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Digital RebellionThe Birth of the Cyber Left$

Todd Wolfson

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038846

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038846.001.0001

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Strategy: Communications and the Switchboard of Struggle

Strategy: Communications and the Switchboard of Struggle

Chapter:
(p.156) 6 Strategy: Communications and the Switchboard of Struggle
Source:
Digital Rebellion
Author(s):
Todd Wolfson
Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5406/illinois/9780252038846.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter documents how indymedia uses communications to help congeal otherwise isolated and dispersed points of insurgency, conducting stories of shared struggle across space at multiple scales, from the hyper-local (within cities and neighborhoods) to the regional, national, and global. Specifically, it looks at how indymedia links movements and people in three distinct ways: (1) across local spaces, linking different communities together to build a stronger localized movement; (2) across geographic spaces, on a particular theme such as labor or immigrant rights; and (3) across space and theme, in an attempt to forge a global social movement. It also shows the shortcomings of this new strategy and political mode of action, which eschews leadership and therefore cannot build long-term political power. The chapter first considers the way the network operated as a connective tissue in the case of farmers in South Central Los Angeles to offer a rubric for this strategy of action. It then looks at different ways that this connective strategy operates at the local, national, and global levels, on- and offline.

Keywords:   indymedia movement, communications, insurgency, social movements, political action, connective strategy

The intelligence of the swarm is based fundamentally on communication.

—Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

In Hegemony and a Socialist Strategy (1985), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe contend that left-based political strategy is at a crossroads. Challenging a long history of Marxist theory, they argue that socialism is “in crisis” and no longer the counter-imaginary to capitalism. More importantly, they argue that the working class is no longer the historical agent of change. Building on a series of philosophical and theoretical turns toward discourse and language, the initial aim of their intervention is the overthrow of the materialist view of history, which claims that people’s identity and interests are tied to their economic location vis-à-vis the social structure. Laclau and Mouffe argue that this “economistic” concept is reductionist, as identity is constructed discursively first and foremost, and is not necessarily tied to material experience. Thus the Marxist fiction of a historical agent, the proletariat, that springs forth from the bowels of industrial capitalism, shovel in hand, with the mission of bringing socialism to humanity, is not foreordained and is inherently flawed.

Laclau and Mouffe’s belief in the failure of the socialist project leads them to propose a new strategy of social change, “radical and plural democracy,” which expands classic notions of democracy by embracing difference and dissent. This “democratic revolution” is constituted not by the singular struggle of the working class but instead by a multiplicity of antagonisms and the resistance to all forms of power and domination. Without a privileged agent or a particular political program, this new vision of radical democratic society valorizes decentralized political action and “the autonomization of the spheres (p.157) of struggle and the multiplication of political spaces” (178). However, recognizing the danger of this model’s tendency toward fragmented social struggle that is likely “condemned to marginality” (189), Laclau and Mouffe argue that the many autonomous struggles must develop a shared vision in order to organize into a hegemonic bloc. This logic of nonhierarchical struggle, where multiple nodes or collectives attack an enemy but there is no center that dictates orders, has been called swarming or “swarm intelligence”1 and has been hailed as the new democratic form of resistance (Hardt and Negri 2004).

While many scholars have challenged Hegemony and a Socialist Strategy for (1) misunderstanding Marx’s conception of political economy, (2) essentializing a small part of the Marxist tradition, (3) returning to a call for liberal pluralism, and (4) lacking historical specificity,2 Laclau and Mouffe’s political vision has become a predominant element of the cultural logic of resistance for social-movement scholars and actors. This is exemplified in the work of political theorists from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000; 2004) to John Holloway (2005) and in the praxis of new social-movement actors and organizations, which no longer privilege the working class and aim to build a society based on the vision of democracy and dissent.

As I discuss in Part I, the Zapatistas and their catchphrase, “One No, Many Yeses,” bring this strategy to life. The No/Yes equation of the slogan illustrates the two principles of this political strategy: (1) the many autonomous movements of the Left share a common resistance to all forms of power and domination (one no); (2) despite a history of movement building that prioritized the working class, there is no central actor or political protagonist in twenty-first-century struggle—instead, indigenous movements, environmental movements, and labor movements are all vital (many yeses).

Following the EZLN, this theory of social change became the clarion call for the antiglobalization movement and was made actionable for media activists after the Zapatista declaration that we must “make a network of communication among all of our struggles and resistances.” Building on this vision, the indymedia global-communications network aims to cohere a global social movement out of many singular fronts of resistance. In practice, indymedia activists harnessed the local, national, and global communications infrastructure to link people and struggles, becoming a connective tissue across space and theme, which I call the switchboard of struggle.” As a switchboard, indymedia ideally conducts stories of shared struggle across a diverse web of actors, nodes, and institutions on local, national, regional, and global levels, thereby becoming a vehicle for the coming together of multiple singular points of resistance.

(p.158) In this chapter, I document how indymedia uses communications to help congeal these otherwise isolated and dispersed points of insurgency, conducting stories of shared struggle across space at multiple scales, from the hyper-local (within cities and neighborhoods) to the regional, national, and global. Specifically, I look at how indymedia links movements and people in three distinct ways: (1) across local spaces, linking different communities together to build a stronger localized movement; (2) across geographic spaces, on a particular theme such as labor or immigrant rights; and (3) across space and theme, in an attempt to forge a global social movement. I also show the shortcomings of this new strategy and political mode of action, which eschews leadership and therefore can’t build long-term political power. I first focus on the way the network operated as a connective tissue in the case of farmers in South Central Los Angeles to offer a rubric for this strategy of action. I then look at different ways that this connective strategy operates at the local, national, and global levels, on- and offline.

South Central Farm and the Switchboard of Struggle

In the early morning of June 2006, the Los Angeles Police Department raided an urban farm at 41st and Alameda Streets in an industrial zone of South Central Los Angeles. In the course of a few hours, the LAPD arrested dozens of people, while city bulldozers steamrolled dozens of small gardens that were overflowing with cilantro, beets, corn, and other fruits and vegetables. The South Central Farm, as it was known, was used by over 350 working-class Latino families to cultivate their own produce in an area of densely concentrated poverty and, correspondingly, little access to healthy food.3

The storied life of this fourteen-acre plot of land began in the 1980s, when the City of Los Angeles seized the parcel, claiming eminent domain. At the time, city leaders intended to place a trash-to-energy incinerator at the site. However, in the face of massive neighborhood opposition, the city abandoned the plan and turned the land over to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank (Chawkins 2008). In turn, the food bank agreed to lend the plot to community residents to establish an urban garden.

In 2002, however, one of the original owners of the plot sued the city to reclaim the land. The parcel was subject to a lengthy legal process, and during that time the farmers formed South Central Farmers Feeding Families and began organizing to keep the garden. Ultimately, the property owner negotiated with the municipality, purchased the land for five million dollars, and (p.159) then issued a notice for the termination of the garden in 2004.4 The farmers countersued, but they lost the suit, and on May 23, 2006, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department declared that they would execute an order to evict the South Central Farmers.

The following day, the L.A. indymedia editorial collective published the feature “RED ALERT!! Encampment and Tree Sit to Resist Eviction and Save South Central Farm.”5 The article was posted by “FYI” in the name of the South Central Farmers, and it called on readers to converge on the farm to create an encampment and resist the eviction: “Encampment and tree sit to resist the eviction and save the South Central Farm has begun! … The Farm and farmers need your help now!! … The greater the numbers encamped increases our chances of success.”

In the days that followed, hundreds of people flocked to the garden and established an encampment of over one hundred tents. Indymedia journalists and activists who became journalists for the occasion documented the struggle with written word, video, and photography and posted their stories on the L.A. indymedia Web site. The indymedia site became a central space for up-to-date news, pictures, and videos, as well as discussion and organizing around the situation at the Los Angeles garden.

Three weeks after the first “red alert,” at 5:00 A.M. on June 13, 150 riot cops surrounded the farm and began forcible eviction. Shortly thereafter, another urgent message appeared on L.A. indymedia: “Emergency Alert: Police Evicting South Central Farmers—Take Action.” The alert included a message from the South Central Farmers: “At this moment, the South Central Farm is under siege. If you live in LA or in the surrounding area, we urge you to come to the farm to keep the protesters and farmers safe from LA County Sheriffs and the LAPD.”6 While hundreds converged on the farm, the L.A. indymedia story broke across the United States and could be found on twenty to thirty local indymedia sites, from Pittsburgh to Seattle.7 On the same day, the Los Angeles IMC coverage of the South Central Farm became the central story on the IMC-US site,8 and then it quickly became the central feature on the global indymedia site.9 Ultimately, the indymedia network took the story to over one million people in localities as far afield as Germany, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Malta, Barcelona, and Israel. The global indymedia site gave audiences up-to-the-minute details of the events taking place on this fourteen-acre plot of land.

Leslie Radford, a freelance journalist and adjunct professor of communications who wrote multiple stories about the situation for L.A. indymedia, explained the role of the news site during the standoff and struggle:

(p.160) Los Angeles Indymedia was chiefly responsible for taking the story of the Farm west of the 110, the freeway in Los Angeles that divides the predominantly affluent and white Westside from the generally poorer and Black and Brown Eastside. Much of the engagement was, I suspect, because of the pictures that so many of us (most better photographers than I) posted. The wonder of such a magical garden in the most industrialized warehouse district of this City of Quartz was conveyed in the images, and the story was relatively easy to tell after that. What it [LA Indymedia] inspire[d] was individual actions that evolved into financial and political support from influential Westside individuals and groups, a significant contingent of young people joined the Farmers’ actions and encampment, and perhaps thousands of people who would otherwise have never crossed the 110 made their way to the Farm itself to support the effort there.10

As Radford explains, L.A. IMC’s coverage of the struggle over this relatively small plot of land first resonated across class lines within the city, building a larger base of support for the farmers. However, in time, the story reverberated across the complex circuits of the indymedia infrastructure, reaching a worldwide activist community.

The ability of indymedia activists to circulate this struggle across the Web inspired people from Los Angeles and Boston to Venezuela and South Africa to take action offline. Money came to the urban farmers through indymedia appeals and fund-raising events, while the Annenberg Foundation promised the farmers ten million dollars. Correspondingly, while hundreds flooded the farm in an attempt to resist eviction, activists across the country from Boston to Portland held solidarity protests. During the standoff, public messages of support came in from Ralph Nader and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters,11 and the protest had a celebrity slant as Daryl Hannah, Leonardo DiCaprio, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Danny Glover, and Charlie Sheen, among others, visited the farm during the siege. Meanwhile, social-movement organizations focused on land rights, such as the Philippine Peasant Support Network (Pesante-USA)12 and the Zapatistas, put out messages of solidarity. In a communiqué, members of the EZLN explained: “We know that there are many more injustices in the world, like that suffered by our compañeras farmers of South Central Farm in Los Angeles, who were evicted from their land where they lived and worked collectively. We have to support these brothers and sisters.”13

Indymedia coverage and circulation of the struggle created a physical, digital, and financial convergence around the South Central Farm, ultimately playing an important role in the money and attention the farmers received. (p.161) Following the lead of indymedia, more institutionalized elements of the left press, such as KPFK 90.7 in Los Angeles and Democracy Now!,14 as well as the Web-based news sites CounterPunch (Radford and Santos 2006) and the Huffington Post (Hannah 2006), picked up the story, taking it to a far wider audience of concerned left-leaning spectators.

This moment offers a window onto how indymedia operates, in its ideal, as a switchboard, facilitating multi-issue, multiscalar collective action that reverberates at a much wider scale than previously possible. Local indymedia journalists simultaneously swarmed on the farm during the standoff, while reporting on the Los Angeles local digital hub or node of the vast indymedia network. The story of the seizure of the South Central Farm began as a local story, but in time it echoed across the world as a tale of injustice pitting urban migrants against a large corporation,15 aided and abetted by the state, seizing the land of the poor. Epitomizing the asymmetry of contemporary society, the story went viral, becoming prominent at the national and global levels and having a “boomerang effect,”16 where national and global audiences attempted to use different forms of leverage to impact a local issue.

Specifically, the IMC network was helpful in building connections and a network of support for the South Central Farmers across three interrelated scales. First, it broadcast the story connecting and mobilizing people across the urban terrain of Los Angeles, building a local community of people who were aware of the struggle and were able to physically converge on the farm during the standoff in support of the urban farmers. Second, the indymedia communications network built issue-based support across a network of groups fighting over land-use and property rights—connecting the South Central Farmers to Pesante-USA and the Zapatistas, groups involved with similar battles. Third, through broadcasting the story, the indymedia network helped raise money and rallied support across a broad, diverse transnational activist network.

At the same time, the loss of the farm points to some of the limits of this mode of action. While indymedia broadcast the story and effectively reached thousands of supporters who swarmed on the farm, the plot was ultimately seized by the LAPD. Further, while the farm continued in another location, many of the networks of support it generated were not sustained or able to take proactive political action. Along these lines, the seizure of the farm points to the limited power and capacity of contemporary collective action that operate without leadership and depends on multiple points of insurgency in a network to operate in an independent but coordinated fashion.

(p.162) Circuits of Communication: The Indymedia Platform

In a “how-to” indymedia toolkit, Hands On: Creating an Independent Media Center in Your Community, a few of the founding members of indymedia described the nuts-and-bolts process for creating a local IMC. Detailing a wide array of issues, the toolkit walked potential IMCistas through the various steps for running a successful community media center. Writing a year after the Seattle IMC went live, the authors used the introduction of the handbook to discuss the innovative nature of the indymedia movement and the rationale for its exponential growth over its first year of operations.

This movement for an alternative media, with its flexible open structure, its democratic rendering of the use-value of new technologies, and its continual involvement in interconnecting people in a transnational movement, provides an example of the evolution of a radical opposition, from the spontaneous appearance of individual creative practice, to the collective gatherings of small collectives, and to the growth of national and international collectives whose identities increasingly cluster around the negation of capital. … In this way, a spontaneously developing collective evolves into a community of resistance.17

Forecasting the expansion of indymedia, the authors marked the role of “new information sharing” in knitting together a global movement. They highlighted the connective force of communications technologies, which consolidate small, fragmented collectives working in isolation into a coherent, transnational “community of resistance.” The implicit argument is that a shared communications network will create circuits or pathways across fragmented communities to build a stronger shared movement.

The indymedia Web sites are the central space where this strategic outlook is brought to life. At the height of the movement, almost all indymedia sites were designed with the same simple three-column architecture. On the left side was a geographical list and hyperlink to all of the different local IMC collectives. The center column contained editorial features, which focused on stories of strategic importance. The right column housed the indymedia open-publishing newswire, where people were able to share their stories. The uniform architecture of indymedia sites was specifically designed to enable the greatest amount of communication across the indymedia network and between the different autonomous social movements that use the network. Before expanding on details about each column, it is important to reiterate that this architecture was developed at a time when the Web was not generally interactive, (p.163)

Strategy: Communications and the Switchboard of Struggle

Screen Shot 1: the New York City Independent Media Center homepage exemplifies three-column architecture.

and many of the social technologies that indymedia activists and technologists pioneered became the forerunners to the social-media revolution today, from blogs to Facebook, Twitter, and community journalism.

Envisioning a Global Movement: The Left-Hand Column of the Indymedia Platform

The left side of virtually all indymedia Web sites is structured as a hyperlink directory of all the other indymedia sites in the world, grouped by continent and country. This hyperlink directory offers a list of the network and enables links between different local collectives as well as connections to larger national and global hubs. Indymedia activists named this the “city list,” and its role was to offer a visual representation of a global social movement, a map of the different nodes of the network. In this sense, while the indymedia movement is locally constituted, and most indymedia activists, journalists, and audiences are based in a local IMC collective, the city list offers a broader picture of the interconnections across the transnational movement.

If a reader on a particular U.S. local Web site wants information on local news in Jakarta, Bolivia, Toronto, or Istanbul, this information is a click away. If there is a story on a Belgian site that refers to a related event or situation (p.164) in Ecuador, audiences can follow a hyperlink to the Ecuador indymedia site, tracking the particular struggle or issue from Belgium to Ecuador. Jeff Perlstein (2001) discussed this Web-based strategy when he argued that the aim of the communications network was to “affirm local struggles while simultaneously inviting an exploration of larger networks of struggle” (336).

An example of affirming “local struggles” while offering people the capacity to explore “larger networks” came during the Massive Immigration General Strike, or “Gran Paro Americano 2006.” On May 1, 2006, U.S.-based immigrants and their allies, seeking to make their presence and work visible in U.S. society, walked off their jobs in dozens of cities and states. An indymedia Web site in San Francisco, www.indybay.org, coordinated coverage of the Gran Paro from around the country.18 Indybay focused on reporting across northern and central California, including dozens of written reports, hundreds of pictures, and hours of video and audio of events from Humboldt and San Jose to Bakersfield (see Screen Shot 2, below).

Once indybay journalists established the local and regional aspect of the general strike, the Web site linked to national reports, looking at actions in Washington, D.C., Oregon, Colorado, Chicago, New York, and Miami, each of which carried photographs, audio recording, and video footage of the events in their locales. This reporting of the May Day protests illustrates the way the communications infrastructure invites local exploration of an issue and then

Strategy: Communications and the Switchboard of Struggle

Screen Shot 2: Indybay regional coverage of the Immigration General Strike of 2006.

(p.165) pulls the audience out into the larger network of the struggle. This operation, as indymedia founders like Perlstein claim, is the basis of indymedia’s attempt to break isolation by creating linkages and showing audiences that they are part of a worldwide community. Through this new media practice, activists work to cultivate a broader movement by offering reporting as well as an infrastructure that operates as a connective tissue to build concerted action against shared targets.19

Strategizing the Use of Space: The Center Column of the Indymedia Platform

The center column of each indymedia Web site—the “feature column”—is a vital communicative space where each local collective prioritizes local, national, or global stories. This section of the site is usually the largest, often taking up half of the usable space. The editorial board of each local IMC decides how to best use this space.

In the Philadelphia-based IMC, the center column is a space where activists draw links between different local struggles, creating connective communicative practices. As one member of the Philly editorial team explained, “We have to choose our stories strategically so that we can link different communities together.”20 In a Philly IMC strategic-content memo, a longtime Philly indymedia activist, Marisa, explained this tactic in detail:

Strategy: Communications and the Switchboard of Struggle

Screen Shot 3: Feature column of Melbourne IMC.

(p.166) The mainstream news defines their editorial positions by asking, what sort of combination of writing do we want our end product to contain? I think we should do the same. I would like to see us claim the center column as a strategic zone, and make collective decisions about how to fill it based on strategic priorities. I would like to see us take some time to think, what should be in the center column in order to accomplish our strategic goals[?] … This is more importantly about us thinking of our writing (and photography and audio or video documentation) as being about organizing and movement-building. … As recruiters, we have to be able to be practicing the micro-level of movement building, which is supporting each other—and in this day and age supporting MANY each others. This means we must have policies and practices that explicitly encourage us to practice responsiveness regularly and vigilantly.21

This memo highlights the intended practice of using communication, specifically on the feature column, as a space for movement building. As Marisa details, the center column is a strategic space that must be utilized for the “micro-level practices” of movement building. In a strategy meeting where she presented this document, Marisa elaborated on this point, explaining that “micro practices” refers to the expectation that there should be organizing between indymedia activists and members of social movements. Practically, she noted that this means encouraging members of movements to write stories, while training members of these movements in media making.22

The memo goes on to articulate that indymedia communication practices are done with the intent of building across the “many each others” that comprise the regionally based social movement, pointing to the autonomous struggles that can be aligned through communication. This is a practice that Philly IMC has repeatedly focused on in their work and offers a window into the broad strategy of indymedia Web sites and, more broadly, communications tools working as switchboards that connect across individuals, organizations, social struggles, and space. In a Philly IMC “outreach memo,” drafters explain the strategy of connecting the “many each others.” The authors argue for a joint outreach and educational program in an effort to “create strong links with the various communities and activist groups that comprise Philadelphia, developing a truly grassroots indymedia movement that highlights the stories of Philadelphians with an eye towards building solidarity throughout the city.”23

While these memos lay out the strategy for a coherent connective-communications practice, it is less clear how Philly IMC organizers believe that different groups will link together. Sheethl, one of the members of the Philly (p.167) IMC as well as a community-based organizer, specified that for her the primary focus of Philly IMC is to support the organizing of poor people and the labor movement, the two classes, in her view, “most exploited by globalization and left out of mainstream media.”24 Along these lines, Philly IMC also prioritized engagement on immigrant workers and housing. Indymedia activists wrote and promoted stories on groups such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a poor-led social movement; Project HOME, a nonprofit organization committed to ending homelessness; Juntos, a community-based organization focused on immigrant rights; and the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, a coalition of cab drivers organizing for a more just taxi industry in the city and state.

Open Publishing: The Right-Hand Column

Next to the feature column, on the right side of the Web site, is the open-publishing newswire, where people can post stories, editorials, and up-to-the-minute news. Arguably the most important innovation of the network sociopolitically and technologically, this part of the site is meant to offer an open, democratic space for the public to speak. The most important aspect of the open wire is that it offers transparency. When an individual posts a story to the open-publishing wire of any IMC, that post instantly goes up on the front page of the Web site, offering a sense of immediacy and direct control over the site. IMC-Scotland’s explanation of open publishing captures the democratic essence of the newswire: “The online newswire is designed to empower individuals to become independent journalists by providing a direct forum for presenting media, including text articles, audio and video recordings, and photographs, to the public via the Internet. … The Indymedia Scotland website operates on a system of ‘open publishing,’ i.e. anyone can upload a written report, image or audio clip directly to the site through an openly accessible web interface, given the guidelines detailed.”25 The purpose of the open wire is to allow all citizens of a local community to freely publish stories, messages, first-person accounts, editorials, and press releases. This is done, as the IMC-Scotland activists explain, with an eye toward building unity across the progressive movement.

As Matt Arnison, one of the programmers who developed indymedia Web software, explained, the tools and practices developed by indymedia “revolutionized the way media works,” as the indymedia site was one of the first Web experiments where hundreds of users were actually generating content, as opposed to merely receiving and/or retrieving content. Arnison continued: (p.168) “The flow of information was stood on its head. Instead of corporate media moguls telling people what was important, information was created from everyday people and it bubbled up, in effect giving people new tools to express themselves and more importantly, to impact political life.”26

While the claim is bold, others have corroborated27 the fact that indymedia Web technology and social use of that technology was a central factor leading to the famed Web 2.0 revolution. Consequently, while the open-publishing newswire and the interactive Web innovation of the indymedia network seems commonplace today, with many bloggers using the same basic configuration, these developments were critical building blocks for new social technologies that catalyzed the citizen-journalism movement.28

Since the inauguration of the IMC, the open-publishing wire has become the cornerstone of the movement, capturing the belief in openness and the logic of many points of resistance. As many have pointed out, open publishing maximizes the capacity for everyday people and activists to communicate. Whether through front-page articles or feature-column comments, the open-publishing wire allows readers to become authors, authors to become advocates, and advocates to become organizers, and ultimately lays the foundation for people in fragmented movements to build connections. While each of the three aspects (open publishing, city list, feature column) of the Web site is important, it is the totality of the environment that makes IMC Web sites a platform for movement building.

The Total Web Environment

When Raymond Williams (1974) famously analyzed television in Britain, he argued that it is not a singular message or show that captures the nature of TV’s impact on human consciousness, but rather the flow of images and ideas: “In all these ways and in their essential combination, this is the flow of meanings and values of a specific culture” (120–21). Though Williams is describing TV, this idea also translates to the indymedia Web sites and the flow of ideas and meanings that the indymedia technologists and activists attempt to create through the Web platform. Each of the three central components of the site—the map of the network, the central-column feature, and the open-publishing newswire—is important for thinking through the different strategies of creating nonhierarchical communication platforms across space and struggles.

The central function of indymedia is to act as a communications network, facilitating the development of a broader movement through building strong lines of communication. This is meant to occur at the local level, offering stories to build connections across the local and regional community (embodied (p.169) in the center column and open wire) while also building connections to regional, national, and global concerns (embodied in the left column linking to other sites). In this sense, indymedia sites work to forge unity on three levels: (1) across local spaces, linking different movements together to build a stronger localized movement; (2) across spaces on a particular theme, such as labor or immigrant rights; and (3) across space and theme in an attempt to forge a global social movement.

Philadelphia: The Local Switchboard

While the indymedia logic of resistance is typified by the online spaces IM-Cistas have created, some activists have attempted to bring this logic of resistance offline by creating physical spaces and “real-world” campaigns. In Philadelphia, indymedia activists, along with other activists in the community, collaborated to purchase a building in West Philadelphia, the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Zone (LAVA). The purpose of the center was to create a “public space … that would connect to a diverse group of communities throughout Philadelphia” in an effort to “build a broader movement for social justice.”29 At the time of my fieldwork, LAVA was used and occupied by approximately eleven different groups. These groups exemplified the wide spectrum of Philadelphia’s progressive activist community, from worker-and prisoner-rights organizations to an HIV/AIDS direct-action group. In addition to Philly IMC, five other organizations held office space in LAVA: the Philadelphia chapter of the Green Party, the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, the Human Rights Coalition, ACT-UP,30 and the local newspaper The Defenestrator.31 LAVA’s shared space was used for a diverse range of activities. Music and performance collectives held practices and shows there, and other affiliated groups used the rooms for meetings, lectures, and parties. The projects associated with LAVA all coalesced around the idea of creating an “empowering and welcoming physical space where diverse communities converge to build connections and break down barriers, blending media-making, artistic expression and hearty nuts-and-bolts organizing in order to advance movements for justice.”32

LAVA became a critical space for Philly IMC campaigns. In 2005, the Philadelphia IMC began a campaign challenging Wal-Mart business practices as part of a new outreach strategy that combined “independent media making” and “political organizing” to build a broader-based movement focused on labor issues. According to an internal Philly IMC document, the intent of the campaign was as follows: “To initiate new ways to share stories, organizing people around issues of local, national, and global importance. (p.170) … Correspondingly, Philly IMC’s foundational commitment is to create strong links with the various communities and activist groups that comprise Philadelphia, developing a grassroots indymedia movement that highlights the stories of Philadelphians with an eye towards building solidarity.”33 According to Sheethl they chose Wal-Mart as their first campaign because it was “the perfect enemy.” Focusing on Wal-Mart helped coalesce many different forces across the city, including “unions, working poor, consumer rights activists, environmental groups, immigrant’s rights leaders.” Sheethl thought this was important because it offered the possibility of creating convergence across the many different movements in the city.34 The Philly IMC Web site as well as LAVA became a grounding for this movement, offering spaces both virtual and real for differently situated local movements to congregate and ultimately join forces on the Wal-Mart campaign.

The Philadelphia campaign was spearheaded by Philly IMC and Philly Jobs with Justice (JWJ), and it was part of a nationwide week of action organized by unions and social-justice organizations that coincided with the release of a prominent documentary by the filmmaker Robert Greenwald, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices. Philly IMC organizers worked with JWJ organizers to develop a campaign to make media and organize around Wal-Mart issues in the month leading up to the screening of the documentary.

Philly indymedia organizers aimed to use Wal-Mart’s corporate irresponsibility as the common ground for discussion, education, media training, and protest. The hope was that these different tactics would be the basis for a broader coalition of groups in the city. In this campaign, as Sheethl explained, Philly IMC used “interactive media and organizing practices enabled by new media to inspire the formation of networks or coalitions that work toward movement building.” Tanya Jameson, an organizer involved with the campaign, said that the idea was to experiment with a model of political organizing as media making, taking the concept of a switchboard of struggle offline.35

The explicit strategy was to call new constituencies into the media-making and organizing process. In the first stage, members of Philly IMC offered community-journalism training with civic leaders and rank-and-file union members. The four-hour training sessions, which took place three times over the course of the one-month campaign, focused on podcasting, interviewing, and investigative journalism. In the second stage, three Philly IMC members led these new journalists on trips to Wal-Mart outlets across Philadelphia, where they could interview Wal-Mart employees about working conditions (they paid ten dollars per interview). The new journalists captured interviews with over twenty workers, focused on working conditions, pay, union busting, (p.171) and upward mobility within the company. As the campaign progressed, Philly IMC members held a few media-making sessions where the rank-and-file union members, independent journalists, and students came together for political-education and media-production sessions. During these meetings, members listened to interviews and watched media about Wal-Mart. As Fischer explained, the aim was to create a pedagogical space. After watching the media, the new journalists broke into groups and created their own media, creating a series of short public-service announcements (PSAs) from the worker interviews. With news and editorials, commercials on Wal-Mart, and longer documentary-style features and podcasts, the group made the Philly IMC Web site into a repository of local journalism and of information on Wal-Mart for protestors nationwide.

The media-production and organizing process culminated in the documentary screening, which was held on November 14, 2005. Three hundred people in Philadelphia came out to preview the new documentary, but the evening program began with the locally produced PSAs about Wal-Mart. The executive director of the Philly JWJ claimed that this was the biggest event across the country and the most exciting because of the innovative use of media-making as an organizing tool.

Out of this campaign grew two different local efforts. The first was spearheaded by Jobs with Justice, and Philly IMC led the second. The first effort was to establish a workers’-rights collective, so Wal-Mart employees could find out their rights and organize in the workplace. However, this collective would work with Philly IMC and also become a media collective, working to document organizing campaigns throughout the city. The second effort that grew out of this campaign was cross-movement dialogues. Led by Philly IMC, these dialogues aimed to bring together leaders of different movements to talk about how their interests were aligned in an effort to build a broader social movement across Philadelphia.

Philly IMC’s use of media as a switchboard moved offline when UNITE HERE Local 274, which represents hotel and food service workers, was fighting with a local branch of the Embassy Suites hotel chain. Members of the Philly IMC editorial team learned about the fight and contacted a UNITE HERE organizer to make sure that struggle was being reported on, either by members of UNITE HERE or, alternatively, by Philly IMC journalists. In this case, members of UNITE HERE and indymedia worked together to ensure coverage of the events. Philly IMC journalists wrote a story on the protest and worker lockout, and a UNITE HERE member created a short video.

Indymedia activists placed the article and video online on the Philly IMC site as well as other local Web sites. Philly IMC activists also used a listserv (p.172) to circulate the story to three thousand people and multiple organizations. Pete, the UNITE HERE member who made the video, works as a waiter in a local hotel. He said that working with indymedia supported the goals of workers and union leadership to make a plan to speak for themselves and document their work. After this collaboration, leaders of the local UNITE HERE union, including Pete, began using the Web site to make sure that Philly IMC readers were aware of other labor actions across the city.

Following this first contact, Philly IMC organizers began working with UNITE HERE hospitality workers, training them in basic video production and investigative reporting. UNITE HERE leadership then purchased a video camera, and workers used it to film protests around workers’ struggles and to conduct interviews with union and nonunion hotel workers about high rates of injury in the workplace.

Philly IMC’s strategy of focusing on particular types of struggles and communities means that there is less “openness” in Philly IMC than in some other local indymedia collectives. Philly IMC members prioritize disenfranchised voices instead of creating an open platform and allowing for different voices to emerge. By intentionally focusing on disenfranchised communities, Philly IMC organizers sacrifice the purely democratic, decentralized structure, and ethos that many IMC collectives hold sacred, and they do it on purpose. While members of Philly IMC value “openness,” they feel that it is more critical to create, and sometimes reserve, space for particular issues and voices. As Sheethl explained, absolute openness leads to the domination of an upper-middle-class white voice. The problem with openness in indymedia, she continued, “is that communities that don’t have Internet access or the time to learn how to use the indymedia platform, are often left out.”36 Members of Philly IMC believed that if there was not some targeted action to get disenfranchised voices onto the Philly IMC site, then the site would de facto highlight certain communities, and consequently prioritize openness over justice and democracy over equality.

We can contrast Philly IMC’s efforts to the editorial collective of Portland IMC. The explicit objective of Portland IMC is not to produce media, but rather to produce an “open space” or platform for members of the Portland community to use. Practically, this means that Portland IMC activists do a great deal of public education about the existence of the Web site. They have a very active open-publishing newswire on the right-hand column of the site, which gets twenty to thirty posts per day, as opposed to ten per day in Philadelphia. Portland IMC activists choose which stories from the newswire to promote as the center feature column.

(p.173) In Portland IMC’s “About Us” section, the drafters explain this perspective: “Indymedia activism can take many forms, but is rooted in the indymedia Principles of Unity, which profess that the open exchange of and open access to information is the prerequisite of a more free and just society. … The articles that are featured in the center column are taken right from the newswire, thus highlighting original content and reporting. This system empowers anyone to become the media.”37 Theoretically, the Portland model is empowering because it becomes an open space where citizen reporting is highly respected and promoted to the center of the site. At the same time, it is arguably less strategic than the Philly IMC practice because there is a less explicit impulse among Portland IMC activists to get certain stories, groups, or ideas represented on the site. Consequently, the Portland IMC Web site accentuates certain voices in Portland because those people or communities utilize the platform the most, whereas in Philadelphia, certain voices are accentuated because the Philadelphia collective determined that those voices are socially and politically disenfranchised. While the tactics are different, it is clear that in each strategy the editorial collective plays a mediating role, deciding which philosophy of media justice should be prioritized.

This difference between Philly IMC and Portland IMC also illustrates a broader ideological tension that exists across the network. Some members of Philly IMC are self-consciously guided by an ethic of economic justice and organize around issues of social and economic displacement. In general terms, the Portland collective is focused on ideas of openness, horizontality, and decentralization, which are priorities more closely aligned with the radical democratic vision of Laclau and Mouffe. The political tensions that exist across indymedia are an important aspect of the network; however, the Portland ethic of openness and horizontality is dominant within the indymedia network and more closely approximates the Cyber Left logic of resistance.

The process of strengthening offline struggle through digital media in Philadelphia offers a window onto the broader strategy of movement building that some IMCs undertake, which I argue is the tendency of the Cyber Left. Members of the Philly IMC teamed with other local organizations, training members in basic media production, offering a communications platform, and building social relationships in an effort to build a linked social movement. This exemplifies the logic of radical democracy, where multiple points of struggle challenge power, and it brings forth the goal of indymedia to use communications to ally multiple, distinct movements for justice, harnessing them in a common challenge.

(p.174) The organizing that Philly IMC activists attempted was focused on building a bigger shared movement across Philadelphia, using targets like Wal-Mart because of symbolic value. This goal of using media to build long-term power across the many points of struggle in Philadelphia, however, was not necessarily the norm within indymedia or in the Cyber Left more generally. In most instances, indymedia activists were only able to accentuate particular struggles; they were not able to build links across these struggles that facilitated shared struggle or a shared vision. In fact, the only consistent form of political action I witnessed across indymedia was what scholars have called “swarming.”

Political Action of the Cyber Left: Swarming

The critical question indymedia activists and other Cyber Left actors face is how to create concerted collective action from the multiple autonomous fronts of struggle. Laclau and Mouffe recognized this problem, arguing that distinct spheres of struggle must create a shared political vision. While a shared vision has not emerged across indymedia, the ability of multiple collectives or fronts of struggle to attack an issue or enemy in a swarming manner has been the predominant form of collective action. Scholars have called this “swarm intelligence.” Ronfeldt and Arquilla (1996) define swarming as a moment when a myriad of small units (which could be organizations, collectives, or other social formations) that are normally dispersed converge on a target from all directions, conduct an attack, and then redisperse to prepare for the next operation. This form of political action was exemplified during the standoff between the Mexican government and the EZLN in 1994.

After the EZLN’s uprising, the Mexican government sent twelve thousand troops to Chiapas to retain control. A battle ensued, and overmatched by the Mexican military, the EZLN retreated into the mountains. The Mexican government planned to pursue the EZLN using air strikes and superior military power. At this point, however, a massive network of citizens and human-rights activists swarmed on Mexico City, Chiapas, and Mexican consulates throughout the world to stop the conflict. The network of people and organizations were linked through an already established communications infrastructure of Web sites and listservs used for international NGOs.

Once the situation in southern Mexico escalated, these groups and organizations shared information about the conflict in Chiapas and swarmed the capital, demanding that peace be restored. The diverse delegation held marches, demonstrations, and caravans, pressuring the Mexican government (p.175) to agree to an armistice. They were successful, and a ceasefire was signed, which led to a peace accord.

As the economist Harry Cleaver (1998b) documents, this massive action took shape without any centralized coordination or system of hierarchical accountability. Instead, the swarming action was born through a decentralized communication infrastructure of faxes, cell phones, and the Internet. Cleaver argues that the swarming was facilitated as information was passed quickly and effectively across networks of actors and enabled individuals and organizations to use this information and the newly developed forums of communication (mostly in the form of listservs) to create a shared challenge to the Mexican state. The digital and physical convergence around the EZLN illustrates the quintessential mode of action of the Cyber Left, which has no central point of leadership or political program. Without a substantial preexisting infrastructure or coordinated call, a decentralized and diverse network rapidly developed, first online and then offline, in Mexico and globally, forcing the Mexican government to offer an armistice.

As a switchboard of struggle, indymedia supports swarming by offering an open venue so multiple actors can produce massive amounts of information on a particular situation and then uses communication spaces, like Web sites, for these decentralized actors to interact and set strategy. Along these lines, local, national, or global indymedia Web sites act as repositories of reporting and documentation. Through in-depth documentation, indymedia sites have the capacity to highlight the intensity and scale of actions that take place across geographic territories, as illustrated by the U.S. indymedia reports on the 2006 antiwar march, or the global coverage of the February 15, 2003, protest against the war with Iraq.38

At the same time, indymedia Web sites also have the ability to capture the magnitude of specific localized events during short but intense periods of time, as exemplified by global indymedia coverage of the WTO protests in Hong Kong in 2005 (Screen Shots 4 and 5). During the WTO meetings in Hong Kong, known as the Doha Round, indymedia journalists created a massive amount of information on the Hong Kong protest.39 The purpose of this rich content was to build communication links across space and/or issue, maximizing the amount of on-the-ground coverage and shared information and communication about the WTO meetings. To cover the protests in Hong Kong, indymedia activists established a media-convergence center, which became a central hub and critical communication center during the protests. This practice of creating convergence centers is common across indymedia and exemplifies the logic of indymedia activists to use media as the basis for swarming political action.

(p.176)

Strategy: Communications and the Switchboard of StruggleStrategy: Communications and the Switchboard of Struggle

Screen Shots 4 and 5: Global indymedia coverage of WTO protests in Hong Kong, December 2005. The screen shots illustrate the massive amount of information and imagery that was collected, curated, and shared.

(p.177) 7.10 Convergence Centers and Offline Swarming

To strengthen information sharing during large-scale political protests, indymedia activists set up media-convergence centers, temporary public sites for independent reporting. Activists first established Seattle IMC as a media-convergence center during the WTO meetings in 1999, and Philly IMC was established during the Republican National Convention in 2000. Following this pattern, activists established many IMCs during protests as media-convergence centers, and once the protests ended, local activists transformed them into long-term community media centers.

During the summer of 2005, I attended political protests that targeted the Group of Eight (G8) meetings in Scotland. I worked for five days at the media-convergence center established in Edinburgh. The protests against the 2005 G8 meetings were particularly large, as they coincided with a series of global concerts (Live 8) and a massive march to end poverty, two events that were used to pressure members of the G8 to forgive global debt. In preparation for the massive political protest, indymedia activists established three different media-convergence centers across Scotland, in Gleneagles (the town where the G8 meetings were held), Glasgow, and Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Convergence Center, which activists constructed in the weeks leading up to the 2005 G8 meetings, was located above a cafe in the city’s downtown center. The convergence center consisted of approximately sixty computers, a specialized video center to upload and edit video footage, a dispatch center with phones and computers, an FM radio station, and a still-photography uploading station.

The Edinburgh center was frantic, with hundreds of people in the room at any one time. One of the organizers of the center told me that over the four days of action, over 2,500 people entered the convergence center. Like in Hong Kong, over the course of the 2005 G8 meetings, citizen journalists produced massive amounts of information in the form of written reports, video, photographs, and audio programming. According to one internal indymedia report, “over 2,300 photographs and hundreds of written reports were published on the open newswire … creating an in-depth record”40 of the events.

While the production and creation of information for a broader public was a central goal of the convergence center, the leaders of the center also said that the role of the space was to help collect and dispense information to activists leading the protests. During the weeklong event, I worked the (p.178) dispatch desk. I answered phone calls that came into the Scotland IMC, and I relayed this information to a list of different indymedia journalists and activists. The people on the list were trusted indymedia journalists or people who were attempting to coordinate road blockages, protests, and other forms of action. Often the calls included information about where the police were amassed and which intersections were susceptible to sabotage. In this sense, the convergence center acted as a central command for protestors, collecting and relaying information across the network of protestors and journalists.

Indymedia convergence centers and other physical spaces, like LAVA in Philadelphia, bring to the fore the importance of the corporeal in the age of digital media and despatialized organizing. While important work can be done online, powerful organizing often has a critical material component. In my research on indymedia it became quite clear that while the methods of political action that activists forged were inherently digital—from building a switchboard of struggle to using a swarming style of political praxis—they were more successful and powerful when there was an offline component or a physical space that grounded the activism and organizing. This was visibly on display in Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park during the most recent cycle of resistance, as both struggles prioritized the fight over physical public space.

Conclusion

The strategy of indymedia activists, at the local, national, and global levels, is to use new communication technologies and other practices to circulate stories of struggle across fragmented points of resistance so they can begin to come together in a shared movement. In this sense, it is a switchboard of struggle. This logic of resistance implicitly builds on the vision of radical democracy developed by Laclau and Mouffe, and more explicitly emerges out of the praxis of the EZLN. However, indymedia activists brought this vision to life by creating and deploying a transnational, networked, communications infrastructure.

The indymedia Web site and the events around the South Central Farmers illustrate how the indymedia switchboard of struggle worked to link movements and people: (1) across local spaces, linking different communities together to build a stronger localized movement; (2) across geographic spaces on a particular theme, such as labor or immigrant rights; and (3) across space and theme in an attempt to forge a global social movement. At the local level, however, as illustrated by Philly IMC, the switchboard effect is based on the synthesis of online and offline activities using pedagogy, alliance building, (p.179) and media practices to create a spokes-council of social movements in the city. While these outcomes are positive, one of the problems with the switchboard effect is the inability to create sustained campaigns.

Swarming, online and offline, is a significant form of action whereby the indymedia network and other network formations are able to impact the world. This mode of political action is well suited to short-term events such as protests or convergences, but it is not as useful for sustained struggle and organizing. In this sense, the strength of the network, a decentralized structure, is also its weakness, as without a centralized body, it is difficult to coordinate over a long period of time. This was exemplified over the course of my research, as coordinated organizing was never successful, primarily because the structure and decision making of the indymedia network did not allow for proactive collective decisions, only reactive decisions, as I discuss in the conclusion. (p.180)

Notes:

(2.) Some of the strongest critiques of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and a Socialist Strategy come from Ellen Meiksins-Wood (1986), Stanley Aronowitz (1986–87), and Norman Geras (1988).

(p.207) (4.) This amount is well below the land valuation, which the L.A. City Council estimated at minimum was $6.6 million.

(5.) “RED ALERT!! Encampment and Tree Sit to Resist the Eviction and Save the South Central Farm,” May 25, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/05/159857-comment.php#159945.

(6.) “Emergency Alert: Police Evicting South Central Farmers—Take Action,” June 14, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/06/163977.php.

(8.) “South Central Farmers Forcibly Evicted,” June 13, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://indymedia.us/en/2006/06/17234.shtml.

(9.) “Los Angeles Police Forcibly Evict and Bulldoze the South Central Farm,” June 15, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://www.indymedia.org/en/2006/06/840859.shtml.

(10.) Leslie Radford, interview by the author, email, September 23, 2012.

(12.) While Pesante-USA did write a letter in support of the South Central Farmers, the Web site where the letter of support was archived is no longer maintained, and consequently the letter is gone.

(13.) To see the message from the EZLN, see El Kilombo Intergalactico, “Communiqué from the EZLN Intergalactic Commission,” accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.elkilombointergalactico.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html.

(14.) “Activists, Celebs Stage Encampment for South Central Farm,” Democracy Now! June 5, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://www.democracynow.org/2006/6/5/activists_celebs_stage_encampment_for_south.

(15.) Many reports held that the warehouse Horowitz planned to build on the land would be used by Wal-Mart. For example, see this L.A. Indymedia report: John McIntosh, “Save the South Central Farm—Photo Essay,” May 13, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/05/157152_comment.php.

(16.) For Keck and Sikkink (1998), the boomerang effect works when a local group has trouble effectively pressuring their government. Instead, they push the issue to the national or global level through “transnational advocacy networks,” which are knitted together through the Internet and other communication technologies. The advocacy networks then put pressure on the government in question through different means.

(17.) “Hands On!!! Creating an Independent Media Center in Your Community,” accessed March 27, 2014, http://www.hybridvideotracks.org/2001/archiv/IMC.pdf.

(18.) “Massive Immigrant General Strike in U.S., Northern California,” April 20, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2006/04/20/45172.php.

(p.208) (19.) Interview with Jeff Perlstein by Miguel Bocenegra, University of Washington Center for Labor Studies, October 15, 2000, accessed March 22, 2014, http://www.indybay.org/uploads/2007/05/06/perlstein.pdf.

(20.) Christopher Palgrave, interview by the author, Philadelphia, July 10, 2004.

(21.) Indymedia Documentation Project, “Strategic Content Production and ‘Coverage Teams’ or ‘Beats,’” accessed April 19, 2014, http://docs.indymedia.org/view/Local/PhillyIMCwebedteams.

(22.) Fieldnotes, LAVA Center, Philadelphia, March 17, 2005.

(23.) Indymedia Documentation Project, Philly IMC Outreach, September 12, 2005, accessed April 19, 2014, https://docs.indymedia.org/Local/PhillyIMCoutreach. (The author was one of the indymedia activists involved with creating the Philly IMC outreach memo.)

(24.) Sheethl Fischer, interview by the author, Philadelphia, March 5, 2005.

(25.) See Indymedia Scotland Editorial Guidelines, accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/scotland/static/editorial.html.

(26.) Matthew Arnison, telephone interview by the author, August 12, 2005.

(27.) See, for example, the Columbia journalism graduate student Anderson’s discussion of the role of indymedia on social-networking platforms: “‘Actually Existing’ Citizen Journalism Projects and Typologies: Part 1,” July 31, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://indypendent.typepad.com/academese/2006/07/actually_existi.html.

(28.) Particularly see C. W. Anderson’s work (2003) on the role of IMC in the birth of blogs and the citizen-journalism movement.

(29.) Jay Sand, interview by the author, Philadelphia, March 4, 2005.

(30.) ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) is a coalition of diverse groups committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.

(32.) Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Space, accessed March 27, 2014, http://www.lavazone.org/.

(33.) Strategy paper on Philly IMC and Jobs with Justice Wal-Mart campaign, October 8, 2005.

(34.) Sheethl Fischer, interview by the author, Philadelphia, March 3, 2005.

(35.) Tanya Jameson, interview by the author, Philadelphia, November 19, 2006.

(37.) “About Portland Indymedia,” accessed March 27, 2014, http://portland.indymedia.org/en/static/about.shtml.

(38.) A typical example is found on the indymedia U.S. site: “Weekend Demonstrations Draw Thousands as Bush’s Approval Ratings Hit All-Time Low,” March 20, 2006, accessed March 27, 2014, http://indymedia.us/en/2006/03/15115.shtml.

(39.) A typical example is found on the global indymedia site: “Mass Protests Meet WTO in Hong Kong,” December 12, 2005, accessed March 27, 2014, http://www.indymedia.org/en/2005/12/829714.shtml.

(40.) Annie and Sam, “Alternative Media Handbook,” accessed March 27, 2014, https://docs.indymedia.org/view/Local/ImcUkWritingAltMedHandbookDraft.