Indymedia at 20

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It was twenty years ago, September 24, 2000, when a dozen people crammed into my apartment on Carle Park. We began dreaming about the Independent Media Center that now graces the heart of Urbana, nurturing new friendships, growing new projects, and flowing with art, music, writing, radio, making, biking, and organizing. When we passed the hat at our first meeting, designating ten percent of everything collected as our “endowment,” we knew we wanted to create long-haul organizing infrastructure for our community. Greg Brown, a developmentally disabled homeless man, had just been strangled by Champaign Police behind a dumpster on White Street—and the News-Gazette just reprinted the police report. Ameren Power Company had left a toxic waste dump at 5th and Hill Streets in Champaign that had caused a circle of cancer in this historically African American neighborhood. Lincoln Mobile Home Park, a peaceful neighborhood that Vietnamese refugees, Latino families, and disabled and poor residents called home, had been  demolished with help from the city to make room for luxury student apartment complexes. From the beginning, our IMC’s focus was on investigating unreported stories, amplifying unheard voices, and reframing the debate with the goal of redistributing power and resources.

For several months we met to discuss problems, develop desire statements, and design an organization to support many organizations. The birth of our local IMC may have appeared spontaneous, but it was the product of thoughtful design. The nest for our local IMC was the School for Designing a Society (SDAS), a now-43-year project founded by Marianne and Herbert Brȕn and their students, including Susan Parenti and Mark Enslin, who have dedicated their lives to making art and projects to intervene in systems that maintain injustice. We began to formulate our desire statements for this new organization we were birthing. Here are a few from my old notebooks:

  • Inspire consumers to become producers.
  • Amplify the voices and perspectives of people and ideas underrepresented in the media so that we can build a more equitable society.
  • Provide sustainable infrastructure to proliferate many autonomous, decentralized projects to support long-haul organizing.
  • Create space, resources, and atmosphere to draw artists and community members together to investigate problems and design solutions.
  • Offer a “third space” for youth as an alternative to home or school, where they can come to voice and develop their own projects.

All of this local work took place against the backdrop of an emerging international Indymedia movement. Many Indymedia founders were not media makers, we were organizers. But it was the 1990s, and efforts to grow effective social movements around any issue were stymied by massive consolidation in the US media system. A diverse media landscape had withered, and with it, our democratic movements, as they were deprived of the oxygen of information. In the fundamental contradiction between democracy and capitalism, the media tools we needed to exchange information, debate ideas, and forge the society we want were controlled by a handful of corporations with financial interests in wars and the privatization of the public commons.

As this contradiction deepened, a new opportunity emerged with the development of the internet and affordability of media equipment. Media and technology, for the first time in history, offered us the potential to coordinate globally, see each other as full and equal human beings, and meet our needs. But, harnessed by the capitalist state, media and technology could also amplify systems of domination. The Zapatistas, led by indigenous people deprived of their land in Mexico, used the open internet to broadcast their communiqués directly to an international audience, thus interrupting military domination with the power of a self-made media spotlight.

The same neoliberal forces that disenfranchised the Zapatistas were building a World Trade Organization (WTO) to limit worker power, environmental regulations, and local democratic control worldwide. Their agenda-setting meeting was scheduled for November, 1999 in Seattle. Organizers from around the world used old-school organizing and new-school communications to unite labor and environmentalists—“Teamsters and Turtles”—to use direct action to interrupt the WTO meeting. In Champaign-Urbana, our local unions approached SDAS offering to sponsor our participation. We created study groups, hosted forums with conservative economists to sharpen our arguments, and wrote songs and puppet shows.  I wrote a skit to teach the concept of Structural Adjustment: “I’m an American worker, I can’t compete with cheap labor. Now my boss is threatening our unionaccept his terms or he’ll go overseas. Our jobs can go to where labor is cheap. But labor can’t go to where jobs pay well; if we could, we would refuse to work for low wages.”

The author showing radical IMC fashion; on the wall is the banner she made for the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999

It was in the rainy streets of Seattle that we experienced the power of state forces to defend capital. In response to our non-violent direct actions, we were beaten, gassed, encircled, and jailed. Although it caused years of nightmares and health problems, we stopped the WTO in its tracks. The African delegation, emboldened by the protests, refused to support the WTO’s agenda. The power of strategic, multi-issue organizing using direct action showed bright as day. At that moment, we were the biggest threat to the billionaires on the planet. The corporate press was nowhere to be found. But hundreds of ordinary people became journalists that day, and birthed the Indymedia movement.

One in our group, Peter Miller, co-host of the Labor Hour on WEFT, had stumbled upon the Seattle Indymedia Center, and insisted we visit this sweaty beehive of media production. We had WEFT, our community radio station, but had not hooked it up to the power of the internet. This was a perfect pair. Radio—free, available to all, and untraceable—democratizes media consumption, while the internet democratizes media production—supporting collaboration and conversation. Millions visited, and the name WTO buzzed throughout households as people grappled with the problems of corporate domination and the potential that “Another World is Possible.”

Indymedia was launched at the point of leverage created by the internet, where a small group of technologist-organizers created one of the first open publishing systems, enabling thousands of people negatively impacted by corporate globalization to speak to millions of audience members. These “citizen journalists” told authentic stories that fundamentally contradicted the stories of ruling elites and their media machines. Monsanto was not “feeding the world,” they were causing birth defects in children. Shell Oil was not #MakingTheFuture, they were polluting Nigerian land and murdering indigenous Ogoni organizers. Within ten years, there were over 200 Indymedia Centers on every continent but Antartica, with websites that aggregated stories about grassroots organizing in their communities or countries.

In Urbana, we built an infrastructure to support this global network, sponsoring hundreds of international projects—including the Indymedia Growth in Africa project; the Indypendent, a NYC newspaper that recently helped launch Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez into the spotlight; Indykids, which still publishes stories by and for kids; and the Computer Underground, which shipped tons of computers to the Global South. We also dug deep into local organizing, converting our local post office building into a community media, arts, and organizing center. We fought back against the disappearing of our neighbor under the newly minted Patriot Act, defended the right of citizens to videotape police, exonerated LGBTQ activists in the courts, stopped taser torture in our local jail and then blocked jail expansion, convened local youth to envision the future of our downtown, and helped create a public broadband system. We made media—across radio, video, print news, and the internet. We provided fertile soil for Books to Prisoners, Makerspace, the Bike Project, and now the Champaign County Bailbout Coalition, as our fortieth fiscally sponsored project to date.

Last week, we paid off the last of our mortgage. The post office building is now officially ours—an Independent Media Center owned by all of us. As pandemic rages and fascism rises, what will the next 20 years of Urbana Indymedia look like?

Danielle is a co-founder of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center and former organizing director at the Center for Media Justice. She has coordinated winning campaigns with low-income communities at the local, state, and national level for 30 years. She serves as the Cunningham Township Supervisor, chair of the CU Public Health District Board, and on the board of the local Housing Authority. She is co-authoring Democratize This! How we Make the World We Want, to be published in 2021. 

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