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Jon Alpert’s Acceptance Speech - Part I



Jon Alpert: Thank you. I’m extraordinarily humbled at the nice things that were said about me, someone embarrassed and self-conscious. My dad always taught us never to really say anything nice about yourselves, to always hold your head down and just keep going forward. So, when people say nice things about me, I sort of don’t know how to react to it and they don’t usually say nice things often. They are kicking me. So, I really appreciate this and I really appreciate the honor of the I. F. Stone Award.

I’d like everybody to know that I. F. Stone was my father’s favorite reporter. And every week when the I. F. Stone Weekly would come into the house, there would be a little bit of a tug of war between my dad and me for who was going to get to read it. He described I. F. Stone as an independent reporter and held him out as an example to me as a young teenager. I certainly didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t know any other reporters, but I liked reading what I. F. Stone had to write. I actually printed out the two I. F. Stone’s from my birthday and my dad’s birthday. I’m sure we both read them and we talked about them. He described how I. F. Stone was his own man, always fought for what he thought was right and used him as an example of somebody that maybe I could be one day. But I never really thought that I was going to be a reporter. I wanted to be a hockey player or a trumpet player and unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at either one of them. I sort of wasn’t good at anything. And sort of limped through high school as my friends can testify and didn’t really do a good job doing my homework as my mother will testify to. And wound up driving a taxicab. I wasn’t a very good taxi driver either.

[Laughter]

The conditions for the taxi drivers back in the early 70’s in New York City were atrocious. The cars were falling apart. There were muggers in the back seat killing the drivers. There was a driver that was getting killed at least once a month. We had a sweetheart union that was reducing our wages and putting money in the bosses’ pockets and we were trying to do something about this. We were trying to organize the cab drivers. Cab drivers are a strange workforce because they compete against each other. And it’s not like working in a steel factory where the workers can unite against the boss. A New York City cab driver will kill you to steal the fare that is waiting on the corner. So this was another thing that I was failing at just in that it wasn’t working and we weren’t accomplishing anything.

My wife had gotten one of the early video cameras and she was going to use this to document her artwork. I said, hey, let me try something. Why don’t we make an organizing tape and let’s show it to the cab drivers and we’ll see…It can’t hurt. So, this is the first tape that we ever made and this is what we showed at the cabdrivers meeting. So, if we lower the lights, we will play this first tape. [This was our taxi driving tape to try and get the workers to work together.]

[Video plays]:
- The bosses used to pay our health benefits and they no longer do. Instead we pay for our own health benefits and everything. The bosses don’t pay anything.
- What do you have to say about this contract?
- Well, when Lincoln freed the slaves, he forgot all about the cabdrivers of the city of New York.
- Are you an expert on public transportation?
- Yes, 40 years I’m an expert. Boy, this contract really stinks.
- If there was a vote on the contract today, would it pass?
- I doubt it.
- You doubt it. Would you vote for the contract?
- I’m against the contract they have now.
- Do you know any fleet drivers who are for the contract?
- If there’s any, I would like to see it.
Jon Alpert: [We took this tape and we showed it and it was like waving a magic wand over the workers.]  I still, to this day, can’t tell you why it worked, but it worked. They began mobilizing, began winning all the shop committees. We basically took over the union. We began showing this at all of the garages in order to make sure that we had everybody with us. We set up a little monitor on the hood of a car and play this and all the drivers would then join our rank and file unit. But it was also the first time that I had learned about the consequences of doing something like this because the bosses didn’t like it.

So, here is an example of one of the bosses when he saw us showing his workers the videotape on the hood of one of his taxicabs.

[Video plays]:
- I said don’t take my—I’ll bust that over your head in a minute.
[Laughter]

John Alpert: [In those days, we only had one camera and he broke it. It cost] $75 to get the camera fixed. We took him to small claims court and he showed up. He didn’t look like that. He was dressed really nice and he had a really nicely dressed lawyer. He said, “I never saw that man before and I don’t know what he is talking about. ”I said, “Judge, he’s lying. ”The judge said, “You can’t make that type of accusation in my court. How can you prove it?”

So, we took out the tape. [Laughter] Nobody had ever played a tape in court before. He saw that and the judge says, “Pay him. ”We got our money back and got the camera fixed. But this whole thing with the taxicabs really encouraged us to try to use the camera as a device to improve life in our neighborhood as an agent for social change. I bought an old mail truck for five dollars. Does Merrill Lynch still exist?Merrill Lynch had two old black and white TV sets that they donated to us and we put them in the side of the post office truck and we began making tapes about all the problems in our neighborhoods, the bad schools, the bad housing, the bad healthcare. And we parked the truck on a street corner. We were like street musicians and the people would come by and if they liked the film, they would stand around and watch. If they didn’t, they would walk away. And there isn’t anything like an empty sidewalk to be a really good tough teacher because you’re competing with all of the excitement of New York City and if your tape is not interesting to the people, they’re gone.

So we learned pretty fast how to try and improve our tapes. We began one by one attacking what we perceived as the social ills in our community. One of the problems was with the schools. They were supposed to have a democratic procedure for making decisions, school board with public participation. In fact, there was a clique of officials that would not let people talk at the school board meetings. When the people talked at the school board meetings, they had the police come and beat them up and nobody believed it until we made a videotape about one of our typical school board meetings. So this is what happened when you went to a school board meeting back in the good old days on the Lower East Side.

[Video plays]: School Board 1973
- [Man talking through speaker] [Crowd yelling] [Police attack crowd.]
Jon Alpert: [This was another videotape that got shown in court and they threw out] that school board, had another election. The local community won and they began running the school in a democratic fashion. It was like giving a crack addict—somebody who had never succeeded in anything before all of a sudden had something in their hand that they could do to improve lives in their own community and improve our lives and basically improve the things that we had all been trying to change, but had been unsuccessful in doing so. We were noticed by the local public television station and there was a fellow there named David Loxton who collected all the early porter packers and gave them an opportunity to get their work on television. He is one of my heroes because none of us ever would have gotten anything on TV if it wasn’t for him. He took us in the back door of the public TV system, held up six mirrors, turned on the smoke machine and sort of diverted everybody while we got our programs on the air.

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