Thursday, August 12, 2004

More About the Memphis CIV

The story of the Memphis snub of the Iraqi delegation last week had some holes in it. I waited for the local media, but my questions remained unaddressed, especially as concerns the Memphis Council for International Visitors (MCIV). So, for only the third time in my three years as Half-Bakered, I got on the phone and made a call.

My initial call was to Elisabeth Silverman, the Executive Director. She directed "medial calls" (I had introduced myself as the publisher of a small Memphis website.) to David Simmons. He proved to be a friendly and helpful person. What most impressed me was that he still maintained a sense of humor even under the tremendous bad press the MCIV and Memphis had been deluged with. He genuinely seemed only concerned with getting the delegation visits back on track.

My questions fell into two broad categories: What is the MCIV? What went wrong on that Monday?

As to the first question, I noted how little press I could find on the MCIV. He said that was on purpose, that it was a mandated part of their mission to maintain a low profile. The State Department, which is the ultimate source for the International Visitors Program, precludes it. MCIV strives to show visitors the "real" Memphis. With press or television hoopla, visitors will only get to see the "pretty" side of things: politicians, official dinners, speeches, everyone on their best behavior. By keeping out of the public eye, visitors can see things as they are and be treated on a much more friendly, real basis. It is, basically, an effort to assure an honest view.

According to Simmons, MCIV has been around about thirty years. They currently host 30 to 40 groups a year, with each group consisting of between one and 15 visitors. He said that lately they host up to four groups a month! Local groups "bid" (not in a monetary sense, but in the sense of constructing a program) for announced delegations according to their community's strengths. Memphis gets a lot of "civil rights" and "multiculturalism" groups, not unsurprisingly. We also get a lot of agricultural delegations, thanks to surrounding Mississippi and Arkansas. What did surprise me was that "intellectual property rights" is another of our strengths, due to the thriving music community!

It turns out that Memphis was, until last Monday, pretty highly rated by the National CIV and the State Department. One of our good features is the number of home-hosted dinners we arrange.

So, what went wrong? In investigating and reporting this, I want to be clear it was never my desire to place blame, or to hold someone out as a scapegoat, but rather to find that pivot point where, had things gone as they should have, no one would ever have known that the Iraqi delegation even came to Memphis.

What Simmons told me is that the State Department requires their local CIVs to use professional transportation for all visitors, instead of relying on volunteers. This is what the MCIV did, hiring a Memphis firm. The delegation arrived in town on Sunday and were successfully taken to their hotel on Court Square. This was one part of the story I was glad to have cleared up, something that Councillor Carol Chumney alluded to in her interview. (See next post.) The media impression is that the delegation was ferried directly from the airport to City Hall. I'm glad to have the correct story for readers.

Now, we back up in time. On the previous Friday, July 30th, Joe Brown (according to numerous sources) had expressed great concern over the impending visit. He was worried about the way things had been set up, and who was consulted. He also wanted to know if the Fire and Police Departments had been involved in security set-up. He threatened to call in the bomb squads. Brown eventually talked with Elisabeth Silverman and directed her to move the meeting.

She changed the itinerary over the weekend so that meetings were to be held in the Convention and Visitors Bureau building at 47 Union Avenue and distributed the new itinerary to all parties. However, in the report prepared by Lisa Geater for Carol Chumney, Geater says that Silverman never forwarded the State Department info to anyone in local government and that the Office for Multicultural Affairs had advised that they usually needed two weeks to set up this kind of visit, not a few days. You can read the Geater document here. Chumney's timeline is here.

On Monday morning, it turns out that the transport company driver still had the old one! They picked up the delegation and took them to City Hall, as originally planned. They were stopped at the security desk, which is where Chairman Joe Brown showed his ass. (I have more details of this part of the story in the Chumney interview following.)

And there you have it. It was, as I suspected, a minor screw-up by their transportation that got the ball rolling. I'm sure this kind of thing has happened before, but not with a worked-up City Council Chairman standing in the City Hall door, threatening to bring in the FBI and police! I've been a driver while I was working for a treatment center and know how these kinds of mix-ups in communication happen.

As for the fallout, David Simmons said he hopes to meet with Chairman Brown next week to talk over the whole thing. The MCIV's request for apologies directly to the Iraqis "without all this mumbo-jumbo" (as Simmons called Brown's repetition of his security fears) isn't quite met by Brown's press release (Which you can download later today and read here. Link isn't working right now.). They are hoping Brown will further ameliorate the situation.

Our national reputation took a huge hit with the State Department. It was only a local letter-writing campaign from the MCIV that turned them around. Hundreds of letters were written! We were able to convince the State Department that Memphis wasn't accurately reflected in Brown's behavior. By the way, the hundreds of letters will be hand-carried by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Iraqis on Friday, before they leave our country. That's how important this is.

And so, there you go. A delegation's visit is a bit rushed, leading to fouled communications. A City Councilman freaks out and goes ballistic over one of dozens of visiting delegations to Memphis, because the National Threat Assessment Level had been raised and he has an over-blown sense of who he is. A minor snafu, that under other circumstances wouldn't have meant anything but minor aggravation and some extra time, brought the two parties together in the wrong place. Brown behaved as he promised and Memphis ends up looking like fools, hicks and racists.

One good thing has come of this mess. According to Simmons, in following up with the Iraqis he was told "If you want to show your good faith," the nation of Iraq was in desperate need of English language books, which had been destroyed by the Hussein regime. So, a book drive is being undertaken right now in hopes of raising 10,000 books for Iraq, to rebuild libraries! Details have yet to be nailed down, but if you want to take part or make donations contact David Simmons at david -at- longriver -dot- net.

I've asked David to keep me informed on this and I'll be posting more as I learn it. Scour your libraries for good, quality books (not old sci-fi paperbacks, OK?) to donate and be ready.

Many thanks to David Simmons for his time. I've had some difficulty explaining blogs to folks I've talked to, but he was well aware of them, which made our conversation go pretty well. He was even reading my blog while we were talking!

He has certainly cleared some things up for me. I would also like to take back my characterisation of the MCIV as "amateurish" in a previous post. Since undertaking to learn the facts, I've discovered that MCIV is a local treasure. My sincere apology and best wishes are offered. If you think you'd like to get involved, now that you know about them, I strongly urge you to contact them.

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