Si Kahn on the Struggle in Memphis and the National Conference on Media Reform

[Editor's Note: Why I came to the National Conference on Media Reform: It's in Memphis, and Grassroots Leadership, the organization that I work with, which works to abolish all for-profit private prisons and detention centers, has a major campaign and organizing office here. So I came to help our Memphis staff get the word out to the international media about what's really happening in Memphis.

I think there are both strengths and weaknesses. This is the first time I've been at the conference. Many of the plenaries I found inspirational; to hear a socialist US senator deliver such a profound and compelling message is quite extraordinary. The opportunity—for me, a conference is more about the connections with people individually, more about the conservations than about the workshops and presentations. In a gathering like this, I come away with 20, 30, 40 very useful new connections.

The weakness, for me, is that this is a national political conference being held in a southern city, to which it did not connect in a real sense. For me, as someone who started his organizing career 70 miles west of here, in Arkansas with SNCC, and who has spent 40 years with southern issues, movements, and organizations, I badly missed southern voices. So I feel that the truly extraordinary and wonderful activists who came here, with few exceptions, didn't have an opportunity to encounter what's happening in Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee, in the south. My suggestion to all organizations who are coming to any region of the country—if the theme is tell the story, you have to hear the story. The story of southern struggle today was not available in a programmatic way.

I am very happy that the conference encouraged people to see the National Civil Rights Museum, which is an overwhelmingly powerful experience, a critical and moving story. But it is a story that is 40 years old. The story of what is happening—there is no room here to tell the story of what happened to the union local that Dr. King was marching with when he was assassinated, ASCME 1733, which is today under assault by Corrections Corporation of America, the world's largest for-profit private prison corporation. That's just one of any stories of local state, regional struggle, that I think would have enriched the proceedings.

But I think the work Free Press is engaged in is absolutely critical. Their analysis of the corporatization of media is accurate and chilling and shared by many. The ability of a third and only a third conference to mobilize 3500 activists from around the country is a stunning achievement. And it does reinforce this movement, which does make all other kinds of activism deeper and more effective. So I am extraordinarily appreciative of the work that they've done.

Biggest take-away: I was reinspired by our media, the independent media. I want to take media way from corporate hands. When we do that, then into whose hands does that go? And you do not create that in that moment. The creation of a parallel media structure has been going on for a very long time, and I saw it here in all of its richness and fullness, and that's inspiring.

What Bill Moyers said about newspaper can also be said about books. It's a permanent form of media. Not that you can't go back and listen to an archived radio show, or scroll back to a blog a year ago. But you are much less likely to do that than to be reminded to go to the bookshelf. Books maintain their extraordinary power and should be seen in that way.


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