The convoluted relationship between protestors and independent and commercial media can best be seen operating during the 30 August Earth First! action at the Big Bend Powerplant in Hillsboro County. I had heard about an action supposedly taking place on Thursday, but no details were listed online or in print at all. Part of the secrecy, I was later to discover, resulted from the fear of the police anticipating the action and preventing it from happening at all. But, also, part of the secrecy emerged from sheer pretention.
At 10:30AM I asked three male anarchists crouched together in lawn chairs at Romneyville about the Earth First! action. They looked back warily as they baked in the unshielded 90 degree heat in their all black uniforms. One of them told me that I needed to become aware of “popular consciousness”. I asked what that meant. He stated, “You need to stick around for three or four hours and see when people are getting their water bottles and back packs.” Another anarchist chimed in, “People are working on it, but no one is going to tell you.”
Although I partially understood their implicit message—if I want to participate in an action, I need to fully experience the context it emerges from— it was completely impractical in a city where protestors were spread miles away from one another and for someone like myself who was trying to cover various actions. But worst of all, the sheer skepticism and hostility from these three pseudo-anarchists made it clear why many forms of explicit US anarchists in general are so insular and white and dogmatic. The lack of outreach and general desire to connect with others pushes such anarchism into a clique where adolescent tendencies inherited from the punk scene carry infect their politics. Their silence and attitude could equally be about knowing of an Earth First! action or some recently discovered ‘zine or band.
But it all boils down to one central smug stance: we know something you don’t. We are hip, and you haven’t proven yourself to deserve this information. This might be a productive attitude for the punk scene, but it’s suicidal in terms of fostering a political movement.
In spite of being warned “no one will tell me,” it took me roughly an hour to not only learn that buses would be picking-up people at Romneyville at 1:00PM for the action, but also that their secret destination was a local power plant. I pieced this together by asking others at Romneyville, Occupy Tampa, and finally Café Hey. More than holding secrets, activists like gossiping about them. A good afternoon spent in Café Hey could yield much vital information to an undercover cop eavesdropping on conversations.
I boarded the bus with Flux and roughly around 80 other activists, mostly connected to Earth First! or Occupy. Although the final destination was never announced, we were told that we would not be a part of the central action. We were here for support.
Almost immediately we were behind schedule since a key member of Occupy Wall Street, Aaron, was giving media interviews. In general, he possessed too off-putting a demeanor to be the spokesperson for anything. He always seemed to be holding something back, rarely looking people in the eyes, and woodenly recited his lines as if from a script. Understandably, some Earth Firsters! were upset by his presence. A woman in front of me shouted, “If I wasn’t on the bus, we would leave. Aaron is not more important.” Another bearded guy asked, “Why the fuck was he speaking to the media?” The woman asserted, “No one should be talking to the media about this action.”
This was a strange experience, since I assumed that Earth First! was one of the more savvy groups to use media. Communication professor Kevin Michael DeLuca has asserted that groups like Greenpeace, Earth First!, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society were some of the first and most sophisticated in using image events to relate their message to a general public. The reasoning goes: in a world of highly mediated imagery, activist groups need to redeploy spectacle and imagery in highly concentrated forms to effectively distribute their message among competing media outlets. According to DeLuca, “The image events of Earth First!, then, contest the possibility of property and the definition of the land as a resource, and instead suggest that biodiversity has a value in itself” (Image Politics 57).
But the discussion on the bus was not simply about the factional differences between Occupy and Earth First!, but if anyone should be speaking to the press at all. The fact that this hadn’t been discussed and worked out prior to the bus trip struck me as an amazing oversight for a group that is supposedly so media-driven. But as I learned throughout the trip, many of the Earth Firsters! did not realize that media was an essential aspect of their action.
This media naivety also manifested itself by having Flux accompany a decoy bus that first went to Ikea to divert the police’s attention while other Earth Firsters! successfully locked themselves down at the Big Bend Power Plant. When I later questioned one of the Earth Firsters! involved in the action about why someone like Flux who has lots of media experience as well as access to Free Speech TV and other independent media outlets was not filming the lockdown, he didn’t even know who Flux was. The fact that no general assessment was made of the local independent media attending the RNC and therefore no outreach offered struck me as a significantly squandered opportunity. Furthermore, it decreases the chances of future independent media coverage as someone like Flux becomes tired of being used for diversionary purposes.
Around an hour later, we finally arrived about a mile-and-a-half outside of the power plant. The police blocked the road, but we simply ignored the barricade and continued walking down a dirt road. Concerned that I might be walking into our own entrapment, I called a friend who was watching a live-feed of the destination of our protest. He confirmed my worst fears: a massive number of armed cops were waiting for us where the action was taking place. Multiple times throughout the day, my friend called and related vital information that was not being relayed where I was located on the ground. For example, he heard that the police would release the six protestors who locked themselves down in front of the power plant if we all left. I learned about this ten minutes later on the ground.
This experience revealed how live-feed becomes an invaluable tool for protestors in gaining a better sense of their overall environment than their own eye-witness accounts can offer. By having someone off-site relating information from live feeds, one can better anticipate and react to what is going on the ground before him/her.
A good deal of commercial media attended the protests. Earth First!’s spokesperson Lea competently related the significance of the action to them. In one video she states, “When we came up here to show solidarity with the people of Tampa Bay, we wanted to directly find a key contributor to the pollutants of their air and water… They are the single most dirtiest coal burning power plant in the state of Florida and a contributor to the Republican National Convention.” The power plant is framed over her right shoulder, which she occasionally gestures towards. Ultimately, she holds all the needed characteristics of a good spokesperson: articulate, well-spoken, and friendly but aggressive.
The news huddled around the first three activists in lockdown. Yet about half a mile down the road laid three other activists in lockdown. The police had cordoned off the road. I repeatedly asked them if we could cross the line, but they either did not reply or told me that they didn’t know. Tellingly, the police had no central person to direct news inquiries. When I asked reporters from NBC, CBS, and other outlets, they all told me they didn’t know if they could pass the barricade. I found it incredulous that commercial news media would not simply assert their right to film the other protestors.
With Flux’s assistance, I decided to cross the line and film those in lockdown at the other end of the road. Flux said he would be filming me in case I got arrested or worse. As I walked down the road, I met one police officer and explained that I am a researcher and need to film those in lockdown. He let me pass. A police SUV then approached me, but as I was halfway through explaining myself to them, they interrupted, “It’s okay, sir. Have a good day,” and drove off.
I filmed those in lockdown. The local medics told me to bring the press back to film the event. Those in lockdown requested that other protestors come in support of them. As I was leaving the scene, I asked a cop if there were any access restrictions. He said, “No.”
When I returned to the main action, I told a series of reporters that they should get to the second lockdown since they can get a clear shot of the protestors in the road. One reporter incredulously asked me, “I heard they were released. They are still in lockdown?” “Yes.” “They are on the road…” “Yes, and connected together. You need to film them.” “They are on the road still?”
This was a revealing moment concerning the sheer laziness and lack of questioning of authority that defines much of commercial media coverage. It’s not that the commercial media necessarily intentionally lies about protests, but that it unquestioningly accepts the framing of events by those in power. The police post yellow tape. The media doesn’t cross it. End of story. The fact that access has not been denied is irrelevant for news organizations that don’t even bother asking for such access in the first place. The fact that a not-so-brave amateur like myself can cross police lines to film and ask questions where commercial media outlets won’t exposes the utter bankruptcy of these media outlets that have the power of mass-distribution, credentials, and funding to do so but repeatedly fail to capitalize on it. Media access doesn’t need to be restricted when reporters have long ago given up on it.
Needless to say, Earth First!’s message wasn’t related through newspapers or television stations that evening and the next day. Once again, the police were championed for their restraint while the activists were framed as petulant children.
The frustration among activists reached a boiling point the night after the Earth First! action where around 200 of them went to downtown Tampa to attempt to get arrested. I asked those remaining behind in Romneyville what they were protesting. One person told me, “Good question.” Interestingly enough, those not attending the protest were largely African-American and affiliated with the Christian group that donated the land. One young man in his twenties who hugged me after recognizing me from the Earth First! action said, “I don’t try to get all negative and stuff. Like everything has its good and bad. But I am not going down there to mess with the police for what?” I noted that he went to the Earth First! action and was willing to be arrested. He responded, “Yeah, but that was to question dirty coal and how it’s giving money to the republicans. It’s destroying the earth, yeah? But I don’t know what this is all about?”
Sadly, that night’s action suggested a desperate attempt to provoke the police back onto the script of retaliatory violence that the protestors had eagerly anticipated. But stripped of any specific cause and original tactics, the action seemed empty, devoid of purpose other than proving one is willing to get arrested. If anything, it further proved Slavoj Žižek’s observation that “the secret transgressive source of libidinal satisfaction” in a post-modern world becomes a desire for “some extreme form of strictly regulated domination and submission” (The Ticklish Subject 345). He continues, “Beneath the hysteric’s rebellion and challenge to paternal authority there is thus a hidden call for a renewed paternal authority, for a father who would really be a ‘true father’ and adequately embody his symbolic mandate.” (334). Rather than accept the new situation, the Tampa protestors who marched downtown seemed to be desperately clinging to this desire “for a renewed paternal authority” by forcing the police to arrest them and take up its soothing position as intolerant repressive overseer.
I debated following the protestors downtown. But I realized that I wasn’t willing to get arrested simply to witness protestors wanting to get arrested. Although I could handle an arrest for gaining media access at the Big Bend action, getting arrested simply for the sake of it made no sense. I would later learn that night on the evening news, no one was arrested at the action.
If Tampa revealed anything, it showed the need for activists to rethink their media strategies and direct actions. Although much about the Earth First! action was well planned and executed, it also suggested a series of missed opportunities of not mobilizing independent and commercial media as effectively as could have been done. Perhaps most disturbingly, when the cops changed the script, the activists were ill-prepared for revisions. Regardless of protestors often celebrating their anarchist organization and network fluidity, the actions in Tampa were stuck in a rut unable to adapt to a changing landscape with low turnout and the police playing the role of benevolent authority. As Flux noted, “As long as we are forced to focus on our own repression we cannot do justice to the real issues that bring people out to these events.” What Tampa revealed was how some of us have become so accustomed to our own repression that we might have temporarily lost sight of what they real issues are in the first place.
This doesn’t mean that one should condemn counter-summit protesting altogether. Clearly, it provides a vital networking function in connecting radical and progressive individuals as well as radicalizing those who have accidentally stumbled upon the scene. But we need to rethink the purpose such protests serve and the tactics that we practice. Otherwise, we’re stuck in a mode of behavior that is as tired and uninspired as the political conventions that we critique.