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, "f*ck 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 public skepticism for the old ones.
The author, with microphone, doing some street reporting with a comrade, ~2003
(Image by macskamoksha.com) Details DMCA
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 wantin this case, access to internet publishingand 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.
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.
Recommended reading: "The Battle of Seattle, 20 Years Later" in the Indypendent
Note: portions of this essay were adapted from my book, Roadtripping at the End of the World
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