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Saturday, Jun 18, 2011, 7:59 am

Netroots Nation: Obama Shills & Breitbart vs. People Who’re Actually Making A Difference

By Joe Macaré
Daily Kos blogger Kaili Joy Gray grills White House Communications Director Dan Pheiffer at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis

MINNEAPOLIS - Between trying to decide which riveting panels to attend (and then somehow live-tweeting as much of them as possible), meeting and talking with great people in the world of progressive media and advocacy, and running a dizzying gauntlet of afterparties, it’s hard to find time to gather one’s thoughts on Netroots Nation 2011. But here are some highlights:

The very first panel I attended was on a subject dear to In These Times' heart: 'Stop! Wage Thief! How Workers are Getting the Money They're Owed.' Panelists included Adam Kader of Arise Chicago and Anne Thompson from the National Employment Law Project. Carrie Gleason of the Retail Action Project aired a video of retail workers telling their stories, which confirmed something many of us have long suspected: there are certain employers who, if they can get away with it, will literally work their employees to death. Veronica Mendez of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL; Center of Workers United in Struggle) spoke about the Cub Foods grocery store hunger strike that took place here in Minneapolis - as a result of which Cub Foods are now targeted CTUL individuals with legal action. Mendez also pointed out that when it comes to the minimum wage: "It's not enough to enforce the law. $7.25 is not enough." Finally, Tim Tharp from Writers' Guild of America East spoke about how ITV Studios and other British TV companies are responsible for some of the most egregious labor practices in American television: essentially, these British studios are outsourcing labor to a low-wage nation (the US) and then subjecting workers to unpaid overtime, etc. (Having grown up with the choice of only four TV channels, I can tell you that in the UK, ITV mainly mistreats viewers.)

I was lucky to have lunch with the Truthout and Yes! Magazine crews and the hilarious Lizz Winstead, who told at least one story regarding which all at the table were sworn to secrecy, but who was happy to go on the record when she declared “I believe Mike Elk is the real Matt Taibbi.” Not that I want to cast any aspertions on the Rolling Stone writer’s authenticity – any rumors that he is in fact a Middle Eastern lesbian woman masquerading as a straight white North American man are not endorsed by In These Times.

Possibly my favorite panel so far was Thursday's War on Contraception panel run by three fierce advocates for women's health rights: Sarah Audelo from Advocates for Youth, Pandagon's Amanda Marcotte and Kaili Joy Gray of Daily Kos. Our own Lindsay Beyerstein was quoted by Marcotte as saying "The right is intersectional, we can't afford not to be intersectional in response." Gray, otherwise known as Angry Mouse, gave a scathing, bitterly funny sarcastic denunciation of the “Big Tent” Democratic Party, in which “You women need to put aside your little pet issues like whether you get to live or die if you get pregnant.” Anyone taken aback by the grilling she gave White House Communications Director Dan Pheiffer Friday morning (especially on the issue of the war on women) was obviously not at this panel, or they’d have known what to expect – although I’ve also talked to those who believe that Pheiffer could have been given an even tougher time. Progressive anger (or disappointment, disgruntlement, call it what you will) with Obama is an extremely obvious theme of the conference, and some attendees are in turn disappointed about the extent to which that seems to be the dominant narrative. But it's hard to see how it could be otherwise: any rallying the troops for 2012 has to rely on reiterating how crazy the Republicans are, not boasting about President Obama's policy record, because Obama's record is not particularly defensible to this audience.

The other big narrative that some wish would die down involves one of those crazy people on the right: Andrew Breitbart. While I can’t help but share the dismay some attendees feel about Breitbart becoming the story at #NN11, I have to appreciate the fact that he seems to have agreed to debate Mike Elk on the issue of public sector employees. That may be why he tried to crash the conference yesterday – and photo that accompanies this report perhaps suggests the best response to the man: as Breitbart fumes is anger, Elk in the background can only laugh.

No laughing matter, however, is the extent to which the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates for corporate money to completely swap the American democratic process, as highlighted at a panel about Citizens United organized by Jay Harris and the We The People Project. This topic had John Nichols in even more fiery form than usual: anyone who’s seen him speak will know what that means, he is, in the words of Granville Williams of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, “a stump orator." Leo Gerard’s speech as part of the same star-studded panel was another highlight. Gerard gets to the heart of things. He combines unflinching honesty – “Don’t believe all that bullshit our communications department wrote about growing the labor movement, we only survived and grew because we merged,” he advised Jay Harris referring to the intro he’d been given – with an inspiring resolve. He concluded by welcoming the class war and affirming “we’re going to kick their ass.” Now that’s the kind of labor leader I can get behind.

Joe Macaré is a writer, editor and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. His writing has appeared at In These Times, TruthOut, AlterNet, Dazed and Confused, The Times, Plan B and Stylus. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss his extensive coverage of the Occupy Chicago movement.

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