Rust Belt Visions: The 2011 Allied Media Conference

Art by the one of our time's best cultural critics: Banksy, of course.

In Detroit, a cauldron where neoliberal experiments are tested and then unleashed upon the world, the Allied Media Conference reveals both the huge challenges facing community organizing and how media can assist the disenfranchised.

Allied Media Conference 2011

City: Detroit
Venue: Multiple locations
Date: 2011-06-23

A gray mist descends as my taxi emerges from the concrete labyrinth of the Detroit airport onto I94 East. Signs for Flint and River Rouge glide past like epitaphs of another age, half-forgotten memories of an industrial culture where labor struggles, at their best, crested and converged with the fights against fascism and for civil rights. Near the city’s perimeters lumbers an eight story Uniroyal Tire. In 1965 it served as a Ferris wheel frame for the New York World’s Fair, symbolizing a beacon of progress, of America on the move. In 2003, under misguided efforts to revitalize the city, it was tossed to the side of I-94 like an abandoned tire from a wreck still happening within the city limits.

The GM building juts from downtown Detroit, an accusatory glass and metal finger lording over its fiefdom. Squatting within the rubble of abandoned factories and boarded businesses is Wayne State University. Police cars swarm along its borders, suggesting more of an outpost than an educational institution. My first night in town a cop gave me his card, recommending that I not walk the city at night and certainly not alone. This is the site of the 2011 Allied Media Conference, where a few hundred largely middle-class activists and community organizers from across North America descend upon for four days, 23-26 June, to discuss and strategize the role of media in building social movements.

The conference started in 1999 as the Midwest Zine Conference at Bowling Green, Ohio. It changed names to the Allied Media Conference in 2005 and subsequently relocated to Detroit in 2007 as media’s transformative role among progressive organizations took precedence. Detroit symbolizes for many conference participants not only ground zero of neoliberalism’s catastrophic effects in North America, but also a central site of working-class struggle that supported such groups like the United Auto Workers, The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO). As Maureen Taylor, State Chair of MWRO, explained: “Detroit is at the forefront of labor struggle. Of all the jobs that left the country because of NAFTA, 50 percent came out of Michigan. GM workers were once the highest paid workers with the best contracts that had two weeks for vacation and two weeks for rest. People modeled their contracts off of GM’s. But now quality of life is under attack. You fire a person who is making $36 an hour and rehire him back at $8. What the bosses and the politicians start here, they try everywhere else.”

Michigan’s most recent mayor and governor are particularly vilified by the general populace for imposing severe austerity measures that cut $300 million from public education, $21 million from the police, and $100 million to cities. They treat the state like a war zone and its populace like insurgents while summoning draconian legislation like Public Act 4, which establishes the Emergency Manager Act. Under this act, Emergency Managers “can unilaterally dismiss elected officials and councils without follow-up elections; void previously agreed upon union contracts; close down schools at will; raise bonds without tax-payer approval; dissolve or merge existing municipalities; sell off or privatize public assets, and seize control of local civil service agencies, such as the city’s police force” (D. Sands, “Austerity Pleasures”, Critical Moment, 4). What differentiates Michigan from other conservatively led states like Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania is the sheer extremity, concentration, and success of such legislation, and relatively little news coverage. Already yesterdays’ story. Detroit functions as a cauldron where neoliberal experiments are tested and then unleashed upon the rest of the country and the world.

The effects lurk everywhere throughout the city: in the overgrown abandoned lots, in the burnt-out four-way stoplights that dangle uselessly above intersections, in the gutted stores with plywood-covered windows, and in the sound of broken glass crunching underfoot. As one cab driver explained, “I had to move to the suburbs. What’s the use of working a 14-hour day just to come home and find your house broken into? I won’t work at night no more. The po-lice ain’t there. Had a friend shot just two weeks ago doing night shift. This city lacks leadership.”

Needless to say, the arrival of a couple hundred middle-class activists and community organizers onto the scene creates an interesting, if somewhat awkward, mixture. This is not to say that local progressive coalitions and leaders both within and outside of the city don’t participate in the conference. They do. Nor is it to suggest that visitors and residents don’t intermingle and hold substantive conversations with each other both on and off campus. They do. But Detroit serves as a strangely post-apocalyptic backdrop, a gaping ravaged cityscape that draws into constant question the relevancy and use for such a conference. In the midst of such desolation, suffering, and pain, what can a conference do?

Additionally, in the age of the internet, flip cameras, cell phones, and the like, one might ask why a media conference might be needed at all. What self-respecting organizer or activist, after all, could take for granted the use of media in his/her political work—even if it be in its most basic form like the written word or the human voice? Yet a surprising amount of people still do. A recent book from AK Press, Black Bloc, White Riot surprisingly states: “Zines, records, and bicycle tube bondage gear are all fun. But given the enormity of the world and of our responsibility to one another, we should not become seduced by the idea that these representational endeavors correspond in any sense with the demands of the political” (AK Thompson 22). Interestingly, the writer, a member of the alter-globalization movement that emerged during the late '90s, assumes an inherent divide between representational endeavors and political ones. This attitude reveals a more systemic Puritanical streak that plagues all too much of the North American Left that assumes all mediated relations are by nature compromised and that fun somehow opposes the political realm. The Allied Media Conference, if nothing else, challenges this view, as well as reveals many of the contradictory impulses that course throughout community organizers’ and activists’ use and understandings of media.

The Decolonizing Journalism panel drew some of these tensions to the forefront. The three participants related their miserable experiences of attending journalism school and working within hierarchal and sexist newsrooms. All disowned the notion of objectivity and once shared the misguided belief that they could somehow mass-distribute stories of the under-represented and marginalized issues through a commercial press. Yet in spite of these failures and the limits of traditional journalism, they nonetheless remain attached to the concept of journalism. Why?

Many groups like Indymedia, the Canadian Media Co-Op movement, and others stubbornly retain the notion of journalism without often explicitly asking what is worth salvaging from it. There seems to be two components at work: the strategic and the psychic. The strategic comprises various elements: either emulating news wire services for a progressive setting, paying individuals to conduct investigate reporting, an intimate relationship between editor and writer, and the like. As a friend of mine said, “Although I don’t believe in objectivity, I still like to believe in accuracy. We are more accurate in relating everyday people’s stories than the corporate media.” I would caveat that we at least try to be.

Yet as Hans Enzensberger observed over 40 years ago: “There is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming, or broadcasting. The question is therefore not whether the media are manipulated, but who manipulates them. A revolutionary plan should not require the manipulators to disappear: on the contrary, it must make everyone a manipulator” (“Constituents of a Theory of the Media”, 58). Yet many of us still talk as if we are not manipulators, and our appeal to journalism often clouds the issue.

For example, I spoke with a journalist/documentary filmmaker who had insistently stated that she did not believe in the notion of objectivity. Yet when I told her that I was writing a theoretically-inflected history on digital media activism, she commented about her documentary film work: “I just want to relate the peoples’ stories since they do a good enough job of relating them on their own.” Her comment exposes a belief that somehow the camera itself can capture reality—as if framing, editing, and lighting don’t manipulate reality and refract it from the screen. I believe that all the conference participants, including myself, share this desire: to relate people’s stories, as well as our own, in the most honest fashion possible—and to enable historically disenfranchised communities to do this themselves as well. The problem is that this appeal to honesty or truth or accuracy often runs the risk into succumbing to a blind faith of unmediated relations—as if there cannot be honest manipulation or more accurate manipulation than commercial media offers.

This leads to the psychic component of retaining a notion of journalism: one that bestows a particular authority and professionalism upon the bearer, and meshes with repressed middle-class aspirations. The most engaging moment during the Decolonizing Journalism panel was when one participant admitted: “I still grapple with feeling like a failure of not making it at my job.” This unbelievably bold and self-reflective move reveals the vulnerabilities and psychic trauma that often haunt our political practices and uses of media. It exposes the relevancy behind the old truism—the personal is the political—by reminding participants how the old world and new converge upon themselves and their actions. By not taking into account our own contradictions and multivalent desires we run the risk of establishing practices and organizations that do not fully engage with our psychic lives.

The projects at the conference that most successfully integrate media making with collective organizing revolved around anti-poverty issues and working-class movements. Groups like the Poverty Initiative, Vermont Workers Center, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, United Workers, and Media Mobilizing Project led two consecutive panels. The first panel introduced the groups and their work while the second held break-out sessions where members from each project interacted with individuals from other related initiatives.

My group was led by Luis from United Workers, a project run by the poor to organize and unite low-wage workers across service sectors. They are currently working on a documentary that chronicles the exploitative working conditions of the redevelopment project of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. They also released a report, “Hidden in Plain Sight”, in early May that summarizes over two years of human rights abuses and systemic poverty of low-wage workers.

By far the most interesting of the initiatives is led by the Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project (MMP). It emerged during the mid-'00s in an effort to create a community-based media infrastructure that assists working-class struggles and unite diverse poor constituencies like taxi workers, security officers, health care professionals, and students. Through skills-sharing classes, community dinners, discussion groups, and rallies, workers learn of each others’ shared working and living conditions and start shaping the narratives and collective practices that will improve their lives.

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