Media Politics: A Necessary Autumn for the Seattle IMC

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by Jonathan Lawson

November 24 marked the quasi-official fourth anniversary of the Independent Media Center, the date of the first message posted to www.indymedia.org (now seattle.indymedia.org). “The resistance is global,” wrote tech/media volunteers Matthew Arnison and Manse Jacobi on the eve of the 1999 Seattle WTO Ministerial. “Prepare to be swamped by the tide of activist media makers on the ground in Seattle and around the world...” The energetic greeting heralded a new era of local-cum-international grassroots media activism which has grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined four years ago. Today’s global Indymedia network includes well over 120 regional sites around the world, featuring self-published news in at least twenty-one languages.

In Seattle, the IMC’s original office space at 1415 Third Ave. has served not only as the home of the Seattle Indymedia organization, but also as a community resource with a large screening room and public computers, and even as a tourist destination for activists remembering the 1999 protests which made “WTO” and “Seattle” buzzwords around the world.

So it will come as sad news to people far and wide to learn that the Seattle IMC may soon close down its original space. While no official announcement has been made, either on the Seattle IMC website or on public email lists, rumors of a worsening financial crisis have become widespread. It has been common knowledge among Indymedia volunteers for over a year that the group was spending more on rent and other bills than it was taking in. The situation has apparently worsened steadily, with one source of income after another tapering off without replacement.

Now, the hour of reckoning may have arrived. The small group of volunteers currently making decisions for the IMC is responding to the crisis in a manner which has created more questions than answers among the local community which uses the space and website on a regular basis. In the process of sorting out details of the organization’s finances, members of the group appear to have largely isolated themselves from public accountability, crafting their own plans over the phone and in private email exchanges rather than on public email lists, as has been the usual IMC practice. A somewhat paranoid atmosphere prevails; the current leadership clique has rolled back free public computer access, changed the locks on the IMC’s doors not once but twice, and discussed redrafting the group’s bylaws to restrict the definition of membership.

Perhaps most troubling, discussion on several of the organization’s public email lists has become confrontational, mistrusting and ugly. A growing list of some of the most dedicated volunteers from the IMC’s past have become the targets of vague accusations (ranging from sloppy record-keeping to deliberate fraud), ad hominem attacks and even personal threats. [Disclosure: after beginning this article, I discovered that such accusations were being made against me as well, dating back to a period when I was an active volunteer.]

There’s no reason to think that closure of the downtown Seattle space would bring the end of the Seattle IMC itself, or of its historically significant website. On the contrary, Seattle Indymedia tech volunteers are currently preparing for a massive revamp of the site—installing new servers and transferring the site’s archives to a more reliable codebase. A lovely new site should appear within a month or two. It’s useful to note that many, if not most local Indymedia organizations thrive without paying rent on a permanent physical office.

The most unfortunate fallout from the Seattle IMC’s current problems may be the betrayal, however temporary, of some of the organization’s core values. Indymedia’s worldwide importance has been due not only to its free software/open publishing technological model, but also to the uncommon degree to which the organization has prioritized structural openness, consensus decisionmaking and other values conducive to “identifying and creating models for a sustainable and equitable society.” “Nonviolent communication” is a basic principle enshrined in Seattle Indymedia governing documents, alongside consensus, mutual trust and collective self-critique. A statement of values calls for “a culture of respect, equality, accountability and love,” “creating and sustaining a safe space” for collaborations to grow, and optimistically, “having fun while we work.”

Recent internal communications have been threatening and suspicious rather than nonviolent. Amidst the email attacks and rising mistrust, the leadership clique finds itself increasingly isolated and overburdened, as new volunteers wander off and older volunteers find little inducement to reengage. Indeed, even that small group may be splintering, as members resign in disgust or attempt to excommunicate one another. What has appeared to some as a power grab may soon become a power vacuum.

It has been many months since the Seattle IMC was last in full flower as a physical site for media production or public education. The need for such an institution is as acute as ever, in this politically challenging time of economic injustice, racism, imperial war and corporate media consolidation. Happily, Seattle continues to support many other community publications and organizations which continue to provide avenues for grassroots media. Perhaps a quiet wintering over is just what the Seattle IMC needs now: a dignified closure of the space and a period of reassessment may be the group’s best hope for an equally necessary new spring.

The Seattle IMC holds public general meetings on first and third Tuesday evenings; see seattle.indymedia.org for details.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey