Amy Goodman: Taking Back Independent Media to Fight Climate Change
Amy Goodman, host and Executive Producer of Democracy Now!, has won countless prestigious awards, including an I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence Lifetime Achievement Award and the Right Livelihood Award (the first journalist to receive that major honor). She has co-authored six bestsellers, including, most recently Democracy Now!: Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America (Bioneers recently published an excerpt from the book).
We at Bioneers were pleased to host Amy Goodman, once again, at the 2017 conference. What follows is a video and transcript of her keynote about the importance of truth in media, climate change, and why independent media is essential for a democratic society.
I want to go back to the beginning of September. The beginning of September when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, inundated the petro metro, the heart of the fossil fuel industry in this country, and millions of people who live there, a number of them along the fenceline communities, people like Bryan Parras of t.e.j.a.s. took Democracy Now! on that Labor Day weekend on a toxic tour of those communities.
They don’t call them frontline communities but fenceline, living on the fenceline of—well, for example, in Baytown, ExxonMobil refinery, the second largest refinery in this country, the Latino community that lives along the fence. When the companies shut down and the company reopens, the most dangerous times for people living there because of the toxins that are released. Who knows what was released. Companies taking advantage of these chaotic, catastrophic moments.
So Hurricane Harvey had made landfall, inundated a major American city, and hurricane Irma was decimating the Caribbean, moving in for landfall in the United States. In between these two moments on September 6, 2017, President Trump took a stand.
In Mandan, North Dakota, in front of an oil refinery there, boasting that he had pulled the United States out of the US Paris Climate Accord, the UN Climate Accord, and further boasting that he had green-lighted the Keystone XL pipeline, killed years before by activists all over this country and Canada and Latin America, deeply concerned about a sustainable world and building that. And he said he green-lighted the Dakota Access Pipeline. That was his statement on September 6th in between these two hurricanes, in Mandan, North Dakota, just down the road from the Mandan jail where so many hundreds of Native Americans had been jailed for sending out smoke signals to all of us about the danger of reliance on these pipelines crisscrossing this country as they protested the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I want to go back more than one year ago to this remarkable, historic gathering that took place in North Dakota—the standoff at Standing Rock, April 1st, 2016, the unofficial historian of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. She opens up her property along the Cannonball River to the resistance. The resistance? To the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline that would—Well, they call it the black snake, snake its way from North Dakota through South Dakota, taking fracked oil from the Bakken oil fields from North Dakota to South Dakota, through Iowa, Illinois, then hook up with a pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. And the Standing Rock Sioux said no.
I mean, they weren’t alone. The people of Bismarck and the capital had said no, and their wishes were respected. The people of Mandan, where the jail and the courthouse is, had said no. Their wishes were respected. But the Standing Rock Sioux were not so lucky. And so they took their stand.
When that first resistance camp, called Sacred Stone Camp, was opened, scores of people came. Then hundreds of people. Then thousands of people. Soon more and more resistance camps were set up, like the Red Warrior Camp, and it became the largest unification of Native American tribes in decades in our country. Native Americans from Latin America, from the United States, the First Nations of Canada, gathering to fight for all of us, deeply disturbed that the pipeline would go under the Missouri River, the longest river in North America, and endanger the clean water of 17 million people downstream.
The people did not call themselves protesters. They called themselves water protectors.
Now let’s talk this period—April 2016, May, June, July. This is the presidential election year. This is the time when the critical issues of the day are discussed and debated in town halls, on television, everywhere. We went to North Dakota Labor Day weekend of 2016, a year before President Trump stood in front of the Mandan oil refinery. Now, we were even late to it. We were covering it before, but from afar. And we went to cover these remarkable gatherings. The protests there were astounding.
You had people gathered on these rural back roads. They’d start with a water ceremony, holding glasses of water, and they would, you know, Native American women elders and children, they would be met by a fully militarized sheriff’s department. The back roads of North Dakota. They had MRAPs, they had tanks, they had missile launchers, they had automatic weapons. It was truly astounding.
I mean, you have come to be familiar with these scenes. Right? Remember Ferguson. The horror of Ferguson. August 9th, 2014, a young African American man, Michael Brown, is gunned down by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, and his corpse is left to bake in the hot August sun hour after hour after hour. The people rise up in the community, and this uprising is met by fully militarized police departments from all through the greater St. Louis area.
This is recycling in America today? You take the weapons from Afghanistan and Iraq, and you give them to the police departments of the United States? I mean, there are a number of even top police officials who are raising deep concern about what we are doing to—what the police departments of our country are becoming.
So let’s go back to that scene in North Dakota.
People walking through the streets, demanding a sustainable economy. Sometimes they would say—and we would be recording all of this—to the police that were facing off with them, “You’re protecting the Dakota Access Pipeline, but what about us, your neighbors?”
On September 3rd, 2016, Saturday of Labor Day weekend, we went to cover Native Americans about to plant their tribal flags, an area they called their sacred burial ground. And this was a disputed area. A judge was going to rule the next week on the tribe, and he said if you say this is your sacred ground, prove it, make a map. And they did. And they gave it to the judge and he gave it to Energy Transfer Partners which owns the Dakota Access Pipeline, as judges do.
And when the people walked up on this property, they thought that the Dakota Access Pipeline—it was a holiday weekend—that it wouldn’t be being built that weekend, but they saw the bulldozers operating at full tilt, to their horror, excavating the very land they had designated on the map. And they wondered—I mean, that’s not where the bulldozers were before. Did they use the map that the Standing Rock Sioux had made for the judge, leapfrog from where they were to actually change the facts on the ground before the judge rules, making it a moot point? They were furious. And they went up in front of the bulldozers. And it is a terrifying and unbelievably brave act to do. Older Native women, girls, boys, teenagers, standing in front of these massive machines that are churning the earth.
As we were filming, I was thinking about March 16th, 2003, three days before the U.S. invaded Iraq, another part of the Middle East, Gaza, and a young American woman from Evergreen College in Washington. Her name was Rachel Corrie. She had gone to Gaza as part of the international solidarity movement. And she had befriended a Palestinian pharmacist’s family. And Israeli military bulldozers were about to demolish his home. And she and other activists stood in front of it. They donned those orange construction vests, the fluorescent ones, and they stood in front of the bulldozers made by Caterpillar here in the United States, and Rachel was crushed to death.
Back to North Dakota.
The women and the girls standing in front of these bulldozers. Unbelievable bravery, but this time they prevailed. The bulldozers started to pull back. One, two, three, four, five, six of them, pulling back. And more and more people came from the resistance camps as they heard what was happening, and people were moving up on the land. And that was when the Dakota Access Pipeline guards unleashed the attack dogs on the Native Americans.
We were filming this. We filmed a dog with its mouth and nose dripping with blood. They were biting the Native Americans’ horses, they were biting the Native Americans. We were interviewing people who were just bitten. The people were maced, they were beaten, they were bitten, but they prevailed, and the guards moved back into their pickup trucks, cars. The bulldozers pulled back, at an unbelievably high price, but they won that day.
We posted this video online that night, and within 24-48 hours there were oh, something like 14 million views. 14 million!
Now, I want to go back to the fact that this is the presidential election year. Why wasn’t the media raising the questions about climate change, let alone the standoff at Standing Rock? Just last week I was on a panel that was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS Evening News. He just recently retired. And I raised this question with him. You know, in the general presidential debates, there was not one question asked about climate change. Not one. Bob Schieffer said, “We were wrong. We should have raised the question of climate change.” Now the corporate executives, you know, on these networks, they’re looking for eyeballs and they say, climate change, the eyeballs go away. People aren’t interested. This gives the lie to that—14 million views. Any corporate network executive would have drooled for that kind of response. Okay.
We go back to New York and we’re continuing to cover it from New York. The judge is going to rule on Friday. On Thursday, the governor of North Dakota calls out the National Guard. It doesn’t look good for the tribe. Oh, and the authorities also quietly issued an arrest warrant for me. I didn’t know that at the time, so on Friday we do our show, and we head off to Toronto, to Canada. I wasn’t fleeing. We were invited to speak at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The judge ruled that night a routing of the tribe, a terrible decision of the tribe. And then 15 minutes later something unprecedented happened.
President Obama had been in Asia that week and his final stop was Laos, the first sitting president to go to Laos, and he held a democracy forum to teach young people around Asia about democracy. And young people came from all over Asia. Last question, a young woman from Malaysia raised her hand and said, “President Obama, what about the Dakota Access Pipeline?” She asked the question of the president that no journalist dared to ask him, and he held forth on the oppression of Native Americans over centuries, held forth eloquently, but when it came to the Dakota Access Pipeline he said, I have to get back to you on that; I have to consult my team.
He came back to Washington and he reportedly consulted his team, and he reportedly saw the video of the dogs, and it wasn’t lost on the first African-American president of this country. There’s significance. And, you know, on the day of the dogs, we interviewed Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota, and she said, addressing the governor of North Dakota, “You are not George Wallace. This is not Alabama. This is not 1965. We are through.”
So the judge rules for Obama’s justice department against the tribe, but then 15 minutes later—I mean, the tribe was now suffering from whiplash—a three-agency letter is issued, unprecedented, from Justice, the ones who beat the tribe, Army Corps of Engineers and Interior saying they’re going to pull back; they’re going to evaluate: Was an environmental impact statement done? Were the Native Americans consulted? Terrible decision, then amazing moment, and the tribe doesn’t know what hit them, but they know they have made this moment happen.
So, we’re in Canada, right. We’re at the Toronto International Film Festival to speak after a film that was made about IF Stone, the great muckraking journalist, who said to young journalists and students, “If you can remember two words, remember governments lie. If you can remember three words,” he said, “remember all governments lie.” And that’s the name of the film. And they also, in addition to talking about his life, talk about the journalistic organizations that are following in this muckraker’s footsteps, Isi Stone. And so, Matt Taibbi was there with Rolling Stone, and Nermeen Shaikh and I were there from Democracy Now! And I felt it was important to be there to talk about what we just witnessed in North Dakota, because people in Canada care about First Nations.
And the next day we’re at the University of Toronto. Hundreds of people are there to speak. And as I’m giving my speech, I get a text on my phone, and it says you’re under arrest. Actually it said something like—It said like there’s an arrest warrant for you. And I didn’t know. Is this some kind of scam? Did someone send this to me from the audience? But I’m thinking fast and I’m speaking in a very different way, and I’m trying to think: I should not say this right now, out loud, because if it’s true, I’m not going to get arrested on the stage, but if I have interaction with police, FBI, or border guards, if the arrest warrant is in the system, I will be taken, and I was in Canada and I had to get over the border. So I just simply said, Could someone call me a cab?
I raced to the airport and I actually made it back into the United States. And when I got back to New York, you know, I didn’t take this arrest warrant personally. I felt it was a message to all journalists: Do not come to North Dakota, which is exactly why we all had to be there.
And also so critical for young journalists to know. You know, they don’t have the institutional backing or the resources but they want to cover this historic gathering of Native Americans, they should know they don’t have to wind up in jail. You should not have to get a record when you put things on the record.
Now, we went back a year ago this week in October of 2016, and as we landed in Bismarck, North Dakota, the prosecutors announced they were dropping the charges against me, quashing the arrest warrant, which was a good thing. But they announced they would bring more serious charges against me, charges of riot. Riot? Like I’m a one-woman riot?
I called my North Dakota lawyer, not that I had one before, and I said, I don’t understand, what does this mean? And he said—I mean, I said, What do I face?
And he said, I mean the worst scenario, he says, a year in jail. I said, a year in jail?
I said, How much time do I have? And he said, Well, you’ll be arraigned Monday at 1:30 in the afternoon.
And I said, Is this a done deal? Absolutely, the judge signs off and this rubber stamps over the weekend, and then you’ll be arraigned. I said, Judge? When I hear the word judge, I hear the word discretion. And he said, No, no, no. It doesn’t work like that. Rubber stamp on these charges but then they use their discretion after. I said, Well, what’s the name of the judge?
And that weekend we put a press release out. We named the judge, and we said, you know, he would be making a decision by Monday whether I would be arraigned. And we continued to cover. He said, two and a half days before the arraignment, we could then continue to cover the protests that weekend. And on Monday morning, well, the show must go on. Democracy Now! airs 8 in the morning Eastern Standard Time in New York, and so that would be 7 in the morning North Dakota time. And so my colleague, Dennis Moynihan, got a satellite truck up from Minnesota, and we broadcast in front of the Mandan courthouse and jail, where I would have to turn myself in. That was our backdrop. The courthouse, the jail, and the 10 Commandments in between.
So we interviewed the chair of the Standing Rock Sioux at the time—Dave Archambault, the 45th chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux. I said to him, Have you ever been arrested? Yes. He had been arrested for civil disobedience, a low-level misdemeanor. I said, What happened to you? He said, I was stripped searched, I was put in an orange jumpsuit, I was jailed.
Interviewed Dr. Sara Jumping Eagle, the pediatrician of the tribe. Of course she was one of the first to be arrested concerned about the health of the kids. I said, What happened to you? Low-level misdemeanor, strip searched, put in an orange jumpsuit and jailed. How much humiliation can a people take?
And so, we did the show, and now so much of the media was paying attention in the way they hadn’t before. The New York Times was covering this, the Los Angeles Times. It was on the BBC International home page. Al Jazeera was covering this. Vogue magazine was covering this protest.
Now, hundreds of Native Americans had come to express solidarity, and right before the 1:30 arraignment, we got word that the judge would not sign off on the charges. In addition to that for me, that Native Americans who were facing felony and misdemeanor charges that day, a number of them had their charges dropped.
This is what happens when the media shines a spotlight in the right direction. This is the kind of reality TV that we must all support.
Now, I only have a couple of minutes before my time is up, but I want to talk about this issue of climate change. You know that the media has become fiercely critical of the president. I’m not talking about FOX, but MSNBC and CNN. And if you take encouragement from that—I mean, I really do feel it’s because he’s directly attacking them. You know, failing New York Times, fake news CNN. And so they’re defending themselves. But don’t feel that encouraged. I mean, they should be defending themselves. They sound sometimes like Democracy Now!, right? The media is essential to the functioning of a Democratic society.
But when you look at the coverage of these climate catastrophes, from Hurricane Harvey to Irma to Maria that has devastated Puerto Rico, and the thought that President Trump, in the midst of their catastrophe, goes after the Puerto Rican Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who you came to know in the media as the woman who’s standing in chest-high water with a bullhorn trying to save and evacuate people, trying to save their lives. He goes after her and says, Puerto Ricans want other people to do things for them, calling these officials lazy. He eventually goes to Puerto Rico and he starts hurling rolls of paper towels at the hurricane survivors.
Yes, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has called President Trump the Hater-in-Chief. And when he just made this remarkable statement in a tweet: We cannot keep FEMA, the military, and the first responders in PR forever. She responded: Trump is threatening to condemn us to a slow death of non-drinkable water, lack of food, lack of medicine. The mayor appealed to the United Nations, UNICEF, the world to “stand with the people of Puerto Rico, stop the genocide that will result from the lack of appropriate action of a president that just does not get it because he’s been incapable of looking in our eyes and seeing the pride that burns fiercely in our hearts and our souls.”
The people of Puerto Rico—One month ago, Maria made landfall. More than 80 percent of them don’t have electricity from the grid, a third of them don’t have drinkable water. This is a climate catastrophe. President Trump has promised a fortune to Florida and Texas. Both states voted for him. The people of Puerto Rico can’t vote for the President of the United States, and he hasn’t come to Northern California where the fires have raged. Maybe is it because the people of Northern California did not vote for him either?
But it is absolutely critical that the media express the truth about what connects seemingly disparate climate events from the floods, the hurricanes, to these fierce, uncontrollable wildfires in the north of California. We need a media that makes those connections, meteorologists that do their jobs.
There’s 24 hours a day of coverage of the hurricanes, except for when it comes to Puerto Rico. But they almost never—I’m not talking FOX, I’m talking MSNBC and CNN—they flash the words severe weather, extreme weather, what about another two words? Global warming and climate change and climate chaos so that you know there is something you can do something about.
So that is the issue of climate change. And as Robert Jay Lifton, the great psychiatrist, talks about the twin—the twin apocalypses—climate change and nuclear war.
We have a president that just asked his generals on July 20th, If we have nuclear weapons why don’t we use them? Something like three times in an hour. NBC reported it was then that Rex Tillerson, the former head of ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the world, now our secretary of state, it was then that he called him an f’ing moron. Now we don’t know if that’s true. NBC reported it, but what we do know is that Rex Tillerson has now been asked repeatedly about it and he will not confirm or deny.
But, why is this so terribly serious, as he imperils the Iran nuclear deal and goes after North Korea? Why is this so terrible, escalating these threats? Because—and this is where I don’t understand what Trump is doing…If he just stopped attacking the media for a week—I don’t even want to say this publicly, but I really do believe this—they would wrap themselves around him. Why? Because the establishment media tends to embrace the establishment. We still see it on climate change. And if, you know, you have to ask in this case, if we had state media, how would they do it any differently? And that comes to war as well.
And the proof of it is a few weeks into President Trump’s presidency, when he bombed the Syrian airfield with, what was it, 59 tomahawk cruise missiles, I came home, I turn on MSNBC. Brian Williams, the host, is saying, “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.” And he said, “And they’re beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield.”
The next day Fareed Zakaria on CNN talked about Donald Trump becoming president that night. And then Trump drops the largest non-nuclear bomb in the history of the world on Afghanistan, inexplicably. And the same is said—the Moab, what the Pentagon calls the mother of all bombs.
What could he do next? Actually though he occupies the most powerful position on Earth, there is a force more powerful, and it is all of you. Everywhere from this room all over this country, united with people around the world. And I just want to end with this.
You know, I come from Pacifica Radio. All of our beloved KPFA in Berkeley. I want to give a shout out to Robin Pressman, who used to run, the program director at KRCB, whose home was burned to the ground in Santa Rosa, and to all those who have suffered. I know this place was a place of hundreds of evacuees just a few days ago.
But I want to just end with this thought. Pacifica, five stations, KPFT in Houston, was blown up twice by the Ku Klux Klan, only station in the country. I can’t remember if it was the grand dragon or the exalted cyclops, I often confuse their titles. But he said it was his proudest act because he understood how dangerous independent media can be. Dangerous because it allows people to speak for themselves.
And whether it’s a Palestinian child or an Israeli grandmother, a Native elder from Standing Rock Sioux, or an uncle in Afghanistan, or Somalia or Niger, when you hear someone speaking from their own experience, it breaks down the barriers, the caricatures, the stereotypes that fuel the hate groups. I’m not saying you’ll agree with what you hear. How often do we even agree with our family members? But you begin to understand where they’re coming from. It makes it much less likely that you will want to destroy someone.
I think that understanding is the beginning of peace. I think the media can be the greatest force for peace on Earth. Instead all too often it’s wielded as a weapon of war, which is why we have to take the media back.
As I just told you the story in 1970 of the klan attacking KPFT. How is it possible—that was decades ago—that we’re talking about the Ku Klux Klan today? How is it possible the Charlottesville violent rally that ended in the death of a beautiful young woman, Heather Heyer, who on her Facebook page said, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” And President Trump talks about the very fine people among the klan and the white supremacists and the self-proclaimed fascists. And then when there’s a second rally doesn’t say a word about them, goes after the black athletes who are taking a knee. Who, as Reverend Barbara said it, reminds her of Dr. Martin Luther King in that form of prayer, showing the highest form of patriotism. Dissent is what will make this country great.
I just want to end, as we talk about the Nazis back in that time with a brother and sister in Nazi Germany who were not Jewish. They were German Christians but they thought, What can we do in the face of the Nazi atrocity? Hans and Sophie Scholl. He was a medical student at the University of Munich. She was an undergrad. And together with their professor, Kurt Huber, and other students and workers, they formed the White Rose Collective, and they thought, What can we do in the face of the Nazi atrocity? Put out pamphlets so the Germans will never be able to say we didn’t know. And on one of those pamphlets were written the words: We will not be silent. Those pamphlets they distributed everywhere under cover of night in alleyways, in school yards, in marketplaces, and then they were captured by the Nazis, by the Gestapo. They were charged, they were tried, they were convicted, and they were beheaded.
But that philosophy, that motto, should be the Hippocratic oath of the media today, should be the Hippocratic oath of us all today. We will not be silent. Democracy Now!