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Activists Reflect on 20 Years of Indymedia and the Radical Media Movement

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Independent Media Center and rise of the global citizen journalist movement.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the historic protests in Seattle that shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization, but it also marks the time when the first Independent Media Center came to life. Amid the clouds of tear gas, hundreds of volunteer reporters documented what unfolded. That week received 1.5 million visitors — more than CNN — and produced a daily video report and newspaper. It was the first node in a global citizen journalist movement.

We speak with those who know the story best. Jill Friedberg is co-founder of the Seattle Independent Media Center and co-produced the Seattle WTO documentary “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” Rick Rowley is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and independent journalist with Midnight Films, as well as co-producer of “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” Tish Stringer and Renée Feltz are co-organizers of the 20th Anniversary Indymedia Encuentro taking place this weekend at the Rice Media Center. Stringer is Film Program Manager at Rice University and author of a book on Indymedia: Move! Guerilla Films, Collaborative Modes and the Tactics of Radical Media Making. Feltz was at the Seattle WTO protests and helped found the Houston Independent Media Center. She’s a longtime Democracy Now! producer and reporter, including for The Indypendent, a newspaper that grew out of New York City Indymedia.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at how the 20th anniversary of protests in Seattle that shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization also mark the time when the first Independent Media Center came to life. Amidst the clouds of tear gas, hundreds of volunteer reporters documented what unfolded. That week, received 1.5 million visitors, more than CNN, and it produced a daily video report and a newspaper. It was the first node in a global citizen journalism movement.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to meet some of the Indymedia activists in a moment, but first this excerpt from Showdown in Seattle. It was produced for Deep Dish TV by the Seattle Indymedia Center and scores of media activists. In the clip, we get a tour of the very first Independent Media Center. It begins with Jeff Perlstein, one of the founders of Seattle Indymedia.

JEFF PERLSTEIN: The main motivation for us starting the Independent Media Center was folks on the ground here in Seattle recognizing the importance of this issue and also that all these tremendous, brilliant, articulate people were coming from all over the world to speak truth to power here, to confront globalization and its antidemocratic agenda.

DAN MERKLE: One of the critical aspects to this center is that it has been a clearinghouse of information for lots of individuals not only who live in Seattle, but who have been coming in from around the country and around the globe to participate in the events this week. And we are providing a base of operation for journalists and others who are going out into the streets and capturing the content, editing the content, and then distributing it over the internet or satellite or faxes, literally around the world.

ERROL MAITLAND: We have to find our own ways to get the message out. So because the revolution will not be televised by the corporate media, we hope that the information that has been presented to you by the alternative media is one that you will learn.

ERIC GALATAS: What’s really important to note about the whole center that is taking place is that it is fairly unprecedented. We’ve got teams that are covering video. We’ve got teams that are covering print. We have a newspaper actually being published every day out of this center.

FRAN HARRIS: The Blind Spot, which is this paper, it’s the paper that the Independent Media Center puts out every day during the WTO, and it’s basically like an 11×17 fold-over that’s front and back, which is pretty much all we can afford to do. I’m sure we could fill a lot more —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s an excerpt from Showdown in Seattle, about the first independent media center that opened 20 years ago this week. Well, for more, we’re joined by several guests. In Seattle, Jill Friedberg, who is co-founder of the Seattle Independent Media Center and co-produced the Seattle WTO documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like. We are also joined here in the studio with Rick Rowley. He joins us — he’s an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and independent journalist with Midnight Films.

AMY GOODMAN: And he co-directed that film with Jill. And in Houston, Tish Stringer and Renee Feltz are co-organizers of the 20th Anniversary Indymedia Encuentro that’s taking place this weekend at the Rice Media Center. Tish is film program manager at Rice, author of a book on Indymedia called Move! Guerrilla Films, Collaborative Modes and the Tactics of Radical Media Making. Renee at the Seattle WTO protests then joined with Tish and others to found the Houston Independent Media Center. Long-time Democracy Now! producer and reporter, including for The Indypendent, the newspaper that grew out of the New York City Indymedia. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

Jill Friedberg, we’re going to go to you first. You’re right there in Seattle. You too, this weekend, have a large gathering honoring this 20th anniversary of Indymedia. Talk about that Indymedia Center that was right there in the middle of Seattle. The fact that was getting more hits than, as CNN was saying there are no rubber bullets being fired, and here was IndyMedia showing pictures of people holding the rubber bullets. Jill?

JILL FRIEDBERG: I think the thing that was really amazing about that moment was that the physical space on the ground of the Independent Media Center, which really came together in a couple of months before the WTO came to town, that the capacity of that Independent Media Center on the ground combined with the reach of, which was, if not the first, one of the very first open publishing platforms ever.

It was a new and unprecedented thing that independent journalists could share their content directly to a website without an editor in between them and the site. And the combination of those two factors really facilitated independent media not just providing a strong alternative to the corporate media, but interrupting the narrative that the corporate media was trying to construct about what was happening in the streets of Seattle that week.

And I think another really important piece of that is that on the ground, the Independent Media Center was not just a press center. It wasn’t just a space with computers and internet access. It was a space of collaboration. It was a space of training. A lot of people who just came through the door looking for a way to help out by the end of the week knew how to edit a radio segment or write and publish a print article.

All of that came together because people around the world, but also on the ground in Seattle, anticipated ahead of time that the corporate media coverage would be slanted, narrow and inadequate, and also anticipated that hundreds of independent journalists from around the world would need a space, infrastructure, collaboration and support. We anticipated a little bit of what happened, but we were all also quite surprised not just at what happened in the streets of Seattle, but what happened inside the Independent Media Center in terms of response and numbers of people who came through the door to participate.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jill, were you further surprised after the week of protests about the flowering of these independent media centers, really around the world? Can you talk about that as well?

JILL FRIEDBERG: Yeah, 100% surprised. If there were others there who had expected that, I didn’t know about it, because we all had really not anticipated that independent media centers would start popping up all over the world. Initially, they were popping up where big protests were happening, but then eventually, they were just taking shape in towns literally around the world where people felt like an independent media center could serve their community’s needs.

It was a really important experience to learn on the fly what did that mean to be connected through values and practice, but not in the same room together. Because it was sort of like a testing ground for social media. Again, this was unprecedented that people would be more or less doing the same kind of work all around the world but only connected for the most part through the internet. So it was very hard, there were a lot of lessons learned but it also created a really important network of independent journalists who when they were in the same room, could support each other, protect each other, share material, share equipment.

A lot of people who participated in those independent media centers had their work facilitated when they had to go to another country to do some reporting or make a film. They would land there and it was the Indymedia people who would be there for them first providing whatever they needed.

AMY GOODMAN: And of course what made this more stunning, this accomplishment, is that they were doing this as they were choking on tear gas. I want to turn to footage from the Seattle Independent Media Center that shows the night in 1999 when Seattle police in riot gear attempted to enter the offices of Indymedia. After Indymedia journalists kept police from coming in, officers surrounded the door, blocked access to the building, denying reporters entry.

UNKNOWN: Can you just give me some kind of idea of when we might be able to go back in there? People are working to deadlines, you know? I have a —

OFFICER: Is everybody waiting to get back in there?

UNKNOWN: I think so.

OFFICER: Is that what we’re doing? Well, let us get a few people out of there and then we will get you in. How’s that sound?

UNKNOWN: Dubious, isn’t it?

UNKNOWN: Very what?

UNKNOWN: Dubious.

UNKNOWN: Dubious?

UNKNOWN: Yeah. That you feel the need to [inaudible]

UNKNOWN: [inaudible]. I’m talking to you.

UNKNOWN: ACLU is suing the city of Seattle for infringement of freedom of speech.

AMY GOODMAN: And now we’re going to go to another clip, right outside the Indymedia Center.

CROWD: [inaudible]

UNKNOWN: Indymedia journalists are gathered to get the story out.

UNKNOWN: [inaudible]

RICK ROWLEY: So what — are these people under arrest?

UNKNOWN: [inaudible] crime scene. I don’t know any more.

RICK ROWLEY: It’s a crime scene? It’s a press center. It’s an independent press center. And it’s the only [inaudible] that seems to be locked down. I mean, is that — it seems like more than a coincidence. I mean, what, are you — I mean —

UNKNOWN: You can’t go by, sir.

UKNOWN: [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: So that was — that last person was Rick Rowley demanding to know why they’re going into the Indymedia Center. I was also standing outside, following the police who were ahead of me looking like robocops. What I didn’t realize — of course, I did see it, but I wasn’t thinking about it — is they were all wearing gas masks. I was behind them coughing, broadcasting to WBAI on the telephone. I could hardly get my breath. I didn’t have a gas mask.

Rick, you were pushing to ask why they were targeting the Indymedia Center. Ultimately, as they tried to push their way in, Denis Moynihan of Democracy Now! was inside the Indymedia Center reporting to the press. As they were trying to get in, they actually took a hose to tear gas the inside of the Center. Rick Rowley, you’re the co-producer with Jill of What Democracy Looks Like. It could have been called What Democracy Smells Like.

RICK ROWLEY: [laugh] It’s amazing to see that footage. I actually have never seen that clip of me outside the Independent Media Center. But it was really — I can’t express what an amazing week it was for all of us. That was a moment when change to us really felt like it was impossible. The kind of global corporate orders seemed inevitable and invincible. NAFTA had just been signed by Clinton. The Democratic Party, such as it was, was fully recuperated by financial capital. The union movement had been beat on up over more than a decade. The national liberation movements in Latin America had been murdered in the mountains. And then outside of camera range, resistance had been building. And it first appeared to us in 1994 when the Zapatistas rose up in Chiapas, Mexico, but when that movement exploded into the streets in Seattle, it was a shock to all of us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Rick, you mentioned on Friday night at the event we had here in New York that you almost didn’t go to Seattle, right? That it was a last-minute decision on your part. Can you talk about that?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, yeah. When our small team arrived there, we weren’t really expecting much. We ended up there because we had met Jeff Perlstein and some of the organizers of Seattle — we were on tour with a film called Zapatista that we had made over a couple of years in Southern Mexico. In Austin, we met Jeff and some of the organizers of Indymedia.

I think the genius of what Jeff did — and Jill, who convened this kind of amazing collaborative video space — is that they didn’t — it was the same genius of the movement itself, that it convened a space and invited people in as participants, not as supporters, not as followers, but we were all as collectives invited in to find a space and to work together. And I’ve never — I’ve worked in all sorts of different television environments since then. I’ve never been in a place that had so little ego and such a shared kind of sense of purpose. It was really, yeah, a transformational moment for me.

AMY GOODMAN: And amazing what was happening outside also in that you had the Teamsters and Turtles together. You had the AFL-CIO — they decide to march in the streets, led by John Sweeney, then president of the AFLCIO. Thousands of people with environmentalists, high school kids. You had José Bové, the French farmer, farmers from around the world, doctors and nurses saying, “You cannot overturn the laws of democratically-elected legislatures to pass corporate-friendly laws that could jeopardize our health.”

But we are going to go right now to break, and when we come back, we’re going to expand this discussion with our colleagues in Houston, who are also holding a 20th anniversary event around independent media. Stay with us.

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