LA CityBeat

The Spirit of Tommy Chong

For Tommy Chong to get straight, he's got to go to God. Not God as envisioned by, say, Jerry Falwell, not the God of hellfire, but the omniscient source of goodness and, yes, jokes. He's cultivated a meditative practice over the years of smash hit movies, Grammy-winning comedy albums, and woozy influence over decades of pop culture as half of the comedy duo Cheech & Chong. So when he was busted in 2003 for selling Tommy Chong bongs and sentenced to nine months in the federal penitentiary at Taft, California, one of the items he brought with him was the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes.

While in prison, he started ruminating on life's lessons, and the result was his new book, "The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint." This book is a breezy vision of the man's essential "Chongness," as he writes not some preachy life lessons but about a life lived: growing up rough as the mixed-race child of a Chinese father and a Scottish-Irish mother in Western Canada; learning to tango with his wife, Shelby; and using his gentleness and wit to thrive in lock-up. "I met the warden one day. I swear to God, I've met fans but he was one of the biggest fans ever," says Chong. "He says, 'Are they treating you OK?' He turned out to be a really sweet guy."

DEAN KUIPERS: Each chapter leaf in the book starts with a hexagram from the I Ching.

TOMMY CHONG: I went through the I Ching and just picked out a heading that would best suit the chapter. And the I Ching -- I was just doing it -- it's three lines on top, three lines below. And they're either broken or straight. And it's based on an ancient book called the Book of Changes. You throw them -- they used to do it with bones, but then they evolved it to coins, and they used to do it with yarrow stalks [a common, long-stemmed white flower]. What you get is a good sense of how you're feeling, where you're at in your life.

KUIPERS: How is this a book of meditations?

CHONG: I'm a writer, I just write all the time. I hadn't planned it to be a book, I just have a compulsion. I tried to write a Cheech & Chong book, and I've been working on it for five years, and I just can't get it going. But this new book was so personal that, when I started writing it, I realized: no one knows who I am. So I started writing about who I am, and I picked out memories from my past and then I realized, damn, I'm almost 70 years old, so I've got a lot of memories.

KUIPERS: And those are meditative?

CHONG: Well, I'm into meditation. Actually, Cheech turned me on to meditation. When I first met Cheech, he followed that guru from India [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi]. Every once in a while I'd go over to meet with Cheech, and he'd be meditating. It wasn't 'til years and years later that I read a book by Joel Goldsmith, The Mystical I, and he went into the depth of meditating with your mind on God. And so when I went into prison, I thought: well, this is the best place in the world to put meditation to work.

KUIPERS: What was your meditative practice in prison?

CHONG: I ended up being the go-to guy with the I Ching. You have a lot of time in jail, so I read about how they did it with the yarrow stalks, and yarrow stalks were growing in the Indian garden at the prison. I did I Ching readings for the prisoners and it would blow people's minds. I was in a recreation room and I was throwing coins and doing mine and this guy, Mike, came up to me and he asked, "What are you up to, Chong?"

And I told him, and I said, "Do you want me to do your reading?" And he said "Sure." So I had him throw the coins, and when he read his reading, it blew his mind so bad he just handed me the book and he stayed the rest of the day on his bunk. I read his thing and it said that he had just suffered a terrible accident. And he had, like, a couple of months before, his wife and child were killed in a car accident coming up to see him. The book nailed it. And same with me, my first reading was, "You're in jail for a reason."

KUIPERS: Were you there for a reason?

CHONG: Yeah, absolutely. It was to reconnect with my spiritual self, with my job. The problem with me is that I've got this incredible ego, but I know that I was meant to do what I've been doing. From my earliest childhood, I knew I had something unfinished on this planet to do. And I got too comfortable in my life ... doing comedy, having a good time, collecting checks. And jail was like a little nudge, saying, "C'mon, let's get back to work."

KUIPERS: You went to prison for selling bongs, right?

CHONG: The official charge was "conspiring to sell drug paraphernalia over state lines." Supposedly, it was part of a nationwide sting, but everybody they busted is either back in business or going back in business.

KUIPERS: In the book you say that this is payback for all the movies, for laughing at cops, for Sergeant Stadanko.

CHONG: Yup. The Bush administration, Karl Rove, they just figure out who's got the media power. They mentioned that in the transcripts of the trial. They said that I had gotten rich, made millions of dollars off making movies about glorifying drug use and making fun of law enforcement.

KUIPERS: Well, that's true.

CHONG: Yeah, totally true. But it's also written in the Constitution that I have that right. And that shows you the extent of this administration, what outlaws they are. It's like the "weapons of mass destruction" reason to raid Iraq. It's the same mindset: they have an agenda and they will do anything to meet their goals.

KUIPERS: Do you view weed as kind of a sacrament?

CHONG: Yes, totally. It's a gift, and it's written that He gave us the seeds and the trees for our use. It's in, I forget which one, Genesis or something.

KUIPERS: Are you part of any church?

CHONG: No, I was never a member of any church. Now I'm a member of an Indian sweat lodge. That's my official church now. When we lived on a farm, the only entertainment was Sunday school. And then I ended up teaching Sunday school when I was really young, and then I went to bible camp when I was seven, eight years old. And it was an incredible experience because it was purely spiritual for me. And that's when I knew that I was somehow connected, because it all made sense at that age; I loved the praying, the singing, everything. That's how I got into show business: They used to put on little plays at that camp. It was the best two weeks of my life. And we would walk out into a field of clover and grass and sit down, and the teacher would tell us stories of Jesus, the beautiful stories. What really stayed with me is how to pray. You pray for wisdom, because if you've got wisdom you don't need nothing else.

KUIPERS: You mention in the book that you asked for wisdom and these stories are what happened.

CHONG: Exactly. That's how everything fell together. One of the guys, the Confucians or the Buddhists, they say when the pupil's ready, the teacher appears. And that's what happened to me. When I was standing there being sentenced to nine months in jail, in my mind I heard this phrase: "Thy will be done." When I was ready to do the book the editor appeared, the publisher appeared. Everything appears at the right time.

Soldiers Wage Battle Against War

David Zeiger's new documentary film, Sir, No Sir!, captures one particular day in 1970 that the U.S. military establishment desperately wants you to forget. It was Armed Forces Day, and across the country, years of rising resistance to the war in Vietnam culminated in a nationwide anti-war protest by active military personnel that shut down planned celebrations at 28 U.S. bases. In fact, tens of thousands of GIs were involved in resistance to the Vietnam War, printing over 100 underground antiwar newspapers and coordinating their actions in a string of activist coffeehouses that sprung up near bases all across the country.

Today, however, that memory has been all but erased. And when Zeiger, an L.A.-based filmmaker, realized that soldiers speaking out about the Iraq War were being largely ignored because of military control of the war message, he felt he had to act. A former activist in the antiwar coffeehouse circuit, Zeiger found loads of footage about what was a big news story in the 1960s and '70s, showing that thousands of soldiers thought it their duty to speak out against war back then. He hopes to empower those who need to do so today.

Dean Kuipers: Was the GI movement against the Vietnam War not well known?

David Zeiger: Today, almost no one knows about it, but at the time, in fact, a lot of people did know about it. The demonstrations of GIs at Fort Hood for example - there were two demonstrations on Armed Forces Day, demonstrations in 1970 and 1971, that involved thousands of GIs -- those were covered by all the local media in Texas. Walter Cronkite did a two-part series on the GI underground press. But in the years since, what has happened is literally people's memories have been reshaped by the Reagan administration, which has been obviously carried over with the Bush administrations.

The politics were that the Vietnam War was a noble war fought bravely by soldiers who came home only to be spat on and vilified by selfish middle class hippies who condemned them for the war and who betrayed them. So the memory of what actually happened has been buried.

Kuipers: Was there an active campaign on the part of the DOD to try to scrub this out of memory?

Zeiger: The political agenda of erasing the GI movement from the memory of Vietnam was set by Reagan himself. He declared in that speech, "I will never send American troops again to a war that their government's not willing to win." And then, in the early '80s, was a campaign largely orchestrated by the Reagan administration to "honor the vet." This was around the time that the Vietnam memorial was built. This was very much the project of General Westmoreland, who had been the commander in Vietnam up until the Tet Offensive, and who was roundly hated by the troops, very similar to the role [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld has today. The undercover political message was that they fought a good war. And if you say the war was not good then you're not honoring the vets.

Kuipers: But people who were against the war surely remember?

Zeiger: There's a lot of willingness -- even on the part of very progressive people -- to buy into that. The Presidio Mutiny was one of the biggest events of the San Francisco antiwar movement during that era -- there was actually one really bad Hollywood movie made about it. But books about Vietnam never mention it. Even the Vietnam history that was on PBS in the late '70s, early '80s doesn't say anything about it. These events have been literally, willfully written out. I got an e-mail from someone who said, "For years, I told people about this stuff and they thought I was crazy."

Kuipers: And soldiers used to publish underground newspapers?

Zeiger: They were coming out of bases, largely. A lot of people had access to mimeograph machines -- company clerks and whatever. When I worked at the Oleo Strut coffee house in Killeen, Texas, which was off Fort Hood, the civilians helped get the printer [to put out a paper called The Fatigue Press]. But all the articles were written by guys in the military and it was all laid out by them. Some of them had some staying power because they had a support base outside of the military. But others might come out with three or four issues and suddenly they got transferred or kicked out or jailed -- which also happened.

Kuipers: Were there consequences for GIs who did these things?

Zeiger: Absolutely. There's no actual law against publishing -- it's not in the Code of Military Justice -- but there's one catch-all regulation that you can't do anything that undermines good order and discipline in the military.

Kuipers: Were these coffeehouses and newspapers connected as a kind of network?

Zeiger: Yeah. It was mainly a fundraising network -- they weren't connected as a political organization. But there were a couple of national organizations that dedicated themselves to supporting the underground newspapers and coffeehouses at military bases. From about 1968 to 1971, they were very successful -- there were maybe 30 to 40 places that existed near military bases. Even in Saigon: the National Lawyers Guild had a military counseling office in Saigon for GIs who were charged with fragging, for GIs who had deserted, to provide whatever legal aide they could for those guys.

Kuipers: Why do this film now?

Zeiger: Iraq. It was the buildup and the invasion of Iraq that essentially made this story new and relevant again. I realized if I don't tell this story now, then after the Iraq War, it's definitely going to be too much in the past. It's cool to make a film that says nothing about the present but everyone sees it as a film about the present.

Kuipers: Is there a movement among the soldiers in the Iraq war to get us out of Iraq?

Zeiger: Absolutely. There have been more individuals who have refused to go to Iraq or refused to return to Iraq in the last couple of years than in the first few years of the Vietnam War. There are some very public cases. The one that is becoming a big case now is Lieutenant Ehren Watada. There's Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who's in prison now. There's Petty Officer Pablo Paredes down in San Diego. [Army Specialist] Katherine Jashinski. The fact that these soldiers are choosing to very publicly refuse and oppose the war is significant because they're setting themselves up for the worst kind of military retribution, which is not just putting you in prison but declaring that you're betraying your buddies.

This is how the military has re-shaped things to undercut an antiwar movement in the military. In Vietnam, you went in and out of the war as individuals. One of the things the military does now is they keep units together; you're there to protect yourself and your buddies.

Kuipers: Have you connected with that movement?

Zeiger: Yeah. Iraq Veterans Against the War Iraq Veterans Against the War, which was formed a couple of years ago on the first anniversary of the war, has been working very closely with the film and we've actually done a program with them of sending free DVD's of the film to anyone in the service who wants them.

Kuipers: Are soldiers aware of an antiwar movement and how it pertains to them?

Zeiger: I'm not sure how much debate there is going on inside the military about the nature of the war and the justness of it. I know that if you saw the film Occupation Dreamland, which was the second film about Iraq troops -- the one that came out after Gunner Palace -- it revealed the conflict that exists inside a unit of the 101st Airborne. It really showed that there's not the kind of monolithic unity that people think there is.

Kuipers: It's clear that soldiers have questions about their role. But do they have contact with solutions?

Zeiger: It's hard to know. One of the things that influenced a lot of troops in Vietnam was the Vietnamese people. There was a lot more freedom in Vietnam, as soldiers, to be out there among the people if they wanted to. That doesn't seem to be the case in Iraq.

Getting His War On

David Rees never wanted to make political statements. He didn't even want to be a political cartoonist. In the days directly following September 11, when he was living in New York City, he just needed to hear an honest rendition of his country's internal dialogue about fear and war. As the media doggedly delivered a highly formalized and polarized debate about revenge, Rees listened to another line of discourse playing out in the white-collar offices where he worked as a temp, in the streets, in the music, and mostly in his own head. There he found horror, misunderstanding, hip-hop slang, and yes, jokes. There he found "Get Your War On."

Laughing at real-life horror like cluster-bombing Afghani children or floating bodies in New Orleans is bound to offend, and Get Your War On spares no one. The strip excoriates the Bush administration, the military, religious extremists of all stripes -- it has the audacity to laugh at death itself -- and exposes the apathy, fatigue, and bafflement experienced by almost every American. It has also become immensely popular, appearing exclusively in every issue of Rolling Stone and getting 25 million hits a year online.

Standing outside a lecture hall on the University of Southern California campus, where he's making an appearance for the Annenberg School for Communications, 33-year-old Rees looks like another junior professor -- grey tweed coat, the first touch of gray at the temples, a clutch of files in one hand. Since the strip spawned a series of three well-received books, Rees has done a lot of this. He knows the students are going to ask him about the global uproar over the Mohammed comics, and he's been thinking about that quite a bit himself.

"Since I became an atheist, I think any kind of restriction on picturing or making fun of or commenting on deities or prophets just rubs me the wrong way," says Rees, talking quickly, and seeming to figure out what he's going to say as he says it. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons he created his comic: to figure out how he felt about things.

He has decided that American newspapers should print the cartoons.

"I don't see why not," he says. "Seeing the cartoons kind of removes a level of mystery. It kinda deflates the issue, at least it did for me. 'Oh, these are just crappy cartoons, like mediocre cartoons.' I don't think you should necessarily publish photographs of victims of Janjawid rape in Sudan, or something. But I do think that to eliminate a layer of uncertainty and anxiety is useful in some way."

He also believes it is a test of our Constitutional civility. His own comic depends on it: Offensive speech is still protected speech in the United States.

"If they publish them in the United States, and you are an American Muslim, and you look at the cartoon and it drives you fucking bananas, you do just have to reconcile yourself: Are you comfortable living in a society where -- it's not like a tactful thing to do, or necessarily a sophisticated political critique -- but this is a country where you are allowed to do things like that."

Rees knows what it's like to get hate mail. He got a bunch of it when he started "Get Your War On," mostly from people enraged by his irreverent response to 9/11 and war, which was then isolated to Afghanistan. But he didn't get as much as he thought he would, and no one ever beat him up for it or burned his effigy, even when he visited small conservative towns on his book tours. Having been raised by very liberal parents in conservative North Carolina, he was prepared for more reaction.

"I was talking with a friend about the whole 'Piss Christ' controversy, that piece by Andres Serrano? My friend was saying, 'Oh, this is just the same thing.' But [former North Carolina Senator] Jesse Helms didn't go out and smash embassies and shit, you know what I'm saying?" Rees laughs.

With Rolling Stone paying what he calls "good money" for the strip, Rees has had a lot of time to grapple with his feelings about all this. But that doesn't mean he's as aggressively political as someone like (his example) left-wing comic artist Ted Rall, nor is he aggressively trying to expand his exposure. Indeed, Rees was so reluctant to profit off the strip, which began as faxes to friends and is only syndicated to a "handful" of alt-weeklies, that he has assigned the royalties from two of his popular books to a non-profit that removes land mines from the war-scarred province of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan.

"One of the reasons I started the comic was this crazy situation we had with the cluster-bombs and the food aid packages dropping at the same time in Afghanistan," he says. "It's a way of using the comic to make some small change, because I didn't feel confident that the comic itself would do that, or even that it would be appropriate. Because I felt like the comic would become less interesting."

And that, after all, is the point. Rees had nothing to lose when he started the comic, being a virtual unknown, and he regards it now as neither a meal ticket nor a political organizing tool. He's only interested in the strip as it continues to work as a comic and as an experiment in language. His clip-art characters let him keep the emphasis on the dialogue -- a super-contemporary mix of hip-hop slang and office shorthand and self-help psychobabble -- that reveals something dark and uncomfortable in all of us, maybe even in our national character. We are all complicit. Remember, it's called "Get Your War On" -- and that includes himself.

"I was going to quit 'Get Your War On' when Kerry was sworn in and Bush left," he says with a sigh, "and Bush won, and I was like, 'Oh god, I've got to do this shit for another four years.' Now it's like running a marathon: Come on, a couple more hills, and then you'll be done when Bush is done! But I think I'll continue it for now, because it is cathartic."

Watching Color TV

This just in: Still hardly any Indians on television.

And Asians have only incrementally better representation. Latinos and people of African descent are doing better, but still looking for more. Never know when those network suits will attempt to roll back progress.

On December 1, representatives of Asian-American, Latino, and Native American media advocacy groups presented their annual "report cards" on minority representation in television. (An NAACP version is due out next month.) Network television, that is. These reports are consistently worth a few column-inches of newspaper space, some cursory web stories, and a "tsk"-flavored 15 seconds of local anchor soundbite time, but their value for effecting real change is still in question.

It would seem that the biggest motivation for change would be the network's own ears to the ground and the cell numbers of producers and agents of color. This year, NBC and Fox declined even to submit numbers for executive and minority-themed project procurements, respectively.

As unduly Caucasian as the television landscape can appear, these reports, staples since the Big Four networks agreed in 1999 to increase diversity, come off more dire and less connected than the television you know and love. They read as though downloading has not yet been invented. This year's reports generally praise ABC for its diversity in casting shows such as "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy" and the overall Latino vibe of its Wednesday night lineup, which features "The George Lopez Show" and Freddie Prinze Jr. in "Freddie."

Beyond that -- Native Americans aside, of course -- idiot box progress is presented as mixed yet hopeful. Again.

In fact, television has never contained a greater percentage of colored faces and programming written and produced by such people. Myrka Dellanos, Sujin Pak and Dave Chappelle are, for small example, television personalities of large influence and heat among certain segments of American culture. Such actors and personalities aren't included in the report cards, which are compiled and presented by the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition.

The reports count primetime network presence and ignore all else, although this year a reality show category has been added. Under those criteria, the partially Spanish-language children's phenomenon that is "Dora The Explorer" goes unrecognized. Likewise, Peter Chung's mid-'90s MTV phenomenon "Aeon Flux," one of the greatest influences in the TV animation movement, would not have been counted.

"Programming and networks that rely on young audiences are more likely to show diversity," said Neal Justin, television critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association. "Let's give credit where credit is due."

Cable representation isn't monitored "because it takes a helluva lot of time, energy, and resources," said Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Limited resources also result in the advocacy groups opting against counting news and sports programming in its diversity studies.

Karen Narasaki, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, said her organization has had UCLA graduate students count the screentime accrued by Asian talent on cable.

"If you look at MTV, for example, they do a better job than the networks on any given night," Narasaki said. "The same is true of Lifetime."

Most of the channels -- cable or broadcast -- are owned by the same media companies, which means they deserve some blame for keeping the color in cable. If Viacom, for example, thought its Comedy Central and MTV stars would keep their advertisers and audiences satisfied, the corporation would find a place for them on primetime network shows, which play to much larger audiences. Stars, producers, and writers of cable shows are generally paid less than their network counterparts.

"I don't think we should downplay the problems with broadcast networks," Justin said. "They're still doing a crummy-to-mediocre job."

Justin used the example of NBC's "ER" and its depiction of Asians.

"In Chicago [where the drama is set], you can't avoid an Asian doctor," says Justin, yet he estimates that only two have appeared on the show. This, he says, is due to the politicization of television minority representation, as well as black scriptwriters' relative success in breaking Hollywood's color barrier. On the positive side, he cited an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" in which the title character "had a one-night stand with a South Asian, and there was no reference to it. That's just the way it was. You gotta give that props."

The fact that media observers even have to count the odd instance of apparent color-blind casting makes Narasaki, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, chafe. The media monitor said primetime shows about high school fail because network writers lack experience with integrated public school education and sketch portraits that bear little resemblance to actual life. This ignorance filters down to minor characters who aren't incidentally Asian, whether they're walking in airports or working in office buildings.

"I should be able to see myself in any role," she said. "I'm looking forward to the day when Asian-Americans are just like any other people."

The Asian and Latino reports generally give the four major networks B-to-C grades. CBS -- traditionally the lowest scoring, according to the Asian Coalition -- earned a C-, and ABC scored highest with a C+. The Latino media council also gave ABC its highest grade, a B, while CBS, Fox and NBC all earned C+ grades. Native Americans in Television and Film gave all of the networks failing grades. And representatives from the networks said, again, that diversity is important and they will try to increase it.

Despite the impact of cable television, which pioneers more daring shows and is generally more integrated, the monitors of the TV Report Card are going to continue to hammer away at network TV.

"The reality is that the networks have a lot more of the audience," Narasaki said. The monitors take umbrage at the assertion that their approach is dated. They're not going to shift their attention from the single-digit channels on your TV, where network programming is, to the cable channels. And they're not going to stop focusing on prime time.

"It's not in sports. It's not in news. It's not in children's programming," Nogales said. "It's in primetime. You have to go to where the most eyeballs are."

The Way of All Weeklies

Merry Christmas, Los Angeles.

The present's in the mail. Word got out and blew from Phoenix to New York and back out west beginning on Labor Day: The long-rumored corporate takeover of "alternative" news-on-print is indeed on order.

After the holidays, Phoenix-based NT Media takes control of The Village Voice, which in 1994 bought L.A. Weekly. NT Media - or, more familiarly, New Times - would assume the Voice name and take over not so long after one of the most shameful chapters in domestic alternative print press history: the 2003 Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against the L.A. Weekly and New Times ownership. Now they're no longer merely in bed together. They're hitched up like a stateside Charles and Camilla, and valued at $400 million.

The L.A. Times is also in some flux, with a new editor in local news- hound Dean Baquet and rumors of suitors sniffing about. Take into account the emerging cultural relevance of this publication, and you've got on tap a Goliath vs. Goliath (vs. David) newspaper fight unlike anything this town has seen. An old-fashioned journalism war. In lieu of pro football.

At stake is the future of progressive journalism. The unofficial truth has seemingly been forever under attack by major multinationals and short attention spans. Its politics are heavier than big media allow, and its formal freedom queers pollsters and consultants. Like its nephew the Internet, the best of the nation's weeklies (The Stranger, Willamette Week, The Boston Phoenix) are charged ions. Now a group of libertarians disguised as Men Without Politics are preparing to set the tone.

Full disclosure: I was a former staff writer and union local president at the L.A. Weekly. The publisher of CityBeat once toiled for the New Times chain. And a whole mess of the editors used to be at the Los Angeles Reader when it was bought and summarily flushed by New Times. The 2003 Department of Justice Consent Decree that ended the antitrust suit literally refers to this paper as an "Interested Party." And this writer hates to lose.

It happens, once every 3,000 blue moons. Sometimes the arrival of a chain is good. And, as objectively as can be stated under the present circumstances, New Voice Times will be good for journalism in Los Angeles.

Journalism backwater

Unless you're hauling your telephoto lens around stars' back fences, Los Angeles is an absolute journalism backwater, an amorphous, misunderstood collection of municipalities with as much day-to-day reporting buzz as, say, Tampa. New York is royalty; on a second tier are the Phillys, Chicagos, and San Franciscos. But our town has no competition at the daily print level, and Hollywood owns TV. That's why L.A. Weekly, established back in 1978, is iconic among hip people of a certain age. Some of the most important reporting and criticism in alternative-press history has come across its pages.

At the same time, it's important to know that parts of this article were composed on New Times computers. CityBeat was, in part, built out of that 2003 Dept. of Justice decision mentioned above. Village Voice LLC, owner of six papers, and New Times, which has 12, were made to sell off some of their assets more than two years ago, after the media companies shut down competing operations here and in Cleveland. Actual competitive journalism was happening in the two cities. And, as actual competitive journalism is something like a war, it costs money.

"Rather than letting the marketplace decide the winner," Acting Assistant Attorney General H.R. Hewitt Pate said, in the 2003 federal consent agreement, "these companies chose to corrupt the competitive process by swapping markets, thereby guaranteeing each other a monopoly and denying consumers in Los Angeles and Cleveland the continued benefits of competition."

If one listened closely enough that day, audible was I.F. Stone doing a half-gainer in his crypt. Could there be a bigger fuck-you to the ideals of a free and independent press than to conspire against alternative voices in two of the nation's greatest cities? And to commiserate this way during the run-up to war in Iraq?

There's a luxuriant romance to how we regard these weeklies. Truth is, Michael Ventura and Norman Mailer don't come 'round much anymore. The Weekly and the Voice have long been run by investors who contribute to Bush, who sell pet food, not to mention having been run by Rupert Murdoch. Voice Media greed is not unexpected. That brand sells as culture product for Manhattan and Hollywood, and it's not completely absurd to speculate that, if the hot publishing trend became Boiled Negroes Monthly, they'd at least explore the option.

A pioneering newsweekly

New Times is supposed to be different, though: It's the ultimate college newspaper story. Back in 1971, Lacey, an ace reporter and peripheral Arizona State student, and his business-minded partner Larkin started a newspaper in large part to provide honest reporting in Phoenix about Vietnam. Arizona State's New Times was a slap in the face for disenchanted Arizona Republic readers. Over the course of years, this endeavor developed into a pioneering newsweekly - Larkin and Lacey played with their newspaper category as they found the word "alternative" to be too tied to leftism. New Times papers have generally been happily tin-eared in their culture section, but in that the papers sounded specifically like Larkin and Lacey and racked up national ad revenue.

"They never bought the 'alternative' thing," said Lisa Davis, a former staff writer at NT Media's Phoenix and San Francisco papers. "In that way, they were alternative."

Lacey and Larkin, both in their 50s, purchased the Denver paper, Westword, in 1983, further establishing the company. Engagements with investors began by the '70s. A decade later, this sort of activity stepped up a level with an early effort to buy the Voice, which was followed by a purchase of the SF Weekly. This meant that such purchases and investments (such as its ad juggernaut The Ruxton Group, which sells to 26 "newsweeklies") had to be extremely streamlined. NT Media's business model was at the time the envy of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

The chain blew into Los Angeles in 1996 and bought up the Reader and Village View for a total of nearly $4 million. In putting together a competitor to the Weekly, whose politics Lacey and Larkin openly abhorred, they paid twice what the properties were worth. But that was Lacey. As a journalist, he'd throw thousands of dollars and hours at stories. Here was a passionate man who wanted Los Angeles. And he evidently didn't care who he stepped on to get it. According to eyewitness reports, Lacey marched into the office of the Village View and simply announced in person that nearly everyone was fired.

Former L.A. Reader managing editor Erik Himmelsbach wrote about Lacey's grand entrance there in a piece published in the L.A. Alternative Press in 2002:

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DIY Disaster Relief

Don’t let anybody kid you. The government response to Hurricane Katrina was not only a disaster when the storm first hit. It’s still a disaster now.

I’ve been talking to medical professionals who have been to the Gulf Coast in the past couple of weeks, and this is what they have told me.

First, FEMA continues to be next to useless. It is not providing relief workers with the access they need to areas crying out for their help. It is not keeping up with bills for the emergency work it has authorized so far. A shockingly large number of doctors and nurses are being told that their services are not needed. Those with the guts and the initiative to go ahead regardless are finding that the exact opposite is true –- thousands upon thousands of storm evacuees who have run out of their prescription medications, or require new prescriptions, or need help with a panoply of storm-induced problems, from simple cuts and bruises to infections and depression and suicidal feelings.

Secondly, FEMA and the Red Cross are not talking to each other to sort it all out. At the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana –- home to more than 5,000 evacuees –- there was, as of a few days ago, no formal on-site medical care. That meant people had the unenviable choice of going to the emergency room of a Lafayette hospital, waiting in line for hours and hoping for the best, or somehow fending for themselves.

Thirdly, the failures of the first six weeks or so since Katrina struck are likely only to compound the problems down the road. Sanitation in the shelters is a nightmare. Some professionals don’t exclude outbreaks of tuberculosis or other diseases one might have associated, pre-Katrina, with an earlier, more backward era.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s Paula Criscenzo, a Californian nurse, who recently traveled to the Gulf with her sister, an internist, and committed her impressions of the Cajundome to paper:

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Labor Plays Hardball

The polished hallways of the County Federation of Labor downtown are completely still, as a computer blinks silently and unattended beneath a photo of the late labor leader Miguel Contreras. Then, the doors at the far end of the hall abruptly fling wide, and several people emerge. Among them is Martin Ludlow, immaculately dressed and radiating energy.

The executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Fed is engaged in an animated discussion with a colleague. He reaches for a cell phone, then shakes a visitor's hand and points the way to his office. On his desk there, amid neatly stacked piles of paper, sits a replica of a baseball with a base inscribed with the words: Sometimes You Have to Play Hardball.

For Ludlow, that time is now. In the coming months, he must balance two Herculean tasks. California unions are in the fight of their lives against three November 8 special election ballot initiatives backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The central battle will be over Proposition 75, designed to hamstring labor fundraising for political organizing and campaigns. But labor also opposes Proposition 74, which would subject teachers to a five-year probation period and short-circuit a right to a hearing before being fired; and Proposition 76, which would change the state constitution to give the governor unprecedented power over the budget and change funding levels for education.

Voter-rich L.A. will be critical to defeating the initiatives, and Ludlow is charged with rallying troops. Meanwhile, he's got to keep his eye on another front. As the county's top labor leader, and a national figure, Ludlow is pivotal in the historic fight to prevent the national union movement from imploding. In an event analogous to California seceding from the U.S., seven big unions (and millions of members) have now split from the 50-year-old AFL-CIO. The labor movement is at a crossroads: to either re-emerge with new vigor, or wither away.

Of balancing the two fights, Ludlow says bluntly, "It's difficult. I don't think the two work hand-in-hand necessarily easily. You just have to do it."

The November elections are most immediate, but the split that rocked the national AFL-CIO has reverberations -- and dangers -- for Los Angeles. The dissident Change To Win coalition -- formed earlier this year by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with hotel and garment workers, grocery workers, and the Teamsters -- had grown impatient at the pace of reform under AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. They wanted union funds focused on union recruitment, and opposed the AFL-CIO's emphasis on funding political campaigns for candidates that often were only lukewarm allies.

The coalition broke away from the AFL-CIO in July. And last week, at a national meeting in St. Louis, the divorce became final. Change To Win, an alliance of unions that now numbers seven, formally became a labor federation separate from the AFL-CIO.

And L.A. was in the house in a big way.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of the Los Angeles local of UNITE HERE -- the hotel and garment union -- and an advocate of aggressive local organizing, addressed some 500 delegates. "She was very well received," enthuses Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. Also out in force were reps from L.A. locals of the SEIU, the lead breakaway union. And that's where it gets sticky for L.A.

Close to one-third of the member locals in the County Fed are SEIU. UNITE HERE is also influential. But the national AFL-CIO sets the rules for the local labor councils like the L.A. County Fed. It remains to be seen whether the AFL-CIO will permit the breakaway unions to work with those that stayed.

If the AFL doesn't allow it, that means here in L.A. the County Fed would be unable to work with SEIU locals that make up a large chunk of its membership. Even now, SEIU 1877 is ratcheting up an organizing drive that would unionize some 10,000 security guards. A ban would also preclude work with UNITE HERE, which just won a yearlong strike with support from Ludlow, and is engaged in a battle to unionize the Glendale Hilton.

The County Fed's budget would also take a serious hit, cut by perhaps as much as 40 percent. To date, relationships in Los Angeles between Change To Win locals and those still AFL-CIO-affiliated remain cordial. All have committed to working together to defeat antiunion ballot measures.

There is enough at stake for the entire union movement that the AFL-CIO is unlikely to crack down on local relationships. Representatives from state and local labor organizations and the AFL-CIO have met to discuss how to advance a labor agenda and hold the national movement together through local organizing campaigns.

Labor councils and community affiliates in some 15 cities are so convinced that local organizing is the way forward that they have formed a new national network, the Partnership for Working Families. "From the central labor council and state federations' perspective, they want to keep it intact, so there are negotiations going on at different levels," explains UCLA's Wong.

Ludlow was part of a delegation of local representatives that met with the AFL-CIO's Sweeney. "We made it very clear that we believe that the national labor movement can stay robust at the local level. But we have to be allowed to do it."

The AFL-CIO has taken the positive step of issuing "solidarity charters" that will allow unaffiliated unions to work with AFL unions. But there are some poison pills to be negotiated away before Change To Win unions consider participating. One provision would require non-AFL-CIO to pay 10 percent more in dues to the local councils or state federations they work with; the other provision would preclude officials from breakaway unions to hold office in the local body.

"We're adamantly opposed to the solidarity charters," says Tyrone Freeman, president of the SEIU home care workers union and a Change To Win enthusiast. He doesn't believe the AFL-CIO has much leverage in enforcing such agreements. "The finances of all the labor councils are generated by the locals. Resources from the national federation are limited to nonexistent."

Ludlow is less defiant, or at least more low-key. The AFL-CIO will either support their affiliates working locally with Change To Win affiliates - or not. He sees the Change To Win federation as having opened up the potential for that national labor movement to grow and flourish. He wants to bring another delegation of local labor leaders to meet with the AFL-CIO executive board to persuade them to allow AFL-CIO unions to work with Change To Win unions on the local level without penalty.

"If [they] don't do it, then clearly central labor council leaders and state federation leaders are pushed to be creative around how they restructure and refinance," he says. "That's a lot of unnecessary energy in my opinion. I'd rather focus those hours and those creative brainstorming sessions on how we organize the unorganized."

Dirty Business

On Friday, July 8, some 150 striking workers from the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 crowded a picket line at the Boeing facility in El Segundo, Calif.

The picketers — dressed in purple SEIU T-shirts — sought shade where they could find it. Many had shown up at dawn, and by noon the heat was taking a toll. But when a truck pulled into the long driveway, a current of energy surged through the crowd. Picketers jumped to their feet, waving signs and chanting "Si se puede!" as they crossed back and forth in front of the vehicle, blocking its way.

Just two days before, 700 janitors had voted to strike against the contractors providing cleaning services at Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrup Grumman aerospace facilities.

The truck's driver, a young Latino man, watched from his cab with a bemused expression. Five police cruisers arrived, hanging back while the driver consulted with someone via cell phone. When the conversation was finished, he grinned, backed his rig up, and retreated back down the driveway.

The picketers chanted louder, clapped, and cheered as the truck turned back out onto Imperial Highway. Their energy rejuvenated, the picketers continued singing and chanting as a school bus arrived to deliver them to the next action site. One of the women grabbed a bullhorn and leaned out the bus window. "Go and clean out the building, please," she called to onlookers, many of them Boeing employees. "I'll pay you $6.25. Clean the restrooms, please! But no vacation!" Howls of laughter from her colleagues sounded over the bus engine's thrum.

High morale is a crucial element here, because the strike could prove tough. For one thing, the lines of the conflict are slightly blurred. The most visible target for picket lines are the multibillion-dollar aerospace companies where the janitors work. But the dispute is actually with three cleaning contractors — Aramark Corporation, Somers Building Maintenance Corporation, and Servicon Systems, Inc. — retained by the aerospace giants to maintain their facilities.

There's little doubt that strikers face financial hardship while walking a picket line, even with the modest strike benefits provided by the union. Erica Romero, who has worked the night shift at the Northrup facility in Redondo Beach for the past four years, says she makes $7.65 an hour, with no paid sick days or health insurance; some of her colleagues make a dollar less an hour.

With her paycheck-to-paycheck existence, she's not sure how long she can stay out on the picket line. But she's adamant that she deserves better than she's been getting. "We're not asking for anything big, just a decent salary, nine or ten dollars an hour. That's just."

Dick Davis, chief negotiator for the three cleaning contractors, says that management has offered a $2.75-an-hour raise over three years -- about ninety cents a year. He says that the profit margins for the cleaning contracting companies are very thin. "Everybody perceives that their employer is making a ton of money, but that's not true."

The union strategy is to pressure the client aerospace companies, which enjoy lucrative government contracts and hire the subcontractors. "The client companies pit the contractors against each other and the lowest bid gets the work," explains Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877, the janitors' union. The hope is that Boeing, Northrop, and Raytheon officials will sit down at the negotiating table to work out a solution, since, in the union's view, they ultimately hold the purse-strings that could be loosed to provide the janitors a raise.

A Northrup spokesman would only say that it's company policy to not interfere in subcontractors' labor relations; Boeing referred us to Davis, the negotiator for the cleaning contractors, and Raytheon did not respond to calls.

The union is using an array of tactics to get all parties to the negotiating table. The ongoing actions at the corporate facilities continue, and political pressure may be building as well. The amount of business aerospace companies do with state and federal officials make them vulnerable to a word from those quarters. Garcia has had conversations with U.S. Rep. Jane Harman and state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, whose districts include a lot of aerospace companies, and California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is sure to make a few key phone calls.

Davis, speaking for the cleaning subcontractors, thinks that the strike hasn't got as much support as the union claims, saying that the companies know who shows up at work and who doesn't. Union spokeswoman Beth Trimarco counters that picketers come out before their shifts, and may be too intimidated to avoid work. "At any given time there are something like 400 workers out at the actions," says Trimarco.

Porfirio Corona, who was out at last Friday's picket line, wouldn't guess how long the strike will last. Corona, an 11-year employee of the Aramark Corporation, doesn't look forward to going without a paycheck. He usually brings home about $1,000 monthly. He and his wife are both diabetic; the disease has blinded her, and she's on Medi-Cal. Corona has no health care coverage, and doesn't look well. But, he says, "I'm going to hang in there until the end. I hope the union wins."

Patriot Games

William Cottrell admits he doesn't like SUVs. He even admits to spray-painting "smog machine" onto some SUVs. And he was convicted of being part of a now-infamous San Gabriel Valley arson spree that caused nearly $2.5 million in property damage to SUVs at private residences and dealerships in August of 2003. But is he a terrorist?

Cottrell has the USA Patriot Act to thank for the extra three years and four months he may serve in federal prison for that night of indiscretion. On April 18, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled that the former CalTech graduate student had engaged in "domestic terrorism" by targeting the fuel-inefficient vehicles, since his actions were seemingly meant to intimidate a civilian population, namely SUV-buyers. Cottrell's defense expected the judge to give the physics genius the mandatory minimum sentence of five years. With the sentence enhancement, Cottrell could end up wasting in prison for nearly eight and a half years.

"The section of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines under which they were looking is probably unconstitutional in the way it's framed," says Cottrell's lawyer, W. Michael Mayock.

That particular section of the guidelines was amended in 2002 in response to the Patriot Act. Previously, Cottrell could only have faced additional years in prison for terrorism if the court decided that his crime was meant to "influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct." Under the new guideline, his supposed intent to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population" was enough to qualify as terrorism.

While the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Cottrell damaged a lot of property, Mayock points out that they never did prove to the jury that his motive was to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population." The judge made this determination on his own. Mayock believes that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions require the government to prove to a jury that Cottrell actually did intend to influence a civilian population if they want to use the domestic terrorism sentencing enhancement.

Timothy Edgar, a legislative counsel at the ACLU, is familiar with these cases, particularly U.S. v. Booker, which he says will change the way sentencing enhancements are applied for all crimes. "For a very long time, everyone was laboring under the assumption that sentencing enhancements could be determined by a judge without a jury ... under basically a lower standard of proof," says Edgar. "What Booker said, what the Supreme Court said, is that no, because people have a right to trial by jury you have to prove facts that are relevant to sentencing enhancements before a jury."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Beverly Reid O'Connell concedes that the prosecution did not address Cottrell's intent in committing his crimes. "The intent element in the government's case was whether or not he intended to commit arson," she says. "His motivation for doing that was not an element of the government's burden." But she doesn't think that Booker affects sentencing practices in this case and also points out that the defense admitted in its own position paper that Cottrell's actions were "intended to influence the consumer's choice of types of vehicles to purchase."

While Booker advises that matters relevant to sentencing should be proven to a jury, the Patriot Act, in its definition of domestic terrorism, only requires that crimes "appear to be intended" to coerce and intimidate either a civilian population or the government to qualify as terrorism. Seeking to redress this and other disturbing elements of the Patriot Act, civil liberties groups are supporting the "Security and Freedom Ensured Act of 2003" (a.k.a. the "SAFE Act"), which would make intent "something you have to prove, not that you have to prove that they appeared to intend," says Edgar.

Cottrell does not deny that he vandalized SUVs on the night in question by spray-painting them with slogans such as "SUVs suck" and "smog machine." But he insists it was his accomplices, Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe, who threw the molotov cocktails that ignited at least 15 SUVs, including Hummers, and a dealership building. He says he retreated to his car in protest when their actions grew violent.

Cottrell also blames the two fugitives for scrawling "ELF," the acronym for the militant environmental group Earth Liberation Front, on the vehicles. ELF itself claimed responsibility for the firebombing on their website, but Cottrell maintains that he is not affiliated with the group.

That tag in particular sparked the FBI's interests in the case as a crime of domestic terrorism. The bureau considers ELF and its sister organization the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) "the most active criminal extremist elements in the United States." Last year, Deputy Assistant Director John E. Lewis of the Counterterrorism Division bemoaned the difficulty of apprehending these groups in testimony before Congress, citing Cottrell's arrest as evidence of recent progress.

Cottrell's attorney believes that the government is trying to make an example out of him. Asked if she received any pressure from higher-ups to prosecute Cottrell with unusual vigor, O'Connell laughs. "I'm not going to comment on any inside conversations that may or may not have occurred," she says.

Some worry that the Bush administration is more interested in going after militant leftists as domestic terrorists than their right-wing counterparts. In late March, Congressional Quarterly got hold of a Department of Homeland Security document that listed threats to national security. Left-wing groups like ALF and ELF made the list, but, according to the Quarterly, "anti-government groups, white supremacists, and other radical right-wing movements" were nowhere to be found.

James Lafferty, director of the National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, finds this alarming. "What does it say that certain kinds of property crimes and crimes aimed at certain elements of corporate America will get you on the Homeland Security domestic terrorist list, but not ... bombing abortion clinics?" he asks. "What are the corporate interests involved there?" He adds that violent left-wing groups tend to target property, whereas violent right-wing groups, while perhaps less active in recent years, often have human targets in mind.

"In this climate, to label something an act of terrorism -- as opposed to simply a heinous crime or a serious crime or a felonious crime -- is to give it a certain political panache under cover of which you can have these enhanced sentences," says Lafferty. "It's just part of this whole hysteria around terrorism in this country, as though somehow the whole country was being infected with terrorists, which is not the case." Cottrell plans to appeal his case. His lawyer will argue, among other things, that the court was remiss in excluding Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism from which Cottrell suffers, as a possible mitigating factor. "He is doing OK," Mayock says of his client, who is still contending with his recent Asperger's diagnosis. During the sentencing, the prosecution played a tape of Cottrell telling his mother that "the whole field of psychology is a myth." Ironically, his reluctance to accept a label that could well secure his freedom provides compelling evidence that he suffers from the disorder, which lists a stubborn adherence to perceived truth among its symptoms.

Highway Robbery

Driver Mary Jane Winters (yes, that's her name) was pulled over by California Highway Patrol officers for allegedly speeding in Mendocino County on Thanksgiving Day 2004. The CHiPers found two ounces of marijuana in the 53-year-old nurse's car. They kept the Mary Jane, but they let the woman go, citing her with possession. She had a physician's recommendation to smoke weed for her chronic back pain, and charges were eventually dismissed. Under the state Compassionate Use Act, she could legally hold. But critics say state troopers don't recognize the state law, choosing to seize thousands of pounds of medical marijuana found on the highways of Cali each year. Winters wants her weed back.

Now she's one of eight plaintiffs suing the Highway Patrol for the apparent conflict in this CHP policy. According to the CHP's own handbook, even when compassionate use is invoked, "all marijuana shall be confiscated and booked as evidence ... ." Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical-marijuana group, is spearheading the suit, which would require the state to stop taking patients' pot. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and the CHP were named in the action, announced this week in Oakland.

The CHP says the law is not so clear. Medical marijuana users are showing doctors notes to officers as if they're legal tender, but officers aren't necessarily trained to scrutinize the little pieces of paper in the same way they are educated in checking IDs and insurance cards. Who knows if that's a valid doctor's signature, for example? Even after the state legislature authorized universal state ID cards for medical marijuana users in 2003, they have yet to be rolled out, compounding the, er, sticky situation.

"Numerous medical marijuana patients who are stopped by the CHP for minor traffic offenses have their medicine confiscated by the police as an added punishment," reads an Americans for Safe Access statement. "In most cases, when valid documentation is shown to officers, patients are forced to put up with responses such as 'we don't recognize Proposition 215' or 'possession of marijuana is still illegal.'"

The suit seeks to force the CHP "to amend that policy so that it is in compliance with state law" so officers do not "seize the medicine of patients," states Safe Access. And Mary Jane wouldn't actually get her Mary Jane back. The suit wants policy justice, not dried-up evidence.


Happy Holidays!