This Time, the Election Will Not Be Stolen
Ian Inaba is staging a revolution, and he damn sure wants it televised. His idea is to have videographers monitor voter polling sites during the upcoming mid-term elections and in greater numbers during the 2008 presidential election. Their purpose: bypass the mainstream media and provide real-time, online media coverage of any problems that arise at voting sites.
His plan for action is what he works on when not promoting his new documentary film, "American Blackout," which looks at the disenfranchisement of the Black vote in America and voting irregularities in the 2000 and 2004 national elections. The film also traces what journalist Greg Palast calls the "political lynching" of Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., for openly questioning the Bush administration's policies involving Iraq and 9/11.
"American Blackout" received a Special Jury Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "as much an indictment of liberal apathy as of conservative dirty dealing." Film Journal International called it a "paid advertisement for Cynthia McKinney."
Inaba, 35, is a journalist for the Guerrilla News Network. He directed the music videos for "Mosh" by Eminem and "Time and Time Again" by Chronic Future. Inaba also contributed to GNN's book "True Lies," about black box voting. The former investment banker is now creating his own grassroots, citizen journalism from his home base in Berkeley.
Inaba spoke with WireTap by phone about his "comfortable" life during San Francisco's technology "bubble," his life-changing decision to pursue alternative journalism, making music videos and his frustration with the Democratic Party.
WireTap: I know you're busy, because we've been playing phone tag for about three weeks now. What have you been up to?
Ian Inaba: I finally got a good night's sleep last night. I've been in Ohio doing the Video the Vote campaign, and I was also screening '[American] Blackout.' My film has been utilized in GOTV efforts for black youth and youth in general. The League of Young Voters and SEIU were screening the film, we had about 100 people in both Cincinnati and Columbus. It was a good mix of college kids and union workers.
WT: What kind of response do you get to your film from that crowd?
II: It's been very supportive, especially with the minority youth audience. We had 300 black youth in Chicago last week and it was amazing. I usually sit out in the hallway during screenings, and I'll see kids walk out to use the bathroom, and I'm always thinking, "What are you doing?" [Laughs]. But I have 16-year-old kids talking to each other, yelling, saying this film is made for us, this is our history, trying to inspire each other. I don't even have to say anything but just watch them organize on their own. When I made the film, I wanted to unite communities -- African-American working class voters and youth voters -- and I wanted them to organize.
WT: During these debates at screenings, is it typically folks of color in the audience or do you see White folks as well?
II: The screenings have been very mixed and the film plays well to both minority and mainstream audiences because I think deep down everyone want to know the truth about our democracy. One young viewer stood up and said, 'I thought I was aware and political, but this film makes me feel like I have been duped and my eyes have been opened. I will dedicate my life to being aware and hope that others will do the same.'
His sentiment is what came about in me when I started making the film. When you meet someone like [former U.S. Representative] Cynthia McKinney at the heart of the issue, going places that others won't go, informing others that many don't have the courage to go. She imposed that in me, and I want to do the same in others.
WT: At discussions following film screenings, do people ever discuss people of color that are members of the Republican Party and how to appeal to those voters?
II: Only about 10 percent of blacks are Republicans. They care about how much taxes they pay. And the religious community against abortion; they get swayed by those hooks. The discussion is more focused on how the Dems take African-American voters for granted.
The Dems should be concerned because a statement I often hear is, 'Why should we give them our vote?' But there's no better alternative, so they do. What I say is don't vote along party lines, find the best representation, someone who represents you. [Black voters] need to choose their leadership and participate and affect the people who are their representatives. Gather up their common political power and make a political stand. The black vote does matter and does change elections.
WT: Do you mind if I ask what your ethnic background is, and what your upbringing was like?
II: My dad is Japanese and my mom is Scotch-Irish-Norwegian. My dad's family is from Hawaii, so I've spent time there, but I was born in San Francisco and grew up in Berkeley, went to Berkeley High. Then I went to the University of Pennsylvania, Engineering School and the Wharton School [of business], which had more conservative kids than the ones I grew up with. I worked at an investment bank in San Francisco during the internet boom, and then a network security company in the [Silicon] valley.
Life was very comfortable, and things were good. I was working with Check Point [Technologies Software Ltd.], a billion-dollar Israeli software company. The CEO was 28. They hired me because I was 26. I learned so much from them. But it became very corporate.
A founder told me I was too smart to be there and said, 'You need to have your own thing.' I said I didn't want to be processing and making other people really wealthy. That wasn't the life I wanted, to be the middle-man advisor. So I got back in touch with some high school and college friends that were in [the Guerilla News Network]. I became an independent consultant and started a company. GNN was being started at the same time.
We commissioned them to make our first video right when the bubble burst. We said screw this, let's go on our own and do online content and video. We did not found GNN, but we helped form it. It was a major turning point for me. It changed everything. All my suits got obviated. I was like, 'Hey, I can wear clothes like I'm in high school again.' [Laughs]. You enter an activist world. It had benefits and drawbacks. You no longer are living in a corporate, consumer environment. I went full-on into it. I'm still getting used to it.
WT: Did you get any flack from activist folks in the beginning? Did anyone call you out?
II: At first, [activists] were like, 'You can help us write a business plan.' But then I started doing creative stuff and directing videos. I got more flack from the other side, corporate guys saying, 'Oh, you're a documentary filmmaker now,' and meanwhile, they work for The Carlyle Group [a D.C.-based global private equity investment firm].
But they see my stuff and know it's quality, not just 'kids trying to fuck with the system' kind of thing. Many are appreciative. I have followed some of the most hardcore activists around the country and covered issues like electronic voting machines, depleted uranium, 9/11. If those activists weren't doing what they do, nobody would know. Bev Harris [executive director of Black Box Voting Inc., an advocacy group opposed to certain electronic voting methods] started a movement with electronic voting machines in 2000 and look how far that issue has come because of her work.
I was following her at the same time as McKinney. Many call them conspiracy theorists and jokingly say they are 'black helicopter women.' It takes a lot to investigate stories that may or may not be true. I went down to San Mateo County last weekend because I got a tip about a voting machine situation. Nothing came up, but if I didn't go out there, no one would have checked it out. In order to find out what is really true, you have to be willing to get it out there. It's a thankless job.
WT: Your film, "American Blackout," definitely does not hide your own activist subjectivity. Have people criticized you for the lack of objectivity in the film?
II: People might say, 'Aren't you being overtly political or partisan? Do you have an agenda?' It's almost like the new McCarthyism, like being partisan is crippling, like you're not allowed to take a side. With "American Blackout," how can you talk about voter disenfranchisement -- where one party benefits more from this phenomenon, and has been proven to have connections to those tactics -- and still look balanced?
Because it's a two-party system in this country, people are so quick to discount ideas as partisan, but it controls and defines what is allowed to be the political discussion in this country. In order to get grants to do this type of work, they have to be 501 C3, which is nonpartisan money. But when it became clear that [American Blackout] can be seen as more favorable to Dems, the foundations got scared and pulled away funding, after the film was done and while we still had bills. We were trying to do youth outreach which I have seen first had to increase civic participation but our funding got pulled. It happened in conjunction with McKinney having her episode with the police officer on Capital Hill.
WT: Can you describe that incident?
II: On March 29, there was an alleged scuffle with a cop when she attempted to enter one of the Capital buildings on her way to vote, without her ID. A cop allegedly grabbed her, she pushed back and then he let her go, and a day later filed assault charges. They were able to say, 'here's crazy Cynthia again.' And when you hit a cop, you're gonna lose half of your base. We had been on the road with standing ovations all over the country and then that happened.
WT: And yet McKinney is the central focus of your film. Do you have any regrets about making that choice?
II: Some people have said you made the right movie but with the wrong leading lady. But the reason I made the movie was because of her. She held a hearing on the voting irregularities in Florida, and nobody else did. The people who make the loudest noise are targeted for it, but they are the reason things come up in the first place. She is asking the questions everyone else wants to ask. The Dems have said, 'Step away from her.' They are not about exposing the truth, they're about regaining power.
WT: So why exactly did you make "American Blackout"?
II: We were writing a book called True Lies in 2003. I had to research electronic voting machines, McKinney, the anthrax vaccine and other stories we felt the mainstream press weren't covering. McKinney was fascinating to me. As I followed her and Bev Harris, McKinney said none of these other issues matter unless we have a fair vote. That made me think.
Then when I asked Bev, "Why do you do this," she was dumpster diving for documents getting sued by Diebold. She's a white woman married to a black man, and she said, "I want to make sure my kids' votes count." Those two women's ideas held very strong for me. The Ohio happened and when you see a pattern, and the same excuses, it's not by chance. It's a tactic, and it discourages voters.
WT: You mentioned to me in an email prior to this interview that Endtheblackout.org and VideotheVote.org are two grassroots voting efforts that are direct results of your film. Can you elaborate on this?
II: These sites are a call to action. Corporate videographers were the only ones who captured [the election in] Florida and there was a lack of focus on the experience of the voters who were disenfranchised. I think the mainstream press on Election Day is so concerned with calling the winners and losers that they lose site of the voters.
Election night 2004, I remember watching when they showed the images on TV of people waiting in lines, in the rain in Ohio. People were saying hey, isn't this great that all these people showed up to vote, and I thought no, this isn't great, people waiting in the rain at midnight is not great. They were not looking at how many voting machines there were and why there were more in some places and not others. People had self-organized to document what happened in 2004 but the stories came out too late. So I wanted to find a way to have these stories be told on Election Day, and I wanted an organized program that will have an ongoing legacy in 2008 and beyond. So we formed Video the Vote to provide guidelines and technical infrastructure so people can do this responsibly and efficiently.
We want to provide same-day footage and provide an alternative narrative in real time, so that we can all have a more complete picture of what occurs in our elections. We're dispatching videographers all over the country working closely with the Election Protection lawyers and volunteers. We found there is a big desire out there to do this. We'll do it in November and again in 2008. We already have hundreds of video volunteers nationwide.
WT: Shifting gears a little bit, can you talk about your work making music videos? You made Eminem's "Mosh" and also filmed a video for the Nine Inch Nails song "The Hand That Feeds" that Trent Reznor rejected. How do your videos connect to a project like "American Blackout"?
II: I like doing videos, when I have good music to work with. They are shorter projects that don't take three years to complete. And I get to use my imagination and move on it. I think it's a good vehicle to expose young people to issues. More people saw that Eminem video than will ever see any movie I will ever make. Everyone remembers that video, and it feels good. We hit it at the right time. I knew I wanted to make a voting video, and he could get it out as widely as anybody.
After Nine Inch Nails, it left a bad taste in my mouth. It was a corporate environment and they said I could go as far as I wanted, but I should have known better. So, I poured myself back into [American] Blackout and I guess the awards and recognition means we did OK. When our initial broadcast deal got pulled from table at the last minute because of McKinney I was reminded that even in the documentary world we're still subjected to corporate censorship. There are still are gatekeepers everywhere. That's why YouTube is so great.
WT: Yeah, but even YouTube is corporate now.
II: Yeah, but they are still letting the liberal stuff go, even though they're owned by Google. Always pay attention to infrastructure. Right now, I'm begging groups like Move On to help get the word out, but it shouldn't be that way. I contacted AlterNet months ago about this story, and it's only just running now [on WireTap].
Rupert Murdoch doesn't beg anybody to get his word out. Even in the progressive movement there are gatekeepers. Why has "American Blackout" been out since January and there's been no coverage? You'd think people would understand the power of working together, but it's too fragmented, disjointed and even territorial. You see how much more organized they are on the Right. As McKinney says in the film, "All you can say is they are good at what they do, we gotta get better."