The images were at once riveting and appalling. Police lifting gas masks
and bandannas off protesters to spray pepper gas in their faces.
Concussion grenades and teargas canisters exploding on crowded
sidewalks. But as the massive protests against the WTO conference in
Seattle startled the world last fall, these pictures weren't on network
television. They were still images on the web, or they appeared on
public access cable, downloaded from a daily satellite feed.
The organization that produced so many of those images was a fledgling
group of independent journalists, media activists, and volunteers called
the Seattle Independent Media Center. Their website,
http://www.indymedia.org, was the place on the web for the most
immediate photographs, news articles, first person reports, audio clips
and more, all direct from the chaotic streets.
Nearly a hundred camcorder-equipped journalists combed the
demonstrations throughout the day, bringing their raw footage to the
IMC's command center for logging and digitizing. Thousands of copies of
the IMC's daily newsletter, "Blind Spot" were passed out at the
protests, rallies, conferences, and meetings that were taking place all
across the city. The IMC's daily satellite feeds were seen on television
in the U.S. in over 150 cities, and were picked up by Reuters and other
international news organizations.
On April 16 and 17, thousands of protesters will again converge to
protest corporate globalization. This time, the city is Washington,
D.C., and the targets are the World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund. And once again, camcorder, notebook, and microphone toting
activist-journalists will be there to document the events and bypass the
"With the opportunities available though the Internet, fax, and
satellite, we had to the opportunity to almost immediately disseminate
what was taking place in an unedited way," explained Dan Merkle, a
Seattle attorney who was one of the founders of the IMC.
Dan Merkle and other Seattle media activists, along with many of the
alternative media groups and individuals who came together to coordinate
the Seattle IMC, such as Paper Tiger, Deep Dish Television, Free Speech
TV, the Direct Action Media Network (of which I am a member), and
Whispered Media are building a DC Independent Media Center for the April
16 protests. Once again, they assert, Indymedia.org will be the
indispensable website for protest news.
Although the Seattle group cobbled together the IMC in a little less
than two months of furious organizing, the roots of the idea go back to
1996. During the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a group called
Countermedia aimed to cover protests and demonstrations on the web.
Though they had limited success, the idea captivated other independent
media types. In fact, one of the key Seattle IMC founders, Jeff
Perlstein, was involved with the Countermedia effort.
Momentum began to build for the anti-WTO protests, and Seattle-based
media activists started meeting in early October, 1999 to discuss ideas
for a media center. "There were about six of us that immediately dropped
everything that we were doing and started working on this full time,"
recalled Merkle. Merkle was personally motivated by a feeling that the
Seattle police would not be able to handle the protests. Moreover, he
said, as an activist he felt that the mainstream media was biased toward
the business community. Aware of the possibility of police overreaction,
"I wanted to make sure that whatever took place was captured and
disseminated to the rest of the world."
The group quickly found a central space and began raising funds and
reaching out to independent media groups around the country. Donations
of money and important equipment resources began to arrive. By the time
the protests began, the IMC had a $75,000 budget, two locations, dozens
of computers and video editing equipment, mobile phones, servers, and
more. Much of the crucial funds and support came from individual donors
as well as local high-tech companies like Encoding.Com (now known as
At the height of the protests, on November 30, Merkle estimated that
close to 500 people were involved with the IMC. "Just to manage or
direct all those people instantaneously was a huge challenge," he said.
"It was a lot of chaos and a lot of energy down there."
The IMC was prepared for the crush, though. There were separate
committees to handle each form of media, and newcomers were quickly
integrated. Most important, said Merkle, "We demanded…that everybody
check their anger and frustration with corporate America before they
came into this project…We needed to support each other and treat each
other with respect or it would all break down."
Despite initial server overload, by the end of that tumultuous week, the
Indymedia.org site had logged over 1.5 million hits. "It was incredibly
effective because it used a combination of real, physical space, tools,
equipment, and real organizing….They set up the Internet as a
dissemination medium," said Evan Henshaw-Plath, a computer programmer,
entrepeneur, and activist who was one of the major web coordinators for
Moreover, the site was linked from the front pages of Yahoo, OneWorld,
and other high traffic news websites. According to Merkle, news
organizations like Reuters, CNN, the BBC, and others all dropped by the
IMC, attracted by the direct access to the protesters.
For their part, activist organizers in Seattle depended on the IMC for
reporting on police abuses, and for portrayals of demonstrators that
were more accurate and sympathetic than those coming from mainstream
sources. Kim Feicke, an organizer with the Direct Action Network, and
with Art and Revolution in Chicago, said that the IMC provided DAN with
their own news desk, which was "invaluable, since we didn't have that
kind of space and it allowed us to keep in touch with all the other
folks doing media and exchange information."
Once the protests ended, the IMC distributed the satellite feeds as a
five hour video series, and then edited the footage down further into
the one-hour documentary "Showdown in Seattle," which has been screened
all over the continent. Buoyed by their extraordinary success, the IMC
plans to continue as a media center in Seattle.
But now, the IMC idea has caught on, and there are IMCs planned not only
for DC, but also for the Democratic and Republican conventions.
The Washington, D.C. Independent Media Center will probably be a
smaller-scale effort than Seattle, however. For one thing, the
demonstrations are over two days, rather than a week. Moreover,
Washington, D.C. seems to have far less alternative media infrastructure
than Seattle. As Eric Galatas, who works for Free Speech TV and helped
organize the Seattle IMC noted, the Seattle area had a substantial
independent media coalition which produced many IMC organizers.
The DC IMC will have a central command center somewhere close to the
locations of the protests, as well as a separate space for video
editing. Instead of daily satellite feeds, there will be short, edited
video news clips available on the website, in addition to the articles
and photos. The website will utilize the same "rewire" technology as in
Seattle--a web-based form that allows anyone to post an article or a
photo to the site and have it appear immediately. The end result, said
Eddie Becker, a Washington, D.C. filmmaker who is helping organize the
IMC, will be "a site that combines all the media to follow the event in
real time." Other alternative media sites such as Protest.Net and DAMN
will probably be linked to the Indymedia site--they will act as filters,
editing and posting the articles and photos they choose from the
Indymedia database. On April 21, a one-hour documentary with footage
shot during the protests will be broadcast by satellite.
Despite all the excitement, the DC IMC faces major obstacles. Time is
short, and resources are limited. "The reality is that we are not a TV
network, we do not own a newspaper, we might feed into a few web sites
and have a satellite TV broadcast that gets a lot of instant attention,
but it's up to the people who come to bring the message back to their
community, to arrange with their cable provider to pull down the
satellite broadcast, have a party, and show tapes," said Becker.
David Price, an activist and anthropologist who participated in the
Seattle protests, was pleased with the IMC's Seattle coverage, but
concerned that it did not reach a broad audience. "In some ways it was
mostly preaching to the choir--given that local media outlets were doing
everything in their power to not cover what was really happening, I
don't know what else the IMC could have done," he noted.
Galatas agrees. "There's a real advantage to monopolizing all public
space, including the entire communications spectrum," he argued.
The journalism of the IMCs is not exactly traditional, leaving it open
to criticism from major media. Most of the people working with the IMC
are closely connected with the activist movements they are covering.
Henshaw-Plath calls it "a different form of media that is alternative,
independent, democratic, and participatory." Any protester can come to
the IMC and write down their account of how they were tear-gassed and
post it on the web for the world to see, he explains.
That directness may appeal to audiences tired of pundits and lightweight
news. The IMC's Seattle reporting had a rawness and an urgency missing
from most journalism. "As more and more people learn that alternative
visions of reality are out there, the kind that have an impact on the
food they eat, the air they breath, what we're calling independent media
today will make the dinosaur media monopolies look like the ridiculous
entities that they are. How can you take some blow-dried air head on TV
seriously after you've seen real stories about things that actually
matter with your own eyes?" contends Galatas.
Activists and independent journalists have high hopes for what the IMC
can accomplish in Washington this April. David Price would like to the
see the IMC find "rational, well-informed, articulate spokespeople from
anti-IMF camps and give them air time to counter the endless stream of
mind-numbing econo-babble that will be dribbling out from the IMF and
slurped up by a press that is mostly content to reprint as 'news'
whatever press release it is handed."
Can the IMC repeat its triumph? Galatas thinks opposition movements like
the one against coporate globalization are more important than ever.
"Any progressive cause that believes it can win its victory playing on
the existing corporate media playing field knows that the job would be
infinitely easier if there were a truly democratic communications system
where all voices could be heard."
Copyright Rachel Rinaldo--March 2000
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