The turning point for Abbas came the week after the raid, when he read the descriptions of child labor, abusive supervisors, and dishonest management in the government’s affidavit on the slaughterhouse. Abbas was outraged. When I interviewed him months later, he became animated as he recalled his awakening. “Every time I spent more than a few minutes with that affidavit, I became more incensed,” he said. “I couldn’t help but become outspoken.” Much of Abbas’s criticism has been directed at the Rubashkins. Aaron and Sholom Rubashkin have both been charged with child-labor violations by the Iowa attorney general, and federal prosecutors have charged Sholom Rubashkin with bank fraud and immigration violations.
Abbas’s position as both an insider and an outsider in Postville helped to shape his new role as town crier. He grew up in Bremer County, Iowa, seventy miles from Postville, so he knows the local ways. But he spent most of his adult life in the hippie stronghold between Stockton and Lodi in California. Abbas has none of the reticence that distinguishes most Postvilleans, and he befriended many of the curious folks who came to Postville after the raid to fill the positions at Agriprocessors. One group of workers came from homeless shelters in Texas, for example, another from the Pacific island of Palau. It was Abbas’s decision to air an interview in late May, with a woman from Texas who was angry about the way the Rubashkins had treated her, that caused the first blowback from Chaim Abrahams, then the president of KPVL’s board and also an executive at Agriprocessors. Abrahams wrote an e-mail to fellow board members complaining that the KPVL programs were dividing the town.
As it turns out, Abrahams had more to fear from Abbas than just the divisive effect he might have on Postville. When Abbas found a hot story, he would get on the phone to journalists elsewhere in the country with the tip. In November, after Sholom Rubashkin was jailed for bank fraud and then released on bail, Abbas turned up video footage of a celebration at Postville’s synagogue, welcoming Rubashkin home at the same time that the company’s workers were scrambling to keep from being evicted from their apartments. Abbas passed the video to Shmarya Rosenberg, a blogger in St. Paul, Minnesota, who has provided some of the best coverage of the raid and its aftermath; a few days later, the video was referenced in The New York Times.
It didn’t help that as the station’s influence increased, its revenue did not. Abbas was hired with the understanding that his salary would be a commission on any underwriting he could secure—work he set aside as he hustled to expand programming. Abbas said that over the last two years he has received $4,500 for his work at the station. He has stayed afloat, he said, by selling his old coin and stamp collections.
Tensions came to a head just before Thanksgiving, at an open meeting of the radio station’s board, when Abrahams took issue with Abbas yet again. Dozens of Postville residents showed up to support Abbas. After making a plea for editorial independence, Abbas requested some sort of personal financial assistance. “I need to get myself out of the hole,” Abbas told the crowd, his hands folded before him.
Nina Taylor, the station’s treasurer, has been one of Abbas’s supporters, but she politely expressed discomfort with the position that Abbas’s work had put her and the other board members in. “There’s no guideline or directions on how to deal with this,” Taylor told me in an interview, “so everyone is kind of creating it as we go along.” Soon after the meeting, Taylor resigned her position, citing the stress of the work.
The board did come up with a bit of money to tide Abbas over, and town officials took over much of the rescue work for the struggling former slaughterhouse workers that Abbas had been doing. (When Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy, Abbas spearheaded an effort to provide them with basic relief, turning the KPVL studios into a food bank and working the phones in an effort to keep the electricity and water on in the workers’ apartments.) On Christmas, Abbas took his first day off since Christmas the year before.
But the tension remains. Abbas has kept up his on-air commentary, and the board continues to deny him a regular paycheck. In February, Abbas applied for food stamps. He also contacted a lawyer to help him fight for a portion of a grant that KPVL got from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“I’m almost fifty-five years old,” Abbas said. “There’s nothing else I can do. There’s nothing else I want to do.”