Andrew Breitbart had a new target. On the April 18 broadcast of Fox News' Hannity — Breitbart was there to promote his latest book — the conservative provocateur told Sean Hannity that he and his powerful network of websites and supporters had embarked on a nationwide attack on its latest enemy.
"We're going to take on education next, go after the teachers, the union organizers," he said.
A week later, Breitbart fired his first salvo.
In a video released April 25 on Breitbart's website, BigGovernment.com, Judy Ancel, the director of the Institute of Labor Studies at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, sits at a desk emblazoned with a UMKC logo. She leans forward and tells her class, "Violence is a tactic, and it's to be used when it's appropriate, the appropriate tactic." Just as Ancel takes a breath to begin her next sentence, the video snaps away to a student, who appears to parrot Ancel to his classmates.
"It's a tactic that should be used at an appropriate time," the student says. "I believe in the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and that freedom is found at the barrel of a gun, like Mao said and Marx said."
"Marx didn't say that," Ancel answers.
The video, titled "Thuggery 101," was edited by Insurgent Visuals, a group of political activists. The relatively unknown outfit has at least one member in Kansas City. The nearly seven-minute piece is assembled from clips taken from a labor-studies course that Ancel was teaching with University of Missouri–St. Louis instructor Don Giljum. The teachers led their class via video link, allowing students in both cities to enroll in the course.
"Thuggery" and the two videos that followed are full of similar exchanges. Giljum and Ancel appear, for example, to be lecturing students on how to scare a company CEO into wearing body armor, and how to tell the difference between terrorism and revolution. The three Insurgent Visuals videos total about 20 minutes, culled from 18 hours of raw classroom feed.
In another segment, Ancel tells a story about a union of workers at a utility company in Lima, Peru. The union wasn't allowed to strike. Ancel explains: "They had a lot of cats. And they succeeded in putting cats in powerhouses, and the cats — don't think about the cats, OK? — the cats would run around inside and short out the system and cause blackouts." She adds that the blackouts gave the workers some negotiating leverage. And there was another benefit: "Plus, they got rid of feral cats," she concludes.
Using video to discredit political adversaries isn't a new tactic, especially among young, tech-savvy activists. James O'Keefe became a conservative icon by releasing guerrilla videos of employees at ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now), NPR and Planned Parenthood who appeared to be engaging in unsavory, unethical or illegal behavior. His efforts have yielded results — sometimes very fast results.
O'Keefe's work against ACORN showed how devastating videos could be. Damning undercover videos that he provided to Fox News and Big Government in the fall of 2009 showed ACORN employees appearing to advise O'Keefe (dressed as a pimp) and an accomplice (acting as a prostitute) how to avoid paying taxes. Investigations in the cities where the videos were shot found that ACORN employees hadn't done anything illegal, but the damage was done. Congress voted to halt ACORN's funding, and private donations were scared off. By the following spring, ACORN had all but vanished. The organization filed for bankruptcy in November 2010.
Breitbart's websites used a similar tactic in 2010, releasing a video on Big Government in which Shirley Sherrod, then Georgia's director for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, appears to tell an audience that she had given white farmers less assistance because of their race. By the time the video was shown to have been drastically edited — her story was actually one of overcoming racial bias — Sherrod had resigned.
Ancel says she and Giljum are victims of the same type of smear campaign. And, when viewed in context, the professors' statements are much less unsettling than they seem in the videos.
In a May appearance on the TV and radio show Democracy Now, Ancel showed host Amy Goodman a clip of the full statement she'd made to students regarding violence as a tactic. She was discussing a film that the class had watched, she explained. The full statement, in reference to what somebody in the film said, was: "Yeah, right, right, right. Yeah, but he represented the kind of thinking that went into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then later probably — well, coinciding with the Black Panthers, I'd say. You know, he said violence is a tactic, and it's to be used when it's appropriate — the appropriate tactic."
UMKC and UMSL agreed that their faculty had been framed. Administrators at both campuses decided that Ancel and Giljum had done nothing wrong. UMSL had in the meantime told Giljum that he had to resign if he wanted to teach the final session of class, and he obliged. But the school has since reinstated him. In May, UMSL issued a statement, which read in part: "The excerpts that were made public showing the University of Missouri–St. Louis (UMSL) instructor Don Giljum and students as well as the UMKC instructor and students were definitely taken out of context, with their meaning highly distorted through splicing and editing from different times within a class period and across multiple class periods."
UMKC officials, who never took action against Ancel, conducted their own review of the class footage in its entirety. Gail Hackett, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said in a statement: "It is clear that edited videos posted on the Internet depict statements from the instructors in an inaccurate and distorted manner by taking their statements out of context and reordering the sequence in which those statements were actually made so as to change their meaning."
Ancel, who has run the university's Institute for Labor Studies (a one-person program) since 1988, returned to her regular teaching schedule when the fall semester began.
Phil Christofanelli, the student who took the class footage off the password-protected class website and released it to a few of his friends, says what he did wasn't wrong.
"It's not like I hacked their system or anything," he tells The Pitch. "I simply made a recording of what was on their website."
Judy Ancel said, 'Please share my class materials.' She encouraged people to use her class materials and said that all labor education materials are un-copyrighted and to be shared, which is exactly what I did. I shared it. She apparently just doesn't like the sort of people who got ahold of them." (Ancel says this freedom to disseminate applied only to printed materials.)
Christofanelli, 22, was a senior studying political science at Washington University in St. Louis when he enrolled in last spring's labor course as he finished up his degree. He says Giljum, a leader within the International Union of Operating Engineers, made him uncomfortable from the start of class.
"On the first day, Don Giljum started chronicling to the class how he believed that industrial sabotage was an appropriate labor tactic and how strikes were no longer effective, and that he encouraged his members to go out and instead of striking out, to strike in," Christofanelli says, who has since graduated and now works for a political consulting firm in St. Louis.
It's obvious to anyone watching the video that the footage has been heavily chopped up. There are clips in which Giljum starts a series of thoughts in one shirt but appears to end it in another.
And because of how video is cut, at other times it's impossible to tell if the professors are responding to students' questions or speaking on a different day altogether.
At one point in the footage, Giljum is shown to say that violence has had a place in the labor movement's past: "But as far as, you know, I can't really honestly say that I've never wished or have never been in a position where I hadn't wished real harm on somebody or inflicted any pain and suffering on some people that, you know, didn't ask for it. But, you know, it certainly has its place." As Ancel showed during her appearance on Democracy Now, Giljum's riff concludes with him saying violence is no longer an appropriate method for modern unions to use, but the edit doesn't include that. According to the clip that Ancel provided, Giljum says: "It certainly makes you feel a hell of a lot better sometimes. But beyond that, I'm not sure that, as a tactic today, the type of violence or reaction to the violence we had back then would be called for here. I think it would do more harm than good."
Christofanelli argues that context is unimportant. "The editing is really not the issue here," he says. "The quotes in their full context are pretty horrendous. Judy Ancel absolutely thinks it's hilarious that cats are killed in labor disputes by electrocution. What context makes that OK?"
A representative from Insurgent Visuals stands by the group's work, saying the raw footage was only "trimmed" and that the exchanges shown do not lack context.
"There was no 'editing' [T]here was merely the opportunity for the world to see inside Judy's classroom," Rich K., the Insurgent Visuals representative — who refuses to reveal a surname — writes in an e-mail to The Pitch. He adds that the media jumped to protect Ancel rather than take a critical look at the footage. "She's just blessed with media parakeets who blindingly repeat whatever nonsense she says to defend herself," he writes in the e-mail.
Christofanelli argues that Ancel and Giljum tried to indoctrinate their students with a political ideology. "They also brought in a recruiter for the Communist Party, who spoke for two hours," he says, pointing to one of Giljum's guest lecturers. "This was a kid who was not much older than me and who was telling people all the costs and benefits of joining this political party, in what was supposed to be an academic class."
Giljum, himself a member of the Communist Party, says students requested that a representative from the party speak to the class, but, he says, the speaker's rhetoric stopped short of outright recruitment. "He did say that if anybody was interested in learning more about it, they could get in touch with him. But that was it. He didn't say anything else about recruiting or joining or anything else."
Christofanelli says the course was never really about teaching labor history. "This was a political activism course, taxpayer subsidized, for the radical fringe of the labor movement," he says.
As Ancel approaches a new semester, she says what happened in the spring has changed just one thing about the way her classroom functions.
"We will not be videotaping in the future," she says. "I'm not going to expose my students to that kind of violation of privacy. I want a classroom where people feel free to learn."
Giljum says he also won't record his classes anymore, and he says he now asks his students to keep their cell phones out of sight to prevent them from capturing video.
"You have to be very cautious now, because if somebody tape-records something and then wants to edit it, and you don't have access to the real tapes of that, they could ruin someone. And they really don't care. And I found that out," he says.
Ancel llustrates her concerns that students might now censor themselves. She tells a story of a Chinese class she took in Hong Kong in 1972 with a professor who wouldn't allow political discussion in the classroom.
"Whenever anybody brought up something political — we still called it Red China in those days — he would go, 'Shh, the walls have ears.' And [he] absolutely refused to let anybody talk about anything the slightest bit political in class. That's the fruit of dictatorships," she says. "I'd be ashamed if that kind of repression gains a foothold here in the University of Missouri."
Ancel says Breitbart and his acolytes haven't won, though.
"Breitbart wanted to take out my colleague and me," she says. "Breitbart was fully allied with the tea party, and they had an agenda that was aimed at passing legislation that was very deleterious to labor in the state of Missouri. They failed on all those grounds."
Ancel says she believes that the videos were part of a larger, statewide attack against organized labor. State Republicans were divided this year on two pieces of legislation: a "right to work" bill designed to outlaw the practice of making union dues a condition of employment, and a "paycheck protection" bill that would have required employees to sign a consent form every year to authorize payroll deductions for union political dues.
"There were a number of key Republicans who were refusing to vote for these right-wing measures," Ancel says. "And [activists] wanted to pull the rug out from under them and be able to crank up the pressure on them against labor."
Though neither bill passed, and Ancel still has her job, she isn't pleased with what the clash has meant for her and her program.
"I don't feel vindicated," she says. "I feel that people, at least on my end of the state, did the right thing. My character was assassinated. And, yeah, it came out that the thing was completely cooked up. But I'm sure there were a lot of people who didn't see that part of it."
Ancel and Giljum add that they both have received threats from people who watched the Insurgent Visuals videos online. "One individual said he was glad Missouri had conceal and carry because I wouldn't know what to expect or that he'd be the person taking me out when he met me on the street," Giljum says of a phone threat he received. Ancel adds: "This is the first time in my life I actually thought about getting into my car. So, yeah, this does real harm to people's peace of mind."
Christofanelli isn't exactly taking a victory lap, either. "I wish I didn't have to do it," he says of his video strategy. "I wish that professors would not be doing political organizing on [the] taxpayer dime in the classroom," he says. "I don't think it's a success, but I have to go out and do this. It's pretty sad. And if it continues to happen, that's even more sad."
Conservatives and Breitbart's Web behemoth have moved on to pushing a new video. A Fox News clip showing Teamsters president James P. Hoffa's speech introducing President Barack Obama at a Labor Day event in Michigan has been embedded on Breitbart's BigJournalism.com site. In the video, Hoffa appears to end his speech filled with military terms and themes by saying of conservative politicians, "Let's take these sonofabitches out and give America back to America where we belong! Thank you very much!"
The full quote was less caustic: "Everybody here's got to vote. If we go back and keep the eye on the prize, let's take these sonofabitches out and give America back to America where we belong! Thank you very much!"
Ancel has come to expect this kind of thing. "It's just amazing," she says. "The absolute same kind of M.O. You put this stuff up there, you get a whole bunch of people reacting and condemning — and, in our case, making violent threats — and by the time it comes out that the thing is not the truth, they're on to their next distortion."