Earlier this month, beneath the high ceilings of downtown’s Patriotic Hall, Alan Minsky tried to explain the Independent Media Center (IMC) to a puzzled reporter from the Daily News. “So it‘s a business?” the reporter asked. No, Minsky explained, more of a not-for-profit collective. All equipment and labor are donated — that’s what keeps it independent. “Do you have your own correspondents?” the reporter asked, still befuddled. Sort of, Minsky explained, the IMC does have reporters, but anyone can contribute, which is what keeps it independent. “What‘s your position?” the reporter asked, hoping to get at least one concrete answer. Minsky explained that he was a kind of all-around coordinator, but that there were no formal positions or hierarchy in the IMC, which also helps to keep it independent. “Do you have a card?” the reporter asked at last.
Members of the Independent Media Center do not carry business cards.
During the demonstrations surrounding the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle last fall and the World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., this spring, dozens of camera- and notebook-bearing IMC reporters did carry makeshift press credentials, which were completely ignored by local authorities. Since January, media activists have been meeting locally to organize an IMC for Los Angeles. They plan to report on the protests and events surrounding August’s Democratic National Convention without the corporate biases of the mainstream media, biases that have been abundantly evident in the Daily News‘ histrionic headlines of late (“Convention protesters threaten to SHUT DOWN L.A.”), as well as in most of the national press coverage of the Seattle and Washington demonstrations. Their Web site, www.la.indymedia.org, is already up and running. During the convention it will feature breaking news through streaming video, a Web radio program, still photos and text-based articles. They will also be broadcasting daily live news reports on satellite television and taking over the production of a revived Los Angeles Free Press for the length of the convention.
The LAIMC plans to report not only on the protests themselves, but on the substantive issues being protested, in Minsky’s words, “without the filter process of the mainstream media.”
Chris Burnett, a founding member of the Los Angeles IMC, explains: “For years activists have been relying on the mainstream media as the medium for their message. That‘s a real bad strategy. Inherent in the structure of the mainstream press is the need to sell people’s minds to advertisers. It makes absolutely no sense for the mainstream press to cover issues the way activists would like to see them covered.”
To that end, the first Independent Media Center was created in Seattle just weeks before the WTO meetings, viewing the WTO, and the forces for corporate globalization it represents, as a perfect opportunity to discuss issues insufficiently covered by the mainstream media. “They wanted to make sure,” Minsky says, “that they could document the critique of the WTO that was coming out of the protests.” Video footage of police attacks on protesters was posted on the IMC Web site and quickly spread around the globe. While the mainstream press focused on a few rock-throwing protesters as the cause of the violence in Seattle, the IMC broadcasted evidence that placed the blame on the police. Since then, seven other local IMCs have been founded in the U.S. and four in Canada, as well as centers in Australia, Belgium, France, Italy, Mexico, the Congo and the United Kingdom. Cooperative but mutually independent, they form the media wing of a growing international protest movement.
While the IMCs try to present information that otherwise goes unreported, they are equally intent on not mimicking the structure of corporate news organizations. “It‘s not just about different content,” Jeff Perlstein of the Seattle IMC said recently at a meeting in East L.A., “it’s about the different relationships we want to create.” The IMC thus has no internal hierarchy, and all decisions, at least in theory, are made by a laborious process of consensus building. “What‘s really important about Indy Media,” Burnett adds, “is that people have the potential to be producers, not only consumers. IMC is participatory — anybody with access to a browser in a public library can publish a story, upload their video or audio.” Unlike the mainstream press, which limits not only what news is reported, but who reports it, Minsky says, the IMC “functions as a democratic vehicle where everybody can participate, facilitating public discourse.”
Locally, the IMC is broken up into “affinity groups,” each responsible for a different aspect of planning. There are Web, video, radio, print and logistics groups, among others. A core membership of about 40 activists attends the IMC’s biweekly general meetings. It is largely but not entirely white (a fact that creates endless and frequent discussions and e-mail exchanges about the problem of diversity). Among the membership are CalArts and USC students, film-industry professionals, longtime activists. Some, like Free Press publisher Art Kunkin and Joan Sekler, have been involved in activism for years. Others, like Jennifer Joos, were just recently inspired to get involved by November‘s events in Seattle: “I was interested, but I didn’t know about the whole activist community. Then I saw 50,000 people protesting and I knew something was going on.” Politically, they range from mainstream liberalism to anarchism. Most are in their 20s and 30s and are politically and technologically savvy, equally comfortable discussing Noam Chomsky and talking about T1 lines and Ethernet connections.
For the length of the Democratic National Convention, they have rented out an entire floor of Patriotic Hall, a county-owned building at the southern edge of downtown that will also house Arianna Huffington‘s “Shadow Convention.” They will soon begin setting up computers and editing bays and makeshift radio and television studios. During the convention, the IMC Web site will be updated constantly with news stories and videos. Its radio station will broadcast around the clock, including IMC-delivered news, analysis, music and spoken-word programs, as well as a daily program by Amy Goodman, of Pacifica’s Democracy Now. A donated satellite truck will be parked outside, beaming daily newscasts into over 1 million homes. And The Los Angeles Free Press, largely dormant since 1976, will be published daily and distributed around the convention site and to the rest of Los Angeles.
There will likely be some potholes between now and the convention. Financing is very tight, and a lot of equipment is still needed. “There‘s no funding,” says spokesperson Eben Rey. “It’s all out of pocket from volunteers and sweat equity — mainly sweat equity.” To make matters worse, the management of Patriotic Hall, under pressure from local businesses that fear the IMC‘s presence will bring rowdy protesters to the area, recently nearly doubled the IMC’s rent to pay for added security. IMC organizers are nonetheless optimistic that they will be well ahead of the game. “In D.C. they had only two or three weeks to prepare,” says Chris Burnett. “In Seattle they had roughly six weeks.”
They are also counting on the momentum created by the upcoming round of protests to outlast the Democrats‘ convention. Burnett hopes the IMC will at last actualize the much ballyhooed revolutionary potential of the Internet: “Indy Media is to corporate America and the commercial press what the printing press was to the French aristocracy before the French Revolution.” Even after the delegates go home and the IMC gives up its satellite truck and Patriotic Hall offices, the Web site will remain online. “This is just the beginning,” promises Rey.