Be the Media: The Current State of Activist Media and the Work of Franklin Lopez

Still from The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

At its best, López’s work engages in constructing a new vision where popular culture serves the interests of the poor and dispossessed, where humor is reignited within activism, and the D.I.Y. ethics of punk and hip-hop allow those with talent and gumption to be the media, once again.

It's The End of the World as We Know It

Director: Franklin Lopez
Distributor: SubMedia
US Release Dates: 2007-01-01 to 2010-08-31
"Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance. Something that is constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there... It takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations, always taking on more density"

-- The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurection

As November 2009 neared and the global recession continued to eviscerate the infrastructures of the nation-state and local government, as hundreds of thousands of recently fired workers battled for a decreasing number of low-paid, disposable service-industry jobs to simply keep food on their tables, as their homes depreciated in value while their mortgages bloomed into nightmares, as thousands of low-income students were increasingly squeezed out of colleges by inflated tuition-hikes that administrators disingenuously deemed as necessary austerity measures, various global justice activists assessed the inheritances left in the wake of the famed Battle of Seattle during its tenth anniversary.

One cannot understate the radicalizing impact that the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in 1999 had upon Generation Xers worldwide. Although Seattle had many political precedents and influences such as the anti-colonial struggles of the '60s in Vietnam, Algeria, Senegal, Chile, and Cuba, the feminist movements, the anti-nuclear crusades, queer activism, and, more recently, the 1994 armed insurrection of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the 1996 Landless Campesino Movement in Brazil, the 1998 Peoples’ Global Action Against Free Trade and the WTO in Geneva, and the June 1999 Global Carnival Against Capital in London, to name only a few, Seattle converged in an explosive way. Over 50,000 people descended upon the city, catching both police and activists off-guard. Traditional sectarian lines were drastically being dissolved, emblemized in the placards that read, “Teamsters and Turtles: Together at Last!” Traditional permitted marches intersected with black bloc property destruction of Starbucks and Nike Town, causing WTO delegates to finally cease their meetings and flee from a city smoldering under pepper spray and tear gas as Marshal Law locked into effect. As one protestor was to reflect later, “Seattle 1999 was our May 1968.”

Seattle politicized previously depoliticized locals and on-line viewers with its flood of police repression and brazen governmental arrogance that Westerners were perhaps used to and comfortable with descending upon the Third World, but not in their own backyard. Yet, more importantly, it galvanized the already politicized by revealing how the center could no longer hold, how the circuits of neoliberalism could be shorted at ground zero in a silicon city that pulsed with the free-trade platitudes and delusions of the Empire.

Only months before Seattle, Naomi Klein released No Logo, which boldly charted the international terrain of globalization and its discontents: the glut of anti-union temp. work in the First World; the imposition of Free Trade Zones within the Third World where multinationals are given free-reign to exploit Third World, predominantly female, labor; the intrusion of marketing into our education system, treating children as potential consumers rather than as students; and the charring of an entire way of life into easily identifiable corporate brands. The book distilled the diverse strands of the global Left into a powerful critique of neoliberalism that activists could incorporate into their protests. Yet the book’s final section on resistance that charts culture jamming, reclaim the streets campaigns, and the student anti-sweatshop movements remained unconvincing. How could these various, unrelated strains of civil disobedience possibly block the flows of global capital in a significant fashion? No Logo’s answers possessed the stale whiff of empty Leftist genuflection towards change after having documented the seemingly inexorable momentum of late capitalism towards planetary destruction. That is until Seattle happened.

Also within the crucible of the Seattle WTO protests Indymedia was founded— a consensus-based, non-hierarchical, digitally-networked, technologically-savvy collective of activist videographers, journalists, photographers, artists, producers, and web-designers. Similar to the protests themselves, Indymedia had a long lineage of influences from the Third Cinema movements of the '60s, the video activist groups of the '70s, the cable access movement of the '70s and '80s, UNESCO’s McBride Commission, Downtown Community Television, Paper Tiger and Deep Dish TV, and the Zapatistas.

More immediately, a group called Counter Media established a website during the 1996 Democratic National Convention to broadcast the protests and teach-ins occurring outside the convention, though due to technical problems the site kept crashing. This was the first attempt at establishing a website to distribute radical, on-the-scene protest footage. Furthermore, the Grassroots Media Alliance Conference in Austin, Texas in 1999 provided a forum where established media groups like Whispered Media, Big Noise Film, Deep Dish, and Free Speech TV could discuss with independent activist media-makers plans about providing alternative media coverage during Seattle.

Even with this preparation, Indymedia almost did not happen. By early November, the collective could only raise $1,500 of the $40,000 needed to run a website, upload satellite footage, power electricity, and maintain a media space. Luckily, during the final weeks leading up to the protests, Indymedia received a $10,000 anonymous check as well as a $10,000 donation from the Tides Foundation. Deep Dish TV had also been busily raising money on its own for satellite access. Additionally, Gabrielle Kuiper, an Australian Ph.D. student, had just developed an open-source software code on which Indymedia could establish its own web-platform to directly upload video footage, news reports, and photographs. Finally, Seattle, the hub of the tech. sector, provided more than ample amounts of free technical labor to upkeep the website during the protests.

Indymedia’s presence upon the scene proved inspirational. Not only was it broadcasting in-depth stories regarding the protests that the major networks arrogantly ignored, but it also revealed the raw power of a D.I.Y. ethic of upstart amateurs seizing back control of a medium that had once seemed to be beyond their grasps. Similar to punk’s seizure of arena rock, and hip hop’s sampling of black R&B songs that were copyrighted by white producers, Indymedia hijacked cheap video technology and the open-source knowledge of the tech. sector to challenge commercial media’s façade of “objectivity” with its own visions of global justice. Anyone could upload his/her video, photographs, or stories to the website. The Seattle Media Center produced 2000 copies daily of its own newspaper, The Blind Spot, as well as provided on-line pdfs so that activists in the other 82 cities also protesting the WTO could distribute it. Seattle illuminated how new media technologies could be re-inflected against the very vectors of global capital that made them possible. By March 2003, Indymedia had grown into a global phenomenon with over 110 international Media Centers—though most still primarily centered in North America and Europe. Its insistence that everyday folk “be the media” proved prophetic.

Yet with the arrival of the 22-26 June 2010 Second U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, Indymedia was noticeably absent. Out of the dozen activist media panels I attended, Indymedia was not mentioned once. Although one can understand the tactical need to focus on the present, this lack of historical hindsight is surprising when considering that just ten years ago Indymedia was considered the vanguard of the media movement.

In Cobo Hall, the fortress-like cement convention center that occupies downtown Detroit where the Forum was held, a People’s Media Center occupied the south wing of the second floor in a ballroom. Ostensibly based-off the Independent Media Center model, it provided space where autonomous groups of techies, videographers, print journalists, and artists could gather to make and distribute media. Except in this case all but the techies were missing. Aspiration, a Bay Area group that assist nonprofits in using software more effectively and sustainably, assembled a team of four or five members around two tables of donated computers to provide computer access. Predictably, most people were using the computers for email. The rudimentary video editing software proved irrelevant since the computers lacked both the memory and processing capacity to edit without periodically crashing.

In a far corner of the room stood a hard-drive with its cover removed and tangled wires exposed. Nat, a dreadlocked techie, hunched over it like a surgeon or coroner—depending upon his mood. This apparently was where videographers were supposed to archive and upload their material. Nat informed me that ATT had not delivered the DSL line until two days into the Forum. The router broke in the process, and he still needed to set-up two terabytes of server space. In short, the archive was non-existent.

Nat informed me that Alfredo was in charge of video archiving, but in spite of visiting the Media Center daily, I never caught sight of the elusive Alfredo. Just as I never saw any other videographers attempting to upload their footage. Free Speech TV contributed the only media activity in the center. At the far end of the room it had erected a temporary studio to conduct interviews for satellite transmission and to upload videos. What happened?

Granted, the Toronto G20/G8 protests coincided with the U.S. Social Forum during the latter half of the week, thereby drawing critical focus away from Detroit. But one would think that out of the 18,000 people in attendance there would be more media activity. The 9AM. press briefings proved embarrassingly representative. They were attended by Carlos, who was the Social Forum Press Secretary, a Communist correspondent from People’s World, and me—along with 72 other empty chairs. A few times I had to correct Carlos on material that he largely recited from the Social Forum brochures such as the time of the plenary speech. The Communist correspondent quipped, “Well, we outlasted General Motors.” Barely.

What indeed were the inheritances of Seattle? Many activists believed that they had mistakenly taken Seattle for a movement rather than a moment. In the latest issue of Turbulence Rodrigo Nunes claims, “‘The movement had never existed. It was a mirage, produced in a moment of hugely and rapidly increased capacity of communication and coordination, and wide-eyed astonishment at a just-discovered capacity to produce moments of convergence whose collective power was much greater than the sum of its parts” (“About Ten Years Ago” 39). David Solnit, a Seattle organizer, agrees: “There is no global justice movement. At best, ‘global justice’ is a common space of convergence” (5). Although such analysis underestimates the new movements that Seattle forged as well as the complex interplay between movements and moments that global protests facilitated (and forestalled), the austere tone reveals a new structure of feeling surrounding activist communities engulfed by two Middle Eastern wars, escalated global warming, a worldwide financial collapse, and one of the worst oil spills.

In a similar manner, following an article titled, “Why Seattle Still Matters”, in the November 2009 issue of The Indypendent, NYC’s Indymedia newspaper, a reader ironically questioned: “Does the Indymedia global network still matter?” Perhaps the question is wrongly stated. The point is not if Indymedia still matters, but what has it become?

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