Labor Icon Dolores Huerta Warns Against Violence (Audio and Transcript)
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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, there’s no question there’s going to be a lot of intelligence. I just watched a great movie last night called Dolores. The director is also here, Peter Bratt. And I watched it late at night ‘cause I was late to do my homework, and it was riveting. It was riveting in its complexity; for those who don’t know Dolores Huerta, and you should, she is the cofounder of the United Farm Workers, which Cesar Chavez–it always infuriates me, ‘cause I drive on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in LA; I go on many others–and I say, why isn’t it Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez Boulevard? And why doesn’t she have a boulevard? The film actually addresses the inherent male chauvinism of even a progressive union, and issues about it. But let me just tell you, being an old guy myself–I’m not quite 87, I’m 81; Dolores is 87–but I can tell you, I was there really early on, because I was editing a magazine called Ramparts. And Ramparts was very much influenced by Pope John, who was a progressive pope, and the Catholic movement that was progressive was very excited about the farm workers. And the farm workers had a very strong religious base. But let me take you back then, because–and people don’t understand. You have a line in this movie, Dolores, in which you said, you know, “The border moved over us; we didn’t move over the border.”
Dolores Huerta: Yeah, we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. That line was actually created by one of our really good friends who was at Stanford, you know, and he’s the one that came up with that line.
RS: But it also describes your life. So why don’t you put us back there? I’m trying to do the numbers, but how old were you when you got involved at this community organizing meeting?
DH: I was 25 years old, and I was invited to this meeting by one of my teachers; I was going, I had gone to school at the college and I had dropped out, and then I went back to college. I got married and had two daughters, and then I got a divorce and went back to school. And one of my teachers there invited me to this meeting with Fred Ross. And I was 25 years old at the time.
RS: And what school was that?
DH: That was in Stockton, California, the University of the Pacific.
RS: Ah, OK. And so you went to a meeting, and did–but I mean, just for people who don’t know your whole background, what had it been like for the first 25 years?
DH: Well, growing up, I grew up in a very middle-class household. My mother was a businesswoman, and you know, she had a, she was a very good cook, she had a restaurant. And then during World War II she gave up the restaurant and took over a hotel that had been run by a friend of hers who was Japanese. And when they had that, you know, sudden deportation of all the Japanese, my mother’s friend Mickey asked her to take over her hotel until they could come back, you know. And she did. And so, you know, my mother was very, a very hard-working person; she worked two jobs after the Depression, worked in the canneries at night–she was in the canneries strike of 1938 in Stockton–and then she worked as a waitress during the daytime. And so she managed so save enough money to get her restaurant. So I had a very comfortable, middle-class life; I took the dancing lessons and the music lessons, and she, my mother was always making me, pushing me out to be in public life; you know, dancing, et cetera, because I was a very shy girl. But then I was a Girl Scout for ten years, from the time I was eight ‘til the time I was 18. And I got involved in a lot of social clubs, but when I met Fred Ross, and I saw that you–not only to be involved in an organization, but to be involved in an organization that actually could do something and make the kind of changes that we needed in our community.
RS: It’s interesting, in the movie–the movie’s called Dolores, and it’s really a very good lesson in our history. Because it, you know, we’re having a big argument about a statue for Lee, and segregation and slavery. And the movie makes a really incredible point: that it wasn’t just black people; yes, black people were brought as slaves; but you know, Chinese people, Japanese people, and certainly brown people were treated in a position of servitude, without fundamental rights. Many of them were legal. So this isn’t a question of the undocumented and so forth; I mean, your family was legal, right?
DH: Oh, well, I’m like fifth generation!
RS: Fifth generation.
DH: My great-grandfather, as we say in the movie, was in the Civil War on the Union side, and my great-great grandfather was born in Vermont. So on my mother’s side we go back many, many generations in the United States of America. Like I like to say, the indigenous side–you know, my grandparents from Mexico, which were Native American–I mean, we talk about America going all the way from Peru to Canada, you know, they were waiting to greet the other grandparents that were coming from Spain. [Laughs] And France, you know, so they were there to greet them.
RS: Yeah, and as I recall, you know, being a graduate student at Berkeley in a supportive role and then at Ramparts, this was the movement that captured our imagination as much as anything. It was right up there with Martin Luther King and so forth. And the reason being, first of all, it was right here in prosperous California. And we had to come to face up, to face the fact that there were people being exploited shamefully, like in the Third World. And the interesting thing, given all the Trump stuff about immigration and undocumented, the fact is that wasn’t the big issue here at that time. And in fact the farm workers, as I recall, were not so sympathetic to the undocumented.
Oh, actually, that’s not true. I think that that, ah, that has been spread by a group of militants, you know. During that time, as you will remember, that there was those of us that were working on what we called a nonviolent strategy; you know, not using violence. And then we had people who were to the left of the Farm Workers Union that felt that we were not strong enough, we were not militant enough, and some of those folks have really perpetuated that myth that we were against undocumented workers. And as a matter of fact, United Farm Workers has always been the largest organization of undocumented workers, and it still is today. And in fact, when we passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Law, we made sure that undocumented workers were totally covered. In all of our health plans that we had in the union, we always made sure that it covered undocumented workers. And in fact, I was–and I like to really take some kind of credit for this–but I was very instrumental in passing the 1986 amnesty law. And we’ve got almost 200 million undocumented farm workers covered with legalization and ultimately with citizenship. And I mean, I worked that bill through the Congress for four months with Howard Berman, very progressive congressman from California; with Schumer, who was then on the judiciary committee, and Peter Bodino, from New Jersey, and Ted Kennedy, who helped us get Simpson and the other senators to support the bill. So to say that the United Farm Workers is against undocumented is a lie.
DH: And let me just explain it. And when they would tell Cesar, OK, are you against undocumented–he said, I am against strike-breakers. Whether they be citizens, residents, or undocumented, I am against any–he actually, his godfather was bringing in strike-breakers; Cesar did not talk to his godfather. And when his godfather was on his deathbed, he called for Cesar to come to see him, and he asked for forgiveness from Cesar for breaking the strike.
RS: Yeah, and the problem with the undocumented, and it remains today, is that they are more easily exploited and can be used as strike-breakers. And I think I did–well, I know I misspoke; what I meant was, you were quite critical, as I recall, of things like the Bracero program, and so forth–
DH: That, definitely–
RS: –which were a way of bringing in a labor force that did not have full rights to strike and everything else. So, I should have phrased the question differently–
DH: No, that’s good–
RS: —once again, I’ve been taken to school by you.
RS: And by the way, my wife is going to take me to school, because she always says I mispronounce your name.
DH: Oh, let’s see. I’m not sure that you did. But the other thing, it’s good that you bring that up–
RS: So what’s the proper way to pronounce it?
DH: Huerta. The “h” is silent, the “h” is silent. But you know, it’s good that you bring that point up. Because actually, what’s happening in today’s world is the Trump administration is now pushing to bring in more, what they called Bracero programs, the H2A foreign worker program. They’re pushing for that right now as we speak. And Dianne Feinstein, for all the listeners out there, Dianne Feinstein has a bill in the Congress called the blue visa. It’s a blue visa that, it would be limited to farm workers, and instead of deporting them the way that they’re doing right now and splitting up these families, they would be able to stay here and work in agriculture; it’s called the blue visa. So folks out there that are listening, please, you know, write a letter to your congressperson and tell them, support Dianne Feinstein’s bill on the blue visa.
RS: But with the blue visa, would they be able to join a union and go on strike?
DH: Absolutely. Absolutely.
RS: Because that wasn’t true of the Bracero Program.
DH: That’s true. The Braceros have no rights whatsoever; they can’t get unemployment insurance, they can’t get Social Security, they can’t join a union–
Yeah. Right. You know what’s amazing, though, having this discussion–you are so up to the moment. And when I was coming here to do this recording, my son Peter Scheer, who worked with a group called Swell on the living wage in LA County and LA city, which is really quite successful, he said–”Oh! You’re talking to Dolores Huerta! You know, do you understand that we wouldn’t have the living wage if not for her? She was out there organizing!”–and you know. So instead of thinking of you as this legend–and I do think it’s one of the great strengths of this movie, which is really–you know, and we’re going to show it to students and everything–you can have a life as an activist, as an organizer, and win and survive. And here you are at 87, like a pistol. And you were instrumental, according to my son, in helping us get a living wage, getting the minimum wage finally raised to something over the next few years where people could live on it. And I know you’re active on a lot of issues. So I just want to make sure that people understand, this is not an interview with someone about the distant past. It’s really, what I want to get at is survival. Survival as a progressive person, as a concerned person. And I think the movie captures it. And it captures the ups and downs. And so to just introduce you to people more, among other things [laughs]–because people think, oh, if you’re active you’re not pro-family, and you couldn’t be a mother. Well, the film addresses that in a very moving way, with the ups and downs. You had 11 children, you know, and I mentioned before this was a movement that had strong Catholic influence, and their Catholic view on this. And at times, you admit in the movie your political organizing, labor organizing distracted from being a kind of mother, a conventional mother; on the other hand, late in life, when you were seriously ill, your children performed round the clock nursing care for you, and they’re very prominent, some of them, in the movie. And so it’s an interesting–it happened that my own mother, who was also undocumented–well, not also, you weren’t–my own mother came here from Russia and didn’t have proper documentation, was a garment worker, labor organizer. And yeah, there were plenty of times when I didn’t see my mother, and she was off on strikes and organizing down in the garment industry in New York. And the movie touched me, because frankly it did remind me of my mother.
DH: Yes, and I think that’s true of a lot of mothers, you know, as we go around. And you know, I think that’s why we have to really fight really hard to get early childhood education, you know. Not only to educate our children on the contributions of people of color, and the indigenous people who were the first slaves, and Africans who built–you know, African slaves who built the White House and the Congress, but also to liberate women so they can have a civic life, because we need women’s intuition, we need women’s voices. And I just want to mention Maria Elena Durazo, who I’m sure has been on your program many times. And I think she and [Rusty] Hicks, who was the head of the Central Labor Council, now in Los Angeles, I think they need to take the credit for the big push to raise the minimum wage, and also SEIU, that union, which kind of funded that whole program of raising the wage to $15 an hour all throughout the United States. So I was fortunate to be in rallies with them in places like Wisconsin [laughs] and places like that. And so I think that’s important to give credit, you know, to the people that really–but the other thing, too, is that the minimum wage, if it would have been at the standard of the cost of living, our minimum wage would be $30 an hour. Because people cannot even, you know, they cannot even have a good life at $15 an hour. And we know a lot of people are still, you know, at the minimum wage of $10.50 or $11, and people can’t make it on that wage.
RS: Yeah. And in the film, again–I want to get people to watch this film. And I don’t always do this, but you know–sometimes I interview people and I don’t particularly [Laughs] like the film or the book or something that much. But I did watch this last night, and I was blown away by it as a vision of how you can lead a life of struggle and end up with joy. That is the way I see it. You’ve never been a downer. I have never met you at a rally–I’ve known you for over half a century, and I’ve never met you where you bummed me out, you know?
RS: You’ve never guilted me, you know; we’ve disagreed–I know we’ve had our disagreements; we had a pretty strong one on–you may not know it–on Hillary, for example.
DH: Yeah, I–I was aware. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah. Ah, you know, we’ve had our disagreements. But never once have I felt, you know, like you thought the less of me, or that you guilted me, or so–no. You inspired me to do more. And I think that’s what the movie captures: we’re not dealing with ancient history, we’re dealing with the struggle today. And the best way to respond to Trump, from my point of view–or to what that represents, the scapegoating of the most vulnerable in this society–is to say, make them your allies.
RS: Make them–and that’s what happened to the democrats in California. And I do give Jerry Brown a lot of credit, and a lot of other people in the Democratic Party, as opposed to the national party. The California party responded to 187, a anti-immigrant program, by saying, you know, no; we’re going to organize these people so they can’t be used as strike-breakers, so they won’t undermine wages. And the most recent thing, raising the minimum wage. So you want to hire these people–you got to meet, you got to have worker’s comp, you got to pay overtime; they have the right to form a union, they have–you know. And so that does away with the us-and-them argument.
DH: And thank you for that, because I think, and our message to a lot of the people that are marching out there and protesting–and thank you very much for doing that, and we know that a lot of these, maybe the majority of the people that are protesting right now are Anglos, are Caucasians; I want to thank them for that–but we also want to say to them that we’ve got to make policy changes, we’ve got to get on those boards, we’ve got to get on those school boards, on those city councils, and we’ve got to come back to voting. Because the only way–the ultimate way that you can change things is by voting. And also a callout to nonviolence, because when people use violence, we’re saying to them, what you’re doing, you’re joining the Nazis.
RS: [omission] We’re back with Dolores Huerta, who is the subject of the movie Dolores, and the director Peter Bratt. The movie is screening in New York and Los Angeles; check it out. And we’ll have it on the website of KCRW. And I want to get back to this story; we were just talking about nonviolence and violence. That is a powerful message in this film. Because it was a reminder for me–and you have scenes where you’re involved with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement and so forth. And the excuse for people on the progressive side–they claim to be on the progressive side–for getting more militant physically and breaking things and so forth, is somehow desperation, we’ve never lived in times like this. And that is nonsense. People who have struggled for their rights throughout the world, whether they’re in India with Gandhi, as is in your movie, or here, they came up against horrible obstacles. And when you watch the movie Dolores, you will see even in enlightened California–although enlightened California is where you had the refugees from the Dust Bowl, the Oakies who were beaten and everything back in the Depression, and everything that Steinbeck talked about. But the fact is you were up against the brute power of the state. People shouldn’t forget, you have the Ronald Reagan and marshaling, you know, the highway patrol, and local police, and sheriffs and just dragging men, women, and children even, and arresting them. And these people were out in the dusty fields, in the heat, and had, you know, hardly had legal representation; yes, there were some brave lawyers who went down. But they were the most vulnerable people in this society; the growers had tremendous political power, and so they were agrobusiness already, they could marshal great political influence in the state capital, and the federal government and so forth. And yet Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez continuously preached a message of nonviolence. And it’s violence that destroys these movements, because it gives the other folks, the racists and everything, an excuse–see, you can’t have them in your society, you can’t trust ‘em.
DH: And the infiltration. And the thing is that–
RS: Ah, mention infiltration–
DH: Yeah, ah–
RS: –I can tell you from my own FBI file, I mentioned Ramparts before, and you know, here we were doing journalism in a good, progressive, Catholic-influenced magazine, and yet we had people in our office who were agent provocateurs.
DH: Right. And actually, the Nixon administration actually paid people to come in to infiltrate our organization. Of course, the FBI also had infiltrators. And the one thing about nonviolence is that you can identify those infiltrators. Because when they start promoting violence, then you know who they are, and you can take them out of your movement, you know; push them out, you know, make sure that they don’t get involved. If you’re in a demonstration and somebody starts using violence, you can identify those individuals. So if you’re using violence, then you’re really joining the other side, basically; you know, you’re partnering with the alt-right and the neo-nazis and all those people who are promoting hatred instead of love in our society. So that’s–and it’s a discipline, and people have to understand that nonviolence has a strong spiritual power. You can’t see it, but it’s there, and it does influence, and it’s very, very effective. And so we just want a big callout to everybody. And the other thing, too–like, instead of bringing down those statues, you know, with ropes, whatever–let’s take over those city councils and those people that make the decisions, you know, to say OK, we’re going to put these statues in a museum somewhere, or whatever. And then what we do is we build that political power, going back to that; we’ve got to have political power. We have a chance in the next election, 2018, that we can take over the Congress. And that will be somewhere where we can, you know, defend all of the values, all of the things that we fought for in the sixties and the seventies, from the Trump administration. Even if he’s not there, we know that, you know, the guy who’s going to take it over is going to have the same values as Trump.
RS: I do want to ask you this question. I want to ask two provocative questions, so I’ll tip you off here. And I know you got to go at some point, so let me just let them right out there. One is, OK, yes, the democrats are the lesser evil; there’s no question. But I remember, you know, just quite recently when Barack Obama was referred to as the “Deporter in Chief” here. But I even go back to Jimmy Carter, who had a very good immigration, head of immigration, Leonel Castillo, who was the former mayor of, I think, Houston. And he really tried, I was on the border a lot; I covered it for the LA Times, and we also had a TIPP program in California to try to protect people working in the garment industry, in the fields, and so forth. And Gray Davis somehow moved against that. So there were a lot of contradictions. When the democrats had power, why didn’t we deal with this immigration issue all these years?
DH: Well, I–
RS: And the rights of people, whether they’re documented or undocumented. Because after all, what the TIPP program did in California–for people who don’t know it, and it came under, amazingly enough, Pete Wilson, a republican, and ended under the democrats–it said anyone working is covered by the labor laws. Robert Reich was the Secretary of Labor–
DH: Yeah, I remember–
RS: –everybody has to have worker’s comp, and has to have paid time and a half, and has to have two bathrooms, and has to have a lunch break. Because that’s the law–the law, whether you’re documented or undocumented. If you enforce that law, you go a long way to answering–
DH: Well, actually, we were able to, with the Farm Workers Union–and I was, you know, the political director of the UFW–we were actually able to get bathrooms in the field, and relief periods, and safety standards, in 1982. Now, remember, we got these in our first contracts in 1966; we were able to make it state law in 1975, when Jerry Brown got elected as governor of California. We did not get those protections ‘til 1982 at the national level. Almost 20 years later, after we got that into our first contracts. And so we did make that happen. Unfortunately [in] the rest of the country, except California and Hawaii, farm workers do not have the right to organize. And I do want to say this: when we look at the Democratic Party, all of the progressive laws that have been passed for Latinos have been under the Democratic Party, and a couple of them are in the film, you know; the fact that we were able to get public assistance for people who were permanent residents of the United States of America, that we were able to get disability insurance, unemployment insurance–these are laws that we got, one of them under Pat Brown, the other one under Jerry Brown, you know. So all of the progressive–and now of course we’ve got the sanctuary bill up there in Sacramento, which we hope Jerry Brown will sign that. And we want to ask people that are listening, please email Jerry Brown; tell him, you know, stand tough against the sheriffs, you know. These guys in California that support Joe Arpaio in Arizona, like our sheriff in Kern County, Donny Youngblood. So please email Jerry Brown and tell him, you’ve got to sign this bill. And let me just say this: we could have gotten immigration–and I’m going to get you on this one–Bernie Sanders is one of the people that did not support immigration reform when we had Lindsey Graham, we had John McCain on this committee, and we could have gotten that bill out of the Senate, and Bernie Sanders is one of the people with Southwest Voter Registration that actually went against us, and we could have gotten an immigration bill then, in 2007.
RS: All right, well, you get your editorial. So, but let me just–we’re going to be wrapping this up, so let me just make a few other points. And people should know, and the film goes into it in great detail, that the farm workers’ union that Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez founded–I have the make that clear, and the film makes it clear–you are the cofounder of that movement, and you were instrumental. And I was there very early on, and I witnessed, I saw you in the fields, I saw you organizing. So I’m here to provide testimony to the accuracy of the film. But I want to go further than that. The farm workers–and you had a lot to do with it–were very early on the environmental issues. The use of pesticides. Not only the danger–I shouldn’t say “not only,” the danger to workers is very real–but the danger to consumers. And people forget, this was a movement that was constructive in many, many ways. And we don’t really have time to go into it, but watch the film and you get a history lesson that this is a labor movement that wasn’t interested in just maximizing wages, but was concerned about environmental health issues. And in terms of family values, I want to say something about that, because the movie sort of deals with that. And it’s a very interesting movie, because it’s complex. And it’s not black-and-white. And you, you know, your children say–yeah, she wasn’t there, and yeah, we were parceled out to other families and so forth. But out of this, you developed a very strong consciousness in the women’s movement, and it spread. Because after all, the farm workers [union] was a male chauvinist organization; you were the only woman on the executive committee, and you were actually forced out at the end; let’s cut to the chase. You know, the great heroine of this movement was forced out. From my own personal view, that was the end of that labor movement, that particular one. It wasn’t just the teamsters going against them, which was vicious, a corrupt teamsters union rivaling the farm workers; but the idea that somehow with the death of Cesar Chavez that they did not understand that you were the leader. But I’m not going to–
DH: Well, I have to correct that, though, because that was my choice. That was my choice not to run for the presidency of the union. And because, I mean, we built a foundation, Cesar and myself; I was like 63 years old at the time, I didn’t know how long I was going to live. But I thought that we needed to pass the leadership to younger people to carry the movement forward.
RS: And you did bring in women, you did bring in some women, but, but–
DH: Oh, we always had women; very, very active. We had a lot of women. They were not on the executive board, but by the time Cesar passed away, half of the executive board were women. And today, under Arturo Rodriguez, they have about half of the board are women, on the executive board of the United Farm Workers. And so, and we just have to, you know, kind of remind people that the union has a lot of obstacles; the growers are still fighting them tooth and nail, finding all kinds of lawsuits so that they cannot–there’s one company, Gerawan, which I organized that election almost 15 years ago. And the union still cannot get a contract, because they keep taking them to court, they’re tied up in court and they spend thousands of dollars to go against the union instead of just saying, OK, we’re going to sign a contract.
RS: OK, but I just, I want to wrap this up, and I don’t want to lose this point, because I think it’s an important one. These movements are complex, and they are pulled in different directions. And even some of the people doing, you know, breaking windows and so forth, are well-motivated to begin with; they just go off on the wrong track in terms of tactics. But I want to say, and I think people really have to watch this movie and study your example, because what you did is you brought enlightenment, from my point of view, to two groups that have difficulty with enlightenment. One is the Catholic Church. And you know, you are the Mother Theresa of the labor movement, whether the pope will recognize it or not–
DH: I call it more of a Mother Jones. [Laughs]
RS: Oh, OK. But you really were there, and the other thing that I want to stress in closing this–the labor movement, which was insensitive to the poorer paid or so forth, in many ways–you brought a perspective, and you enlarged the struggle. So after you left the farm workers, you got involved, and you continue, as I say, with the living wage and what have you–
DH: And also with grassroots organizing. We just settled a big lawsuit with the Kern high school district for the expulsion and suspension of African-American and Latino students. So we have 20 staff people in the Dolores Huerta Foundation; we’re on the web, doloreshuerta.org.
RS: I knew Martin Luther King, and I actually knew Cesar Chavez a bit. But I certainly knew Martin Luther King more. And I’ve known some of these people; I knew Bobby Kennedy, who figures very prominently; I was there the night he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel, and as you were. And it bothers me when they become statues. And we then, you know–oh, no, they’re all these sort of sainty figures, and so forth. And what the movie, Dolores– and I urge people to watch it–is, no, saints are complex. Saints are torn in different directions. Saints have, you know, how do I balance family against work. And that the same struggle that everyone faces in trying to lead a meaningful life, you know, do the right thing and yet you have obligations to your loved ones, and you have to pay your taxes, and you have to pay the rent, and everything else. And I think the movie, Dolores, which is opening in theaters and will be on PBS–and I’m not giving enough credit here to the director Peter Bratt for making a truly, I think it’s a brilliant documentary. And I think the value of it is it’s a teaching tool for how to lead a life of purpose that is also joyful. That you can be in struggle; you can win, as well as lose; but you can not only survive, your humanity can grow. And I want to thank you for coming in, and Peter for coming in.
DH: Thank you, Bob, for always being there, you know, against all of the opposition. And I know that they went after you a lot; I remember back there in the days of the Vietnam War, when you were targeted a lot. But we have survived, right? [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, oh, it’s been a great life.
Peter Bratt: Hey Bob, I got to give one plug, man. I got to give one plug. Been sitting here beside you two labor historians, talking about the complexity of the labor movement, and emphasizing, you know, the historical importance of the film. From a filmmaker’s point, and an audience’s point of view, she’s just a fascinating character, and it’s just a great character study. And it’s a great, compelling story that I think can entertain and compel people to action.
DH: And I think we need the Robert Scheer documentary. That’s, [laughter] that has to be made also.
RS: OK, so that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. And the engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And we have done this from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. We appreciate the support the school gives for the program. And thanks for coming in.
–Posted by Emma NilesWait, before you go…
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