Editor’s Note: We’re reposting this episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” which originally aired on April 29, 2016, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the nation.
Marshall “Eddie” Conway became a member of the Baltimore Black Panther chapter in the late 1960’s, during which he was closely monitored by the FBI. While working for the postal service, Conway was arrested and later convicted for a murder he didn’t commit and subsequently served almost 44 years in prison. In their conversation, Conway tells Robert Scheer how he not only survived his years in prison but also helped fellow prisoners organize for reform and better treatment. Conway also talks about his disbelief upon being released from prison that the plight of African Americans was worse than it had been when he entered the penal system decades earlier. Finally, he discusses his involvement in the Real News Network since his release and his effort to report stories not usually told in the mainstream media about issues facing minority communities.
Photo: J.M. Giordano/City PaperCredits
Marshall “Eddie” Conway – Real News Network
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests and not me. And my guest today is a guy I’ve long been interested in, and in fact I’ve signed petitions for his release without much effect for many yeaRS: Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway. And Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway was one of those brave Americans defending our country, stationed in Germany and doing all the right things, and then came home to the United States to find we had some civil rights problems that weren’t being addressed. And his response at that time, in the late 1960s—you can talk about it—was to join a unit of the Black Panther Party in Baltimore. But as it turned out, that unit was basically set up by the FBI, heavily infiltrated by them with other people, and was really, as I looked at the record in preparation for this show, basically an entrapment scheme: get young black men to join what was really, in a way, a faux division of the Panther Party. And, you know, entrapment; get ‘em in trouble, and make the case that we have an alarming danger here. And in the process, Eddie Conway, who was then working at the post office—and I must say, by the way, I haven’t identified you properly, but to me you’re a relatively young man of about 70, I would put it.
Eddie Conway: That’s correct.
RS: Yeah, just a child. And it’s interesting, the post office connection, because I happened to work in the New York post office for about four or five years while I was going to college off and on. And I had fond memories of it. And you were arrested in the post office, is the record.
EC: Yes, that’s correct.
RS: And they came and got you, and they accused you of murder.
RS: So do you want to just, why don’t we set the stage, and just to hold the interest of people, this was not an isolated case; it was part of a whole national entrapment program. It was shortly after that that we learned about COINTELPRO, we learned that there was a systematic campaign to destroy the Black Panther Party, and you were really swept up in it. But nonetheless, you were unfairly convicted; you ended up spending 43 years and 11 months in jail on a murder charge, until you were found to have been improperly tried. And two years ago you were given your freedom after 44—ah, 43 years and 11 months. So Eddie Conway, who’s now an executive producer at The Real News Network, which is how I met him during what has been called the Baltimore riots recently, or insurrection—however you want to define it—I happened to be in Baltimore, and I ran into somebody that I’d only read about, heard about. And here you are in the USC studio at Annenberg, to tell your story as an American original. So take us back to—you come out of the Army, you’re in Baltimore, and what happens?
EC: Well, I came home because of the amount of riots that were taking place in the United States. At the time, I was a sergeant in Germany and I was on my way to Vietnam, and I decided to not go to Vietnam and instead come home and see what the problem was, and see if I could not work with some civil rights organizations to help fix it. Initially when I got home, I joined the NAACP and I worked with CORE, and we integrated some workplaces where segregation was taking place, in terms of blacks could only get, like, blue-collar jobs; so we were pushing for white-collar jobs. I did that; I joined the fire department, and I was a firefighter for a little while, and then eventually joined the post office. And in the process, I looked at the stuff that was going on in America and realized more organization needed to be taking place to deal with the conditions that I found in the black community, which was horrendous. And so I joined the Black Panther Party. In joining the Black Panther Party initially—
RS: How old were you then?
EC: At that time I was 22. I had actually joined the military at 18, I got out at 21; at 22 I joined the Black Panther Party. And so initially, when I joined the Maryland chapter of the Black Panther Party, I thought there was, like, really some serious flaws. It seemed to me like people were actually partying, and it wasn’t a political party, it was a social party. And I thought I could bring some discipline from my military experience, et cetera, and encourage a couple other people to join, and try to work on it. Interacted with California, went back out to California and tried to see if we could stand up this structure in Maryland. And we actually did, but a lot of mysterious things were going on, and continued to occur, and we didn’t have any kind of explanation for it. And so at some point I started investigating—at that time, I was the lieutenant of security; I started investigating various members to find out exactly what the problem was. And I discovered that the defense captain, which was the key leader in the Maryland Black Panther Party, was actually a member of the National Security Agency. I called for a deeper investigation because I didn’t have the ability to actually go beyond discovering that he was an agent. And they sent a team of experts out from New York and California to further investigate, and at that time he fled the country. He fled the country and he joined Stokely Carmichael’s organization, which was the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party in Canada. And after the investigation actually validated that he was a national security agent, it was put in all the Black Panther Party newspapers and it was broadcast wherever we could broadcast it. And that broadcast eventually reached Canada, and they discovered in Canada that he was working with the Royal Mounted Police up there; the FBI had pretty much made arrangements for him to go up there and to work with the Royal Mounted Police. He did that; he infiltrated, and he caused mischief and chaos. Here in Baltimore, in fact, I maintain that he actually caused at least one Panther member to get killed and several others to go to jail. And there were other Panther informers, police informers, in the organization as a result of him recruiting them in there.
RS: So let me just say for people listening to this, particularly younger people, they may say ‘This sounds pretty wild.’ And I would recommend to them that if they think that, they just don’t know the history of that era. Because even Martin Luther King was set up by the FBI, and his organizations were infiltrated by FBI agents on the highest level; they tried to blackmail him and get him to commit suicide. And this was widespread, and in the case of the Panthers it was a full assault on the Black Panther Party. And I mentioned COINTELPRO because after you got arrested, there were some folks in Pennsylvania who actually broke into an FBI office, got the basic documents, and for the first time the media was willing to cover the FBI’s role in infiltrating American organizations that were legal of all kinds. You know, even the Women Strike for Peace, or you know, all sorts of groups, environmental and what have you, and basically entrapping people. So people should know that when you say you found these people out. And so could you then—so what happened then is that you—you were basically set up.
EC: Yes, I—and of course I did not find this out until later on. But as a result of exposing their agent, I was tagged and targeted with the COINTELPRO operation, which is the counterintelligence operation that the FBI operated. And they used, all the different law enforcements in America were at their disposal to help disrupt and destroy the Black Panther Party and neutralize some of our members. And toward that end they actually had some of our key members assassinated in Chicago; in particular Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in L.A., John Huggins and Bunchy Carter, et cetera. And in Dallas—in Houston, Texas, another [Hampton] was assassinated. But anyway, what they did in the space of a year and a half, we had 37 state chapters across America; in a year and half, 18 months, they destroyed 25 of those chapters. And the mandate—and we didn’t find this out until after ’76—the mandate was to lock up any and everybody, no matter what, and they would sort it out later, even if it was an illegal arrest. So in some cases, they actually initiated shootouts; in other cases they prodded people. In the shootouts and incidents in Maryland, they had a shootout and they locked up two members of the Black Panther Party. A day or so later they came and actually locked me up on my job, accused me of being part of that; first accusing me of giving orders to have that done, and then later accusing me of being a participant. And then with no evidence, no nothing, no witnesses or anything, they proceeded to put an informer in my cell, and they let that informer then tell the story that they gave him. And they proceeded to try me, convict me, and—illegally—and it wasn’t determined that it was an illegal conviction until 12 years later. Twelve years later, after two series—we actually went to the Supreme Court; after a series of court cases all the way up through that 12 years, it was finally determined that this was an illegal conviction and they needed to give us relief, but they didn’t. They changed the laws in the Maryland constitution, and it took us another 32 years to fight to get that relief that eventually, when they could fight no more and they were completely exhausted, they finally let us go.RS: Yeah, I mean, just as a corrective to those people who think justice is generally served, if anyone looks at the record—and it’s pretty clear—you even had your superior at the post office say you were there when this was supposed to have happened. You yourself complained about the jailhouse informant coming into your cell, so you hardly would have told him anything; it was planted by the police, and the police said, well, he had some information that they had not made to the public, but they could have easily made it available to him. And the case was incredibly weak, and the instructions to the jury were ultimately thought to be totally improper. And in fact, what happened when they released you finally two years ago, after 43 years and 11 months in jail? Which, you know, I can’t even imagine, you know, 43 days. So 43 years and 11 months. And what happens? I know you told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! your story, I think, pretty much that first day or something; I remember hearing it at the time.
EC: Yeah. I think after I got released, I really, I was shocked. I was shocked about the conditions in the community; I was shocked at the plight of the people in black communities and poor white communities. The housing stocks was collapsed, and drugs was rampant throughout; unemployment was just off the chart. I was actually shocked to the point where instead of trying to rest and relax and enjoy the rest of my life that I had, I made a decision that I needed to go back to work, to get involved, because conditions were worse than they were when I first joined the Black Panther Party. And 10 times—I can’t even tell you in multiples how many times; it was just really bad. And so I—
RS: Let’s stop there for a minute, because that’s a critical observation, critically important observation. Because there’s an illusion that somehow conditions have—we’re talking about Baltimore now, where you know, we saw there was a lot of discontent, a lot of unhappiness, and finally we were forced to look at some of the statistics in Baltimore, which some people saw as a fairly enlightened city in a fairly enlightened state, and a fellow was even running for president who had been the mayor and governor, quite recently. And you’re saying that despite the Civil Rights Movement, despite everything we’ve thought about, here in this historically important city, one of the cradles of American democracy, you come out of jail after, you know, the 40, let’s say 44 years, rounding out to the nearest month—and you actually find the situation worse. Considerably worse. Let’s go into specifics.
EC: Well, when I was locked up, say for instance, Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel existed; Fisher Body auto manufacturer; Domino Sugar; Black & Decker. Industries exist[ed]. And even though black people were getting blue-collar jobs, the people in the community had jobs; unemployment existed, but it was not to the degree that I discovered when I came back. All of those industries were gone, shut down, closed up, offshored or whatever. And to take the place of those industries in rural white communities, prisons were built. To take the place of those industries in urban black communities, incarceration was applied. And so the populations were, both populations were being addressed; one was guards and one was prisoners. And then those prisoners in turn came back to the community and then they had that stigma, ex-prisoner; they couldn’t get jobs, they were—well, there was no jobs anyway. And so it was the need to have them filter back into the prison system and have the prison system expand. The housing stock, because there was no money, no jobs, no employment in the community, the houses fell apart in decay. The subprime lending thing started right in Baltimore; that’s where it started at, selling those junk-bond houses in a redline district in those communities and letting the stock collapse. In place of employment and in place of industry in the community, drugs were put in the black community and drugs were put in the poor communities. And now that’s actually spreading to, like, Westminster; it’s spreading to almost totally white communities suffering the same devastation now. And of course when you have a large population of unemployed people that’s in desperate straits, that some of them are on drugs, et cetera, violence actually follows that; policing is increased by tenfold. So there’s just all kinds of clashes, and then there’s all kinds of hopelessness down on the ground. You know, young people down on the ground, say for instance, were walking around like they had been in a war zone. And they had. And I didn’t realize it at first, but they had actually been in low-intensity warfare in their community, where they see people getting killed or dying, every time, every night you hear guns going off, you know. So that didn’t exist when I got locked up. And no society should go back instead of going forward over a period of forty-some years.
RS: Yeah, and what you’re really basically talking about is the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to do what Martin Luther King said was the most important thing to do; when he was killed, he was supporting a garbage men’s, people’s, worker’s strike—right?
EC: In Memphis, Tennessee, yes.
RS: And his whole thing was, you know, he’s going to deal with poverty; he’s going to deal with white and black poverty. For people who don’t understand the significance of the labor movement and what had happened in America—and I’m 10 years older than you, so I remember as a kid growing up. If you had a union job—and wherever you were, you know; my parents were in New York in the garment industry, but Detroit—I actually worked in Fairless, Pennsylvania, in a steel plant briefly. You know, any of those kind of jobs, across the country, you could have a decent middle-class life. You know, maybe not upper-middle class, but you got a little house, you could take care of your family, and the whole shot. And that was one of the things that fueled the so-called Northern migration, people leaving the South and leaving an agricultural economy that sucked, and you still had segregation, and going up north to places like Oakland or Chicago or Baltimore. And what happened was, it got derailed. Unions got busted with Taft-Hartley; you know, government sided with the people trying to rip them off. And that extended into the housing meltdown, where in fact, even, you know—I shouldn’t say ‘even,’ but the hardest-hit were black and brown kids who went and graduated from college; they lost 70 percent of their family wealth, 70 percent of everything their families had collected up to that point, because they were the targeted audience for the liar’s loans and all the other garbage. So I think I get the trajectory now, but what we left out is how—how do you survive 43 years and 11 months in jail and come out being as constructive, purposeful, clear-thinking as you are? I mean, I met you in Baltimore, you know; and you gave me your book, which I recommend to everyone—you want to give us the title?
EC: Ah, yes, there’s two: Marshall Law and The Greatest Threat.
RS: You want to describe them?
EC: Well, Marshall Law is an autobiography that was written by myself and Dominique Stevenson about the life and times of a Black Panther, which is me, and growing up in Baltimore, how I got involved and how I ended up in the prison system; the years I spent in the prison system and what I did, and how I saw the world, and how I survived that ordeal. That was Marshall Law. The Greatest Threat I did as a thesis for my graduate study, and it was really a serious look into COINTELPRO and whether or not the Black Panther Party prisoners were political prisoners. And I compare and contrast other nations’ political prisoners with America’s, including the IRA, the Republican Army over in England, including Argentina’s situation, including the situation in South Africa with Mandela and the ANC and so on. And I looked at the laws internationally and nationally and compared them, and made an attempt to show—and in fact I believe I did show—that the political prisoners here in America were, in fact, political prisoners and not criminals.
RS: Interesting point about Mandela and the ANC, because now Mandela is legitimately seen as a great leader who brought about great hope and unified a nation and so forth. But I remember when we were supporting the struggle in South Africa, the conventional wisdom in this country, not just the right wing, the conventional wisdom was, Nelson Mandela was a communist and had communist support, and was a dangerous revolutionary. And I want to deal quickly with two things. One, I should have mentioned earlier on your scholarly background. You have three graduate degrees, and we’ll get to this—right, I believe?
RS: And we’ll get to discuss that. But as long as we’re dealing with Mandela here, I have never understood how Mandela could have spent all those years in confinement and come out this incredible leader. And now I get a chance to talk to someone who’s had a comparable trajectory. And how do you do it? And I know you describe it somewhat in your book, but I mean, you know—EC: Well, I think the—one, you have to know who you are before you go in the prison system. I think that’s an important piece of maintaining your humanity. Second, I think you have to engage in making changes in your environment, wherever you find yourself. And third, I think you have to help other people. And it’s through service, it’s through that work of working with other people that you also maintain not only your humanity and your dignity, but you also maintain your will to survive that particular ordeal. And probably last but not least, you need to kind of like stay abreast of what’s changing, so that you won’t become socially retarded.
RS: But you know, you say that, and it all makes perfect sense. But doing it must take you into a nightmarish zone. You’re in a system where they’re trying to destroy you, trying to set you up, pit one against the other. I mean, my encounter with prisons is mostly as a visitor going to interview people, but just the few times that I was there involuntarily, you know, I’d say wow—in a matter of hours it became clear to me that I had no effective control here. And you’re there for almost 44 years. So could you just give some sense of—
EC: Well, I mean, initially, I mean, it was a tremendous amount of combat. [Laughs] Tremendous amount of resistance on my part, fighting back, time spent in solitary confinement on lockup. There were three attempts to assassinate me in the process. But also, at that time, during the seventies, there was a tremendous amount of people in the prison system that was ready to fight for change, and ready to organize, and ready to be educated. This is the time of Attica; this is the time of George Jackson. This is the time when prisoners recognized that they were somebody, they were human beings. And so I was not alone. And at some point I think, in all fairness, we exhausted each other, the prison officials as well as the radical changers. And at some point, we came to an understanding that if you leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone, but we will continue to organize. And it was just a matter of how we organize in the future. Initially we were organized and changed all the things that we thought was wrong, and we won. But then after winning, and kind of relaxing, we found out that well, OK, for all the good—and I’ll make a point. We forced them to bring in telephones; we forced them to bring in TVs; we forced them to have family time; we forced them to bring in computers. Once we did all that stuff, we found out the hard way that then, that became tools that management used to control the population. ‘Well, if you don’t act right, we’re going to take your TV.’ [Laughs] Or, ‘If you don’t act right, we’re gonna not let you go on the phone. If you don’t act right, we’re going to not let you have a family visit.’ And so then what we found out was that not only did we change things, but we gave the administration tools to work with. But also, that we didn’t change the population, because new people would come in, and there was telephones; there was televisions; there was family visits; there was all kinds of picnics. And so they were like, ‘Oh, OK, I got five years; I can do this.’ And so the fire left the prison population. And so then we had to go back and revisit what we had done wrong. We hadn’t did anything wrong by changing the conditions, but we did something wrong by not changing the people. So then we went back and revamped the programs and started working with the individuals, and let them know that they have a responsibility to not only fight for the changes they want, but to help change the community in itself. And so we shifted from the great fight to the individual fight.
RS: You know, it’s interesting talking to you about this fight. Because it’s really the fight over a whole people’s consciousness and health. Because whatever set of stats you believe, there isn’t much disagreement—it’s, what, one out of three or four black males is going to end up somehow—
EC: That’s correct.
RS: –connected with the prison system. And then their larger families and friends and associates are all going to be affected by them, their behavior, their consciousness, their example. So you’re really talking about saving a people, basically. You’ve got a campaign to destroy the will of a people, break the will of a people. And you’re incarcerated, and you’re trying to challenge that, right? Now, putting on your scholar hat, and you know, what are the lessons you learned from this?
EC: I think the initial lessons is that you did need to fight for all the creature comforts that let people understand that they were humans, but you also needed to figure a way to let people know what their history, what their role is in history; how they come to be where they were. Because all too many people blame the victim or blame themself; it’s like, oh, well, I did the crime, I’m doing the time. You know, not understanding the larger picture of the historical institutional racism, not understanding how capitalism uses populations against each other for various reasons to gain wealth for a small majority. You had, you kind of had to raise the consciousness of individuals in order to change the conditions in the community, because if you don’t, then people will come through the prison system and go out thinking that they are more clever than they was when they came in, and they’ll end up back in the prison system again, and further damage the community. So that was one thing. The other thing I learned personally the hard way is that you can’t take things from people without giving them something else that will address the needs that they have. And I speak in particular about, like, we had waged a serious campaign about drug addiction and drug use in the prison population, and we had five or six hundred people just stop using drugs. But the end result was that it led to a number of suicides. And we had to kind of, like, step back from that and realize that, well, OK, we weren’t in the position to give them something to replace that, you know. So, I mean, those kinds of things you learn over the years in dealing with people. And ultimately we realized, you know, that if you want to change the community, you’re going to have to change the consciousness of those individuals that’s snatched from the community and then taken back into the community; but at the same time, you need to get in the community and change the consciousness and the awareness of their little brothers and sisters—my little brothers and sisters.RS: OK. You know, this is the part that I just don’t get. I don’t get how you survive, or Nelson Mandela survived; I don’t get how you’re able to work with a group of people that the whole society claims they can’t work with. That’s why they’re incarcerated, you know; they’re the, you know, they’re supposed to be wild, they’re supposed to be out of control, unreachable, right? Because we don’t even talk about much education or much change. And again, I’m not using ‘scholar’ pejoratively; you’ve now had time to think about—not much time, you’ve only been out a couple of years—but you know, you’ve thought about it, you thought about it while you were in prison, starting to do your work. And is it deliberate that the larger society doesn’t want to educate these people? Is it deliberate that they’re seen as throwaway people? Is this, like, you know, they’re expendable, their labor is no longer needed? What’s going on?
EC: Well, two things. One, the larger society is miseducated itself. The media and the school system, if I will, tend to miseducate people. And they tend—I mean, the hypocrisy that is American democracy or ‘all people are created equal’ was hypocritical when they founded the nation, full of slaves and women without the ability to vote, and even white poor people without property. You know, that hypocrisy has been perpetrated up to today, and the educational system continues to perpetrate it; the mass media, which is 85 or 86 percent owned by six multinational corporations continues to perpetrate it. And no one actually goes in—and then there’s the bogeyman thing, that it’s not safe to go in the community, it’s not safe to work with these people because they’re so dangerous and so on. When in reality, if you go down in those communities, people want jobs. Young people want jobs. No—and I’m not saying some people don’t get the glamor and the glory of being a drug kingpin or whatnot; the average person down in the community that’s on the corner, that’s risking their life, that’s risking their future, wants to actually work somewhere. There’s nowhere for them to work. There’s nobody that will even listen to them. Nobody goes and reports their stories. I take a microphone down in the community all the time; I stick it in front of young people’s faces, and the last thing that comes out of their mouths is ‘Give us some damn jobs!’ –well, I don’t know, [laughs] you know. And that’s the fact that’s not being reported, because there is no jobs. There’s automation and cybernation now. You know, America’s still manufacturing to the level it was, but it’s not using this population; it’s not using these people. The capitalist system has made those people obsolete, has thrown away large proportions of the population, because it’s no longer necessary.
RS: Yeah. Let me just say I’m talking to Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway about his 43 years and 11 months in jail, what happened before and what happened after. And as I’m listening to this, I’m reminding myself, we’re not in some suburb here; we’re at the University of Southern California, which—one of the things that blesses this institution, as opposed to many others—we happen to be in the inner city. [Laughs] You know? Maybe the school does its gentrification, maybe it does its selection and so forth, but we’re here. And now we have a closed campus, which we didn’t used to have, because we had some violence; we have a very large security force that runs into a lot of contradictions, not recognizing we do have black and brown students, and they’re not the enemy. But then again, are the people in the neighborhood the enemy, whether they’re from Central America, whether they’re African-American or what have you. So we’re right up against it here, and you can’t really build a wall high enough to keep your place, but that’d be true of, I guess, City College in New York where I went; that’s true of Columbia, other places, Temple or what have you. But sitting here, I realize you’ve only been out two years. Two years. In a way, you hit the ground running, right?
EC: Yes, yes, that’s true.
RS: And again, I hate to keep bringing up Mandela, but it’s somebody I’ve been focused—and I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my life and everything; I only had a very brief encounter with Mandela. But I was thinking of, how did this guy end up out of that experience? And he’s not the only one. You’re not the only one, but how do people go through that experience—your experience, your experience—and end up not controlled by cynicism, not controlled by self-interest, ego. I mean, I’m not your shrink, I’m not your buddy, I’ve had a couple encounters with you, but it’s very clear to me that somehow you survived—I’m not recommending this as a therapy program for people—
RS: –but the fact of the matter is, there’s a stellar quality here. And if you could put it in a drink or something and spread it around, I mean, it’s just—what, you know, let’s talk about your current work. You’re an executive producer at The Real News Network. Which is, I think, a terrific organization; I witnessed it, I walked into this factory building in Baltimore, and there’s all this stuff going on, the media was covering it, all these wild animals out there and terrible rioting, and everything. I walk in there, and there’s a real mixture of a lot of black, brown, white people in there; young people, they’re manning television cameras, they’re going out getting the story. And in the middle of that thing, I find you! [Laughs] You know, and you’re functioning in there; everything’s, you know, we’re going to cover this, we’re going to understand it and so forth. And I compare that to what all these—really I would say all—all these other news organizations are about, which is alienation from these people, contempt for their potential, right?
RS: What’s the big picture here?
EC: Well, the big picture is corporate news media, most of their—and in Baltimore in particular—most of their on-air talent, personality, not only are they white and they’re from suburbia, they’re pandering to an audience that’s in the county; they don’t really focus their attention on what’s happening in the urban areas other than to report negative stories or stories that create fear and hostility. And the larger parent organizations, most of those people are millionaires. So they’re sitting there on national TV and they’re telling you what’s going on, but they’re telling it from their perspective; they’re millionaires, they’re insulated against poverty, they don’t even understand what it is to have your food run out toward the end of the month and can’t feed yourself, or having no job; they don’t even understand that. So I think what happens is that alternative media is now starting to take hold, either through the social media networks, et cetera, radio programs such as this, television programs such as The Real News, and to look down in the community and address those things that’s happening down there from the grassroots level and giving people a chance to hear their stories, to tell their stories. That’s not going to happen in the major multinational media networks. And so we get a distorted picture, because we get a picture from people that don’t know, that’s not there, and don’t have any allegiance or concern about what’s going on in the community.RS: You know, I’m glad you mentioned, used the word ‘grassroots.’ Because I’m the editor of Truthdig, and we just were nominated for a Webby, which is the best, most important award you can get on the Internet. And we’ve won five of these, and so I had to give my reaction. And I said it’s great that grassroots journalism—I used that word—grassroots journalism be acknowledged. Because grassroots journalism was—all the failings of the Founders who gave us our Constitution—really what was being protected by that First Amendment of freedom of the press. Because what was the media then? It was the town crier; it was a wall poster; it was a radical like Tom Paine writing his pamphlets. You know, it was basically pretty primitive, pretty local. And I think there’s some—I think I coined the phrase, but I’m glad that you’re now endorsing it—it’s journalism; you know, you can’t let people say, oh no, that’s not journalism; journalism is telling the story of the banks in a favorable way, or journalism is smiling in the face of grief and making it, getting eyeballs to buy your products. No, it’s journalism, but it’s done on a grassroots level. And I’m a new convert to The Real News Network. In fact, when I met you in that heightened situation of what the rest of the media is calling the riot in Baltimore—which I just wandered into. I get off Amtrak and I walk through these demonstrations—I had actually not followed the news very much, and I’m looking around and everything, and then I end up in your shop. And what impressed me—and it’s important to understand, because everybody says—oh, media, what’s going to happen to media, you know, The New York Times is in trouble, big old CBS, how are they going to make their money, the business model—the fact is, there, you had people doing a professional job. Professional, you know? And if people want to check that out, just look at the interview that Paul Jay did with Eddie Conway; you know, it’s professional, you’re lit right, the sound is right, the technique is right, you know; on the other hand, the content is a world away from the content that we get, which is dismissive of people, of ordinary people, of their concerns. You see yourself doing this for a while?
EC: Oh, I love it. Don’t let this get out, but I would do it for free. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, I’m the same way, you know. But it gets a little tiring. I’ve done it for free. It gets a little tiring, you know. But no, I know what you mean. Because otherwise you’d just be a crazy person walking down the street muttering to yourself; now you’ve got an outlet. But you think it’s a model that can be sustained?
EC: I believe it can be sustained, and so far has been; as long as the public supports it, you know, with small donations, you know, we’re going to grow and we’re going to develop; we’re going to expand. And this is something that people need in order to reassert their independence and to reassert their ability to affect change in their community. As you said, the Founding Fathers saw this as the fourth estate, and that’s why they did that freedom of the press thing. And it was the press that was trying to keep things honest and equitable and even. And it’s the reason why multimillionaires and billionaires have bought up the press, because the press makes a difference in terms of how people see their future and how they see their ability to do things. One of the things—and I just want to make a point—there’s thousands, tens of thousands of things happening in America, and they’re not being reported by the multinational corporate media.
RS: I want to conclude on this. It’s Robert Scheer. I’ve been talking to Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway, otherwise known as Eddie Conway. And to a large number of people—not the majority—your cause, your case, was a glaring case for all those 44 years of an innocent man being held in prison. And the authories not giving a damn, not caring. But I want to pick up on this point of optimism. It’s interesting, because some people listening say, ‘Well, you know, those Founders of the country, they weren’t all great; and there was this enormous contradiction, and some were slaveowners, and blah blah blah’—and it’s all true. But it cheapens that history if you think they all did it with their wigs on, because you had a radical like Tom Paine, and he didn’t have any money, he didn’t have any resources; he was kind of on the lam from the Brits. And he scrounged up some money, did a pamphlet, did grassroots journalism. That’s what Tom Paine did—the greatest writer of the American Revolution, the greatest propagandist and spokesperson for the American Revolution, Tom Paine, was a guy who was maligned and actually after he died, critics dug up his grave and threw his bones to the wind. And looking at you, you don’t look like Tom Paine, but I think the spirit is there. And I think it’s fascinating to be doing this on a podcast that goes out over National Public Radio to a lot of stations and a lot of listeners. And I don’t want to put down NPR; it’s a hell of a lot better than a lot of, certainly the commercial outlets, and it’s brought us a lot of good stuff over the years. But when I go into newsrooms, any newsrooms—and here we are doing this from a school of journalism, where we’re training journalists at the University of Southern California—and I look in those newsrooms, they are quite often the children from the suburbs. They are quite often people alienated or indifferent or unknowing about the community that they’re attempting to cover or should be covering. And I think what you folks have been doing—and the idea that there’s an executive producer who two years ago was in the prison system, and now he comes out and he can help us understand the impact of that prison system on people, what happens to them after, what happens to them before they get swept up into this thing—and that’s the way to cover the news about the greatest crisis this country has, which is its indifference, its contempt, its hostility to the vast base of the population. Because as we’re seeing, and maybe it’s a little editorial on which I’m ending, but you know, even if you look at the Trump phenomena and who he’s appealing to, they’re people alienated. They’re not getting the jobs; they’re getting out and they’re in debt, you know; they’re not doing well. So the American dream has soured for the white working class, you know. And I think that this perspective that journalism should be done by the grassroots rather than by the elite—you don’t only just have to hire people who come out of Harvard; they could come out of prison, which is what Real News did. They gave you a job when you came out of prison.
RS: OK. So why don’t we end with, you just tell us how people can read more of your story and learn more about Real News, the books, the literature.
EC: Well, you can go to realnews.com on your search engine and pull up stories; in the search box you can put my name, Eddie Conway, in it. Or you can go to any of the other ways in which you can get it, podcasts, et cetera; Facebook. And you can buy, purchase the books from The Real News. And you can look at the interviews or you can look at the stories, and not just my stories, but there’s like ten thousand stories or more, so far. And so, and we cover everything around the world, and there’s a large network of journalists working toward that end to keep people informed from the level of people down on the ground, the grassroots.
RS: Well, that wraps it up. Thank you, Eddie Conway, for an incredibly inspiring story. And hope people do follow your lead, get the book, check out Real News, and see you around.
EC: OK, thank you.
RS: [omission] That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. My guest has been Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway, who’s certainly been a great source of intelligence on the issues we have to face. Our producers have been Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney; Sebastian Grubaugh at USC has been the engineer on site; and Kat Yore at KCRW.com in Santa Monica.