This week marks the 20th anniversary of the WTO protests in Seattle. The event was a spark set to dry kindling, and the flames that raced across the nation afterwards danced for a few years before they were smothered. As a moment, it was transformative for many people, myself included; my own life trajectory took a sharp leftward turn, definitely for the better.
I was working a temp job in an office in Stamford, Connecticut, when the news broke and my reaction was immediate: “It’s here! It’s here!” I exclaimed jubilantly in my head. By “it” I meant the Sixties-style uprising I’d been waiting for seemingly all my life.
Less than six months later I had broken up with my lover, moved to Minneapolis, and dived headfirst into activism. The Nader campaign and Indymedia introduced me to a wide array of people including Greens, socialists, anarchists, anti-police brutality activists, vegans and polyamorous pagans. Everyone seemed to be experiencing the positive jolt of Seattle. Change was in the air. Within a year, I had ridden the wave to Portland, Oregon, just in time to enjoy its last decade of radical politics before gentrification swept much of that culture away.
Backing up to that first day in Stamford: I was fortunate that my office had internet freely available. That still wasn’t universal in 1999. I spent the rest of the day following the news as closely as I could, and before too long, I stumbled across a news website I’d never heard of: the Independent Media Center, aka Indymedia, at indymedia.org.
Instead of the usual talking heads and polished tones, Indymedia’s articles were posted by the people who were actually in the streets participating in the events themselves. Most of them lacked journalistic training but the immediacy and vitality of their first-hand accounts made that irrelevant. I had never seen anything like it before.
Neither had anyone else back then, but it caught on quick. In a few months, Indymedia sites sprang up in about a dozen other places, including the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) and Portland, both of which I played a major organizing role in. By 2003, there were around 170.
For those too young to remember, in 1999 it was not easy to get your words on the internet. This was before social media and blogs and yeah, there were discussion forums and threaded message boards, but these formats didn’t lend themselves to news reporting, certainly not with multimedia elements.
That was the Indymedia innovation: “open publishing,” which was a platform—free-of-charge—for individual expression that didn’t pass through a filter. You could go to the rally downtown, stir up some trouble, and then come home and write about it. You could post your photos too, and—as the code was developed and the infrastructure improved—upload audio and video. After clicking the “PUBLISH” button, your story appeared online within moments for everyone to see. You didn’t “submit” to anyone. Nobody approved it before it went up.
Or proofed it either, and that showed, but that was also in the spirit of it all. Your truth was your truth no matter how you spelled it. Some of the Beat Movement’s “editing is lying” ethos lived on here, but more overt was the rebellion against corporate slickness. The educated classes have always tried to impose their educated standards as the only way to be “respectable” or “understood” or “to get things done,” but that’s always been cover for the fact that they’re pricks who don’t want to share power. At its best, Indymedia freed people from that tyranny and set no voice above another.
It also served as a check on corporate media, especially at the city level. If your local CBS affiliate reported that there were only “dozens” of protesters at an event, you and your comrades could set the record straight on your local Indymedia site with your photos showing hundreds. In Portland, local corporate media felt enough pressure from us that they were forced to respond. When they start attacking you, you know you’re on to something.
The Seattle Indymedia website had been set up by anarcho-techies (using open-source code originated in Australia) with the intention of just providing a tool for reporting the WTO protests. But when the on-the-ground, from-the-people, non-corporate coverage proved so popular, they gladly and graciously helped it spread.
The worldwide network that emerged was based on the anarchist principles of mutual aid and individual liberty. Local sites ran things their own way and network-wide decisions were made by consensus.
Though Indymedia was popularized in the US, it was animated by the spirit of the worldwide anti-globalization movement whose rallying cry was Otro Mundo Es Possible—”Another World Is Possible.” Activism here was being informed and nourished by that deeper energy and it showed.
These were exciting days. The sensation of creative energy building around the planet was totally palpable. The protests in Seattle were followed by more around the world against other institutions: the IMF in Washington, DC; the World Economic Forum in Melbourne; the FTAA in Quebec City; the G8 in Genoa, Italy; and many more. The summer of 2000 also saw large mobilizations at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. May Day events grew in size too.
Indymedia played a key role in all of these events. In Los Angeles, Indymedia activists helped set up the “convergence center,” the hive where activists gathered to organize. One floor was devoted to reporting, with computers set up for posting stories and photos and for editing audio and video. Amy Goodman broadcast “Democracy Now” from the space that week. I volunteered on the security team for the space so ended up spending many hours there. I will always remember one night when I clambered out onto a fire escape for a cigarette and I ended up in the glare of a police helicopter that was circling round and round the building with a searchlight. These mass mobilizations were like warzones and the personal bonds formed with comrades were strong.
September 11th temporarily put a damper on the whole protest scene, at least in the US. I remember so much fear the first few months. A massive mobilization against the IMF had been planned for later that month in Washington, D.C., but it ended up much smaller than originally hoped.
The first big demonstration in the US after 9/11 was on August 22, 2002, in Portland, Oregon, for the occasion of a visit by President Bush. Large crowds succeeded in blockading the area downtown where the President was staying, in a siege that lasted most of the day before being broken up by violent police tactics, including the pepper-spraying of a baby. [See the Portland Indymedia video collective’s documentary on the day’s events here. (The video is just under 28 minutes long. I don’t know why it says 55:29.)]
Portland Indymedia was flooded with stories but also with right-wing trolls. Until then, we had refrained from deleting anything under the auspices of free speech, but the traffic was so high that it was making the site unusable, so we turned on a dime, switched our policy, and gave ourselves permission to take out the trash. These days, it’s impossible to imagine a non-moderated public forum, but back then it was still a popular ideal, at least among many activists.
The spirited anti-Bush event seemed to reignite protest activity in the US in the months that followed. National mobilizations against a war in Iraq took place in dozens of cities and towns on October 5, November 17, and January 18, and culminated on February 15, when over two million people protested worldwide, setting an historic record. Nonetheless, the Bush administration attacked Iraq on March 20, 2003, which led to raucous demonstrations around the country. In Portland, independent videographers outnumbered the local conventional press, who were actively vilified by crowds chanting, “Fuck the corporate media!” It was a gratifying moment for us Indymedia activists, who were working not just to create new media outlets, but to incite skepticism for the old ones.
2003-2004 was arguably the high-water mark for Indymedia, at least in the US. Readership and influence were significant because participation was high.
In the history of activism, such moments are rare: that is, when activists offer people something they want—in this case, access to internet publishing—and the result is enough heat to start a fire. Indymedia thrived while it had this market cornered, but that didn’t last long. By 2005, blogs and social media were muscling in on the space and by appealing to people’s egos, they quickly gained success.
Nowadays, the Indymedia movement is dead (notwithstanding a handful of surviving projects like Indybay and the Indypendent—originally a production of NYC Indymedia activists—which are still thriving).
Nothing has filled the role that Indymedia innovated with “open publishing.” When actions and protests happen now, there’s no place to go to get the word from the street in a coherent format. Social media functions in an entirely different way: words and images flash by and are gone. Its content is entirely ephemeral by design.
We have been disempowered and I don’t know how to get it back. There is such a thing as a last chance and the spark ignited by Seattle in 1999 might have been it, as far as alternative media is concerned.
A couple years ago, I re-watched “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” the excellent documentary about the WTO protests in Seattle which was produced by Indymedia activists from footage shot by over 100 videographers. It’s very well done and was a staple of activist video shows in the early 2000s. We found it quite inspiring back then. But on this most recent watch, my eyes welled up with tears and my heart was filled with sorrow.
Why was I so sad? Because those days are gone now. A very real window of opportunity opened in which we were collectively offered the opportunity to engage in serious resistance in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the globe. I’m so glad I recognized the moment and that I dropped everything and ran with it as hard as I could. But that window is closed now and culture has moved on. We fought a good fight but in the end we lost.
Today, alternative media is in sorry shape, as is serious media criticism. Algorithms limit the audience of independent sources and the “fake news” meme ended up benefiting corporate media. Furthermore, mobile technology in combination with social media is shortening attention spans and degrading analytical abilities. It doesn’t look good, at least here in the US, although I do believe that true revolutionary spirit still burns elsewhere in the world, especially among the indigenous.
But if you press me to predict where things are headed here, in the belly of the beast, I would guess some kind of dark ages. I seriously hope I’m wrong, though. I’d love to see another window open. I’d take even better advantage of it this time.