Van Jones came home angry.
A native of Jackson, Tenn., and founder of the California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Jones closed the National Conference for Media Reform Sunday with a charged speech that censured mass media, the Bush administration, and a proposal to build a private prison in Memphis.
"The future of this city is hanging in the balance," Jones told an audience of more than 1,000 at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
"There are forces at work -- the same forces that Dr. (Martin Luther) King stood against in this very city -- who want to make Memphis the home to the biggest private, for-profit prison in the world."
Jane Fonda clinches her fist during her closing remarks on the last day of the National Conference For Media Reform at the Cook Convention Center.
Although the proposal has been rejected by Sheriff Mark Luttrell, Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America in November proposed a privately run jail to alleviate crowding at 201 Poplar.
Jones, whose organization promotes alternatives to violence and incarceration, called the jail "a huge slave ship on dry land" that would "create a new Jim Crow."
"You don't have to call somebody the N-word if you can call him a felon," he said.
The predominantly white, middle-age crowd applauded.
On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, Jones, an African-American, offered a politically charged talk with repeated references to the civil rights leader.
Calling the conference a "movement," Jones said the people in attendance have gathered strength from President George W. Bush's failures.
"Bush's presidency drowned in the flood waters of Katrina," he said.
The media's collapse, said actor and activist Jane Fonda in an earlier speech, shielded the government's own failures.
Telling the story of Abeer Qasim Hamza, a 15-year-old Iraqi who was raped and murdered by U.S. soldiers, Fonda criticized the news media's impotence in covering the war.
"The cold-blooded murder of Abeer and her family is a tragedy," Fonda said. "But it's almost as great a tragedy when her story and all the other stories that are difficult to hear and difficult to accept are buried in the back of news pages and quickly shuffled off the nightly news."
She added: "A truly powerful media is one that can stop a war, not start one."
A founder of the Women's Media Center, which advocates for greater representation of women in media and in newsrooms, Fonda said American journalism takes pride in balance but "forgets that the world is not divided only by right and left."
"During the coverage of the 2004 elections," she added, "journalists were more than twice as likely to turn to a male source than a woman."
With more than 3,500 attending the Memphis conference Friday through Sunday, this was the third and largest event for National Conference on Media Reform, surpassing in size previous conferences in Madison, Wis., in 2003 and St. Louis in 2005.
The conference's organizer was Free Press, a nonprofit that advocates for local ownership of media, community and public broadcasting, and "Net neutrality," which prohibits telecom companies from charging individuals or companies to provide superior Internet service.
"It was an amalgamation of all of these things that add up to protecting us from having too few opinions," said David Frenkel, an Australian-born publishing veteran from Boston who attended the conference.
Billed as a nonpartisan event, the conference looked at times like a farcical political rally.
On Saturday night, before a packed ballroom, Mexican community-radio activist Erubiel Valladares Carranza yelled out to the crowd over and over, "!Si, se puede!" -- or, "Yes, we can!"
Everyone repeated with him.
As attendees exited the conference center Sunday afternoon, they walked past small boxes near the escalators.
A sign at each box asked attendees to leave their three-by-three badges, so conference organizers could recycle the paper nametags.
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