I've had conflicted feelings about the conference since it started in 2003. Actually, back when it first started, I wasn't so much conflicted as just pissed off. A lot of us were pissed. I was living in Madison then, which was the site chosen for the first conference. Many of us were part of a vibrant and active independent/grassroots media community that included, among many other projects and efforts, a radical community newspaper, an active Indymedia center, and a long-running community radio station. What pissed us off is that although the conference was to be held in Madison, none of us local independent media creators/media justice organizers were included in the planning. Actually, we weren't even alerted that the conference organizing was taking place. It was beyond ridiculous; it was offensive. How could an event focused on media reform blatantly ignore the folks who were a critical part of that work, even if our focus was different?
What made the situation more frustrating to me is that at the time, I was in somewhat regular contact with two of the founders of Free Press – Bob McChesney and John Nichols. I'd turned to Bob for assistance in designing an independent study course on media criticism (I was taking courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he'd taught years earlier but was allegedly ousted for being too radical; he now teaches at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana), and he kindly provided some much-needed guidance and mentorship. He'd also allowed us at the Madison Insurgent to reprint some of his articles on media conglomeration. John had kindly assisted those of us involved in the unionizing effort at Whole Foods by writing op-eds for the local paper, and helping us get the word out about our struggles.
In other words, the founders/organizers of the conference were well aware that there were active local independent media projects, yet didn't make a single effort at reaching out to any of us. In fact some of us tried to reach out to them, but our calls and emails were not returned. It was infuriating, to put it mildly.
In response, a radical contingent of Madison independent media producers/media justice activists organized a shadow conference that, from all accounts was very successful (I was unable to make it because by the time the conference came around, I'd already moved to Oakland).
Two years later, the conference moved to St. Louis, and it was clear that efforts were at least being made to be more inclusive. For one thing, Free Press offered scholarships to those of us who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend. I was grateful for the opportunity the scholarship provided, to meet lots of folks doing great grassroots work, and reconnect with old allies/comrades. But my overwhelming reaction (and the one of countless other radical media folks I talked to) was one of frustration at the extent to which media reformers still didn't seem to notice (let alone value) those of us creating media, and/or those of us who incorporate a media justice ethic into our work. It was frightening to see how many people think policy and lobbying is the only way to effect change. It was frightening to see the absence of challenging deeply systemic power structures. It didn't feel like movement-building. It felt like a lot of disconnected policy talk, a lot of strategizing about organizing through the usual channels (without an examination of the structures that produce and replicate systems of oppression), and a painful absence of creativity and misunderstanding (or outright refusal to consider?) democracy and media justice.
So I knew what I was getting into this year, but wanted to give it another shot. And overall, I'm glad I did. Over 3,000 people attended. Again I thank Free Press for offering scholarships to those of us who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend. I met many new folks, learned about some exciting organizing going on, reconnected with people working on some incredible projects (like the Center for Media Justice, the Prometheus Radio Project, Youth Outlook, and People's Production House), and at the end of one long day, was even lucky enough to visit two of my favorite Minneapolis night spots (The Brass Rail and The Saloon), where I got some much-needed kindness by a loving contingent of Minnesota Nice homos and fags (thanks, all of you, for being as sweet as you always have been).
But. When I registered and opened this year's conference packet, I read the welcome letter, the opening line of which is, "We are here because the media's failure to inform and represent our communities poses one of the greatest threats to our democracy."
Our "democracy"? Call me nitpicky, but my definition of democracy means that people actually have power. Moreover, or more specific to this conference, considering the ongoing criticisms of media justice activists and media producers that they don't feel included, it seems all the more strange to use such loaded language.
I missed last year's conference in Memphis, but I talked to a number of folks who said they felt things had actually regressed this year, and they were openly questioning whether they would continue to return.
We need a media movement that's engaging and built from the ground up. We need a movement that examines power structures and seeks to destroy the status quo. This does not feel like a movement. It does not feel inclusive to many of us from marginalized identities, and/or who are fighting on the margins.
It also replicates the same cult of personality/power that we as progressives/radicals claim to resist. With all due respect, how many times do we need to put folks like Amy Goodman, Bill Moyers, Phil Donahue, and now Dan Rather on a platform? I understand the need to lure folks in, but if that's what it takes, we have more work to do, most notably in the areas of listening to other people's stories and opening up doors and spaces.
I'm still on the fence about my future involvement, but I do want to end on a positive note, because I experienced many inspiring and refueling moments over the weekend. Things like:
- Interacting with folks from one of what I consider to be the most radical organizing efforts around, the Kennsington Welfare Rights Union. If you're not familiar with their work, please read about them and support them. They're a multi-racial organization by and for people who are poor and homeless.
- Hearing Chris Rabb emphasize the importance of organizing across race and gender, focusing on inclusive efforts that also foreground class. I've been hearing a lot of talk lately (well, for a long time, really) about the importance of not playing oppression derby, but I still see a lot of it happening, and as long as I've been politically active, I've seen class/classism take a back seat to other identities. I have a lot more to say about this, but for now I'll just express my firm belief that until we start foregrounding class and critiquing capitalist values, efforts at effecting social change are meaningless.
- Hearing Daisy Hernandez speak to the history and current work of Color Lines, and appreciating her reminder to those of us involved in grassroots publishing projects that it can be more meaningful and impactful for one person being incited to action through reading a story than to have massive numbers of subscribers.
- And finally, seeing an incredible movie called Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which examines masculinity, sexism, violence, and anti-gay sentiment (and homoeroticism) in hip-hop culture. Using interviews with hip-hop artists, cultural critics, and his own experiences and relationships to hip hop and anti-sexist work, Byron Hurt did a phenomenal job of covering the multiplicity of forces converging to make hip-hop what it is today. For anyone who thinks feminism is/should be all about women, for anyone who doesn't recognize the profound ways in which men are constrained by our oppressive cultural values, this movie is a serious wake up call. Many parts were painful to watch, but it was a powerful story and an extremely well done film. Following the screening, Byron answered questions, and emphasized, as others have recently, the importance of inclusive organizing that transcends race, class, and gender. I left hopeful knowing that there are folks out there who realize the necessity of inclusiveness in movement building.