Last week, several news organizations carried a story about an alleged Occupy PAC that, if true, would have driven another stake of political cynicism in the heart of the fractured movement, built on idealism and opposition to the corruption of American politics.
Paperwork for the PAC was filed with the FEC by 32-year-old John Paul Thornton of Decatur, Alabama, who says he was inspired by Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC. Mother Jones reported that “[u]nlike Colbert’s Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, though, Thornton says in his first interview on the subject that OWS PAC is no joke.” Meanwhile, The Atlantic Wire wrote that the organization was specifically registered as a “SuperPAC” that could raise unlimited amounts of funds that Thornton intended to funnel to “federal candidates pledging to get money out of politics, including Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.”
There’s only one problem: The alleged “Occupy PAC” story isn’t at all what it seems, and had any of the reporters who first “broke” it last week bothered applying a little professional skepticism, the story never would have got off the ground, and never would have created yet another layer of disillusionment and cynicism that Occupy’s enemies have been actively sowing.
There many obvious warning signs about Thornton on the public record. For example, John Thornton admitted to a reporter from Capital New York that he was a Ron Paul supporter. You don’t have to be a veteran journalist to know that a guy who supports a far-right Republican libertarian who wants to abolish financial regulations and laws protecting labor and the environment, and favors Citizens United and unregulated lobbying, isn’t exactly representative of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Being a Ron Paul supporter in Occupy is one thing; it’s another thing altogether when a libertarian sets up a SuperPAC in Occupy’s name.
The whole thing smelled like funny to me from the get go. And the deeper I dug into it, the more flimsy the story got.
Here’s what I found: John Thornton says he had been deeply involved in the Occupy scene in Huntsville, Alabama, from the very moment the OWS movement went national. Huntsville is one of the nation’s least likeliest settings for a blossoming grassroots protest movement against oligarchy power: It’s an important center of the military-industrial-banking complex, and is home to the biggest names in the defense industry, including Lockheed Martin Corp and Northrop Grumman. The city houses the SDI research facilities, and during the Cold War, its defense outfits, led by Nazi scientist/war-driminal Werner von Braun, developed America’s first rockets. Hell, “Occupy Huntsville” meets just a few miles away from the Redstone Arsenal army base, which houses the Missile Defense Agency, the Missile and Space Intelligence Center and the agency responsible for developing unmanned surveillance drones.
Sure enough, I found out that Thornton was plugged right into the local military-defense establishment. Thornton had served in the Alabama’s National Guard, and he has worked as a “program analyst” for a defense contractor until at least 2008, although I couldn’t track down which exactly which company.
Thornton’s Facebook posts on Occupy Hunstville suggest that he still a gung-ho supporter of the military and of military actions, including targeted assassinations and covert activity—less than a month ago, Thornton posted this Facebook comment:
John Paul Thornton as to your ‘illegal and anti democratic’, who gives a shit about that? at least in upper echelons of gov’t and mil. reality is, someone needs killing, best to send the best quickly and quietly and take him/her out. im 99% certain you didnt cry into your beer when seal team 6 whacked osama.
So I guess that makes Thornton part of the 99% that’s 99% in favor of targeted assassinations squads?
According to newspaper accounts, Thornton lost his defense-contracting job in the summer of 2008, after a violent psychotic episode landed him a criminal conviction and a nearly two-month jail sentence. His parents said that Thornton, who was 28 at the time, started losing his mind after getting out of the National Guard. And after string of run-ins with law, which included the violation of a protection order filed by his ex-wife, a judge sentenced him to 60 days in the tank.
Thornton’s recent meltdown was written up in a bizarre article published in his hometown paper in July 2008. The article detailed Thornton’s downward spiral, and described how his mother had strapped herself to homemade cross she had erected on the front lawn of her house to protest the lack of medical attention her son John Paul was receiving in jail. The article even provided a photo:
Maria Thornton, 58, climbed a ladder and nailed a cross to the top of a privacy fence in her backyard on Tracey Lane Southwest. She held on for about two hours and 40 minutes.
A poster on the fence said she wouldn’t eat, drink or come down until her son receives help.
James Thornton said the family began seeing his son’s personality change last fall after John Paul Thornton returned from boot camp with the Alabama National Guard. The family fears that he is bipolar like his half-brother, who was recently released from a mental health facility.
James Thornton said family and five friends tried to hold an intervention June 30. He said John Paul Thornton went to Decatur General Hospital’s emergency room where a nurse gave him a phone number for Decatur General West. John Paul Thornton went to the psychiatric hospital but was not admitted.
His parents tried to have him involuntarily admitted through the Morgan County probate judge’s office, but James Thornton said that was more difficult than they expected.
A family friend, Dr. Michael Lowery, a family practitioner and occupational medicine physician, wrote a letter to the city detailing John Paul Thornton’s personality changes in the past six months.
“He has become verbally aggressive, verbose, talking rapidly, changing topics quickly, and (he) describes grandiose adventures in his duties as a current member of the Alabama National Guard,” wrote Lowery.
Lt. Jonathan Green, the Police Department’s public information officer, said Thornton has been evaluated three times during his jail stay.
John Paul Thornton was a program analyst with a defense contractor, but lost his job after his conviction.
Now, just to be clear: Thornton’s mental health issues, as well as his 60-day incarceration, do not discredit him or invalidate what he’s doing. But they are obviously important material facts that any journalist reporting on a story this strange, this counter-intuitive, and this potentially damaging should include. When someone does something as public and political as this–setting up an Occupy SuperPAC–they become public figures; journalists have a duty to inform the public with as much context and background to a story this potentially damaging and divisive to the Occupy protest. What possible excuse could the media hacks have for not asking simple questions, or doing the sort of basic research that I was able to do, even though I earn a fraction of what a full-time CBS or Mother Jones reporter makes?
When I reached John Thornton for comment on Monday afternoon, he confirmed that he was indeed the same John Paul Thornton mentioned in the newspaper article. He explained that he had since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has been getting medical treatment. But that’s about as far as I got with him in our twenty minute conversation, during which I found him to be extremely evasive and vague on details.
Thornton gave me the same spiel about making his Occupy SuperPAC transparent and open to all, the same story that he gave to every other reporter. He got testy after I pushed him to name which candidates he intended to fund once the PAC got off the ground. “I won’t do a damn thing. I won’t be dealing with the influx of money,” he snapped. “I’m gonna be just the guy who files the paperwork. I’ve said this repeatedly. I’m not trying to hijack crap!”
Thornton also contradicted himself on his support for Ron Paul; last week he admitted to supporting Dr. Paul after journalists discovered someone with Thornton’s name from Decatur had given $250 to the Ron Paul 2012 campaign. However, in my interview with Thornton he denied that he had ever supported Ron Paul, and blamed the campaign contribution on a different John Paul Thornton also from Decatur, Alabama, who had exactly the same name as him.
“There is another John Paul Thornton in this very town,” he said. “We’ve had this problem before…”
The one thing that stood out from our conversation was his hatred for what he kept calling the “Occupy Wall Street majority”— Occupy activists from New York who, Thornton charged, have been dominating the movment with with their supposed do-nothing obstructionist strategy, oppressing minority groups like Occupy Hunstivlle. He was so angry about this alleged “Occupy Wall Street majority” that after a while I started to wonder if he was merely aping the old libertarian gripe about the “tyranny of the majority” (ie, “tyranny of democratic rule”).
My phone call interview with Thornton didn’t ease my skepticism about Thornton’s Occupy SuperPAC project. But to be honest I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely confused and misdirected, or was putting on an act. If anything, it reminded me of a guy named Alvin Green, the fake Democrat who grabbed headlines a couple of years ago when he came out of nowhere to win the U.S. Senate Democratic primary race in South Carolina in 2010. Greene, who was clearly a plant of some sort, later turned out to have worked as an “intelligence specialist” for the Air Force and had a criminal record.
Without this backstory, Thornton’s SuperPAC project story naturally became fodder for enemies and critics of the Occupy Movement. On the right, Andrew “Behave Yourselves!” Breitbart’s Big Government operatives did the sort of research into Thornton that Mother Jones and others failed to do, digging up Thornton’s history of mental health issues, then using it to mock Thornton and smear Occupy Wall Street as a movement that’s led by crazies and loons:
This is the material from which Occupy Wall Street is made, so it appears as though the Occupy PAC has a perfectly appropriate founder.
A rightwing smear like this from Breitbart would not have been possible if journalists had bothered doing their homework first before running the story. Their unquestioning reporting and total failure to do even the most basic background check on Thornton gave his story credibility, and set up the Occupy Super PAC as a softball target for Breitbart to hit out of the smear-ballpark.
One thing that I’ve learned from covering Occupy LA is that you always have to do your due diligence when writing about this movement—the decentralized nature of Occupy allows all sorts of charlatans, opportunists, scammers and downright loons to take advantage of lazy journalists and media hacks. And that seems to be exactly what happened with this story.
Other than Capital New York’s Reid Pillifan, who discovered Thornton’s support of Ron Paul after poking around the web, journalists failed to do their job and merely took John Paul Thornton at his word, reprinting whatever he said as if it needed no vetting.
Some of the reporting on the Occupy SuperPAC story is so wretched, it’s worth quoting at length just to get it out on the record of shame.
Here, for example, is how CBS Atlanta reported it:
Thornton is an active member in the Alabama Occupy movement. He said he came up with the idea when he was laying in bed.
“[I was] watching [The Colbert Report] and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t be nice if Occupy had a PAC,’ and … like a lightbulb, it came to me!” he told CBS Atlanta.
The money that will be raised can be used by Occupy as a whole, from branches in Huntsville, Ala. to ones in New York City or Oakland, Calif.
“This PAC is for everyone and if they want to contribute they are more than welcome,” Thornton said. “This is going to be uber-transparent down to the cent. It will be egalitarian and democratic.”
That’s right, if Thornton says his SuperPAC is going to be uber-transparent, egalitarian and democratic, then who are CBS Atlanta journalists to question what the hell he’s doing setting up the sort of PAC that Occupy has worked so hard to oppose, right?
Then there’s Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll, who was one of the first people to break news of Occupy PAC. His article read like an unedited press release for John Paul Thornton and his Occupy PAC. Kroll even quoted John Paul Thornton talking about what a total badass activist John Paul Thornton was:
Not long ago, John Paul Thornton, a 32-year-old mental health worker in Decatur, Alabama, was clicking around Facebook when he noticed someone had posted a video of satirist Stephen Colbert talking about his super-PAC, a long-running gag on the show. Thornton, an active member of the Occupy movement in his home state, thought to himself, “Wow, it would be really cool if Occupy had one of those.”
So, last week, Thornton went ahead and filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to create…the Occupy Wall Street Political Action Committee. Unlike Colbert’s Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, though, Thornton says in his first interview on the subject that OWS PAC is no joke. … Thornton wasn’t trying to be cheeky here, he says. Thornton says he plans to launch a website for the super-PAC soon. All he’s waiting for is the FEC’s blessing…
Thornton says he’s no Occupy novice. He joined Occupy Huntsville, a 20-minute drive from his home in Decatur, three weeks after the occupation of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan began on September 17, and has been involved ever since. He’s also been active opposingAlabama’s draconian immigration measure, HB 56, which passed in June 2011. “My parents called me a serial dissenter,” he says. “I was probably a discontent fetus.”
Jesus fucking christ, people. Remind me why you get paid again, and what you get paid to do?
Want to know more? Read Yasha Levine’s account of LAPD’s appalling treatment of detained Occupy LA protesters…His other Occupy LA coverage…And LA Weekly’s writeup of his arrest.
Yasha Levine is an editor of The eXiled. You can reach him at levine [at] exiledonline.com.
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