LA to Vegas: Vans, Voting, and Vices

(TFC) – It’s a simple enough idea: take a group of indie journalists who are beholden to no political party and no corporate influence, throw them in a van, and tell them to do their thing. It’s been talked about for years. Implementing this idea is a bit like herding cats. About a year after the first phone call concerning the project, I’m on a flight headed to Los Angeles.

I’m wired from the events of the previous night and haven’t slept, but the Xanax and Jack Daniel’s are performing as they should, so I take a little moment to truly consider exactly what I’m doing. In a few hours, I’ll be on the ground with a hand-picked crew capable of covering anything from riots to wars to natural disasters. We’ll be covering the Women’s March. Some of us have already caught flak from our readers about “wasting the one time” this crew would be together. I had to agree on some level, but if all goes well, this won’t be a one-time thing. I agreed with the consensus. Before we go somewhere dangerous together, we should work out any kinks. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.

My plane taxis to the gate, and I message Ford Fischer. His plane got in around the same time. We play Keystone Cops trying to find each other in the airport, then share a cab to some offices that had been arranged for us to borrow.

At 23, Ford’s a baby. He looks and, we’ll later find out, drinks like a frat boy from Yale. The baby-faced, professionally-dressed journalist doesn’t seem at first glance like a natural fit for a group mainly comprised of people whose backstories include getting hit by SWAT teams. The first time I met him was a few years ago at a bar the night before a large protest in DC. He was asking about getting into to Kurdistan to film. He was even younger then, and I told him I’d help with contacts but tried to dissuade him from going. I’m fairly certain I told Daniel Johnson, “He’s not the sort for that kind of work. He’s going to get fucking killed.” The next day, the protest got hot. During a confrontation between protesters and cops, the normal flood of indie journalists surrounded the incident. The cop went wild swinging his baton and reaching for his gun belt. As I photographed, I could feel the flood of other journalists recede behind me as they moved away from danger. When I turned around after the incident, the only other journo who had stood his ground was the baby-faced guy sitting next to me. He was smiling the smile of someone who got the shot. My impression immediately changed. He never got to Kurdistan but has earned his stripes and suffered some bumps and bruises at countless riots and events since then. The footage most readers saw from the Battle of Charlottesville, distributed by News2Share, was filmed by him.

I want to get the cab to stop by a liquor store, but we reach the offices before I see one. LA was as I remembered. Dirty.

At the offices, we’re greeted by the most lovable woman in indie media, Carey Wedler. She’s the editor-in-chief of Anti-Media. Carey and I have worked together for years on various projects but have never met in person. After a hug that would kill a boa constrictor, she hands me a package I mailed her containing all of my normal kit the TSA won’t let me carry on a plane and a bottle of Gentleman Jack. As I said, the most lovable woman in indie media. Her adorable valley girl persona hides the fact that she’s hard as nails and provides some of the most analytical political coverage in the game. Even though she’s editor of one the largest indie outlets, she’s probably best known for her YouTube videos. Running one of largest outlets isn’t really as memorable as setting things on fire or packing weeks worth of research into four-minute YouTube videos. Readers might be surprised to know their favorite California-residing, yoga-instructing peacenik sat in cuffs for hours after a federal raid team hit the house she was in once upon a time, and she carries a reputation as being direct and no-nonsense.

We begin putting our gear together and chatting about the Women’s March, struggling to find wider angles to frame the event and provide context to what’s happening. Robert Alan arrives. He’s one of the behind-the-scenes players in indie media who can apparently accomplish the impossible. His group, G3, put this little adventure together. The offices, extra equipment, vehicles, and so on required to bring all of us together are being provided by his group or are available to us because of relationships he’s leveraged to make it happen.

I shake his hand and try to size him up. Lacking a close personal relationship with him, I still need to know why he put this little party on. Not knowing the deeper motivations of people I’m working with always unnerves me. He’s a poker player, and the first few minutes of chatting reveal nothing. We begin looking over the guest and speaker lists for the events.

Word reaches us that Derrick Broze may have missed his flight. He might be able to catch another flight or at least get to the correct airport. Three out of four isn’t bad and worst case scenario: He can meet up with us in Vegas.

Robert’s vision for this band of miscreants makes this team a regular thing, so we were all interviewed on video and photographed to help with publicity for a long-term project.

The godfather arrives. I walk past Nick Bernabe at first, assuming him to be one of the many people working in the offices. I hold him in such high regard, I guess I pictured him taller. Nick is the founder of Anti-Media and has had a large hand in more actions than I can begin to list. He was an investor in Pontiac Tribune before it became a part of The Fifth Column. He’s on the board of G3 and holds a number of digital properties. The Fifth Column’s organizational structure is directly ripped from how he set up Anti-Media. It’s unlikely I would have gained the platform I have without Nick. He recruited me from a small Canadian outlet years ago. Digital Journal was great for me, but while independent, it always struggled to be mainstream. Under Nick, I was able to truly embrace being independent. Finding an outlet where “anarchism” wasn’t a dirty word was wonderful. We continue wargaming for the upcoming events and chatting about the project.

Broze arrives, and the dirty half-dozen is complete. We go over our roles and pick our targets from the speakers of tomorrow’s event. The blow comes when we discover the government shutdown caused the politicians to cancel. They have to stay in DC to be ready to create political theater once a budget deal is reached. My plan of confronting them about appearing at this event without introducing bills to kill the congressional slush fund used to pay off victims of sexual harassment is blown out of the water.

Roll with the punches. There’s a woman who runs an intersectional organization accepting of gays, trans, interracial, and interfaith marriages on the list. That’s cool, but she and her organization are Islamic. That’s news. Ani Zonneveld becomes my primary target. I haven’t slept in close to forty hours. I take a nap while the others put finishing touches on their plans.

Game plan set, we livestream a brief introduction and lay it out for the viewers. There are a few trollish comments concerning a conspiracy theory about Ford orchestrating Charlottesville for the deep state-CIA-Lizard people, but people are generally supportive, excited even.

We break and head to downtown LA. The sprout-eaters among us require a vegan diet, and I order my first non-meat burger. Surprisingly, it’s not awful.

The G3 crew with emergency services.

We head to the hotel and get settled in. Nick and I Uber to gather adult beverages and miscellaneous hygiene items snatched by TSA. A call adds Benadryl and urgency. Carey is having an allergic reaction, and her throat is swelling. I hand Carey Benadryl and bottled water, EMS is on the way. The Benadryl should keep it from getting worse. On the side of the road, we float theories about what could’ve caused it. I snap some photos of Carey in her fragile state. She promptly orders me to delete them and I comply, for the most part, holding just a few on reserve for blackmail. EMS tells her it would be better to simply drive to the hospital. We hit Uber and the driver arrives faster than EMS did. The whole crew accompanies her, and the Esprit de corps is formed.

An LA hospital emergency room in the middle of the night is what you would expect. Security is attempting to force a young man to leave after he refuses to register at the desk. Something is off with the guy, maybe bad drugs, maybe mentally ill, maybe he’s just possessed by LA. He’s verbally non-responsive. As Carey is registering and being told her triage level isn’t high enough to warrant immediate attention, security physically removes the young man. They’re relatively professional and gentle. Our team, of course, begins filming outside once it becomes clear the cops are going to become involved. The young man re-enters and is escorted out repeatedly.

Derrick “the hobo whisperer” Broze tries to spark a conversation and succeeds where everyone else failed. He gets a name. It’s fitting.

Broze, besides having the best hair in the industry, is known for an empathetic ability and level of compassion second to none. He’s been there, having struggled with his own substance abuse issues in the past. His network, The Conscious Resistance, always attempts to provide non-state community-based solutions to issues. Given my relatively militant nature and his constant struggle for peace and community, we seem unlikely allies. While our approaches and focus are different, our goals are the same. The reader might be interested to know my waterboarding experience was part of a wider campaign organized by Broze. I’m often asked about our ties and how strange the pairing is. Readers should look to Broze for ideas on how to make nonviolent resistance and revolution possible, they should look to me in case that doesn’t work out. What unites us far exceeds what divides us.

Despite Broze’s headway, the young man enters again. The real cops are outside. Robert moves Carey out of the path the cops will likely use to extract the young man, and I check the glands in her neck. The rest of us take positions to document the extraction or intervene if necessary. The cops are gloving up, and Derrick makes one last attempt to reach the young man.

Whether due to the presence of an army of journalists or just tenderheartedness, the cops remove him with a minimal amount of force. They try reasoning with the young man to no avail, but they are able to get him to give an address. Derrick or Ford, the dynamic duo of destitute detainees, suggests calling him an Uber. The cops agree. Prior to turning off the camera on his phone to use the app, Ford tells the cops he’s trusting them to not hurt the kid in the meantime. A few moments later, Uber provides emergency services for the second time that night.

Back inside Carey still hasn’t been seen. I check her glands, and the swelling is going down. A short time later, I check again. The hives have all but disappeared and the glands are inflamed but are definitely shrinking. We decide to leave.

Walking away, a homeless person passes wearing shreds of clothing in abnormally cold temperatures. Derrick literally offers him the shirt off his back. I smile thinking about the way anarchists are portrayed in the media.

We’ve made our way back to the hotel and have a few drinks, Carey washing down some more Benadryl. I’m the last to lay down and look at the bodies sprawled over beds, couches, and floors. It’s a hell of a crew.

It’s the next morning and we’re at the RV. Everybody is primed. We gear up and head into the mass of bodies already forming for the march. It takes no time to realize our radios aren’t working in the area. We switch to a group chat. Ford and I locate Ani Zonneveld and snag a brief interview. That out of the way, we begin conducting person-on-the-street interviews and notice a disturbing trend: The solution offered by most participants is to vote harder. As the interviews progress, it becomes apparent we’re not at a women’s march. We’re at a Democratic Party drive designed to get people to the polls for the midterm elections. Brief chats with the others reveal the same thing. Ford and I are walking the route; livestreams are failing due to overloaded networks. The finish line for the march is a voter registration table. The whole event is corporatized to include “resistance art.”

Some of those on the street have a decent understanding of events, but most are drawn into a “Voting is my only responsibility” mentality. Requests for solutions facing women today typically resulted in “voting” and “communication.” At some point, the American people will have to realize the solution is not talking about the problems or voting for people who will talk about the problems. Concrete actions must be taken at some point, right?

Ford and I attempt to seek out the dissidents. We find a group advocating an independent California. Hell yes, real revolutionaries. On the table of their booth sits a stack of voter registration forms. A brief discussion leads us to the conclusion that we’re talking to a group of individuals who want to take control of the levers of power, not destroy them. I pose pointed questions, but after one of the voting-revolutionaries states they’re doing exactly what the founders did, Ford chimes in to plainly state something along the lines of “You know they ended up shooting them, right?” The interview ends.

We run across a hotdog stand. Ford and I grabbed a bite to eat. I silently enjoy processed meat wrapped in bacon outside of the view of the healthy folks. We hear about a group of counter-protesters waving Trump banners. We make our way over to their area. They’re being yelled at by protesters and are ringed by staffers of the event, and behind them is a ring of cops. Since we’ve determined this to now be an event co-opted by the Democratic Party, we want to give the Republicans a fair shake. We approach for interviews. The cops let us know the counter-protesters brought their own press team and the cops have been instructed to keep us out. We leave the Trump supporters in their safe space and begin talking to some of those yelling at them. A pair of teachers catch my eye after one of them says “We teach their kids.” They are understandably nervous and tone down their speech to professional levels once the cameras appear.

After wrapping up, we grab a pizza and head back to the RV. As the team filters in, we debrief and discuss whether or not the event was publicly co-opted by the Dems or if it was just the organizers moving it that way on the sly. A quick livestream to update the audience and we’re on the road.

Vegas, baby, Vegas.

The RV started rolling, and we all begin working on our pieces. We were just outside of Barstow when reality began to take hold. The discussions range from wild things we did in our younger days to current events. Somebody on the team once won an amateur striptease contest, another used to race cars and enjoyed running from the cops, one was arrested for politically-charged vandalism at a young age, another trafficked pot, another once attempted to stab their friends while under the influence. I’ll let you guess who is who. Robert mentions he raps. Nick mentions he makes beats. I stare in shock as Robert begins flowing over the beats on Nick’s phone. The content of Robert’s raps puts me at ease with him. It’s all about the daily struggles of living in a system that doesn’t represent anyone except the top. Deeper motivations reveal: He’s a true believer who is putting his money where his mouth is. This idea of waking those around him permeates every part of his life.

Hunger and a need for gas kicks in. We stop at a chicken joint near a gas station. The indie news scene is a giant incestuous family with a lot of personal gripes and tainted relationships. The conversation turns to other journalists and who should be present and who we really wouldn’t want present. I realize exactly how nearly impossible it is to staff a working crew like this without those relationships causing rifts.

Vegas. We’re here. Nick and I hit the bar and the casino, everyone else wants to go to sleep. After some light harassment over Facebook and mentioning that the kids can’t hang with the old guys, Derrick and Robert come out to play. Nick stays in the casino with the blackjack table, I decide to accompany the other pair to a local dispensary and to grab a bite to eat. We Uber over to the dispensary and the driver begins talking about politics with us. He slams both parties and talks about community answers. At the dispensary, I slip him $20 and ask him to wait so we can ride back with him. He agrees. The pair makes their selection inside and we come back out to find our driver has absconded with my $20. Life goes on. Another Uber takes us to a smoothie joint. We walk back to the casino and they smoke a joint as we stroll. The cops pass.

Inside the casino. Nick is missing. Oh well, he’s grown. I grab a drink and bed down for the night.

In the morning, we meet for breakfast. James Job, editor-in-chief of Pontiac Tribune, joins us. He’s going to be covering the Vegas Women’s March as well as a protest at Mandalay Bay requesting security camera footage from the day of the mass shooting. Nick is late. I have visions of finding him passed out somewhere with a tattoo on his face. We make the decision to break away from the planned event at some point to hit the protest. Nick shows up just before I prepare to hit the panic button. We hop in the RV and roll to the stadium. Getting the monstrous RV parked is a chore to say the least. We gear up and head into the event. We have press passes, but they don’t officially grant us backstage access. The PR person who organized the passes says it won’t matter. We’ll put that to the test.

Inside the stadium, our worst fears are confirmed. The banners encourage people to vote and encourage voter registration. All speakers are Democratic darlings. The event is a wing of the Democratic party, nothing more at this point. I take some wide event shots to gather the size of the crowd and a few of the speakers. We head backstage, and I see Ford set up to grab an unauthorized and impromptu interview with Cecil Richards of Planned Parenthood. I’m interested in talking to her but am not in a position to ethically provide any coverage because I’ve publicly raised money for the organization on my own time. Carey has snagged someone, I can’t see who, though. I’m scoping the backstage crowd looking for someone of interest. Suddenly, Derrick appears. He informs me that some staffer has told him he can’t be back here. He told her he was with a crew. I glance over my shoulder and look at her.

We’re burned, but Carey and Ford are still ok, so we need to keep them focused on us. We’ll play lightning rod and let the others get the work done. Ford’s interview ends. I radio to Nick in the RV to keep Ford away from us. Apparently, the message isn’t relayed quickly enough. Ford is beside me. “Get away from us, get away from us, run away,” I say without looking at him. Derrick and I pull back to the edge of the backstage area but stay very close as if we’ll reenter like the young man at the hospital. Security stays focused on us. They tell us we are still too close. We pull back a little further then circle around the tent, and Derrick conducts another interview in the back entrance to the backstage area. Carey and Ford finish their interviews and we pull all the way back, but it’s too late. Security is walking over to tell us to leave. We’re asked to leave. Rather than performing one of my patented “Do you really want to throw me out?” routines, we leave without incident to preserve Carey and Ford’s positions.

We walk back to the RV. Nick and Robert have confused looks on their faces. We explain what happened and begin laughing. It’s part of the game, and we’ve been thrown out of far better places than this. Not too long after, the rest of the crew arrives. Like myself, they find the idea of a political party exploiting a bunch of women by co-opting an event designed to stop the exploitation of women distasteful.

A brief debrief and we are on the road to Mandalay Bay. Expecting a bunch of people espousing theories I’ve already debunked on the whiteboard, I bring the whiteboard from the RV. We begin live streaming as we’re maneuvering in the parking lot, and the van is backed into the hotel. I peer out the back window. All concrete, no people or vehicles, we continue moving. We pile out of the van, and I begin interviewing the maker of a documentary titled What Happened in Vegas.

Going into the situation blind, I have no idea what the film is about. It doesn’t take long to realize his film is about law enforcement corruption, not the shooting. The interview turns from shaky to combative when I use the term “exploit.”

In my mindset, if you have a corrupt police department killing innocents, you’re free to exploit any weakness and use any weapon they give you to bring it to light. Exploiting the lack of transparency in the Vegas attack to demonstrate a pattern of missing evidence is ethical and justified. It gets the story out.

He seems to feel I mean he is exploiting the tragedy in a negative way. He calls me some names and gets a little loud. It’s not the first time this has happened to me. I defuse the situation, and the protesters agree to send me copies of their evidence. The excursion ends without using the whiteboard to debunk something, leaving me feeling a little dead inside.

Coverage wrapped, we do what any self-respecting indie journalists in Vegas would do. We drink and make plans to hit the casino. Ford’s doing a little editing as Nick pours the first round. The others are decompressing from the coverage aspect and will join up with us later. After a drink or two, Nick and I head out to grab a cigarette, leaving Ford to his own devices. Upon return, he’s had a few more than we expected. “Well hell, why don’t you just chug the rest of the bottle?” He does, ingesting about a third of a bottle of whiskey in 60 seconds. It’s time to get Ford some food. The only place open in the casino is a steakhouse. It’s the kind of joint with linen tablecloths, low-lighting, and a la carte sides for your steak. Probably not the most suitable location to bring a hammered journo, but it’s also Vegas, so despite volume and profanity, we aren’t thrown out. After the meal, we all meet up in the bar. Drinks flow.

We’re joined by a Vegas-based journo, Lou Colagiovanni. As an abrasive asshole, I can recognize other abrasive assholes. It’s a club. We even have a secret handshake. Lou knows the handshake. He’s sporting a black eye, confirming I’m not the only one of this opinion. In true Vegas journo style, his pockets are a pharmacy and he’s buying the drinks. It doesn’t take long for everyone to get where they want to be. As people begin to file out to grab food or play cards, only Lou, his date, Carey, and I remain. I know this is bad. As noted earlier, the indie news community is an incestuous family. Recently, Lou submitted a piece to Anti-Media. Carey rejected it. There’s no larger blow to a journalist’s ego than having a piece rejected. His piece was published with a different outlet and did very well, hitting international audiences, but that doesn’t take the sting away. Lou brings up the piece, and I start laughing because I know what’s coming.

All Lou would’ve wanted was an admission that Carey, as editor, made a mistake by not running the piece. He points out the numbers on the article and how it hurt Anti-Media. Rather than being the lovable valley girl people see frequently online, she displays the attitude that got her where she is. She tells him he pitched it poorly and that Anti-Media doesn’t run “Gamer” stories, as he had described it, so it was a low-priority. He says he submitted great work before and had a personal relationship with the owner so he should get priority. She says priority goes to those who submit more frequently. He tells her her editorial process is flawed. She tells him he didn’t follow it anyway so his opinion doesn’t matter. He gets louder and louder. Neither gives an inch. Lou is mad and standing, Carey is sitting with a dismissive look that just makes angry people angrier. I’m laughing, but before either can say anything that will completely terminate any further relationships, I suggest Carey and I go get french fries.

We find Robert and Ford in the cafe and sat down. The night grows introspective, and I have to be on a plane in a few hours. On the flight back I think about the event. In comparison to what the project is supposed to be, this event is small potatoes. It did, however, show we are a team. A team that will function and produce. I’d keep my eyes open for more from the G3 project.