The U.S.’s War on Free Speech pt.1

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Connie Burton

The following is an excerpt from a presentation made by Connie Burton at an event sponsored by the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement called the “U.S. Attack on Free Speech” held on April 10, 2005 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Connie Burton hosted the radio show “Straight Talk” that was kicked off the air by the white nationalist management at WMNF 88.5 because of her unapologetic conviction to be a militant voice to the African working class.

Uhuru! I really want to express appreciation because a lot of times people that look like me or come from my social background are not able to tell our stories.

I was having a lot of difficulty in thinking of how to develop my conversation around this whole thing called “free speech” because I come from a community where, on a day to day basis, people struggle just to survive here in America. How do we keep our children safe? How do we keep ourselves safe? How do we keep our jobs? How are we able to articulate our message without any form of retaliation?

I can tell you that usually in the African community there are two discussions: one discussion that we have amongst ourselves where we feel we have the freedom to openly express ourselves.

If we disagree it usually just might end up with some harsh words, but in the broader community where there is a possibility of real retaliation — the possibility of losing one’s job or even life — there’s a way in which African people speak not to offend. Otherwise, we will suffer the wrath of those who can’t stand to hear the truth.

If you look at the evening news on any given day, they talk about the “best of all times.” They talk about the economic upswing of America. They talk about an improved educational system. They talk about democracy spreading abroad.

When I listen to the news, I’m almost in awe. I want to know who they’re talking about and what they’re talking about. Because from my experience and what I see inside the African and other oppressed communities everywhere I go, — whether it’s in Tampa, St. Petersburg, New York or Oakland — African people are catching hell.

We are watching whole generations of our young people being pushed into these concentration camps called prisons. We see the complicity of ordinary white citizens with the State’s policies as they go and vote and approve it and say everything is alright in America. We see that everyday.

So eventually the question for me became, “Who will tell our story?”

Who will speak in our interest? Who will become our reporters that are unbought and unbossed? Who’s willing to stand up to the State knowing that at the end of the day it might not reap you a financial reward?

When it comes down to doing the real work, where are the reporters? Where are those people that understand that there is a grave injustice that’s happening in America today?

We have a responsibility to speak out in our own interest to build a future for ourselves and for our children. As we watch these attacks happening in our communities on a day to day basis, we have a responsibility to become the media, to become the reporters.

“We have a responsibility to speak out in our own interest to build a future for ourselves and for our children. As we watch these attacks happening in our communities on a day to day basis, we have a responsibility to become the media, to become the reporters. ”

It was this need to expose the ongoing injustice in our community that had lead me into my role as a radio host at WMNF. We have to expose the fact that when the State talks about development, it is just gentrification. While the State talks about the “war on crime,” we know that it is just the ongoing removal of all young men inside of our community.

At WMNF, this so-called “Free Speech Radio” that holds up a mission of social and economic justice, we thought we had found a place for our community’s voice. But I can tell you that for the nine years that I was there, it was a nine years of very trying times.

As long as I put forth a show where I was the victim and the only solution for me was uniting with the Democratic Party, it was alright to be there, but at the point that we started seeking our own solution for the ongoing aggression against African people, it became a very touchy situation.

I was there for nine years, but for the past five years, I have been united with the Uhuru Movement and it has opened my eyes.

I began to understand the world and the fact that the oppression that was happening to African people here in the Bay Area was not separate from what was happening to African people throughout the world.

So on “Straight Talk,” we started building bridges, and we talked about subject matters that you could understand no matter where you were located.

We said that this was the problem happening to African people, and we need to seek out the solution. Let’s start an honest dialogue. Let’s openly have that conversation that we usually just have between ourselves.

We understood what it meant. We understood how the State retaliates when African people begin speaking honestly, but nonetheless, we had a responsibility to put out the truth.

Now, WMNF is located inside the heart of the African community. Inside that community we have several public housing projects, and every Sunday we put forth the issues in the community because we wanted to challenge the station to meet its mission statement.

If you have a mission statement that says that you are fighting for economic and social justice, surely you would unite with our fight to making sure that we all have an opportunity to live as a self-determining people in a prosperous world.

But when we started leading the program in a way to seek solutions independent of white power and fight for Africans to gain power over our own lives, we ran into tremendous road blocks.

I was called into meetings weekly to answer false allegations until, finally, WMNF became real clever.

They developed a policy that was specific to “Straight Talk” just like the State does in the so-called “war against drugs.” They know specifically who it’s going to impact.

This policy said that organizations are not allowed to have shows, and they used this policy to take “Straight Talk” off the air. They accused me of hustling for the Uhuru movement, and they used this accusation and this designer policy to take “Straight Talk” off the air.

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WMNF build a brand new building in the middle of the African community while silencing the only voice on the radio station from that community.

“As long as I put forth a show where I was the victim and the only solution for me was uniting with the Democratic Party, it was alright to be there, but at the point that we started seeking our own solution for the ongoing aggression against African people, it became a very touchy situation. ”

Some of WMNF’s board members even accused me of putting forth hate speech. They accused me of not opening the process for diverse voices to be heard.

But each one of these allegations was false. First of all, I can assure you, the Uhuru Movement did not need me. I needed them and so does the African community.

If any hustling was done, it was me trying to hustle WMNF to the African community where they had no participation in the ongoing struggle to overturn what we see happening to our people on a daily basis.

So we went through a grievance process, and of course it was a farce. WMNF had the grievance process set up so that the people who we had to bring our grievance to were the same players that we had the grievance with.

If you listen to the show that replaced Straight Talk on WMNF now, you can see the direction they want to be going. They want to be in charge of what African people can hear and what we can say. They want to have people with faces like ours but that speak in their interests.

They are no different from what we’ve had to encounter throughout our whole history in America. This situation is no different from what we have seen on a national scale with the bringing forth of people like Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell.

But we don’t feel defeated at all about being removed from the “Straight Talk” radio program because we have developed another process called Straight Talk News. We are determined to keep our voices on the forefront.

We were able to articulate a lot of issues on WMNF. Part of this attack on free speech for me has been through my landlord, the Tampa Housing Authority.

The Housing Authority went to WMNF in 2000 asking for tapes of the show because I was leading a demonstration against some of the board members of the Housing Authority, which has spent well over $260,000 over the last six years to evict me.

On Straight Talk, we were able to call names. We called out so-called leaders in the African community who participate in the attacks against our community.

When we saw many of our ministers from the African community participate in the onslaught of our community, we identified them.

So, as a reporter, I feel very honored that I was able to speak the truth, unafraid, unbought. I’m so proud of the fact that I was united with an organization that helped me understand the world and see the world for what it truly is.

I’m so honored by the fact that I’m no longer a victim, that I know how we can get out this mess. I am so honored and so proud that I come from the soul of public housing. I am so honored that I don’t need Condaleeza Rice to speak for me. I am so honored.

So, in my conclusion I would just like to say that the ongoing struggle for free speech is something that we all must participate in.

Thank you very much. Uhuru!


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