Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Who is CBT's John Burns?

Shortly after the recent Tea Party convention in Nashville Tennessee, a new group emerged in St. Louis dedicated to fighting against funding for public transportation in the St. Louis region. The misleadingly titled "Citizens for Better Transit" (CBT) was publicly represented by spokesperson John Burns, a relative newcomer to St. Louis politics. Despite the fact that Burns had no particular credibility and was using wildly misleading talking points (which I'll have to discuss at a different time), the local media has been quite wiling to treat him as the spokesperson for a legitimate group and to provide him with equal airtime to the pro-transit campaign. In this post and the following, I want to examine the recent political activities of John Burns characterized by the blatant use of misinformation, sketchy connections, and contempt for the LGBT community.

Burns' first appearance in the local media was in November when he built a gulag on the Wash U campus along with the Young Americans for Liberty. They passed out literature that claimed that we were approaching a gulag state because of things like AmeriCorps, child labor laws, and the civil rights act. There were only a small handful of actual students who participated in the rally, but Burns was among a number of right-wing activists with no affiliation with the university who came to campus for that day. Of particular note, James O'Keefe and Joseph Basel, neither of whom even live in St. Louis, attended the event. Basel dressed up in the full uniform and was one of the main speakers, while James O'Keefe secretly videotaped conversations with Washington University administrators and then edited the tape to make it look like they had an agenda against YAL. Both can be seen in the following video (Basel is the guy with glasses and a bloody head arguing with students, Burns has the goatee, and O'Keefe is the person videotaping the administrators):

O'Keefe and Basel are best known at this point for being arrested under suspicion of maliciously tampering with the phone lines in Senator Mary Landreiu's office in New Orleans, but both had controversial careers before that point. Basel was reviled on the University of Minnesota campus after putting up fliers that read, "End Racism and Sexism Now: Kill all the White Males" and managing to offend the entire black student body so much during a speech that they all walked out while he was talking. O'Keefe, of course, was a right-wing hero for severely damaging the reputation of ACORN by using highly edited, decontextualized, and often blatantly false videos of his visits to ACORN offices across the country. Despite the fact that O'Keefe and his funder Andrew Breitbart have implied that ACORN is "running a child prostitution ring," investigators have repeatedly stated that ACORN employees did not break any laws. On the other hand, it was recently revealed that the right-wing media was blatently lying when they stated repeatedly that James O'Keefe was wearing a pimp outfit when he was in the ACORN offices. In many cases, the actual story O'Keefe told employees was that he was trying to protect Hannah Giles from a pimp. Of course, it's hard to know what the full story is because Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe refuse to release the full video tapes. As we'll see below, Burns' extensive involvement with these characters calls into serious question what his actual motives are.

But back to the original story: O'Keefe once again surreptitiously videotaped employees at the university and selectively edited the tape to try to imply that they had an agenda against the students (even with the editing, he didn't really get very good material). Burns then went all over the local right-wing media portraying himself as a leader of YAL and suggesting that they were victimized by a biased university. A member of YAL, however, claimed that Burns was not a member of the group. But that didn't stop Burns from claiming that the gulag was his idea and creating the group Campus Gulag.

A little later Burns again appeared in the right-wing media accusing Washington University of "fraud" because the university was charging the student group YAL for the costs of removing hammer and sickle graffiti that appeared on campus the same day as the display. Burns suggested it was fraud because the university used "mexican labor" to wash the graffiti off, and claimed that the students were innocent. Extremely interesting, however, is the fact that Burns repeatedly uses the specific phrasing that "students" did not put up the graffiti, which of course leaves open the possibility that Burns, O'Keefe, or Basel were the people who were spray-painting the university. Even more interesting, at the bottom of this page, Burns writes that people interested in helping "the students" can make a donation, and he directs them to the page. Yet there's no place on the campus gulag page for donations that differentiates general donations from those made for helping "the students." Was Burns trying to make money for his own organization on the backs of the students at Washington University?

The next appearance of Burns is the most shameful, in my opinion. I wrote last week about how James O'Keefe and Joseph Basel attempted to disrupt the free speech of LGBT protesters at a rally in St. Louis. O'Keefe was in town to speak at a St. Louis Tea Party event. It's not entirely clear why Joseph Basel was accompanying him. But John Burns also attended the event with his two friends. Here's video of Burns conferring with O'Keefe and Basel at the start of the event:

Burns looks a little different without his goatee, but he was ID'd the day before at a tea party rally by Dana Loesch:

Later, you can see Burns trying to blend in with the crowd as O'Keefe and Basel are being disruptive:

Here's a screenshot in case you missed Burns:

And just to recap what I've written earlier, here's how O'Keefe, Basel, and Burns acted at the rally. First, as is seen in this video, Basel and O'Keefe blatantly disregarded police orders and the wishes of all of the protesters by standing in front of the line. At another point, O'Keefe and Basel push people out of the way (including a woman in a wheel chair) to make sure that they were at the front of the line. At another point, rally participants were handing out signs for the rally, and John Burns took one of the signs:

The trio then wrote "Free Abortions" on the sign and attempted to hold it up to the Catholics who were attending mass as the Basilica. They also shouted "what about health care?" while people were attempting to speak at the rally. In other words, John Burns, who presented himself as a fighter for free speech when complaining about the administration's response to the gulag, attempted to directly interfere with the LGBT community's ability to express themselves in a peaceful rally.

Now flash forward to the present. John Burns is now the head of an anti-transit group. As was detailed at the St. Louis Pushes Back blog, Burns was involved in planning meetings with the St. Louis Tea Party at the national Tea Party convention in Nashville, and it appears he was also planning with them the weekend before in Dallas. In particular, he was part of a group with noted anti-transit campaigner John Loudon. Also of interest, Burns again appeared in two pictures with his friend Joseph Basel at the conference. A few days after Nashville, the first anti-transit event kicked off, promoted only by the St. Louis Tea Party. The first meeting of the group was promoted by Tea Party member Gina Loudon.

Like most of the St. Louis Tea Party activities, the anti-transit groups strategy appears to be based on repeating falsehoods and misleading information over and over. As one example, Burns recently wrote a misleading op-ed for the Wash U newspaper where he failed to identify himself as a nonstudent and as the spokesperson for CBT and put forward a number of misleading claims. I'll have to analyze the arguments at a later time. But for now, I'd just like to summarize some of the specifics about anti-transit group CBT's leader John Burns:
Burns is closely connected with James O'Keefe and Joseph Basel, two people arrested in Louisiana under suspicion of maliciously interfering with the government phone lines.
As someone with no affiliation with Washington, Burns claims to have organized the campus gulag which compared AmeriCorps, labor laws, and the civil rights act to totalitarian communism.
He claimed he organized the events, but members of the student group claimed he's not part of the group and that it was their event that he was merely helping out with.
Burns's group secretly recording Washington University employees and used highly edited tapes to try to claim that the University was "biased" against conservatives.
Someone from the event vandalized the grounds of Wash U, and Burns accused the university of "fraud" for asking the group to pay for the cleanup.
Burns tried to raise money for his own group while claiming to help out "the students."
Burns, along with O'Keefe and Basel, maliciously interfered with an LGBT protest.
They wrote "free abortions" on signs trying to deliberately lie about the protesters message.
They refused police orders, and then pushed people out of the way to make sure they could be front and center at the rally.
They ignored the polite requests of protesters to stop interfering.
Burns wrote an op-ed for a student newspaper refusing to identify himself as the head of an anti-transit organization
I'll have a lot more to say about this in the near future, but for now I think there are a lot of questions people (and especially reporters) should be asking Burns about his background.


  1. "Tea baggers are Walmart Hippies" David Brooks on the Colbert Report.

  2. this level of deceit, manipulation and outrageous trickery is unbelievable. Thanks for unraveling and reporting it.

    If only the mainline media cared enough to track this story.

  3. I know this John Burns, he is a friend of a friend. He has no real backgroud in politics and is a radical nut-job, but I guess there is no real suprise there. And yes it was him who was responible for vandalizing Washu's campus. I know that for a fact

  4. Adam, I heard you've made some serious homophobic comments towards Burns as well, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    Just because you disagree with someone doesn't mean you need to perpetuate vicious epithets against groups that demand equality. You need to examine and consider your own prejudices and previous comments and words before they show up as a blog post on here as well.

  5. It's absolutely amazing to me that rightwingers are so shameless as to come on here and completely invent claims without bothering to provide even a shred of support for their stories. I have never made "homophobic comments" towards Burns or anyone else.

    I remember, though, at the time of first writing about it that some right-winger claimed I was homophobic because I used the word "groped." But I was using the exact phrasing of the rally organizers and the attendees who told me about what happened.

    Please go spread your misinformation somewhere else.

  6. Anonymous #1, there's a website full of those Walmart Hippies.

    (Remember kids: friends don't let friends shop at Walmart!)

    Anonymous #4, who needs to perpetuate lies when when Burns can spout off a list of lies.

    My biggest concern is that the Tea Party Movement's next plan is to discourage filling out the Census forms for this year because they assume that is some kind of conspiracy that we keep track of number...numbers which are published publicly, do not contain any personal information and are necessary to supply the appropriations needed. Because people didn't fill out the census in 2000 (and decades before), government funding was not distributed according to the needs of the community. The Tea Party intends on continuing this problem. While mathematical statistics will be able to make adjustments by predictions in population values, property values, and estimated incomes, just like the weather forcast, you can't make a good prediction of the weather if you have insufficent data.