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Media Is Key to Organization Building, but It's Yet to Unlock Key Problems

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Due to the increasingly isolating and alienating nature of work under neoliberalism in general and the service sector in particular, media-making provides a central location and activity in reconnecting these workers with one another. Ronald Blount, a member of MMP and president of the Philadelphia-based Taxi Workers Alliance, observes the positive impact that media-making has had in countering the alienating work of cab driving: “It is one of the most isolated occupations you can do. You are competing against other drivers for fare money. You are in a cab 16 hours a day. This media-making has started to break-down these barriers. Cab drivers are starting to see themselves as a class instead of as individuals struggling against each other.” This coincides with MMP’s mission as articulated by Rebekah Scotland, who works as MMP’s lead video organizer: “One individual working on something doesn’t draw him or her closer to the work that we are doing. It is about the collective experience of organizing the work. The people who are involved with it are coming from different backgrounds, coming across various sectors. As a result, we get a sense of where other people are coming from, a sense of other perspectives.”

Media, in other words, no longer serves as an endpoint but is intimately interrelated to organization building, collective struggle, and re-conceptualizing working class identities. For example, the Taxi Worker Alliance created the video, A New Era, to be distributed hand-to-hand in their mobilization drive for union elections. The taxi workers’ involvement in production becomes evident from its opening shot: the image of a semi-empty street unrolling before a dashboard. This bumpy, hand-held shot relates the sense of isolation that accompanies the job and suggests the type of individualistic mentality that the Taxi Workers Alliance needs to overcome and transform into a more collective vision. Furthermore, the shot’s unsteady and bumpy movements ground it within the jerking motions of the cab. We not only see but in a sense feel the cab driver’s material conditions: his/her vision and movements.

The video emphasizes the gradual transformation from an individualistic perspective to a more collective, working-class vision that the Taxi Workers Alliance makes possible. We see this during the video’s ending as the grassroots campaign for TWS president takes shape. The viewer is aligned with hand-held, unsteady camera movements of the cab drivers, immersed within the actions taking place on the screen. In one instance, a shaky camera does not know who to focus on as Ronald Blount, partially cut-out of the frame, suddenly announces: “The campaign officially starts this minute. You campaign. I campaign.” Bottom-up history manifests itself, revealing its complexities as various hand-held cameras struggle to contain it and the editing lunges to narrativize it. The camera serves as both observer and participant. This type of on-the-ground filmmaking, as film theorist Patricia Zimmerman notes, “constitutes a political strategy that expands the notions of committed or guerrilla filmmaking into a joint effort between social actors and the action of image making… The camera… is instead recast as a membrane, a permeable surface through which relations between and alongside maker and subject pass and commingle” (States of Emergency 66).

We watch cab drivers standing in line and filling out ballots at folding tables stationed on street corners. We watch the blurry and low-lit night images of the counting of votes underneath a lone flashlight beam. Ultimately, we watch bottom-up democracy taking place. This historic moment does not easily expose itself before the camera. But the cab drivers’ abilities to not only stake out public space for their own democratic wishes and collective desires, but also to record their actions under adverse filming conditions reveals in both content and form their tenacity and commitment to enact their desires. The tenacity to record, to not wait for optimal filming conditions mirrors the cab drivers’ tenacity in forming a union and demanding to be treated as equals under equally adverse working and living conditions found in a neo-liberal city. They use these limits to their utmost advantage.

Ultimately, A New Era reveals film historian David James’ observation that “every work of art expresses the social uses it serves, and works that do not directly serve capital articulate in one way or another their position in respect to capitalist culture generally. All works thus contain within them the stories of their modes of production” (Power Misses 15). A dialectic exists between formal and material practices with media produced by progressive social movements. The material conditions of production inhabit the very form and content one sees. A New Era not only represents the taxi workers’ struggle but inscribes that struggle within every shaky frame and low-lit shot. Collective struggle and media making are one and the same. Representational and political struggles converge.

Unfortunately, other constituencies were severely under-represented at the conference. Indigenous media only occupied two panels. I cannot speak about the first panel, Indigenous Thought and Media. After 30 minutes of nothing happening and no explanation from the moderator, I left. The second panel, Lessons from the Indigenous Environmental Network, was also delayed since one participant had difficulty catching a cab. The organizers chronicled the establishment of an indigenous media center to critically report on the convention on climate change held in Cancún in early December 2010. Furthermore, they demonstrated how free on-line programs like Livestream and Insomnia can be used to create low-end streaming video to establish one’s own makeshift media unit.

But the lack of indigenous media relates to more systemic issues concerning the conference’s relation to non-profit organizations, funding, and liberalism. As Klee Benally, lead singer of Navajo punk rock band, Blackfire, and member of Outta Your Backpack Media Project, explained: “We actively work to confront and abolish the non-profit industrial complex. There are a lot of tensions that I believe exist with self-determined media and the non-profit industry. We make sure that we are not dependent upon foundations and instead depend upon our own communities… It is hard to go to conferences and not engage with independent media in a critical fashion, a media that still invisibilizes the issues we face.”

A general absence of self-criticism hovers over the conference panels—with the “corporate media” often vilified and grassroots works championed. Only during the Decolonizing Journalism panel did one participant remind the audience that non-profit media organizations often hold equally exploitative working conditions as corporate workspaces that often lead to burnout and disenchantment.

I would also add that much social justice media is simply unwatchable and unreadable. At its worst, media is treated instrumentally as nothing more than a megaphone to blast-out low-quality clichés, rote language, and tired imagery. It either arises from the Puritanical logic that the importance of content somehow trumps the lack of engaging form or the Romanticism of D.I.Y. punk-like productions that have long since lost their spirit and allure. Granted, community media often precariously balances between making media production available to those who have been historically excluded from it and producing engaging materials that can absorb new and old audiences for future mobilizations. But the lack of discussing media as a product or a process in social organizing remained unaddressed throughout most panels, as did questions regarding the ways in which corporate media might be mobilized by progressive social movements and intersect with community-related media projects.

Equally marginalized throughout the conference was queer media. This is surprising, since groups like ACTUP were central in establishing non-hierarchical, direct action, community-based media throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Indymedia would have been unthinkable without the work of DIVA TV, yet queer media often remains unmentioned in regards to its lineage.

Queer youth media only had one panel at the conference, which was mainly dedicated to deconstructing a Virgin Atlantic television advertisement deemed homophobic by some. Although the organizers attempted their best critical analysis, they missed capitalizing upon the audience’s more insightful comments regarding the ambiguous ways in which the ad was constructed—simultaneously tolerant and homophobic. As a result, the dialogue remained a bit forced. One gets the sense that organizers didn’t receive much guidance, which made me wonder: Where were the adult queers, anyway? Why were youth and queers collapsed into one another?

There seemed to be little to no interaction between indigenous and queer folk with the other groups. During the queer youth caucus dinner, as they strategized about what they could do as community members to strengthen their work, I suggested that some members introduce themselves to other groups, particularly if they share a geographical locale or similar interests. One shy person told me that she had difficulties networking with others. But after learning that she was working on a project documenting queer media and I was writing about ACTUP, we exchanged cards and phone numbers. I then told her: “You just networked.”

Needless to say, I was the only person attending the dinner who was not already a part of the queer youth caucus. The entire event symbolized the problematic ways in which the conference failed to encourage members from diverse group to get together and exchange ideas. Some groups like those involved in working-class issues actively created new coalitions while other historically disenfranchised groups like queers and indigenous folk remained on the outskirts, badges of diversity without true integration.

One other disturbing element that plagued the conference was the unquestioned presence of for-profit activism. During the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition Tour, participants were taken to the Mt. Elliott Maker Space, which was based on the MIT Fab Lab and housed in the bottom of an Episcopalian church. Jeff, someone in charge of the Space, stated: “I look at this as venture capital by creating things that will develop products and services that we want to sell.” The space is funded by a grant that is donated from Earth Works, a non-profit.  Jeff continued, “Everything we do is entrepreneurial.”

Unremarked upon is not only how non-profit funds are being diverted from the state and federal infrastructure, which has Detroit smoldering in its ruins, but also how these funds are now redirected from the non-profit sector to a privately funded for-profit corporation. What does it mean that members of the community are contributing their labor in the production of goods and services that will then be sold and owned by a private business? How are profits to be re-distributed? Where does the line from skills-sharing end and exploitative unpaid labor begin?  How does this reliance upon venture capital relate to other groups’ desire to “end poverty now?”  Can capitalism provide the answers to the very poverty and environmental degradation it fosters? Questions like these need to be integrated into conference discussions in order to form more coherent understandings of how participants’ strategies relate to one another—and when they don’t.

Overall, the Allied Media Conference reveals the potentialities when media becomes fluidly integrated into social movement building, when the disenfranchised begin establishing a coherent vision of who they are and the type of world that they envision. Yet it also exposes the distance that community media organizations must travel in engaging marginalized groups that the conference also seems to keep at a distance. It is both a utopian space that draws together diverse groups of people who cross class, gender, sexual, ethnic, and racial lines, as well as forcibly reinstates the invisible divide between the often white, middle-class organizers who can safely recede from the ravages of Detroit and poverty in general and those who can’t, for those who make a living from such organizing work and those who are just trying to exist.

As I left Detroit for the airport, the cab driver asked if I was from the conference. I said yes. He replied, “I think what ya’all are doin’ is alright.” I asked why. “Yer’ tryin’ ta make things better, right?” I agreed. “Yer’ goin’ ta’ need a lot more conferences to do that, though.” Probably. When I explained that I taught film and media studies, he pulled a small camcorder from his seat: “Ya’ see this? I am making a documentary.” I asked what about. He turned around: “Drivin’ a cab. What else?” I smiled and gave him my card, telling him that I would like to see his film someday. He smiled back and squinted through the rearview mirror: “Sure enough.”

Chris Robé is an associate professor of film and media studies. He's published within various journals such as Jump Cut, Cinema Journal, Framework, and Culture, Theory and Critique. His monograph Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Left Film Culture was published by University of Texas Press. His article, "'Because I Hate Fathers, and I Never Wanted to Be One': Wes Anderson, Entitled Masculinity, and the 'Crisis' of the Patriarch" appears within the anthology Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary Cinema. He is currently on sabbatical completing a book on video activism and the new anarchism within North America from the 1970s to the present. In his spare time he agitates for his friendly faculty union.

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