Flameout of the Armchair Radicals 

An ugly spat between leftist media factions demonstrates why giving everyone their say isn't always the best idea.

So there are these coked-out white-boy techies, okay? And they're, like, ruining shit for everybody and being all authoritarian and manipulating the process, and they'd better watch out or someone's gonna meet 'em in a dark alley, if you know what I mean. But then there's this stalker chick who can't get over her breakup and used to spend all night kicking on her ex's front door while the neighbors threatened to call the cops. And speaking of cops, the people who spread this kind of innuendo just might be feds running a COINTELPRO-style rat-fucking on us, especially those dirty East Bay hippies who hang out at the Long Haul and never bathe, like it's some sort of revolutionary act. And did you hear about the Long Haul wing nuts who violently threw out that poor guy last month and called him a bitch and displayed an insidious sexism and homophobia under the pretext of "protecting women"?

Welcome to the People's Media.

The above is just a sample of the elevated discourse you can read on the Web sites of the Bay Area's Independent Media Center, once the most promising media outgrowth of the international antiglobalization movement.

In 1999, tens of thousands of fair-trade activists, labor and environmental organizers, and anarchists descended on Seattle's meeting of the World Trade Organization, grinding the summit to a halt and shocking its neoliberal technocrats with the raw power of a mass movement. During those frenetic days, local activists rented a downtown storefront to serve as an alternative media clearinghouse where people could upload their stories directly onto the Web, bypassing the filter of the corporate press. Soon, "Indymedia" offices and Web sites were springing up in cities from San Francisco to Jerusalem, offering news stories with a radical perspective and announcing protest actions.

It was a new, hyperdemocratic kind of media organization, one that could finally break the stranglehold of the corporate media and return information to the people. Leftist activists everywhere were invigorated with a new sense of possibility.

More than four years later, the Bay Area's Indymedia effort is teetering on the edge of chaos. A group largely affiliated with the East Bay radical scene has split from the San Francisco group and set up its own Web site and organization, and the two warring factions now waste hours posting catty little snipes at each other. Under the cover of Internet anonymity, people who claim to be in the know accuse their rivals of petty slights, internalized phobias of every stripe, and even vaguely worded criminal deeds. Indymedia has degenerated from a radical new form of media into a Fellini-esque carnival of white noise and bitchery. And it's all democracy's fault.

If you're wondering what caused the East Bay group, now known as "Indybay," to secede from its San Francisco union, don't bother trying to find out. First of all, the Indybay folks refuse to actually call themselves an East Bay group, and have denounced the attempts by their former Indymedia colleagues to assign them geographic specificity as a plot to dismiss the breakaway faction. So even figuring out who's who is next to impossible. Second, none of the Indybay volunteers will speak to the press, and no Indymedia members returned messages seeking comment. Instead, people who may or may not be affiliated with either organization post all sorts of allegations on both groups' Web sites without leaving their names or any way to verify their occasionally libelous claims. So what they're fighting about remains a mystery.

I tried real hard to figure out why everyone is so pissed off. I even posted a notice on both Web sites (Indybay.org and SF.indymedia.org) explaining who I was and asking anyone in the know to contact me and explain what's going on. Alas, no one picked up the phone. Instead, various posters called me a "fucking asshole," a "shitty writer," a "journalistic parasite," a "kiss-ass sell-out wannabe yuppie" and, worst of all, a future lawyer. Here's the money quote: "I move that Chris Thompson be permanently banned from this site. What's next -- will we let him start trying to convince us how great Starbucks coffee is? He's cultivated himself into a boring hipster neocon, racking up bourgeois credibility while discrediting the possibilities of radical or even revolutionary change."

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