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The New York Model
Indymedia and the Text Message Jihad
by JEREMY SCAHILL

The guerrilla musicians from the Infernal Noise Brigade were tuning their instruments, preparing to lead an unannounced, unpermitted march from Union Square to Madison Square Garden. Independent journalists from the Indymedia Center were putting fresh cassettes in their video cameras. An activist was instructing people to line up two-by-two in a straight line because "that way the police don’t have a legal right to stop us when we march." The cops were mulling about waiting for whatever would come.

Then, Union Square started beeping with a symphony of cell phone text message alerts. It was like the activist version of that scene in the awful Tom Clancy movie "The Sum of All Fears" when the mobile phones of all of the CIA and White House honchos start ringing during a presidential dinner party. "From comms-dispatch," read the message. "Reports of police using orange mesh fencing to surround protesters at Herald Square. Riot cops moving in. Cameras, medics and legal observers needed."

Throughout the week in New York, independent journalists and activist groups used text-messaging technology to coordinate an impressive, groundbreaking campaign of direct action and comprehensive news reporting. It was one of the many creative, guerilla tactics employed by the decentralized resistance movement in North America that grew out of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. In contrast to the multi-million dollar security budgets for the Democratic and Republican conventions and at the recent FTAA meetings in Miami, activists are using existing technology that is virtually cost free to mobilize hundreds of actions and thousands of activists.

In addition to the various groups using SMS text messaging to send out action alerts, warnings, news and announcements, the New York Independent Media Center (IMC) set up an automated information line that activists could call 24 hours a day to hear breaking news from Indymedia, a calendar of events and to listen to a live streaming broadcast from the A-noise radio collective, which was broadcasting live reports from the streets. At protests past, the work of Indymedia was primarily available to people at home. In New York, it went mobile. And it was a huge success.

"Our task is to help facilitate horizontal communication and information distribution to all the activists in the streets," says Evan Henshaw-Plath, the Indymedia tech activist who developed the info-line concept. "The police want to keep the protests under control and stay a step ahead of the protesters. So, all of this communications infrastructure helps on a tactical level. We’ve appropriated technology as an essential tool for radical social change."

He points to a moment during Sunday’s mass protest when the "Thousand Coffin March" needed 60 more people and, through text messaging and the information line, they were able to rapidly deploy the needed people. "When there is a blockade or arrests, activists know where to go or how to avoid arrest," he said. "All of this helps make the protest more effective."

"It was a last minute project, which showed how using free software and about $10, we could create quality phone based information systems," said Henshaw-Plath.

The project grew out of a concept developed by Aspiration Tech of San Francisco a few weeks before the RNC. It was based on a software package called Asterisk, which takes information from the web and converts it to speech to provide it to mobile phones. "We were looking into applications for non-profits and activist organizations to use VOIP and internet telephony in relation to their work and the upcoming presidential elections," says Henshaw-Plath. "After getting the system setup, a casual conversation lead to the topic of ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do something like this for the RNC protests next week?’"

Henshaw-Plath says that despite almost no publicity, the service received more than 2000 calls over a 4-day period.

The SMS text messaging was coordinated primarily by using a free service from a website called <txtmob.com>. Users could create a personal account free of charge and sign up for groups similar to e-mail list serves. Some of them were unmoderated and had unreliable information. But others, like the ones operated by nyc.indymedia.org and the NY Comms collective, were moderated, accurate and effective.

"There is this ongoing problem of lack of media coverage of protest activity, particularly in the United States," says the founder of TXTMob.com who goes by the nom de guerre of John Henry. "Text messaging becomes another tool in the activist arsenal, a way of representing their actions to the outside world in a direct manner, rather than being dependent upon establishment mass media to tell their story for them."

TXTMob launched two days before the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Its overhead cost was the donated labor of Henry and others from the Institute for Applied Autonomy, an art and engineering collective that develops technologies for political dissent. In Boston, 200 people subscribed to the service. In New York, there were more than 5500; a number that far exceeded Henry1s expectations.

"Having this kind of communication infrastructure allows much more spontaneous, fluid kinds of actions that can be taken in response to real time events," says Henry. "It maintains the element of surprise, which ultimately makes them more effective."

A perfect example of this was on Sunday when the Mouse Bloc staged a series of spontaneous street theater protests in Times Square. During the RNC, Republican delegates had been offered discounts to Broadway shows ahead of the week’s activities. For hours, the police chased activists around as they confronted delegates coming out of the theaters. When the cops would shut down one action, text messages alerted the activists to the next target. Police undoubtedly received the text messages along with the activists, but the spontaneity forced the police to engage in a cat and mouse game with the activists.

While the corporate media largely ignored the protests, there was one outlet where people could turn 24 hours a day for the most up-to-date, comprehensive coverage available anywhere. The New York City Independent Media Center website (nyc.indymedia.org) featured multimedia reporting and streaming radio broadcasts, legal updates and multiple calendars of events during the RNC. It also produced a one-hour TV show each night that was broadcast live on satellite television and community TV stations nationwide.

"We simply took the best lessons of past IMC convergences and built on them, focusing on systems that would facilitate multiple points of information dissemination," says Ana Nogueira, one of the founders of the NYC IMC. "We’re journalists," says Indymedia activist Josh Breitbart who also works for Clamor Magazine. "It’s only by being that plugged in that we were able to break all the stories that we did."

All of this was coordinated out of a large, donated space in lower Manhattan, which provided a newsroom for hundreds of journalists to work from during the weeklong protests. The total cost of the coverage was less than $50,000.

"Compare this to the multi-million dollar budgets of corporate outlets like the broadcast networks who often can’t even get their facts straight," says Arun Gupta, an editor of the NYC IMC newspaper The Indypendent. "We also play a unique legal role, gathering and compiling video footage that is used by lawyers in defending people.2

In the midst of creative tech wizards and various innovative tactics, Indymedia also produced an artifact from the days of old: an actual newspaper. The NYC IMC produced three special issues of The Indypendent in less than 2 weeks, one of them during the RNC. The writing was solid, the reporting was creative and its distribution was incredible. The first edition alone had a print run of 200,000, the largest distribution in decades for an independent publication produced for a protest.

But the big story in New York was the dissemination of tactical, real-time information, like the text messaging.

The SMS messages alerted activists of routes that remained open to travel to protests outside Madison Square Garden, as the police blocked off large sections of the city. It alerted Indymedia journalists of where cameras were needed to document protests, legal observers of real-time rights violations and activist medic teams of where people were in need of medical attention.

But with the real time updates for activists comes a conundrum: if anyone can utilize the service, wouldn’t that mean that law enforcement could use it against the demonstrators or to shut down direct actions preemptively?

"The big question in my mind is whether our breaking news reporting is more useful for us or for the police," says Breitbart. "The police were relying on our website for updates on the protests. The group that probably made most immediate use of the information was the NYPD." Breitbart estimates that Indymedia had as many as 250 journalist/activists on the streets phoning in updates throughout the protests, far less than the NYPD. Additionally, the police had a surveillance blimp, helicopters, video cameras and 200 police officers with helmet cameras capable of live streaming video back to a central headquarters.

According to The New York Times, the security buildup for the RNC represented the largest group of police and military forces ever assembled to provide security at a national political gathering. Just blocks from the IMC was the Multi-Agency Command Center, or MACC, the security 3nerve center,2 out of which some 66 separate city, state and federal agencies worked during the RNC. Among them, the 37,000-member NYPD, armed with a security budget of $60 million dollars, which is larger than all but 19 of the world1s standing armies. "But it’s not clear that they were able to centralize and compile information as rapidly as could the Indymedia network," said Breitbart.

Despite the massive security budget, that’s probably true.

The Times reported that during the weeklong protests, the police were monitoring websites like nyc.indymedia.org, "discovering this week that, in the course of a protest, demonstrators were calling in reports to a message service that posted the dispatches on the Web." The police say that was especially helpful to the work of units operating on mopeds, motorcycles and bikes. These "rapid response2 tactics by the police were labeled internally as the "Kelly Doctrine," after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. On Wednesday, an Indymedia journalist posted the following report: "The Entire Scooter Goon Squad is wrapped around Fifth and 48th reading INDYMEDIA from an internet phone booth. Everyone should come by and bring your video cameras."

While the activists don’t have a counter-intelligence program or a mole in the NYPD, they do have their own surveillance operation. As the police monitored the activists, the activists also monitored the police. They had their own central command of sorts, equipped with a handheld police scanner and a "trunk scanner" that is capable of listening in on police communications as they switch among various frequencies. The $1500 hardware was donated to the activists. "Monitoring the police scanners helps give you an overall sense of what’s happening in the streets," says one of the activists who operated the scanners. "It was helpful in corroborating reports we were getting from the field and determining when and where arrests were about to happen."

Despite the police use of Indymedia to monitor protest activity, activists say it was a significant step forward in tactical resistance. "It was historic," says IMC editor Gupta. "It shows how powerful a decentralized, de-funded movement has become."

"If we don’t do anything, then we have nothing," says Breitbart. "The police still have their Intel. On a level playing field, they’re still going to win, but it is incumbent on people to learn how to use information in a larger way."

And authorities at the highest level of government seem to be paying attention. Just as the week of protests was kicking off, the Justice Department announced it had opened a criminal investigation into the New York City Indymedia center. The Department is demanding Indymedia’s internet service provider hand over records regarding posts on the site that listed the names of Republican delegates. The federal government is claiming the posting of the delegates1 names may constitute a form of voter intimidation. "The subpoena shows they view us as a threat," says Gupta. "It is McCarthyite, Nixonian political harassment."

The hope on the part of many who organized the Indymedia operation in New York is that activists will apply the tactics and technology more broadly in future protests. "Frankly, Indymedia has evolved faster than the protest movement," says Breitbart. "The next step is for people to learn how to use the information effectively."

Still, Gupta says, "Technology can’t substitute for good organizing."

JEREMY SCAHILL is a producer/reporter for the national radio and TV show Democracy Now! He can be reached at: jeremy@democracynow.org.