The Last Ten Years - of War and Indymedia
Ten years ago today was the first morning of the Iraq War, after the "shock and awe" kickoff the night before with bombs and cruise missiles raining down on Baghdad. Remember that? On this special occasion it's appropriate for me to look back on what that time meant for me (It's kind of astounding how little attention this anniversary has received, both in the media and amongst friends' social media posts. I may be just too busy this week to look hard enough, or maybe there's a lot of collective amnesia).
The importance of that time as a turning point in my life really can't be overstated - and I don't mean this simply as a sort of standard, progressive narrative, in an anti-war activist hand-wringing way, lamenting the many ways in which the Iraq War and the Bush Administration were a terrible move for the worse for the U.S. and for the world (of which I agree there are many of those ways). What I have in mind is more personal: simply put, the leadup to the war in early 2003 was a profoundly radicalizing experience for me, which led me for the first time to really get involved with Indymedia, and also led to me starting to see myself, and act as, a citizen journalist, and perhaps most important in the long term, as a documentary filmmaker.
I'd been aware of the Independent Media Center before that - in fact, since it first launched into the public eye. As a liberal media geek in San Francisco I'd watched Seattle 1999 happen with excitement and looked on curiously as that first Indymedia site filled with grassroots reporting. It was inspiring, but I saw myself as an artist then, not a reporter or an activist. However, a couple of years later I bought my first video camera, a mid-level consumer DV model that I wanted mainly as a way of capturing found TV and VHS material that I wanted to use in video collages. The act of shooting my own footage was a byproduct, but I seemed to naturally gravitate, albeit as an outsider, toward street actions and guerilla theater, and I shot video of these events and worked that into my art, projected video collages that I used as a backdrop to my live electronic music performances.
When I moved to Portland in 2002 and the drumbeat for war was building, I became even more aware of Indymedia, and of all the radical activism and actions happening there, and in turn I became more interested in running around town taping these things with my little camcorder, but I still didn't really think of actually joining the local IMC. For some reason it didn't seem to be for me. Perhaps I still identified too much as a "pure artist," or the people I'd seen so far didn't seem to be "my people." In early 2003 though, as the war was kicking off, it became impossible to not be checking Portland's Indymedia site every day for the "real news." And at the same time, I was running a microcinema with 2 friends, showing a variety of docs and indie films, and someone from the Portland Indymedia video group contacted me to see if they could do a screening there. I eagerly agreed, and at the event I met these people, told them what I'd been doing, and gave them a copy of my latest political video art, a collage piece about oil war called American Business Adventures. It wasn't long after that I was attending every weekly meeting they held.
I went on to get involved with doing editorial stuff on the PDX IMC website, making several little documentary videos in collaboration with others in the group, and getting more connected with the global indymedia network. I was inspired by this and events in Latin America so much that the following year I spent the winter in South America, visiting Indymedia centers across Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile.
Later I got involved with Arizona's IMC after I moved to Tucson, and became the editor/producer for the now-defunct Indymedia Newreal project. I could go on and on about how much my outlook on politics, the media, organizing, and video journalism were spurred and influenced by Indymedia. I've moved on, as have many activists, from direct involvement, and while the actual Indymedia sites, collective, and brand are in most places obsolete and collapsing in slowmotion, I think the ideological as well as methodological influences on the media landscape continue to be felt.
An excellent piece looking back on what spelled the end of Indymedia recently was published by Ceasefire Magazine. The author gets a lot of things right, and I won't repeat his or her points here. Many of the comments on the piece are really insightful as well, and also are inspiring in that people point out how some communities continue to struggle on with their IMCs, even in the U.S. There's one thing that seems to have largely been left out of the discussion, though, and it's a criticism I've had almost from the beginning: the IMC "movement" was in most places always too exclusive, and too based on belonging to in-groups that were at least partially about subcultural style and/or tunnelvision ideology. That, to me, was the real death knell, because people will always give clunky tech or slow process a second chance, if they feel like they belong. But they'll turn away, eventually at least, if they feel like there's no place for them in a group that insists on having a strict party line. The party line varied a bit from local collective to local collective, but for the most part I would describe the main characteristics as: 1) willfully amateur in terms of production values and professional/financial principles; 2) overemphasis on a strict form of radical anarchism; and 3) a subcultural fashion that was largely sort of punk/countercultural/traveller-kid personal aesthetic, and judgement of most others who didn't match that lifestyle sense.
Of course that general error of exclusivity has been a problem for many activist groups. But combine that with the quick technological obsolence of Indymedia infrastructure, and you have a recipe for eventual irrelevance, especially if your stated mission is to be a voice for a "movement of movements" that always was the process of lots of tolerant coalition-building. The intense crucible of anti-globalization organizing, followed by the blast furnace of the War on Terror, kept the uneasy coalition alive for many years, and that kept the IMC model alive as well, but it couldn't last, and didn't, at least in most communities, and as a real functional global network.
However, the paradigm shift in democratizing journalism and media continues to inform activists and the larger culture, even if many don't realize it any more. And the personal changes it had on me and my career path and political arc were profound. It's worth remembering those changes and their continued resonance.