'Yes Men' behind coal power plant hoax in South Loop

April 28, 2011

Yesterday, a press release came across our newsroom desk about a protest against plans by Midwest Generation to build a new coal-fired energy plant in the South Loop. Our reporters sniffed it out, and after some calls to public officials, residents and Midwest Generation, the jig was up: The proposal for a coal-fired power plant was a complete hoax.  There are no such plans.

So we called the protestors in advance of their scheduled noon protest, who told us they were unaware that the proposal was fake. Apparently, they were responding to letters to condo owners and the big sign that was prominently placed on the property.

The protest was proceeding as planned, they said, so we decided to send an intern down to the event to check it out. In the newsroom, one of my colleagues chimed with a question: "Do we know if the protesters are real - or are they part of the hoax?" Great question. With that, I sprang up and went down to the protest to find out for myself.

I was curious to see if this was indeed fake - and whether I could sniff it out, if so. When I arrived, I witnessed a handful of young protesters shoving hand-painted signs toward the traffic at the intersection of Harrison & Wells.

They stood in front of the open lot and did interviews with various media organizations. I asked the protesters how they found out about this event. They variously said they were either friends of the organizer or they found about it on Facebook. They also told me how much they were against coal-powered energy plants and how much they supported a clean air ordinance in Chicago. They also told me that while they didn't live in the South Loop, they either worked or went to school there - some to nearby Columbia College. Then I noticed the back of this sign:

The back of this hand-made sign had a recycled logo, which was pointed out to us by a media colleague.  A quick search of intern Kate Dries' iPhone revealed the logo came from a Columbia College initiative called "Critical Encounters: Image and Implication." And guess what?  Critical Encounters presents "Yes Labs," workshops taught by the infamous political performance artists, The Yes Men.

Here is the video on the Critical Encounters site. It features several of the protesters who were on site for the coal plant protest. The latest workshop was this month, April 2011. The gig was up. 

I grabbed Sam Sommers, the spokesperson for Citizens United Against Loop Coal (CUALC) and presented my case. Sommers fought the good fight, but finally came clean, and gave me this interview on site: 

After the interview, we did some more digging. The Yes Labs are taught at colleges, universities and other organizations around the country.

As stated earlier, the Yes Labs are presented by Columbia College, as part of a Critical Encounters initiative. Here is their summary on-line:

Critical Encounters is a college-wide initiative intended to synchronize conversations between the school and the community in an ongoing dialogue around a central, socially and culturally relevant issue, each academic year. The purpose of Critical Encounters is to further enhance Columbia College‚Äôs commitment to civic engagement by inviting students, faculty and staff to explore and reflect upon the chosen issue so that we better understand the impact of that issue in relation to our role as artists, communicators, and media makers, and as those who shape public perception and author the culture of our times. 

During the 2010-11 academic year, explorations will focus on Image & Implication.

The faculty fellow overseeing Critical Encounters (and ultimately the workshops) is Associate Professor of Journalism Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin.

Bloyd-Peshkin was on hand as a spectator at the protest. She says she didn't teach the earlier workshops, but she was there. She noticed the students who attended were 'jaded' by current advocacy strategies and were looking for new ways to improve on past approaches. Enter the Yes Men.

Yes Men have made their name by taking political and social activism undercover, creating clever stunts and pranks that raise awareness.  They're perhaps best known for their 2003 documentary in which they impersonated members of the World Trade Organization.  Their work is plastered all over the internet, including the most recent dust-up where they posed as GE executives declaring they would give back their tax refunds. AP picked up the hoax and it made national headlines

The leader of the Chicago hoax used the name Sam Sommers, but as revealed in video above, his real name is Lindsey Dietzler and his roots are in queer activism in Chicago.  This was the first Yes Men collaboration in Chicago. 

"The role of the Yes Men in this project was to provide artists and community members with the tools and skills necessary to create media-savvy actions," Dietzler told me in an email. "Beyond the workshop, I took the lead on the project and the Yes Men served as advisors, offering advice and support when needed."  Dietzler wouldn't elaborate further because of a stunt/activism code of silence, but did refer me to Mike Bonanno, one of the members of the Yes Men.

"The Yes Labs are an educational program where we collaborate, review and make suggestions with students or advocacy groups," Bonanno told me during our phone conversation.  In this case, their process included brainstorming the topic and plotting out the execution of the coal-fired plant stunt.  They also were involved with writing press releases on fake Midwest Generation letterhead; creating fake Midwest Generation flyers and letters that were distributed in two nearby condo buildings; and timing the reveal of the stunt - which was compromised by this pesky blogger.  Their original plan was to play this out for the remainder of the week. 

"People think that pranks like this are easy to pull off, that it's just writing a press release," Bonanno added. "But really, it takes at least one person working full-time for weeks to iron out all the details. "

Professor Bloyd-Peshkin believes a big part of a successful hoax hinges on the media. "A hoax only works if the media picks it up," said Bloyd-Peshkin. "It's validation of the importance of media in our society. It would be sad if the media didn't matter."

However, Bonanno believes that the media is really the innocent bystander. "Media manipulation happens all the time by corporate and governmental agencies," he says. "Their manipulation is never revealed as being fake."

Bonanno goes on to say that tricking the media is a step in a hoax, but ulmitately not necessary with the rise of social media networks. He also believes that the manipulation of journalists is "distasteful collateral damage."

I asked Bonanno how he thought this prank went.

"My impression is that it went well," he said. "It's getting buzz on social networks. I would say it falls somewhere in the middle of the [pack of] successful pranks we've had. But hopefully it will help change the way that Chicago deals with energy."