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Movement Media Roundtable, with Maya Schenwar (Truthout) and Lara Witt (PRISM)

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Block & Build
Block & Build
Movement Media Roundtable, with Maya Schenwar (Truthout) and Lara Witt (PRISM)

This week’s show is our first Movement Media Round Table. We intend on this show to occasionally connect listeners with our fellow travelers in the independent, progressive media space to share some of the top stories from their outlets you should be following. For this round table, Cayden is joined by Editor-at-Large of, Maya Schenwar and Editor-in-Chief of PRISM, Lara Witt.

Each of our guests share some of the top stories of the week from their respective publications. We encourage listeners to read the full stories at their sites here:

Support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon supporter:

[00:00:00] Cayden Mak: Welcome to Block and Build, a podcast from Convergence magazine. I’m your host and the publisher of Convergence, Caden Mock. On this show, we’re building a roadmap for people and organizations trying to unite anti fascist forces to in order to build the influence of a progressive trend while blocking the rise of authoritarianism in the United States.

[00:00:24] You know, we usually start this show with a little rundown of some of the things that have happened in the news over the past week, and we definitely cannot talk about the news of the week without talking about the aggression against campus protesters calling for an end to the genocide in Gaza. and on their educational institutions to divest from Israel and often the business of war in general.

[00:00:43] Images, videos, and stories about the use of the police, as well as the implicit permission the police have given to far right groups who have harassed, beaten, pepper sprayed, and at UCLA launched fireworks into crowds of protesters, have flooded basically every media channel. You cannot get away from it [00:01:00] this week.

[00:01:00] The result of this repression is only a deeper entrenchment of the protesters certainty. The proliferation of encampments across the United States, and increasingly the world, as students echo one another’s calls that have reinvigorated the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel for its genocidal campaign against Gaza.

[00:01:18] If you’re like me, you’ve been horrified by the videos of disproportionate violence against young people, their professors, and other members of their campus community. Whether it’s mortally dangerous submission holds on the Emory University campus in Atlanta, the deployment of a bearcat in Morningside Heights, or dispersing gatherings using tear gas and flash banks on multiple campuses, university administrators and state and local governments need for quote unquote control in this situation gives lie to their earlier claims that they were only worried about the safety of the campus community.

[00:01:49] Let’s be perfectly clear, It is always the cops who come dressed for a riot. What’s more, over the past several days, we’ve seen escalations on the part of third parties. Vigilantes using [00:02:00] fireworks, bear spray, and sticks to brutalize protesters, while, in spite of sweating about so called outside agitators, campus security and city police look on casually.

[00:02:10] This kind of collusion between the far right and the cops is, of course, nothing new to anyone who’s been paying attention to state repression and the relationship between law enforcement and the radical right. Remember when police refused to intervene when Nazis showed up on campuses in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election?

[00:02:26] In the face of all of this, the students have been keeping each other safe, using familiar protest, medic, and security practices, for example. Or, interestingly, deploying the techniques taught to them by experts to deal with active shooter situations, barricading the doors, interleaving classroom furniture, and resourcing self defense out of the items that they can find immediately at hand.

[00:02:46] There’s a thread that runs through all this, and part of why I find this so moving. A friend of mine shared Anne Helen Peterson’s recent essay examining the charge that college students today are, quote, lonelier, less resilient, and more disengaged than their predecessors, [00:03:00] in response to what she, in response to which she describes these encampments as the exact opposite of what the mainstream media has been beside itself about regarding this generation of young people.

[00:03:11] Instead of shutting down, retreating to their phones, and checking out in the face of unspeakable horrors. They’re connecting and experiencing solidarity with one another in actual space. Again, better utilizing the lessons of their childhoods regarding active shooter situations than the cops, who for all their firepower, surveillance tech, and paramilitary tactical training have publicly failed to do anything about.

[00:03:34] But more than that, this is a cohort of young people who are doing what humans have done for time immemorial. They have gathered together to grieve. Peterson writes, It’s not a disengagement from a world that has largely left them to fend for themselves. It’s a brave, angry, and frequently messy engagement.

[00:03:52] I look at the protests and see students funneling their grief in a way that disrupts the narrative of their own disengagement, and I see them using the tools they were given to [00:04:00] fend for themselves during the pandemic, like surgical masks, to fight surveillance. I see adults, not children, furious about the inhumane Israeli assault on Palestine and advocating for their institution’s divestment in that war.

[00:04:13] If you listen closely, they’re also mad, and righteously so, about so much else, including the idea that peacefully protesting is quote unquote ruining their college experience. These students see through the facade of institutions that make promises about their well being. I’m thinking about the Palestinian American student at Northwestern whose sign naming their slain family members has run out of space.

[00:04:35] But also, no matter where they’re from, they’ve seen our federal government roll over and play dead in the face of a pandemic that is still killing and disabling hundreds of thousands of people, including their friends, their families, even themselves. They’ve come by this mistrust honestly, and have truly gotten so little support for processing their grief.

[00:04:54] Instead, the discourse about them, as Peterson so rightly points out, is infantilizing and hand wringing. [00:05:00] Let’s be clear. Our task today is to win a ceasefire and get humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza. But the task tomorrow, in Palestine and here in the U. S. is about collective grief. It’s not a coincidence that some of the smartest people I know are writing and reporting on grief and social movements, including my friends Malkia Devij Cyril and the journalist Sarah Jaffe.

[00:05:22] I learned a lot about grief in the depths of the pandemic too. It changed me profoundly and indelibly, and I can fairly say that I am a different person today than I was in December of 2019. This grief changed the way that I orient towards a lot of things in but it’s also brought me closer to myself.

[00:05:39] My own clarity of purpose, the compassion I have for myself and others, my personal peace and surety in the face of uncertainty and change. The thing of it is, grief is fundamental to living in and loving the world and the people in it. The more I learn about grief, the more I realize it was always a part of my organizing.

[00:05:57] Many of us who were in high school when the 9 11 [00:06:00] attacks occurred and were politicized during the beginning of the so called war on terror recognize this feeling. We watched in horror as teenagers, as the world promised to us was revealed to be a facade. Critically, this was not a heart hardening moment.

[00:06:13] It was a heart opening one, understanding the deep ways our lives in the U. S. were connected to the lives of people around the world, often in ways that were determined for us by the government. The unasked question posed in this moment is whether we can rise to the challenge of building a society embodied in these protests.

[00:06:30] One which seeks justice, provides protection and care for all its members, invests in things that nurture life instead of smothering it, and ultimately deserves our trust. For all the loss, grief, and betrayal, like these young people, I’m here because I think this is a moment for us to transform. This is still a moment, unlike any other I’ve seen in my life, where the balance of forces and common sense on Palestine has shifted rapidly and dramatically.

[00:06:57] We cannot run away from this, so how do we run [00:07:00] towards it, knowing that the struggles to come will demand we metabolize this grief to defeat a global rising tide of authoritarianism. I’ll close this rant with this, grief isn’t just feeling sad and numb. It’s also the stubbornness to survive, to be the ones who continue on, who nurture and build connection, even when it hurts and aches to do so.

[00:07:20] Metabolizing grief demands that we open our awareness of our capacity to tend to ourselves and to one another. Which is just to say that grief is about being human, in all its glory and mess. Let’s not lose sight of that because every person in Palestine depends on it.

[00:07:39] So, uh, with that, um, I’m really excited to introduce my guest today. Um, today’s show is going to be the first of what I hope to make an ongoing series, um, of in this show that we’re going to call Movement Media Roundtable. I’m joined this week by some fellow travelers in the independent progressive media space to discuss some of the big stories [00:08:00] coming up in their own publications this week.

[00:08:02] Um, first up, I am excited to welcome Maya Shenwar, who’s the Director of the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism and Editor at Large at Truthout. Um, Maya, thank you so much for joining me today. 

[00:08:14] Maya Schenwar: Thanks for having me here, Caden. 

[00:08:16] Cayden Mak: Um, and also joining us, uh, in her recently appointed role as Editor in Chief at Prism is Lara Witt.

[00:08:22] Lara, it’s great to see you. 

[00:08:24] Lara Witt: Good to see you too. Thank you. Oh, 

[00:08:26] Cayden Mak: oh boy. Okay. I said, I said a lot of things that I have big feelings about. So just like settling in, settling in. Um, but I guess to start off, I’m curious to hear from both of you, uh, your sort of like thoughts and reflections about what you’ve been seeing this week in campus protests.

[00:08:48] Lara Witt: Maya, would you like to go first? 

[00:08:50] Maya Schenwar: I will. And Caden, I really, really appreciated your, your comments at the top. And I’ve been [00:09:00] feeling that so strongly, and you kind of put it into words, and I’m reminded of how Kelly Hayes and Mariam Kaba write about grief in Let This Radicalize You, and specifically this idea that hope and grief can coexist, 

[00:09:16] Cayden Mak: and 

[00:09:18] Maya Schenwar: That if we’re really serious about transforming the world and doing that through our actions, then we have to hold both those things simultaneously and use them to fuel each other.

[00:09:32] And Miriam and Kelly were writing in the midst of movements that were sparked by police perpetrated violence and the mass grief of the pandemic that was. so deadly because of government policies of organized abandonment and kind of this idea that grief drives movements I think is is so important for us to [00:10:00] hold and that if we can get past this kind of harmful narrative about it just like causing disaffection and causing us to stall out, we see, we see what’s really going on.

[00:10:15] And yeah, I mean, in terms of what’s happening this week in campus protests, I think Caden, you, you broke it down in this really powerful way that A we keep things focused on what’s actually going on, which is a genocide, which is why we’re all here. And I think the, the protests have been doing that very, very powerfully all over the country.

[00:10:40] And then secondarily, the fact that there have been more than 2000 people arrested at these campus protests, and they’ve been a site of extreme violence and extreme police, um, interference. And when I, I say extreme violence, I mean, state violence and [00:11:00] not just like physical violence, but the fact that we have our, our governmental officials saying things like, like Biden said, um, yesterday about how order must prevail.

[00:11:13] Cayden Mak: Oh my God. We actually have that clip queued up and I feel like we should play it. It’s, it’s just. It makes my head hurt so 

[00:11:24] Sound on Tape: bad. Let me be clear. Peaceful protest in America. Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is. It’s against the law when violence occurs. Destroying property is not a peaceful protest.

[00:11:39] It’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations. None of this is a peaceful protest. Threatening people. Intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Dissent is essential to [00:12:00] democracy, but dissent must never lead to disorder or to denying the rights of others so students can finish the semester and their college education.

[00:12:09] Look, it’s basically a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of what’s right. There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos. 

[00:12:19] Maya Schenwar: Can I just say, I, I mean, I’m never in the business of policing, how people protest, like, um, but also these encampments have been so So profoundly peaceful, like, you know, when you’re just looking at the context of, of protest more broadly and Biden using this language is honestly akin to some of the things we see in the fascist media.

[00:12:50] Playbook, you know, like the kind of rhetoric that Donald Trump used about law and order and, and that type of thing, [00:13:00] obviously many, many decades old phrasing that comes down to this idea that you have to get in line, you know, and in this moment where. students are rising up and in some of the most moving ways that we’ve seen like in every part of the country.

[00:13:19] Cayden Mak: Yeah. I mean, it’s, it is interesting too. I mean, it’s, it’s also not dissimilar from the ways in which like, even like in the, uh, like early 20 teens, the sort of very beginning of black lives matter. Barack Obama was like, Chill out. Wait your turn. Right? Like this is a, this is a, a common refrain from people in power because I think it is, I mean, I think it’s the impulse of power to protect itself, right?

[00:13:44] Like it’s, um, 

[00:13:47] Maya Schenwar: and American tradition. I’ll stop talking, but I, I wanna point out also. Like, this is why police were created, in part, and [00:14:00] I think, like, we know that the primary purpose of the institution of policing, one of the primary purposes is to suppress political movements for liberation and people struggling for liberation when it comes to racial justice, social justice, all of these issues.

[00:14:23] And, you know, we’ve seen this with Black liberation movements. Struggles for native sovereignty, anti capitalist struggles, anti war movements, queer and trans liberation struggles. And we’re seeing it now, like what they were built to do. 

[00:14:39] Cayden Mak: Yeah, that’s right. 

[00:14:41] Maya Schenwar: And, and leaders like Biden are part of that.

[00:14:45] They’re part of the police.

[00:14:50] Lara Witt: I keep thinking about the shaping of words and just shaping them to suit. Those empower, uh, peace [00:15:00] and violence and order and chaos. Uh, these are all terms that the state can use and reshape based off of its priorities and what is, and their own definitions. Um, but it also harkens back to the idea or this like, this myth, um, called drapedomania of Black slaves escaping, um, and, and wanting freedom being portrayed as insane for wanting their freedom.

[00:15:33] Um, we’ve seen that play out in a myriad of different ways, especially in New York with, um, with increased policing of folks who are houseless, um, or struggling with mental health issues, uh, and just being like shuffled away either into hospitals or more likely incarcerated. And. Any deviation from the state norm where you are, like, placid, where you are simply a consumer, [00:16:00] uh, unoccupied by what is happening around you, um, just dutifully, like, maybe voting once in a while and then sticking to that, and that being the end of your civic engagement, that is in line with what the state wants from you.

[00:16:14] Any actual deviation from that is insanity or chaos or, you know, basically people escaping the plantation in order to rile things up. And so we can’t divorce, like, the U. S. ‘s deep anti Blackness from every, from the responses that we’re seeing today. Anti Blackness and, you know, And anti Palestinian rhetoric are so intertwined and and all of those things just mesh together so well that the state’s response to people standing up for Palestinian rights, people standing against a genocide, um, and for liberation for all obviously is going to be painted as chaos.

[00:16:49] So it doesn’t matter how peaceful we are. It doesn’t matter how quiet people are. It doesn’t matter What sort of form of protest and the fact that we are standing against those things, the fact that the students are doing what they [00:17:00] should be doing as people who exist in this world will always be painted as chaos because it is not what the state wants.

[00:17:08] Cayden Mak: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And I think, you know, it also Makes me think about the people who, I mean, sort of like President Biden, who are like, look, like, um, we need to have order. And also like, there’s also these people on the internet who are like, protests don’t work and also clear the encampments.

[00:17:28] And I’m like, y’all, if protests don’t work, just leave them alone and pretend they’re not there. Right? Like, I think this is, this is my message to the student protesters out there is like, you know, it’s working. You know it’s working because they are bent out of shape about it, right? Like, it is, uh, something that is really profoundly shifting the way that people are thinking and talking about this issue.

[00:17:50] And I think, again, this goes back to what I was saying earlier that I don’t think I’ve seen a moment like this on Palestine in my existence, right? [00:18:00] Like, it’s Right. a profound moment. Um, and I think a lot of people who are a lot older than me also feel that way.

[00:18:11] Um, do you have something you want to say, Maya? 

[00:18:16] Maya Schenwar: No, I actually was just thinking about how all of that ties in with movement media and our role right now. 

[00:18:24] Cayden Mak: Yeah, 

[00:18:28] Maya Schenwar: I mean, I think that that sense that these protests are breaking the status quo aligns and, and how threatening that is to power, and how threatening that always is to power really ties in with the way that corporate and dominant media are Are covering it, really framing it as disruptions and using the police as primary sources, like they always [00:19:00] do as their central sources and covering them fundamentally from a place of police sympathy and sympathy for the status quo, um, because we know that historically and currently, like Police and media go hand in hand, like police are the first sources that the most mainstream journalists develop, like they grow up on the police beat.

[00:19:28] And then those are the people they ask when something happens. And so it just feels like at this moment, we’re having this conversation movement media is so So deeply and urgently necessary, in part to counteract that and in part just to tell the actual stories of what’s happening, you know, and. Um, also, to uplift the words and actions of [00:20:00] organizers, who are, I think, the primary storytellers that, that we should be paying attention to right now.

[00:20:08] But I don’t know if you want to get into all that 

[00:20:11] Cayden Mak: yet. No, the segue is perfect, and I’m 100 percent here for it. It’s almost like we planned this. But yeah, I think, I think that the, the thing that you’re lifting up is so right. And I. You know, I think that a lot of the, the hand wringing about that and Helen Peterson writes about in her piece is also very much linked to like, let’s pathologize these young people.

[00:20:36] Right. And also like, let’s distract from, let’s tap into this like sort of vague, like almost moral panicky anxiety about the youth, right. Which happens to every generation almost as a way to distract from the fact that like people are being. Martyred in Palestine as we speak, like people are currently dying and that’s like, I think the, it just [00:21:00] feels like so much of the way that non movement media has talked about Palestine over the past year.

[00:21:07] over the past year. eight months, has been so focused on trying to get the attention away from the absolutely, like, devastating humanitarian disaster that we’re seeing unfold there, right? Like, it’s just, it’s, the, the sort of fixation on finding literally anything else to talk about is, is, it’s frightening, to be honest.

[00:21:32] Um, Yeah, I think that so much of the work that movement media outlets are doing is like, yeah, you’re right. It’s like sense making. Like, one of the things that I think about a lot and that actually our producer and I talk about a lot when we prepare this show every week, is like, what do we share with people at the top to make, to be like, hey, you’re not, Losing your mind like we see what you see and like how important that can be especially to folks who are [00:22:00] Maybe like new to the movement or like just getting into stuff.

[00:22:04] I don’t know Laura Do you have thoughts about our work in this moment and why it’s so important. 

[00:22:10] Lara Witt: I do We worked with this great, uh, reporter who’s, uh, a Columbia journalism student this last week to cover the encampment at Columbia and then, uh, uh, police chaos ensued, um, and one of the primary things that she discussed was how little trust there was amongst the students toward mainstream media outlets and that they really could only trust each other, uh, trust themselves to like accurately, accurately report what was happening on campus, um, and, um, They have that mistrust for good reason, uh, if their protests, if their sit ins, if their encampments are being described as, um, anti Israel, um, or, you know, or chaos, for that matter, or, uh, completely irresponsible, or as, like, career [00:23:00] ending, et cetera, all the, all the different words that were being used, of course, they’re going to mistrust media because they’re, you know, They are, uh, lying, the media is lying about the intent, they are not telling the truth, they are practicing, they are, it is journalistic malpractice, you are taking what someone said and then completely skewing it, and using passive language in other ways, and it’s, it is, it is a lack of responsibility, um It’s a complete failure in journalism.

[00:23:28] And so the the role that movement media sources then occupy is to Is to properly report on what is happening. We apply journalistic rigor And simply report what is happening. We show what is happening and We are able to then break through this, um, this kind of, well, the mistrust, first of all, and rebuild trust in a way, uh, with, with our readers, with new readers, so that they know that, you know, there is not just like one [00:24:00] media, and it’s not just mainstream media, there are other sources, there is movement journalism, there is movement media that we can rely on to, one, cut through all of the noise, but also provide a historical record that is as accurate as it can possibly be.

[00:24:13] Cayden Mak: Yeah, that’s great. Well, and I think that begs a really important question because this question about like trust in institutions to me feels like one of the, again, like one of the like unasked questions that is like bubbling to the surface right now, but like how do we as movement media, like what are the like ethical practices?

[00:24:35] What are the like practices in our publishing that, um, helps build that trust with folks? You know, I, I think this example of, um, this student journalist from Columbia is a great one. Um, but in general, like what are, what is, what underlies the building of that trust both with, uh, writers, with sources, but also with our audiences?

[00:24:57] Like what are those, what are the things that we. [00:25:00] Our core to our practices. I don’t know lara if you want to start and then maya 

[00:25:05] Lara Witt: sure um well, first of all, we Apply a really rigorous fact checking and copy editing process to all of our pieces so it just starts with like the basics of For especially for our readership that they understand that each of our pieces is is um has this Rigorous fact checking process that it goes through.

[00:25:24] It’s not just like we’re not operating simply on vibes of like, yeah, we publish whatever You know, we’re to double checking our transcripts. We’re making sure that people say who they are Um, the other aspect of it is to not platform voices equally like platforming hate and white supremacists Zionists anyone who is Dishonest in their framing of things and attempting to manufacture consent for a genocide Not someone who should be we cannot treat those voices equally.

[00:25:54] They do not do the same things So our role is to put the the sourcing [00:26:00] back in the hands of those who have been marginalized who are not represented in mainstream media Who do not get the opportunity to speak because somehow they’re not objective about The slaughter of people. Um, there’s this reticence of to like interview black and brown folks and in this moment palestinian americans or palestinians about what is actually happening to them to their families on the ground Um because they’re not objective And so then there’s this whole then there’s the issue of like what objectivity actually is to mainstream media, which is not actual objectivity And really based on notions of white supremacist like cis hetero framing.

[00:26:38] Um And so by reclaiming one, well, not necessarily reclaiming by like constructing a media in which we understand the sort of forces and oppressions that are in play and, and shifting the power back into the hands of our communities, we’re able to build bridges and connections to the folks in our communities who want journalism that accurately represents what [00:27:00] is happening.

[00:27:01] So I think that there’s like a myriad of different ways to take, uh, some of it is also just purely intuitive and being an empathetic and kind person and giving a shit about what is happening. Uh, and if that makes me not objective, that’s perfectly fine. I’m just going to keep doing what we do. 

[00:27:20] Maya Schenwar: Yeah, like, hopefully we’re not objective because that doesn’t mean anything.

[00:27:26] Like, what it means is white supremacy and capitalism, basically. And I love the framing that Luis Wallace uses, where He kind of says, you know, journalism claims to be the view from nowhere. 

[00:27:44] Cayden Mak: And 

[00:27:45] Maya Schenwar: actually, we’re all a view from somewhere, and we need to actually embrace that subjectivity and use it strategically and toward action.

[00:27:58] And Our work [00:28:00] is action. We are putting words into the universe that are doing something, and so we need to embrace that role and make it clear what kind of action we’re aiming to do. And I think for us, as movement media outlets, that action is explicitly in service of movements for justice and liberation.

[00:28:23] Not that we’re like, publishing press releases. We’re doing rigorous journalism, but we’re simultaneously making that mission clear. And I think that our readers actually really respect that. Like they don’t want us to see ourselves as like the fourth estate and journalism for journalism’s sake is the point, you know, because estates are Actually just houses that rich people live in and that’s not our job.

[00:28:53] Um, so there’s that and I, I agree with everything Laura said and [00:29:00] feel similarly, like actually at left media outlets, fact checking is even more important. Having fact checkers on staff, having a multi step editing process, sharing that with our readers that this is, this is part of the infrastructure of what we do.

[00:29:17] And actually in. Really, um, rejecting, rejecting the objectivity framework, we embrace a framework that includes accuracy as as one of our primary goals and transparency and accountability. And I’ll also just say that in our work we think a lot about being accountable to readers and building trust through the fact that they’re actually the ones supporting us, like making it possible for us to and grounding our work in being funded by small donors, which are Our readership base [00:30:00] makes it a lot more possible for us to be directly accountable to them.

[00:30:04] And that includes responding when they’re like, Hey, you fucked up. Um, or like, or like responding when they say, Hey, we really wish you would cover this thing. Um, and I, I think that the funding mechanisms are also so important to talk about because Corporate journalism. is funded by the halls of power, it’s funded by corporations.

[00:30:33] And thinking about the role of the state and corporations in the money that drives all of this, I think ties in with that as well. So for us, it’s readers. 

[00:30:44] Cayden Mak: Yeah, yeah. No, I love that because I think that one of the things that I feel like is like one of the early lessons That I learned in life is that, like, the people who give you money are the people who often have the [00:31:00] biggest say in what goes on, and that’s, like, certainly the case in sort of, like, for profit world, but they just don’t like you to know that or see that?

[00:31:12] Um, and You know, especially speaking of speaking of the many sort of like historic moments that I’m like, oh, like this, this screwed my generation up is like I graduated from college into the 2008 financial crisis and like learning, learning how to follow the money there. really illuminated a lot of things for me about like, what is capitalism?

[00:31:33] What is it here to do? And like, how, how does power work more than just like a quantity of money? Right. Um, and I think that like the, uh, The story, Maya, that you brought to us today is really about following the money, um, on some level, and I think that like one of the things that I find very interesting about it is, again, the, [00:32:00] um, so the story is about a piece of legislation, um, and I think that like one of the things that struck me about it is that like it, the piece of legislation almost serves as this like tool to obfuscate where the money comes from, where it goes and like who benefits.

[00:32:22] Um, but yeah, I, I wonder if you want to introduce this piece that y’all published today on Truthout, um, and talk a little bit about how it came to be. 

[00:32:32] Maya Schenwar: Absolutely. So I think you’re right that beneath the surface, it really is a follow the money piece. And So many stories about legislation, unfortunately, are just follow the money pieces.

[00:32:48] So this morning TruthHub published a piece by Andy Roth that delves into a bill that passed in the House, has been introduced in the Senate, that [00:33:00] could allow for nonprofit organizations that support Palestine to be shut down without due process. And the bill would allow the Secretary of the Treasury to have this sweeping ability to categorize any nonprofit charity as a quote unquote terrorist supporting organization, which would be a new and very arbitrary category.

[00:33:27] And once an organization is categorized that way, the federal government could Take that organization’s nonprofit designation and therefore it’s tax exempt status, which makes it nearly impossible for money groups to raise money as those of us in nonprofit media know very well. So it would essentially be shutting down those organizations.

[00:33:52] In effect, the bill is bipartisan, but what the co sponsors largely [00:34:00] have in common is that they are heavily funded by the Israel lobby. And two of the bill’s co sponsors have received more money from the Israel lobby than anyone else in Congress during this election cycle. And it’s worth noting that both of those Congress members are Democrats.

[00:34:20] So I’ll say a little bit about what this bill would do and what the story communicates. So effectively, it could result in the dismantling of many important organizations, if it’s If it’s used and carried out, public charities, nonprofit advocacy orgs, nonprofit news organizations. And I think this is relevant to this whole conversation we’ve been having because everybody who supports Palestine simply supporting people’s right to survive and be free is getting accused by someone of being a terrorist.

[00:34:59] a [00:35:00] quote unquote terrorist right now. I certainly have been. So we can definitely imagine a scenario in which a broad range of groups get designated as Supposedly terrorist supporting organizations and weirdly, um, or maybe not so weirdly, these bills have received a very, very little mainstream coverage, but I think that we at nonprofit news organizations have a particular responsibility to cover them.

[00:35:35] For one thing, they could potentially affect us. Our own nonprofit designations and ability to sustain ourselves clearly could be at stake. But I think overwhelmingly, more importantly, if this passes, this type of legislation could interfere with aid to Palestinians, aid to the people who really need it.

[00:35:58] need it most at [00:36:00] a time when UNRRA is defunded. And for me, this makes me think back to the days of the Patriot Act. 

[00:36:09] Cayden Mak: Yeah. 

[00:36:12] Maya Schenwar: You and I were talking about how way back in 2008, I wrote a piece about this. And at the time, There were these new powers that had been granted to the treasury department that allowed the government to shut down charities based on completely unfounded claims associated with quote unquote terrorism and to freeze their assets.

[00:36:35] And this impacted a number of charities, particularly Muslim charities that were aimed at relief and aid. And some of them were prevented from carrying out core functions. And so the Patriot Act sunsetted years ago. Um, but in this new legislation that’s emerging amid these Palestine solidarity protests, I think we [00:37:00] see echoes of the Patriot Act horrors.

[00:37:03] And just a recognition, I think for all of us would be good that nonprofits aren’t safe under repressive governments and we’re at their mercy too. 

[00:37:18] Cayden Mak: Yeah, I, I, I find this to be very chilling because I also remember in the like, sort of like war on terror era, both under Bush and Obama, that like, uh, A lot of folks who were trying to, like, say, like, help, like, communities rebuild in Afghanistan, or whatever, like, had assets frozen because they were, like, quote unquote, materially aiding terrorism.

[00:37:43] Um, and I think that, like, the subjectivity Of these kinds of things should be a concern for everybody, right? Is it’s like this double-edged sword that also can easily be weaponized against kind of [00:38:00] whoever, right? That like the designation of terrorist organizations, obviously deeply political and like about whatever it is that the government perceives to be a threat.

[00:38:11] Um, 

[00:38:11] Maya Schenwar: yes. Yeah, absolutely. It’s about these things we were talking about earlier. in terms of who’s disrupting the status quo, who’s disrupting oppressive structures. And I think that we can see this also in how these bills have been covered or not covered by the mainstream media, by the corporate media, the New York Times, the Washington Post, they’re not, they’re not covering them.

[00:38:47] And I think that we also should be looking at this in tandem with the encampments and with the different ways that people are pushing back in the streets [00:39:00] and how those folks are being targeted. And see this surveillance state and this policing state as many tentacles and look at how those different tentacles are collected are connected.

[00:39:16] So the Treasury Department thinking about how does the IRS work in government? Uh, it’s important to think about that in connection with how surveillance works. How policing works and how these different branches of state power work together. Yeah, 

[00:39:40] Cayden Mak: I mean, we don’t have to go very far back in, like, recent history to see times when other, uh, protest movements that, like, you know, the sort of, a lot of narratives about them were mobilized being like, oh, these people are vile, you know, like, Black Lives Matter.

[00:39:57] 2020, you know, like [00:40:00] we, these, these are not, we don’t have to go very far back in history to see how this kind of stuff can be mobilized against like domestic dissent in ways that like are just not, uh,

[00:40:17] they’re opportunistic, right. But they’re not like, uh, 

[00:40:21] Maya Schenwar: exactly. And I, I think that this, this brings up for me what Laura was saying about words. Um, peace. And, you know, those, those kinds of words. And I feel like we need to really specifically and thoughtfully examine how the word terrorism is used. 

[00:40:43] Cayden Mak: Mm hmm.

[00:40:44] This 

[00:40:44] Maya Schenwar: is something we’ve talked about a lot at Truthout, that we don’t want to use the Terrorism as a word for our purposes either because that word gets weaponized no matter how you put it into practice. So, you know, after [00:41:00] January 6th, when there was this whole wave, we have to say terrorists, you have to say insurrection, and we’re like, you know what?

[00:41:08] Yes, we have to use words to demonstrate how powerful, like, um, like, you know, white supremacy and fascism are in this country, and we have to not use terrorist, like, you know, like, ceaselessly all over the place. I think that that word is, um, is one of the ones that we should put on our list as journalists to think about, like, how is this being deployed and when we use it, how is it going to be weaponized against us in the future?

[00:41:42] Cayden Mak: Yeah, I think that, like, how is it going to be used to kind of manufacture consent for more surveillance, more policing, more repression, that, like, ultimately because, like, not everybody has equal access to things already in society is going to come down harder on on [00:42:00] folks who are already marginalized. I think, yeah, I remember also in, in 2020 being like leading an advocacy organization, having those discussions internally as well, you know, like trying to figure out how we’re going to orient towards the moment.

[00:42:16] Maya Schenwar: Oh, yeah. 

[00:42:19] Cayden Mak: Um, you know, I think, Lara, your, the story that you’ve brought, uh, today that is, uh, a big scoop that you all, um, published in the past week, um, it, it, like, I think it, it, on the surface, it feels like a shift, but I think that there are very clearly some themes, um, that are through lines, um, But this story is specifically about the organization PEN America and, um, I don’t know, for, for listeners who might not be familiar with PEN America, could you give us a little, like, download on, on the organization and their history?

[00:42:53] Lara Witt: Yeah, absolutely. Uh, so PEN America is a 102 year old literary non profit. [00:43:00] Uh, it is aimed at uplifting freedom of expression, press freedom, and fighting against censorship and the human rights abuses that come from the erosion of those rights. Uh, we specifically covered the, their prison writing programs, uh, in two separate pieces.

[00:43:17] Uh, and I can go into that context if it would be helpful now. 

[00:43:21] Cayden Mak: Yeah, totally. Can you tell us a little bit about the piece and, um, how it came to be and, and how you’ve, I mean, also like, you know, how, how you found this thread and like why you think it’s so important. 

[00:43:33] Lara Witt: Yeah. Um, I think a good through line from, from what.

[00:43:37] I was talking about to this one is that even our non profits or charities, um can be Can come it can be harmful to those that they claim that they’re uplifting So, you know non profit advocacy, um and different organizations that are that are very money, too Uh, it can also commit different [00:44:00] kinds of harms and replicate.

[00:44:01] Uh different things that the state does And pen america is actually a really good example of that Uh, so the p the two pieces in in particular, we ha we published an op ed in mid April, uh, by Alex Treatbar and Natalie Childress, who’s addressing issues within Penn’s prison programming, especially their awards compensation.

[00:44:24] So, some incarcerated writers of Penn’s annual prison writing contest say they received their money late, but only after advocates on the outside followed up with Penn, and sometimes they didn’t receive their prize money at all. Uh, Alex shared his story first on Twitter, and then, uh, Tina Vasquez, our features reporter, reached out to him to ask if he’d be willing to put together an op ed, um, you know, sharing his experience, and, um, so he talked about winning a first prize, um, first place prize for PEN’s 2022 written writing contest, and [00:45:00] after many exchanges with PEN, he finally received his money almost two years later when he was no longer incarcerated.

[00:45:07] Upon learning about Alex’s experience, a writer and editor and the op ed co writer, Natalie Childress, tracked down the PEN Award winners between 2020 and 2023, and while most of the writers that she contacted had been paid five, said that they had not received their awards. Uh, and so it totaled 925 in missing payment.

[00:45:28] Um, We decided to use this reporting as a jumping off point for a deeper dive in a feature by our, um, staff features reporter, Tamar. Um, She takes a much deeper look into these longstanding issues with, with Penn and the prison writing programs. Um, What she found was a poor, is really poor communication from the organization regarding submissions.

[00:45:51] A lack of accountability in Penn’s prison writing mentorship program and long delayed payment for prize money that accompanied the wins. Um, and [00:46:00] to explain, like, the structure of, like, Penn, Penn as a, as a literary organization for freedom of expression and then what they do within prisons. There’s the, the prison writing awards, uh, started in the aftermath of the 1971 Attica Uprising.

[00:46:15] And then they started their prison writing contest, and it’s become one of the longest running and most highly acclaimed writing contests for incarcerated writers. An offshoot of that is Penn’s Prison and Justice Mentorship Program, which is an offthat, like, it pairs incarcerated writers with volunteer mentors on the outside who have professional writing careers.

[00:46:36] After that one, in 2022, they launched the, or kind of launched, they started to launch the Incarcerated Writers Bureau. So, they received funding from the Toe Foundation, on top of, um, funding, I think it was a couple million dollars of funding from the Mellon Foundation. Uh that paired writers on the outside with those on the inside, but with a focus on [00:47:00] more seasoned writers So the bureau participants on the outside are coaches and they work with individual incarcerated writers to brainstorm Edit longer form projects and pitch them to major outlets a major component was supposed to be an online hub To present incarcerated writers to the literary and journalism community and kind of serve as an intermediary for editors and outlets Seeking to publish their work, but the hub actually never launched, and the information on the bureau can no longer be found online.

[00:47:28] Um, so despite Penn being super funded, and when I say super funded, like millions of dollars compared to small little organizations that operate with maybe like a million dollars in budget per year, they were, the small ones can work with incarcerated, incarcerated writers to connect them, make sure that they’re getting paid, they do all the legwork to ensure that they’re getting paid.

[00:47:54] Incarcerated, incarcerated writers and reporters are getting paid, are in contact with the editors at [00:48:00] publications and ensuring that they can do their work properly. Our main question was, how is it that Penn is not capable of doing these things? Part of the piece does include their statement about, like, you know, how they’re trying.

[00:48:14] And you can go visit that in the piece. I’m not going to delineate it because their voice isn’t actually all that important here. Uh, But what I want to highlight is also the incarcerator rewriters who participated in this feature itself and what they said Um, many of them were really reticent about chasing down the funding or calling pen out because they didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship with them One reporter said, I didn’t, and I’m quoting here.

[00:48:41] I didn’t want to annoy Penn. And so I let many months pass before inquiring about the payment. I finally did, but in the most polite way possible, not wanting to jeopardize my future with the organization. We are incredibly powerless here. Every inmate, if he or she is lucky, relies on outside support group to get anything accomplished.

[00:48:59] The last thing we want [00:49:00] to do is burn bridges. And I feel like Penn might have been aware of our reticence. It’s that kind of, uh, organizational failure and passing the blame because a lot of our investigation has revealed, like, just one staffer blaming it on another staffer, blaming it on another staffer, people leaving, people coming back.

[00:49:22] It’s, it’s a mess. Um, and so if these organizations Are failing on this level to adequately represent incarcerated writers and pay them what they are owed which i’m, sorry, but a few hundred dollars goes a very long way behind prison walls and we If we’re relying on large organizations like this to to do their jobs properly and they’re failing at them, then we have to question and demand accountability of them.

[00:49:51] And that’s what our piece was, was doing. 

[00:49:53] Cayden Mak: Yeah. I think one of the things I found so shocking and surprising about it was just how glib, [00:50:00] uh, the response from them seems to be that, like, I think. you know, it is easy for us on the outside to forget like how difficult life on the inside is and like how vulnerable people really are.

[00:50:16] Um, you know, because that is the function of prison, right? Is to like make people disappear. Um, so I, I think that this kind of, this kind of reporting is so valuable because it is like meaningful solidarity with people on the inside. And 

[00:50:32] Lara Witt: this is amongst a lot of. And I’m sorry to use this word, but a lot of fuck shit from Penn around Palestine and Palestinian writers and reporters and immense, Press repression outright murder and targeting Of members of the press of journalists today is world press day uh as we’re recording this and that’s sitting top of of my mind and Uh, if a freedom of expression organization can’t [00:51:00] even do the basics of ensuring solidarity and support systems and funding and If they can’t even call on the state, on the U.

[00:51:10] S. itself, to halt this genocide, to halt the targeting of reporters, of Palestinian writers, poets, literary figures, what good is it? What’s the point of Penn if they can’t do this? 

[00:51:26] Maya Schenwar: That’s so real. And I love how you tied those threads together because I feel like it’s so incumbent about upon us as movement media that are invested in things like prison abolition to make those connections and talk about how freeing them all includes Palestine and how free Palestine is also about freeing us all.

[00:51:55] And we’ve. Simultaneously got this non profit industrial [00:52:00] complex deep organization with so much fucking money. Can you imagine if we had that money? 

[00:52:09] Cayden Mak: I, I literally cannot. Do 

[00:52:11] Maya Schenwar: this. And I think, and by the way, if anyone listening is incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, our essay contest deadline is May 15th for the Keeley Shenmara Memorial Essay Contest in honor of my sister who died while she was mired in the criminal punishment system.

[00:52:33] Um, but yeah, that deadline’s May 15th. We pay 3, 000. per essay. Our budget is a tiny, tiny little sliver of pens and we pay people on time. So 

[00:52:44] Cayden Mak: but 

[00:52:47] Maya Schenwar: at the same time, I, I, I want to say how much I really, really value this piece that Prism put out. Cause I feel like this is one [00:53:00] of those ways that incarcerated writers get tokenized and their work is used to get that money for pen.

[00:53:11] Like pen has that money because of them, because of their powerful writing. And the fact that they’re seeing in some cases, none of it and best case scenario, like 250 of it. Yeah. 

[00:53:31] Cayden Mak: Teeny tiny fraction. 

[00:53:32] Maya Schenwar: For all of us to, to really sit with. Yeah. 

[00:53:36] Lara Witt: Yeah, and I mean, there’s The fact that there are prizes out there from smaller organizations that are so much larger than what they even offer at Penn is, is really shocking.

[00:53:51] Um, and there’s, there’s the other thing, um, that I wanted to bring up was, was that, you know, all the, all these, you know, [00:54:00] All the folks who work on the outside to connect with writers on the inside, the hours that they spend coaching, but figuring out the infrastructure that allows for, um, that allows for their writing to, to make its way over to our publications is It’s not miraculous.

[00:54:16] It actually just takes a lot of willpower and empathy and An experience and prism has been really grateful to work with incarcerated writers. We started our right to write program last year Uh where we worked directly with uh incarcerated reporters and writers and um, and also via their intermediaries We’ve never had an issue paying anyone we We’ve never had any issue reaching either their proxies, or family members, or them directly.

[00:54:42] Like, there has never been a moment where that has been difficult. And we have, like, a budget of under 2 million. If PRISM can figure it out in under a year, then why hasn’t PEN been able to figure it out in its, like, in its 102 year existence, and for, for their PRISM writing programs, and through the [00:55:00] decades that they’ve had those?

[00:55:01] Cayden Mak: Yeah, yeah. No, it is, it is a profound failure when you contextualize it like that. Um, and really, I mean, I’m kind of like embarrassed for them. Like, I would be embarrassed. I don’t know. Um, it’s, but yeah, super critical reporting. Thank you so much for, for chasing this thread because I think that like, like I said, I think it can be very easy for us on the outside to forget.

[00:55:25] About this kind of stuff and that like, uh, we shouldn’t take we shouldn’t take for granted that like large and established Organizations are going to be doing what they say they’re going to be doing. Um For those of you listening, we will link to both of these stories in the show notes that you can read them Um, they’re great some good weekend reading for you.

[00:55:45] Um, Is there anything else either of you want to share about the stuff that you’ve published? I didn’t want to Move towards wrap it up here Great. Um, well, if there’s any one of the things I always ask people and I realize I didn’t prep you for this and sometimes guests [00:56:00] are cranky at me about this, but I’m curious if there’s any like media culture thing that you’d recommend for our listeners that, um, maybe you’ve been getting a lot from that has been filling your cup or, you know, really like helping you feel sort of like grounded in this time.

[00:56:26] Lara Witt: I’m giving it some thought. Um, I I want to I think I want to shout out two Two separate little blobbies of things that have kept me like floating through this time one has been our movement media alliance, which has been really essential in one recognizing that prism that I uh, i’m not alone in this moment that like We are seeing things clearly.

[00:56:52] We’re not um We are not Not witnessing it. It is, it is true. Um, and it’s been [00:57:00] really wonderful to talk to two people like you, uh, who have been instrumental in my education the last six, seven months. Um, and then there’s, there’s my, my co workers at PRISM who, you know, PRISM is, is a workplace, but it’s also my political home.

[00:57:17] Um, If I didn’t have the co workers that I have, I, I don’t, I don’t know how I would be whole. I wouldn’t be, you know, it’s, it’s a work that keeps me grounded. It’s my co workers that keep me together and semi same. Um, And, and so yeah, I think finding one, your political home and, and finding people that you can be in community with and talk to about these moments and work and build and create something that can, that one brings hope, uh, through the grief that you are experiencing is going to be essential.

[00:57:49] Um, grief is just an expression of love. It’s just our deepest love. And, you know, we can turn it into something different. 

[00:57:58] Cayden Mak: Yeah. Maya? [00:58:00] 

[00:58:01] Maya Schenwar: Yeah, absolutely. I love that, Lara. And I, I feel similarly that you all are one of the things giving me a lot of hope that our media organizations are coming together to build movement together, which I think bodes well.

[00:58:24] For the future among many things, voting badly and also has generated a lot of laughs, which is important. I always follow the words of Mariam Kaba, who, when she was in Chicago, would force us to celebrate when there was a victory. And sometimes when there wasn’t. You have to get out for dinner. You have to, you know, you have to.

[00:58:50] Recognize, take time, celebrate, and build community with each other. So yay, Movement Media Alliance. And [00:59:00] also, I, I was gonna mention in terms of, like, political homes and also sites for media, um, That where media production and community is happening, that Haymarket Books recently established this Haymarket House in Chicago.

[00:59:21] And it’s actually where we all met when we got together in November as media organizations. But also, it’s become a community hub, like a place where people can gather. And it This week, there’s going to be a May Day celebration, but consistently, it’s become a place where people can can gather not only for media related work, although that’s definitely happening, but also for movement work, so it’s bringing those two threads together and seeing a physical [01:00:00] location where that is happening is giving me so much joy.

[01:00:04] And I think showing how Not only are movements and journalism intertwined, like they’re better together. They’re, they’re building each other and supporting each other. And I think, I think, yeah, I think that’s maybe been an overall theme of our time here together today, which is also. Also hopeful. 

[01:00:32] Cayden Mak: I mean, it absolutely is and I, you know, I, I absolutely agree with you that I feel like this is, I don’t know, it, it feels like something special is happening.

[01:00:41] Um, and that’s part of like what I enjoy about doing this show too, is that I do feel like something special is happening. Um, thank you both again for joining us this week. Um, Maya, where can people find, uh, you, your publishing? 

[01:00:56] Maya Schenwar: Yeah. So everybody should visit truthout. [01:01:00] org. That’s where I’m at. And also you can Visit my Shenard dot com, which I should update my latest stuff, uh, but that also exists in the world.

[01:01:15] And I’ll also, since we’re talking about how being journalist doesn’t exclude your organizing, I would also encourage people to check out love and protect, which is the collective I organized was here in Chicago. 

[01:01:30] Cayden Mak: Amazing. And Laura, where can people find you and your publishing? 

[01:01:34] Lara Witt: Uh, you can find. me at prismreports.

[01:01:37] org I no longer have a personal website. I no longer have a Twitter for health reasons.

[01:01:46] I only want to be perceived sometimes. Um, you can find me on Instagram at, uh, Femme Feministe, and you can also find our work, uh, via Media Against Apartheid and Displacement [01:02:00] on Instagram. So I think the handle is Media Against Apartheid. Um, yeah, do that a lot. 

[01:02:05] Cayden Mak: Amazing. All of these links will be in the show notes for folks who want to keep up with Truthout and Prism.

[01:02:12] This show is produced by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. I’m Caden Mock, our producer is Josh Elstro. We made the episode this week with some editorial support from Salma Mirza. Uh, and if you have something to say and share with us, please do drop me a line. You can send me an email that we’ll consider running on an upcoming Mailbag episode to mailbag at convergencemag.

[01:02:33] com. If you’d like to support the work that we do at Convergence, bringing our movements together to strategize, struggle, and win this critical moment, you can become a member at patreon. com slash convergence mag. Even a few bucks a month goes a long way to making sure that our independent small team can continue to build a map for our movements, and it also gives you access to the live recording session for this show every Friday.

[01:02:56] I hope this helps.

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