By Albert Samaha
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PHILADELPHIAJust blocks from Independence Hall, an Independent Media Center began to boot itself up last week to cover the weeklong Republican infomercial and, more importantly, the cacophony of protest in the streets. The phone lines were only a day old, the copy machine had just arrived, tables were still folded and stacked in a pile. But eight computers were running in one corner. And this week, information the activists want to communicate is flowing from satellites to Web sites everywhere.
Right from the start, the burgeoning protest movementwithout a name, without a leader, without a centerknew in its hydra-headed way that it would have to provide its own media coverage. So, at each confrontation with the forces of corporate globalizationin Seattle, in Washington, D.C., and now at the ritual anointing of candidates tailored to the lowest common denominatorthey've set up a media shop. These activists don't pick sides, regarding both parties as pretty much the same. This week, they monitor hubbub around the Shrub. But next week in Los Angeles, another center will be ready for boredom with Goredom.
"Six global corporations control all the media in this country," says Eric Galatas of Free Speech TV, who's been part of each media center so far. "We had a saying in Seattle: We were trying to break through the information blockade." So while the major networks reported the official police line that no rubber bullets were fired, for example, the Seattle center posted photos of the rubber bullets on the Internet, forcing the professional news gatherers to change their stories. "Certainly from an organizing point of view," Galatas recalls, "lots of people were turned on to the idea that you could make your own media." Progressives who've been working for years on alternative media (like Deep Dish and Paper Tiger) plugged in too.
Each center has been more sophisticated than the last. Galatas, 32, flew in early from Free Speech TV's Colorado headquarters to work on the Philly satellite linkup. While activists in Seattle and D.C. had to prepare video, then rent satellite time to get it out, Philly are broadcasting live.
Activists in Philadelphia began preparing for this almost a year ago, even before the Seattle protests. Like the rest of the movement, the media centers are relentlessly nonhierarchical. In Philadelphia, the collective split itself into working groups organized around the, well, means of production: Internet, print, and so on. Alec Meltzer, 26, one of the founders of the Philly IMC, was pointed out to me as someone "not so much 'in charge' as 'taking care of things,' therefore able to answer questions."
"Several hundred people will be working with the center during the Republican convention," Meltzer estimated. "Without credentials. Without a tent next to the convention hall. Without fancy equipment. This is grassroots media, really telling the story as it's happening on the streets." All those people out videotaping, photographing, and reporting stories to post on the Web site are volunteers.
Back at the center, media activists will do about four hours of live programming a day, two of them in the morning with an extended telecast of Amy Goodman's Democracy Nowshow, then two hours in the evening with IMC Prime Time Live, a report on the day's events featuring videotape from the street. "The satellite television feed will go out over the Free Speech Channel on the Dish Network," said FSTV's Brian Drolet. "It looks like maybe 40 or 50 public-access stations around the country are going to downlink the signal. We will also stream it live on our Web site."
Meanwhile, over in the center's Internet section, several computers have been set up to be used by anyone who wants to write an article for the Web site. Photos are scanned and put up on the site every day. Then the videotapes shot on the street get logged and dubbed, with the best clips posted.
In the print section, they're publishing a four-page daily called Unconvention, while a radio crew will be putting up RealAudio webcasts. Then there's the media hotline. With 15,000 journalists expected in Philadelphia, volunteers are working the eight phone lines constantly, trying to connect mainstream reporters with activists, hoping that issues will make the networks, not just footage of the six people who throw rocks.
Those marching in Philadelphia this week will include everyone from Free Mumia to NARAL to the Steelworkers Union, but none of the media activists I spoke to were members of any other political group. The center was their group. One member of the steering committee said, "This isn't going to be a hangout for protesters. We have to make that clear because the authorities can look for any excuse to shut us down."
On July 21, Philadelphia Licensing and Inspection, alleging safety code violations, shut down a puppet theater where marchers were making signs, cardboard Uncle Sam cutouts, and oversized top hats. Targeting puppeteers? It's almost comical, but no one in the activist community is laughing. A press release on the center's Web site stated, "The police removed everything from the building. Police refused to give their names or badge numbers." The theater was allowed to reopen the same day, but as The Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "The shutdown and reopening starkly displayed the escalating tensions in the city over protests."