By Susan Mernit
Oakland’s Preservation Hall was packed with activists and engaged citizens from throughout the region when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler came to town to take part in a town hall focused on showcasing local media advocacy projects and underscoring the right to an open and affordable Internet and phone system.
Organized by the Free Press, the Center for Media Justice and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, along with the Voices for Internet Freedom Coalition, the free event drew roughly 200 people to an evening that had more than the usual share of passionate stump speeches — and that saw the FCC Chairman (on the job for just two months) respond with energy and support to some of the problems presented by speakers.
“Too often, the media and telecommunication policy debates are dominated by corporate lobbyists,” said Chancellor Williams, associate policy director of Free Press, as he kicked off the event. “The most important thing for us is to really put a focus on the community and make your voices heard.”
After a poetry reading by Oakland youth poet laureate Obasi Davis, that’s pretty much what transpired. Center for Media Justice Executive Director Malkia Cyril spoke first, exhorting the crowd to remember that tech/media access was the way we all stayed connected and that an “affordable, accessible media” that would “shine a light” was not only essential, but tied to our right to have good jobs.
Cyril’s speech was followed by eloquent speeches by Rashad Robinson from Color of Change and Jessica Gonzalez from The National Hispanic Media Coalition. Gonzalez focused on issues with the Lifeline program in California, while Robinson emphasized the importance of the web as a tool to organize for social justice, but both speeches shared some common subtexts: Oakland is a city where many people are poor, black and brown, and we need digital inclusion and equity supported by the FCC to have a fair and just society.
A series of invited speakers, including Christina Mansfield, CIVIC, Mark Toney, TURN, and Stephanie Chen, Greenlining, presented Wheeler with their platforms. Themes included the value of increasing FCC support and subsidies for the Lifeline program, the need to have a telephone transition and not move people off land lines in favor of cell phones, and issues about prison access and pricing. After the invited panelists spoke, the town hall heard the 20+ attendees who had each signed up to speak for 90 seconds. Kicked off by National Association of Black Journalists’ President Bob Butler, the speakers lobbied for their views and emphasized where they hoped Wheeler would focus the FCC.
Among the 20+ speakers who presented, one of the most moving was Karen Gonzales, who had traveled north from Pacifica, CA to make a statement about her 20-year-old son, who she said had been sentenced to 20 years in jail, and the 3,000-plus dollars she and her family have had to spend on prison telecom surcharges to speak with him. ”[In 3 years], to date we’ve paid over $3,900 dollars toward Global Tel Link surcharges and long distance charges in order to remain in contact with our son. He has 16 years more to go [in prison] which will average out to $20,800 in phone bill charges we are expected to pay in order to remain in contact with him,” she told the crowd.
After the presentations, Wheeler spoke. “This is a listening exercise for me,” he said, promising to carefully consider everything he’d heard before going into a discourse on the evils of prison phone systems and saying the FCC will continue to fight exorbitant prison phone rates.
Going further, Wheeler suggested that his decision to ease cross-ownership of media was just a start. “One of the first things we did is to do away with the proposed rule change that eased the cross-ownership restriction so that companies could merge more,” he told the crowd.
Social media chatter from participants and those watching the live stream suggested a high degree of satisfaction with the event. “It was totally worth it to let my dinner go cold to listen to #OaklandVoices #mediajustice tweeted #coldgreenchilestew,” tweeted Alanna Offield (@alannaoffield), who watched the livestream.
“Watching this #oaklandvoices townhall was like watching the hall of fame of media justice #badassery. Brilliant minds giving Wheeler the T!” tweeted Vanessa Maria (@radpolitics), another remote viewer.