Tuesday, August 04, 2009

It's Orwellian, almost: the Courier-Life's Witt salutes a heckler's veto and wrongly claims DDDB sought ministers' "protection"

The Courier-Life's notorious Stephen Witt this week offers not just an undiscerning round-up article on the first day of the Atlantic Yards hearing.

He also pens an "Orwellian, almost" sidebar in which he gives pro-project hecklers an implicit endorsement and wrongly states that Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn asked a couple of black ministers for "protection." (A new reporter--or intern?--also shares the byline.)

The round-up

The round-up article is headlined online as Atlantic Yards meeting brings out supporters and opponents. In print the main headline is "From out of the woodwork," which implies that those supporters and opponents have been laying low. Not exactly.

He writes:
The $4 billion, 22-acre project starting at the Atlantic/Flatbush Avenues intersection proposed by developer Forest City Ratner (FCR) includes an arena to house the NBA’s Nets franchise and at least one mixed-income residential building in the first phase.

Actually, it's a $4.9 billion project now.

But give Witt credit for acknowledging that the initial phase could have just one tower. But he didn't connect the dots: all the people anticipating housing won't get their wish if only one tower is built.

Supporters outnumber opponents

Witt writes:
Once again, as has been the case in almost every hearing regarding the project since it was announced in 2003,supporters of the project far outnumbered opponents...

There's another way of putting it: representatives of groups that gain financial benefit (direct or indirect) from Forest City Ratner or expect work on the project far outnumbered opponents.

We know Witt disdains Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. But he didn't see fit to mention that five elected officials, under the banner of BrooklynSpeaks, asked for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). That's simply journalistic negligence.

Note that the caption states: Outnumbered opponents of the Atlantic Yards project were on hand at an Empire State Development Corporation hearing on the issue.

In print, the caption is attached to a photo of opponents. On the web--see screenshot at left--that caption is attached to a photo of proponents. That's not atypical Courier-Life quality control. (Click on graphics to enlarge)

Supporters

Community activist Albert C. Wiltshire also supported the project. “Atlantic Yards represents enormous job growth for the 10th district,” said Wiltshire. “We cannot let this opportunity pass us by.”

Wiltshire isn't just a community activist. He's chief of staff to Rep. Ed Towns--hence the mention of the 10th District. And Towns has received campaign contributions from people connected to Forest City Ratner.

“We are not asking for a handout, we’re just asking for an opportunity,” said Kareiff McDuffy, a neighborhood resident.

Actually, McDuffie (note spelling) also offered a veiled threat: "You want a better community--you have to give these kids a reason to kids to get off the street. I can’t tell that brother to stop robbing, I can’t tell that brother to stop selling drugs.”

“There is simply not enough housing in Brooklyn and we need more affordable housing,” said [Laurie] Waldron. “We want housing and we want jobs. It’s simply a no-brainer.”

Is it a no-brainer if only one tower gets built? And isn't ACORN a bit suspect, given that they're in hock to Forest City Ratner? Also, while "Laurie Waldron" is described as a "former ACORN member," I suspect the person quoted was actually Gloria Waldron, a former ACORN president. (Why would a former member testify on behalf of an organization she'd left?)

Even Mill Basin Assemblymember Alan Maisel came out to show his support of the development project.

Even Maisel? The news is not that Maisel came out, it's that the elected officials who showed up have gained financial support from the developer and have longtime ties to FCR VP Bruce Bender.

Opponents

Witt writes:
On the opponent side, Raul Rothblatt from the block association representing Prospect Heights and Underhill claimed that there was no account of the number of subsidies that will create jobs.

“The ESDC will not answer our questions,” declared Rothblatt.


Well, is that an unfounded claim or not?

Many complaints stemmed from how the ESDC is allegedly withholding the development plans. One speaker called for the full release of project documentation by the ESDC.

One speaker? Many speakers said the information was inadequate. That's what the five elected officials said, in tandem with BrooklynSpeaks.

Ginning up a conflict

As for the sidebar, the headline on the Courier-Life web site, at least over the weekend, was "AY opponents seek protection from the community," with the implication that Atlantic Yards opponents are not the community.

That headline now matches that used in print (top): AY opponents look to black leaders for help. (Update: the original headline still exists, as well: AY opponents seek protection from the community.)


Except it's bogus.

Given that black leaders like City Council Member Letitia James and state Senator Velmanette Montgomery are the most prominent political opponents of Atlantic Yards, the headline falsely suggests that there are no black leaders involved.

Sure, there are black leaders who support the project, but the most visible lead groups that are signatories to the AY Community Benefits Agreement. At the hearing last week, the only elected officials Forest City could muster, in person, were white: state Senators Carl Kruger and Marty Golden, Assemblyman Alan Maisel, and City Council Member Eric Ulrich. All come from parts of Brooklyn distant from the project, or even Queens. The only pro-AY black elected official to testify, via a surrogate, was Towns.

Call for protection?

The article begins:
Following several raucous meetings concerning the Atlantic Yards project, opponents have put out the call for protection.

One knowledgeable source said that Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), the main organization fighting the project, has spoken to at least two prominent ministers recently in the African− and Caribbean−American community to see if they could get some of their people out to future meetings who oppose the project.


As noted in the article, DDDB contradicts that. DDDB's Daniel Goldstein told me, "We informed Reverend [Clinton] Miller about the ESDC hearing and invited him to come--along with individuals in the rest of Brooklyn affected by this phantom project. As we've done in the past we asked him if he would announce the hearing in his church--we've worked with Reverend Miller and other clergy for many years now. We did not make a new or special effort."

"DDDB did not ask for protection from anyone," he added.

Miller told me that his impetus for bringing a group (ultimately 23 men) came not from DDDB but from a community member who attended the May 29 state Senate oversight hearing at the Pratt Institute, located not far from his Brown Memorial Baptist Church.

The crowd, he was told, had disrespected elected officials. (Union members blew whistles and others in construction garb, associated with groups like ReBUILD, regularly heckled.) "I had seen the politics of intimidation" in 2006, Miller said, and wanted to neutralize that going forward. (Here's video of the invite he offered his congregation.)

Later, Miller said, he encountered Goldstein at a birthday party for Rev. Dennis Dillon (who chairs DDDB's board), and asked when the next public meeting would be.

Jobs trump decorum

Witt writes:
The call comes out after a large and vocal contingent of African−Americans and construction union members, desperately in need of jobs, have shouted down the opponents, who are largely white. at two recent meetings...

Witt is basically endorsing a heckler's veto. At the July 22 meeting, the proponents actually derailed a question by chanting "Go Home." If people need jobs, does that mean they should interfere with a public meeting or does that mean that the government and civic officials in charge of the meeting should keep order? The heckling was clearly tolerated by Forest City Ratner.

Among the accusations being hurled against the opponents are that they are fairly new to the neighborhood, and in some cases gentrified the neighborhood in housing that was once factories with jobs.

Why does Witt take these accusations seriously? Some people are new to the neighborhood--whatever the boundaries--and some have been there for a while. And what exactly is wrong with renovating closed, obsolete factories into housing--after all, Forest City Enterprises does it periodically.

Channeling Rev. Daughtry

The next section of the article appears to have been inspired by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who interrupted the May 29 state Senate oversight hearing with regular heckling, including "They're blocking the program, with these complicated questions."

Witt writes:
Additionally, the hecklers note that opponents, who number a few dozen at most at the meetings, continually ask the same questions to stall the project while people in the nearby public housing developments are crying out for the jobs and small business opportunities the project may bring.

The hecklers note? Actually, they heckle. The questions--like where's the site plan or the cost benefit analysis--are legit; they were asked by the five elected officials and BrooklynSpeaks.

As for the count of attendees, there were only a few dozen proponents at the July 22 meeting. There were about 100 opponents (by my count) or 125 (by DDDB's count) at the July 29 meeting. Sure, there were more proponents, but the equation gets more complicated if you subtract those who are getting or expect to gain benefits from the project.

Not inclusive?

Witt then gets into the murky issue of "inclusion." I'd say it's undeniable that DDDB has not achieved a full rainbow coalition of race and class, but, then again, as AY proponents argued last week, caring about niceties like environmental impact is a "luxury" for those who already have jobs.

Witt writes:
Dillon, along with Rev. Clinton Miller from Brown Memorial Baptist Church, both said they have recently communicated with Goldstein and⁄or Carponter about the situation.

Dillon remains adamantly opposed to the project, while Miller said he still has concerns about the project, but has distanced himself from it somewhat after seeing DDDB “doing certain kinds of things” that did not appear to be inclusive to the neighborhood.


Miller told me that quote was inaccurate: "I’ve distanced myself from the whole discussion because I saw activity going on, namely at the [earlier] hearing, that was not inclusive of the neighborhood. I saw the politics of intimidation. I’ve seen DDDB heckle, but I haven’t seen them engage in intimidation."

He added that, because of his church responsibilities, including a major renovation, "sometimes it’s just hard to be out there."

Miller's testimony

"We will not allow people from other neighborhoods come and intimidate people from the community,” Miller said at the hearing. “We will not allow people come in and have people disrespect our officials, especially [state Senator] Velmanette Montgomery, [Assemblyman] Hakeem Jeffries, and [City Council Member] Tish James.”

Both Miller and Jeffries, who have a close relationship, made reference to a "circus-like atmosphere" in previous hearings.

Last week, however, the public officials running the meeting for the first time took pains to ensure that there were enough police officers, security guards, and well-enforced rules to maintain decorum.



(Video shot by Adrian Kinloch)

In Jeffries' testimony, he mentioned that public officials who testify go back to neighborhoods like Bay Ridge. As I wrote, that sounded like a dig at Golden, a Bay Ridge Republican and loyal AY supporter, who disrupted the oversight hearing and tangled particularly with Montgomery.

Indeed, Jeffries told me yesterday, "My commentary related in part to the Golden incident at the May hearing and the disrespect shown to both Senator Montgomery and Chairman [Bill] Perkins."

In other words, the unmentioned precipitating factor for Witt's story was the "circus-like atmosphere" on May 29.

Jeffries, who has long had a careful position on AY, has kept his distance from DDDB. But he was not pleased by the events of May 29, as the screenshot at right indicates, which shows him next to Golden, and surely he shared that with Miller.



(Video shot by Jonathan Barkey)

Common ground?

Goldstein reflected that, while there were vociferous project supporters, "in one-on-one discussions with many participants, many did not even know the issues, were ambivalent about the topics at hand and had been recruited. While we completely support union labor, many construction union members there were fulfilling commitments, and did not even know what the hearing was about.""

"We don't doubt at all that there are people of good will who support the project, and we believe there is A LOT of common ground to cover with those people," he added. "Many opponents and supporters of the project had constructive discussions at the hearing, with a lot of agreement on the issues."

Maybe. But those discussions were pretty quiet.

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