Independent Media Center ('Indymedia') logo. Collage by author.
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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 vitality and lack of artifice in 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, at both of which I played a major organizing role. By 2003, there were ~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 platformfree-of-chargefor 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, andas the code was developed and the infrastructure improvedupload 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 under the pressure were strong.
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