and beaten down by the powerful. It is the best reason I know to carry our pens, cameras and microphones into our own communities and out to the wider world.

I am a journalist from Pacifica Radio, the only independent media network broadcasting in the United States. It was founded in 1949 by a man named Lew Hill, a pacifist who had refused to fight in World War II. When he came out of a detention camp after the war, he said the United States needed a media outlet that wasn't run by corporations profiting from war. His vision was of an independent network run by journalists and artists -- not by "corporations with nothing to tell and everything to sell that are raising our children today," in the words of journalism professor George Gerbner, founder of the "cultural environment" movement.

KPFA, the first Pacifica station, began in Berkeley, California. FM radio was in its infancy at the time, so KPFA had to make and give out FM radios in order for people to hear the station. As would happen so many times in the decades that followed, Pacifica Radio tried something no one thought would work -- building a network based on the financial support of individual listeners. This marked the birth of listener-sponsored media in this country, a model later used by National Public Radio and public television.

The Pacifica network grew to five stations: KPFA in Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles, WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington, and KPFT in Houston. In 1970, KPFT became the only radio station in the United States to have its transmitter blown up. The Ku Klux Klan did it. In 1981, the KKK's Grand Wizard claimed that his greatest act "was engineering the bombing of a left-wing radio station," because he understood how dangerous Pacifica was.

Pacifica is a sanctuary for dissent. In the fifties, when the legendary singer and African-American leader Paul Robeson was whitelisted during Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts, banned from almost every public space in the United States but for a few black churches, he knew he could go to KPFA and be heard. The great writer James Baldwin, debating Malcolm X about the effectiveness of nonviolent sit-ins in the South, broadcast over the airwaves of WBAI.

Today, Pacifica continues that tradition. My colleagues at WBAI, including Elombe Brath and the late Samori Marksman, have taught me how a local radio station can be the gateway to a rich world. Samori was a pan-Africanist who taught me so much about the history of Africa and the Caribbean. Elombe Brath has long provided a voice for leaders of African liberation movements. These men made the whole world our community. Great African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Sikou Touri and Julius Nyerere were local voices to WBAI's listeners. In his role as WBAI program director, Samori would call me into his office under the pretext of discussing some bureaucratic minutiae. I would emerge three hours later, newly educated about a liberation movement in Africa or the Caribbean.

It's still much the same. On any given day, you can listen to the news on CNN or National Public Radio, then tune in to a Pacifica station. You would think you were hearing reports from different planets.

We inhabit the same planet, but we see it through different lenses. On community airwaves, color isn't what sports commentators provide, and it isn't the preserve of a "diversity" reporter. We are a cross section of races, ethnicities and social classes explaining the world we see around us.

Take, for example, my WBAI colleague Errol Maitland. In March 2000, while he was reporting live from the funeral of Patrick Dorismond -- a Haitian-American who was shot and killed by police -- Errol attempted to interview New York City police who were moving in on the crowd of mourners. We listened as he tried to question police, who then threw him to the ground. Errol was beaten by New York City police officers and had to be hospitalized for weeks. When I visited him in the hospital, I found him handcuffed to his bed. All for what? For reporting while black.

It was stories like Errol's, in New York and around the world, that my WBAI colleague Bernard White and I took on each day for a decade on the morning show Wake Up Call. We heard people speak for themselves, instead of hearing them defined by officialdom. Bernard, a former New York City schoolteacher, has deep roots in the community. Whether in the classroom, on air, or as Samori's successor as WBAI program director, Bernard's idea of education is to have people tell their own stories, document their own lives.

I began hosting Democracy Now! in 1996, when it was launched as the only daily election show in public broadcasting. Listener response was enormous. Suddenly the daily struggles of ordinary people -- workers, immigrants, artists, the employed and the unemployed, those with homes and those without, dissidents, soldiers, people of color -- were dignified as news. I call it trickle-up journalism. These are the voices that shape movements -- movements that make history. These are people who change the world just as much as generals, bankers and politicians. They are the mainstream, yet they are ignored by the mainstream media.

After the 1996 election, we decided to continue the show as a daily grassroots political newshour. When the media began beating the drums of war after September 11, 2001, Democracy Now! expanded to television and became the largest public media collaboration in the country. We now broadcast on hundreds of community radio and public access TV stations, beam out over satellite television and stream on the Internet at DemocracyNow.org.

Why has Democracy Now! grown so quickly? Because of the deafening silence in the mainstream media around the issues -- and the people -- that matter most. People are now confronting the most important issues of the millennium: war and peace, life and death. Yet, who is shaping the discourse? Generals, corporate executives and government officials.

In a media landscape where there are more channels than ever, the lack of any diversity of opinion is breathtaking -- and boring. As my colleague Juan Gonzalez often says, "You can surf through hundreds of channels before you realize there is nothing on TV." In a society where freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution, our media largely acts as a megaphone for those in power.

That's why people are so hungry for independent media -- and are starting to make their own.

Amy Goodman is host of Democracy Now!, which airs on more than 200 radio and TV stations across the United States and around the world. David Goodman is the author, most recently, of "Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa."

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