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« Quotational Therapy: Part 21 -- President Clinton On Social Security Reform. | WILLisms.com | Carnival Time. »

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Iran's Sham Election; Houston, Texas; June 17, 2005.

In previous posts (here and here), I dashed out a rough draft of my experience at an Iranian polling station right in my own backyard, in Houston, Texas.

Here's a more detailed account, with full video transcripts (if you are all Iran'd out, this'll be the final post for a while devoted exclusively to my experience on the 17th of June)--

I woke up early Friday morning and read the news at Publius Pundit that there would be an Iranian polling station set up relatively near my house in Houston, Texas.

I weighed whether or not to go.

On the one hand, it could be interesting, I could meet some pro-freedom Iranians protesting the poll, I could interview the pro-Mullah Iranians conducting the poll, I could hopefully get some pictures and/or video of the actual polling stations, and I could see for myself, unfiltered, just how the election was organized.

On the other hand, it could be dangerous-- or worse, a non-event, a monumental waste of time, an underwhelming experience. I could waste an entire day just sitting around a hotel lobby hoping for some fireworks to go off, while missing out on a chance to research and write actual blog posts (and wasting my time, otherwise).

Ultimately, through the wonders of the information superhighway, I discovered the Ramada hotel lobby had Wi-Fi, so I decided to go ahead and go. Worst case scenario, the whole deal is amazingly boring, but I can get a few pictures and jot down a few notes about what I saw. In the meantime, the blogging on other subjects can continue.

Right after lunchtime, I headed over to the Ramada Hotel located at 7611 Katy Freeway on I-10 in Houston, Texas.

ramadahotel.gif

I parked in the hotel parking lot and noticed a Houston P.D. patrol car with officer lurking in the back corner of the lot. As I pulled into my parking space, I noticed two Iranian women with veils getting out of separate vehicles and walking up to the hotel.

So I grabbed my all-purpose equipment bag with my laptop, my digital video camera, and the rest of my equipment and walked inconspicuously toward the hotel, went in, and sat down in the lobby. Very normal. Very usual. Nothing strange going on. The door through which I entered the hotel was not the main entrance (and it was the door I would enter again later). Through that door, I was able to walk past the registation table where the Iranian agents, two women and one man, were stationed. I noticed at least 3 or 4 other, older Iranians milling around, communicating intermittently (and sometimes non-verbally) with the three younger Iranians tending the desk. They were clearly part of the regime apparatus.

So I strided past the table, and noticed two uniformed Houston Police Department officers, sitting and staring straight ahead, looking bored out of their minds.

As I made my way down the long hall into the main lobby area, I noticed the two veiled women I had seen in the parking lot enter and begin to converse with the people at the table. I couldn't hear what they were talking about, but shortly thereafter, the women were allowed into the closed banquet room, presumably to vote (for a regime-approved slate of candidates).

I sat down on a couch in the lobby, cracked open my laptop and placed it on the coffee table in front of me. To the left of my laptop were a stack of Houston Press newspapers (Houston's quasi-left-wing, entertainment/concert/restaurant/massage parlor rag; most larger cities have some permutation thereof).

Yay. My laptop was already connected to the Wi-Fi, so I began my slow, steady, inconspicuous, sleuthy reporting.

How to proceed from here? Hmm. Do I just lay low, and do a kind of sniper/guerilla photography? I could take a few shots, then retreat so as not to draw too much attention to myself. Or I could just go ask the Iranians at the desk if I could chat with one of them. Surely they want to get their story out, otherwise why would they even stage elections in this country?

Maybe instead I should ask people as they leave the poll how they feel about voting. One problem, though: there weren't really many voters. And the voters I did see seemed authentically Iranian. No English. Under veils. Intimidated by young men like myself.

So I sat and ruminated on the information my eyes and ears were gathering and tried to plan my next move. The Iranian agents at the registration table gave me the creeps, so it wouldn't be as easy as I had hoped to simply stroll up and start interviewing one of them. My eerie feeling about the older men milling around was almost immediately confirmed. One of them walked slowly by me, eyeing what I was doing, then out the front door of the lobby, outside. I saw him peer in the window behind me to see what I had on my computer screen. When he saw me see him, he pretended to be looking at his reflection in the window. Not smooth at all.

Then he came back inside, grabbed a Houston Press from next to my computer, walked a few feet away and started pretending to read it while so obviously watching what I was doing. He was onto me from the very beginning. So much for inconspicuous.

When he realized I was onto him being onto me, he leaned way over to put the Houston Press back onto the coffee table, stretching his neck to get a glimpse of my computer screen (this guy could have easily been a character in a really bad spy movie). I quickly tabbed over to this webpage to coldly communicate to him that I was his worst nightmare.

I looked up at him straight between the eyes, smiled, and said something like, "how're you doing?"

He said "hello" before briskly retreating back to the registration table.

I sat there for only about 2 or 3 minutes longer (I had been there a grand total of about 6 or 7 minutes) when a minor verbal scuffle broke out directly in front of me.

Some ACTION! Fun. Thinking it might be the only action all day other than Iranian regime agents profiling me, I whipped out the video camera and walked over to the altercation.

I found Shara Shirvani, plus one other woman, as well as a man in the periphery. The two uniformed officers I had seen earlier sitting in chairs next to the registration table were now arguing with Ms. Shirvani. The first film I was able to gather began thusly:

...that's why these... there are a lot of terrorists are here. They're trying to get the vote from people. And we are anti-terrorist.

And we wanted to see who is coming here. I get the report for the Persia TV. Persian Satellite TV. And I need to know who is coming here, because these people are the people who are getting paid by the Islamic government. These people who are voting.

thesepeople.gif

And everybody in Iran, nobody votes in Iran. You know, probably, had like less than 2,000 people voting. But I need to know because a lot of people here, they get paid from the Islamic government, and I need to know who those people are.

Me:

And they're not letting you? These gentlemen...

thesegentlemen.gif

[indicating the police]?

Ms. Shirvani:

Because I'm not dressed like the Islamic people.

Me:

Oh, I see.

Ms. Shirvani:

Because you have to have a veil. I'm not dressed properly like what they are. And these are the terrorists. And that's why I want to come here to see who is voting, who are not voting.

Me:

Okay.

Then walked over to another Iranian woman, who preferred not be named or shown on camera:

greenhowdoyoufeelaboutit.gif

Me:

How do you feel about it?

Woman (let's call her "Green" because of her clothing color):

Definitely I'm not gonna vote, because I'm against that. I don't see any democracy in Iran and it's not gonna happen with this voting, so there is no reason to vote for [reception desk lady (who would later hang up on me about 20 times when I tried to call to find out more information) then talked way too loud to hear the last word].

Me:

So do you think this is just a sham?

Ms. Shirvani:

Yes.

Green:

This is just for show.

Ms. Shirvani:

Just a show, and they told this officer to not let us go and sit there. And they told us we can't go there. And I need to know who are these people, because these are definitely the people who get paid by the Islamic government.

And I'm going to report it to the Persian TV and Persian radio.

But I need to know why these people, the police officers, why that man told them to not let us go in there. Is it the way we dress? Why? I need to know why?

Me:

Do you think it's because...

Ms. Shirvani:

I don't know, because, because...

Me:

...they just don't want people to watch what's going on?

Ms. Shirvani:

No, because they know that I'm against what they are doing.

nobecause.gif

Me:

Right. Do you think it's possible that they are rigging the election? Like it's just a- they're stuffing the ballot box?

Ms. Shirvani (distracted by her phone ringing):

Stuffing ballot box... well they...

Me:

Fraudulent votes?

Ms. Shirvani:

Yeah, they do that. They have done that all the time. They're not honest people. They're doing the stoning in Iran. They take eyes off. They cut the hands. They do execution. They do lot of things in Iran. They execute woman, you know, pregnant woman. And I'm againt this government. These are terrorist people. They're doing a lot of killing, executing, under the veil, under the name of the God. I'm Muslim, but not that kind of Muslim. These are the terrorists, and I'm here to let them know that the Iranian people are not supporting this government. People, they have to recognize, the Iranian people, they are pro-democracy [interrupted by Green, with a query regarding the phone call].

Give it [the phone] to this police officer.

[to the officer]

Dr., uh, police officer, that is Doctor Ahmad [probably spelling it very incorrectly]

Me:

Who is this on the phone?

Ms. Shirvani:

He's a doctor, doctor Ahman Dihi [I know I am butchering that spelling; would have gotten his info had I not been kicked out so soon]. He's, he was here earlier today. He's a reporter to see who is here, who is not. Then he got a migraine headache and he called me, I came here.

Me:

Okay.

Ms. Shirvani:

Even though I wasn't dressed, you know, I'm not dressed like what they are, but I'm here to see who are these people.

Me:

Well, you shouldn't have to be dressed like they are.

Ms. Shirvani:

No. And my name is Sharareh Shirvani.

mynameisshara.gif

[toward the registration table down the hall, then back to the camera]

My name is Sharareh Shirvani. I'm a realtor in Houston, Texas, and I'm not afraid of anyone.

These people are terrorists. These people, they going to send my name to Iran, so if I go to Iran, or any of my family goes to Iran, they gonna put me in jail, they gonna do a lot of things, torture my family, but it's okay. It's okay. I'm here to support the Iranian people.

At this point, I turned the camera off and told her:

"I'm with you. I am right there standing with you. I admire what you are doing here."

For the next 60 seconds or so, I observed as Ms. Shirvani was denied access to the voting station by the uniformed police officer. I also watched as the Iranian agents popped into and out of the convention room, peeking their heads out to look at what was going on from afar.

At 12:12 PM, I turned the camera back on for a few seconds to film the voting sign, then back off.

electionthatway.gif

Then I turned the camera to the police officer talking on the phone with the journalist who had been there to watch the poll proceedings before becoming debilitated with a migraine.

I couldn't really hear much, but I did pick up from Officer #1:

...I don't have any problems with that, but...

cellphonebuddies.gif

Yes, yes, I'll put her on... here you go ma'am.

[to the man on the phone] Bye bye.

[to Ms. Shirvani] Here's your phone.

Ms. Shirvani:

Is he okay?

Officer #1:

Nah, he said he wants to talk to you. I didn't resolve anything with him.

noentryintopoll.gif

At this point, the peripheral Iranian man enters the scene (let's call him Black, for his shirt):

[to the officers] Do you guys know you're doing something illegal? It's against, it's against, if you listen to President Bush...

[turned the camera toward him]

againstpresidentbush.gif

...said many times this is a terrorist government. So you guys are doing something against President Bush will.

Officer #2:

[condescendingly] No, we...

noofficertwo.gif

Black:

...or CIA, or NSA... I mean...

Officer #2:

No, there's, the C.I.D. officer will be here and he'll explain it all to you.

Officer #1:

He'll explain it all to you.

cidwillexplain.gif

Officer #2:

Yeah.

Me:

What does a "C.I.D. officer" mean?

Officer #2:

Uh, criminal intelligence.

Me:

Okay...

Officer #2:

So he'll answer all your...

Me:

Is he with H.P.D., or?

Officer #2:

Yes.

Me:

Okay.

So I turned off the camera again, and almost immediately, Shara Shirvani tells me, "this guy, he just took a picture of me with his telephone."

beigeshirt.gif

So I turned the camera back on (I would have left it rolling the entire time, but I didn't expect to get kicked out so soon and thought I would need all the space I could get on the digital video tape).

Ms. Shirvani:

...with his telephone.

Me:

Which one?

Ms. Shirvani:

That guy, this guy, with the beige shirt.

Me:

Do you think he's an agent?

Ms. Shirvani:

Yeah, these are all agents. They all get paid by the Islamic government. To kill people and report people.

[she went back into a phone call, so I turned off the camera once again]

I went back to sit down on the couch to start uploading some video to my computer and start putting some pics on the internet, live, of what was happening. I sat next to Green.

She told me, "don't you realize how dangerous it is, what you're doing? They could kill you."

So I started the camera rolling again.

personaluse.gif

Green:

...you never know what's gonna happen.

Me:

So I shouldn't put you on the internet?

Green:

No, it's very dangerous. I don't recommend that you put that. That's for your personal use, it's okay, you can put that. But not on internet. You can put what we said, but not...

Ms. Shirvani:

See, this is the manager, he's asking us, the manager of the Ramada hotel, he's asking us to leave the hotel. This is the manager.

askingustoleave.gif

handinface.gif

Ramada hotel manager:

Sir, I don't want you to take pictures of me [unintelligible, walking fast toward me with his hand in the camera].

handinface2.gif

I'll ask you to leave.

Me:

What's that?

Ramada hotel manager:

I'll ask you to leave.

handinface3.gif

[so I turned the camera off for less than a second, then immediately back on]

Me:

You're asking me to leave?

Ramada hotel manager:

I'm asking you to leave.

Me:

Okay.

Ramada hotel manager:

Don't, sir.

Police Officer #1:

Sir, put the camera away. This is his property.

putthecameraaway.gif

Me:

Right, well, I'm leaving.

Police Officer #1:

He's asking you to leave, you gotta go.

So I started packing my cords and things, started shutting down the computer, but left the camera rolling. The Ramada hotel manager kept his hand no less than 2 feet from my face at all times [I learned in a college class of all places that people who put their hands in the camera like that are typically guilty of something. So, DON'T DO IT. It looks bad. Juries convict for less than that.]

Me:

I'm leaving!

Ramada hotel manager:

I don't want you to, I don't want your camera on. I don't want your camera on.

Me:

Well, you're going to have to take it from me.

Police Officer #1:

Hey, just, he's asking you to leave.

heyjust.gif

Me:

I'm leaving! I'm leaving right now.

Police Officer #2:

Then why are you hostile toward him?

Me:

Okay, because he's got his hand in my face.

illegalpoll.gif

Why are you protecting the Iranian government?

Police Officer #1:

Okay, put the camera down. Let's go, we don't wanna have to...

Ms. Shirvani:

Bush is against this government! He is against this government.

Me:

This is an illegal poll that you're protecting right now.

Ramada hotel manager:

Sir, if the police is here...

Ms. Shirvani:

I know...

Ramada hotel manager:

...okay, then I'm not breaking the law.

Ms. Shirvani:

Okay.

Ramada hotel manager:

If they are here, that's fine.

Ms. Shirvani:

Okay then.

Ramada hotel manager:

If you want somebody else... another government agency, I don't have a problem. But I do have a problem disrupting an event that's been paid for.

Ms. Shirvani:

You're organizing something that Bush is against it.

Police Officer #1:

Ma'am, that is, that is not our issue.

Ms. Shirvani:

Let's wait until your supervisor comes.

Police Officer #1 points at me as if to say I need to leave.

pointleave.gif

Me, to Police Officer #1:

This is, this is really dispicable.

Ms. Shirvani:

Yes.

dispicable.gif

Me:

Really dispicable.

Police Officer #1:

This is an event that they paid for.

Ramada hotel manager:

Sir, I have asked you to leave. Please do not sit here, please.

Me:

Okay. Shutting down my computer.

[packing up the computer...]

[to the manager]

Are you part of the Iranian regime, as well?

I believe you are.

[I didn't really think so-- because he didn't look Iranian-- until I saw his reaction; I was just pushing him to see what he'd say, and the look on his face was priceless (he specifically said he did not want to be on camera, so I won't show his face here).]

Ramada hotel manager:

You're welcome to your own beliefs, sir. I'm not an Iranian.

Police Officer #1:

You are entitled to your beliefs, to your opinion, but you gotta go.

Ms. Shirvani [to me]:

Can I have your business card, sir?

------

And this part of the tape wasn't important, but I packed up my things, told Ms. Shirvani the name of my website, had her spell her name, made sure who wanted to be on film and who didn't, and so on, before leaving through the front door.

Me:

[to Green] So you don't want to be on?

Ms. Shirvani:

Put my film there.

Me [to Ms. Shirvani]:

But you do?

Green:

No... but you can write my opinion.

[A moment later...]

Ms. Shirvani:

I know they're going to report me to the Iranian government, come and torture me, or, you know, if my family goes to Iran. But I don't care, because I'm protecting all the innocent people in Iran who are in need of democracy and freedom.

reportme.gif

And these people, they cannot protect terrorism. Even they are the police of America, but they cannot protect terrorism.

So I exited unceremoniously through the revolving door, into the tropical humidity of Houston, roughly 15-20 minutes after arriving. The fastest I've ever been kicked out of anywhere.

ramadaparkinglot.gif

Filmed the Ramada sign briefly, walked toward my car, with the camera on myself.

Me:

So I've just been kicked out of the Ramada for trying to report on the election. Pretty ridiculous.

justbeenkickedout.gif

I'm gonna try to go back in, actually, right now."

[So I turned off the camera, got it into position, turned it back on, opened the door I originally entered...

sidedoor.gif

...and addressed the Iranian agent sitting behind the desk.]

Me:

Hi.

Iranian agent:

[unintelligible]

Me:

Good....

How are you guys doing?

Iranian agent:

[unintelligible]

Me:

Is this a free and fair election?

freeandfair.gif

[The look on the Iranian agent's face was amazing.]

journalist.gif

Me:

Free and fair... like anybody can vote for anybody they want to?

Iranian agent:

You want to introduce yourself first, maybe.

Me:

My name is Will Franklin.

Iranian agent:

Okay, and... you're a... journalist.

Me:

Journalist.

Iranian agent:

Okay, which organization.

policehallway.gif

[...at which point the police came barreling down the hallway toward me, so I cut off the camera and left immediately.]

I wish I had left the camera rolling to capture the Jedi mind tricks it took to get out of being arrested, but I didn't want to press my luck.


BUREAUCRATS:

After I left, I drove home, uploaded as much as I could in the first hour or so, and posted it. After that, I called the Ramada to try to get more information.

The woman at the front desk answering the phone slammed the phone down, cutting me off several times, before I was even able to really ask anything. She then put Officer Cram of the H.P.D. on the phone to tell me I was violating the law by calling the Ramada repeatedly (even though she would literally cut me off in the middle of my first syllable).

State Department-

I then called the State Department and talked to two or three bureaucrats. Finally got transferred to a lady working on Iraq's elections. IRAQ! Ugh.

So I gave up on the State Department.

The White House-

I then called the White House and talked to a switchboard operator, then to a very nice and cordial woman who seemed very interested in what I was talking about. She called me "brave" and asked the name of my website, and promised to pass it on to the other folks at the White House. I couldn't ask for much more, unfortunately.

After the White House, I called the Ramada some more. Finally I was able to get Officer Cram back on the line. He told me the Iranian governnment was paying for the event. He asked me what I had against democracy.

I told him the event there was not legal and was patently against American policy.

He said: "Well, in these United States it is legal. Otherwise they wouldn't be allowing it." He also got Iran and Iraq confused.

Infuriating.

The Police Department-

I then called the Houston Police Department. Spoke with several officers, tried to explain to them what the deal was. Finally, someone told me the number for internal affairs, so I spoke with Lt. Alsbrooks for a while about what was going on.

He finally told me, "no.... [skeptical], Iran is not a democracy. They don't have elections. They've got those Mullahs."

Me: "Exactly, but they are having sham elections right here, right now, in Houston, Texas."

He responded that they have a right to have a private meeting. I told him about American policy toward Iran and how the U.S. government considers Iran a terrorist regime. Any other country, yeah. But we do not have relations with Iran. Iranian government agents are not allowed free and unfettered access to America.

In the end, I got nowhere with him. He was clearly ready to leave for the weekend.

The Media-

So I called local NBC affiliate News2Houston's news room to tip them off and explain what I had just witnessed. They had more important stories to cover, such as an infestation of bees at an elderly man's house, a traffic sign with the wrong MPH on it (25 instead of 30), and, of course, Tom Cruise and Joey from Dawson's Creek (Katie Holmes). I talked to a few people in the news room, and one of them told me "we are following that on the wires. If we run it, it'll be a wire story."

I told him, "with all due respect, this is a Houston-specific story. And it may very well be the biggest story happening here today."

He cut me off a few times as I explained myself and said something like, "no, no it isn't."

So I called him a jerk and told him he wasn't listening. He perked up and allowed me to explain. I explained the situation. He said, "...but we don't have diplomatic relations with Iran, so they can't be voting here. That doesn't even make sense."

Me: "Exactly."

He suddenly became enthusiastic about the story, and he promised to send someone over to investigate. As far as I know, nothing happened in the end. The story never appeared on air.

FBI-

So I called the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and spoke with three bureaucrats who seemed thoroughly disinterested. Everyone was ready to go home for the weekend. Bothering them on a Friday afternoon was really rude of me.

Finally I spoke with the Houston FBI contact, and she was amazingly non-chalant about what I was telling her. She said they would take note of it.

On being a crackpot-

I just wish I had somehow been able to record the phone conversations, because some of the lines I heard from these bureaucrats were mind-boggling. Absolutely amazing. Mostly, they all treated me the way bureaucrats treat crackpots.

Dismissive. Disinterested. Disrespectful, even.

In the end, shutting down the polls might have caused more trouble, diplomatically, for the Bush adminstration, than it was worth. In the meantime, I can report firsthand with certainty that Friday's Iranian election in Houston was not free, not transparent, and not truly open to all Iranians who wanted to vote, even just to cast a protest vote.

It was a "private event" paid for by the Iranian regime. In the same way that certain candidates were excluded and others approved from the ballot, certain Iranians in Houston were allowed in, others not.

Iran's election: SHAM.

Posted by Will Franklin · 20 June 2005 05:36 AM

Comments

Did you try Homeland Security? Weird that you can't get anyone to listen. We have a RED ALERT here!>> IF YOU ASK ME;You are a good man. The obligation of PROTECTING Security looks like a Breach of Security!
Very interesting! Great work!>>>>>>>

Posted by: Dave at June 20, 2005 08:07 AM

Did someone say?... Ramadan Inn?...Kind of makes you wonder!

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at June 20, 2005 08:32 AM

first time I've ever been to your blog. Great report, and yes you are brave. And Ms Shirvani is a real heroine. Bless her.

Posted by: Maggie at June 20, 2005 10:44 AM

You're right. I just got off the phone with my local FBI and the woman actually sounded confused, and asked me what my incentive was for doing this investigation. The woman in Phoenix was excited to hear of my report, but she isn't local so it doesn't matter.

Definitely try Homeland Security. The guy I talked to was very interested and I told him to check your blog as well. Hopefulyl something will be done.

Posted by: Robert Mayer at June 20, 2005 03:04 PM

Yikes, make that *hopefully.

Hey, maybe this will be the first blog swarm that leads to FBI action instead of media action? Since they obviously don't give a crap.

Posted by: Robert Mayer at June 20, 2005 03:05 PM

Well Will you should have said Im Will Achmed of Al Jazeera.....

Welcome in Mr Achmed have some coffee and relax. See our democracy in ACTION!!!!

Posted by: Lanceredstaterant at June 20, 2005 03:06 PM

Great stuff, Will. Very impressive.

Posted by: Colt at June 20, 2005 06:00 PM

It is really bad when we are living in a TERRORIST ALERT WORLD and not any of the authorities care to check things out!...I really hope that is not the case! BUT,...it kind of looks that way...If there are Terrorists in our country we need to BE SURE we are protected! After all security is frisking innocent people at the airports! At the same time the LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENT are protecting a TERRORIST REGIME...! Interesting concept we have for Homeland Security ...

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at June 20, 2005 06:14 PM

Great idea! Will,**** your new Iranian name is Will Achmed Mohommadishka of Al Jazeers...That is what I should have named you in the first place...BUT I just didn't think of it!********What a beautiful name for my son!* I know your father will approve too*******!

Posted by: MOM at June 20, 2005 09:05 PM

I've linked to you, thank you for telling this story.

Posted by: staghounds at June 21, 2005 09:01 AM

Great post Will. I'm curious, though, as a non-US citizen... What would be the response, legal or otherwise, if I were to come poking around a US polling station with a video camera?

Posted by: Andy at June 21, 2005 10:23 AM

Andy,

It's hard to say.

Our elections are typically pretty open and transparent to the media. You can't be in the actual polling area where the actual votes are being cast; usually there is a radius inside of which electioneering is now allowed.

I can't really answer that.

It's definitely different from my situation, though.

Posted by: Will Franklin at June 21, 2005 05:59 PM

I just want to say that while, from a quick browse of your front page I'm pretty sure I disagree with you on a lot of issues, I think this was a very admirable effort on your part. Kudos. It'd be nice if more political conversations could be based on willingness to go and document the facts on the ground.

Posted by: Auros at June 21, 2005 07:14 PM