Past and Future Struggles for Indymedia: Lessons from Urbana Champaign’s IMC

In the wake of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, the Independent Media Center network started communicating alter-globalization struggles in unprecedented ways, as IMCs across the globe self-organized and linked together with an ethos of participatory democracy and web technology suited for such purposes. New challenges and dreams define IMCs and their progeny today, as Indymedia struggles in Illinois attest.

Danielle Chynoweth, a co-founder of the Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center, recently told visitors to the center that the abundance of time among potential Indymedia activists has shrunk, along with people’s incomes and job opportunities, since the UC IMC first opened in 2000.

“We used to have this abundance of volunteer time, and what we’ve seen is students, there tuition has gone up,” Chynoweth told folks who took a field trip up to Urbana on April 25 to get ideas about for their new Fly-Over Infoshop in Carbondale, Ill. “They have so many more loans. They have to have jobs. We thrive on excess time. That’s what our currency is right, you know? And that has shrunk under the current economic conditions. And what we’ve seen as we try to keep our fingers on the pulse of community needs are people needing resources for survival. It’s a different situation.”

Recuperation of the old Big Muddy IMC building and its transformation into the Fly-Over Infoshop comes at a different historical moment than when the IMC movement entered the fray and shortly thereafter when the UC IMC got off the ground.

The UC IMC, one of the longest-running and still active IMCs around, fiscally sponsored the Big Muddy IMC back in 2007, and the Urbana hub has started sharing ideas again with Carbondale.

Evolution of Indymedia

Chynoweth, 42, recounted the history of Indymedia to give those from the Infoshop a sense of what is possible. She said a few artists, organizers and activists in Champaign recognized the untapped potential of new media technologies after seeing the success of the IMC in Seattle in advancing counter-narratives to mainstream media coverage of the alter-globalization movement.

They collectivized their media equipment, made a contact list and started an informal lending library in Urbana. After holding a “community challenge” to raise funds, they opened an IMC in an old print shop before later relocating to a vacant post office building on South Broadway. Although they already had a community radio station in town, WEFT 90.1 FM, its fullness and tight scheduling prompted them to start another LPFM station. Using a mixture of union labor and volunteer work, they created a new station that operates out of the assistant postmaster’s office in the IMC building in downtown Urbana.

As part of the IMC network, the physical space has a corresponding online space, a website connected to all the other IMCs which historically functioned as communication nodes for both local and global resistance.

John Downing, a professor emeritus in the college of mass communication and media arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, likened “the IMCs to some of the leitmotifs of political thought represented by the anarchist socialist tradition,” a lineage he argued exhibited “a dialectic between freedom and organized action.” Writing a few years after Indymedia was born, he claimed its organizational forms were “an expression of the public’s interdependence,” constituted through non-coercive cooperation and mutual aid.

According to Downing, the anarchist principles of prioritizing movements over institutions, emphasis on prefigurative politics and focus on direct action featured prominently in Indymedia activities from the onset. He described the centers as “self-managed, and linked to each other in a voluntary Malatesta-style federation,” with the “only apparent uniformity” being the shared webpage layout.

Todd Wolfson, a media scholar who previously received fiscal sponsorship from the UC IMC, explored the tensions between the participatory decision-making across the Indymedia network and the sometimes contradictory emphasis on local autonomy. He argued that this contradiction became evident in a controversy that arose when IMC Argentina implored other centers not to accept an impending grant for $50,000 from the Ford Foundation in September 2002 because of the foundation’s connection with the CIA-backed “dirty war” during Argentina’s military dictatorship when some 30,000 people were disappeared.

The fund, ironically, was meant to support Indymedia conferences and bring local IMCs together to foster solidarity network-wide.

Debate ensued on the IMC-Process listserv and in chat rooms as to whether select IMCs had the autonomy to make decisions for themselves, like accepting Ford money, or whether other IMCs in the network could block those decisions.

Mark Caruso, a UC IMC member, wrote in a letter, circulated during the heated debates, that “it was inappropriate for individual IMCs to have veto power over the work and financial decisions of other IMCs,” and while he respected IMC-Argentina’s decision, he argued the decision about whether or not to accept the money should be left to the affinity group who had been working on the grant for several months.

Several Latin American IMCs said they would pull out of the network if an IMC took Ford Foundation funds, Chynoweth told those from the Fly-Over Infoshop.

“We gave up the Ford money,” she said. “That was the right thing to do. I do not regret that at all. That was really, at the political moment that we were in, you know we were building an Indymedia movement, and it was going to really compromise that movement.”

Declining the grant followed them for years afterward, she said. When the IMC would ask for funds from other foundations, they would be turned down and told by those foundations Ford advised them not to support Indymedia.

As the IMC online platform became outmoded and individual centers evolved, morphing into various other initiatives, the Indymedia network gradually declined.

“Certainly tech infrastructure is almost all gone,” Chynoweth said, noting the UC IMC is in the process of overhauling their website and technical infrastructure. “Those techies got burned out after so many years of free labor.”

She said the cohesive network is gone, but personal relationships remain. Core Indymedia members now see the UC IMC “as an incubator,” whose “goal is not to necessarily grow and get bigger and bigger and bigger,” she said, “but to help initiate and seed – so we like to seed projects and help them become independent.”

Movement Resonances: Supporting Subsistence, Making Intersectional Interventions

When Fly-Over Infoshop folks first arrived at the UC IMC for a tour, they visited “Makerspace” open hours on the lower level of the IMC. Makerspace Urbana functions as an open community lab blending arts, humanities, science and technology with a skill-sharing ethos apropos for other radical community centers.

Makerspace organizer Emily Knox said they always have tools available for most projects people want to do.

“We offer a lot of workshops,” she said. “Some of the more techie workshops would be soldering or Arduino, which is micro-controllers. Our crafty things would be sewing, needlepoint. In the space itself we have three printers and computers, sewing machines … We have a stir jar.”

Workshops planned for the Fly-Over Infoshop include a similar focus on helping people recover a sense of both individual and collective agency. The Infoshop is envisioned as a space for learning how to build and produce what people in town need to survive and thrive yet have been denied by police-protected private ownership of productive property.

Inspired by “The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy,” a text by Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies advancing an alternative to industrial capitalism based on the creation and maintenance of life through a politics from below, the Infoshop in Carbondale launched a fledgling but pivotal side project, the Subsistence Research Center.

In their book, Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies describe a worldview for reclaiming common control over the means to subsist without asking permission. Drawing on their work, the SRC is envisaged as a way to pose present arrangements of production for profit and market-based allocation as problems. Advocates of the SRC want to cultivate different relations to each other and the natural world by facilitating ecologically regenerative and mutually empowering alternatives.

Chynoweth said she loves the idea. It is a practical and direct response to the ongoing and intensified economic violence more and more people are subject to, she said.

When giving advice to Infoshoppers, she said “a radical project in its heart and soul has to be situated within low-income communities.”

The Carbondale delegation both echoed and challenged the sentiment.

Many involved in the Infoshop recuperation are current or former undergrads or graduate students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. These are the déclassé radicals – the surplus of educated persons in their late teens, 20s and 30s who have been denied by the prevailing order any opportunity for meaningful work or adequate wages despite college degrees. Many have accumulated thousands of dollars in debt because of student loans needed to pay for higher education in the US. Earning at best poverty level wages either from super-exploitative service jobs or as benefit-free teaching assistants at SIUC – where grad student employees pay about two months of their salary back to the university in student fees each year – a larger percentage of the youth and young adult population in Carbondale have been rendered disposable, like others in their demographic throughout the US.

When reminded of this by Carbondale visitors, Chynoweth said it was “really powerful,” and suggested this be used as a lever to strengthen networks of resistance. She said it underscores common ground between populations recently and historically considered superfluous – the déclassé militants trying to turn the Big Muddy IMC into a community center antagonistic to power and the surrounding community of unemployed and working poor, predominantly people of color, traditionally most disadvantaged by the system.

Chynoweth described the Occupy movement back in 2011 as possessing similar qualities.

“I felt like it was a movement of people who had hit the dead end coming out of college,” she said. “So what we did was play a support role.”

Occupiers held a few overnight conferences at the IMC building in Urbana and utilized some of their resources.

“Many of these movement-moments exist, and the mass media kind of amplifies certain ones of them, and then has a really good time crushing them,” Chynoweth said, acknowledging the state forcibly evicted people from encampments.

She said she would like to see a mass student strike with people “walking out and talking about debt and racial profiling” while avoiding the “gravitational pull” of co-optation by foundations and non-profits.

Indymedia emphasized interventions at the intersections between economic and racial justice early on.

The Public I, a collectively-run UC IMC project with both a print and online publication, provides community-oriented investigative journalism and offers a forum for underreported issues like mass incarceration and repeated wanton police aggression predominantly targeting people of color in Illinois.

The IMC helped spearhead the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and is home to a completely self-sufficient Books to Prisoners program boasting shipments of more than 100,000 books to inmates in the last 10 years based on requests from those incarcerated.

Prison abolition became an immediate priority at the Fly-Over Infoshop as well. Kim Wilson, one of the founders of the Prison and Theory Working Group in Philadelphia, visited Carbondale and facilitated dialogue on how to struggle against the prison-industrial complex at the Infoshop the evening before the field trip to Urbana.

The Fly-Over Infoshop receives letters and book requests from prisoners at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., via The Counterpower Radio Hour, a program co-hosted by Infoshop volunteers and broadcast by WDBX, the community radio station in Carbondale located right next door.

But the Marion prison, converted to the first modern all lock-down facility in 1983 and now a medium-security institution, is notorious for rejecting books sent to prisoners.

“Marion really doesn’t want much of anything,” said Lolita Dumas, the volunteer supervisor of Urbana Champaign Books to Prisoners. “So we actually have a key staff who are the only ones who actually field Marion letters. We have to be careful of nudity, which means they don’t get any art books. They don’t like ‘violence’ but yet they send a Tai Chi book back? So yeah, they pretty much want nothing. So we only have key staff to fill that order.”

After a delay, those hosting The Counterpower Radio Hour, which serves as the on-air space paralleling activity in the physical space of the Infoshop, successfully got “The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy,” to an inmate in Marion who had requested a text by American anarchist-socialist thinker Murray Bookchin. Inmates in Marion can sometimes tune-in to the show, and several broadcasts have included discussions about how the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Abdullah Öcalan, changed his political philosophy from a nationalist and Marxist-Leninist ideology to advocacy for non-statist participatory decision-making after reading Bookchin’s book while incarcerated. Reading Bookchin from his cell, Öcalan elaborated a model of democratic confederalism – a continuous process of non-statist self-administration for returning power to the local level through “participative democracy” involving local meetings, conventions and councils – now the underlying form of organization for the ongoing social revolution in Rojava.

Similar visions of local-level empowerment continue to animate time-tested efforts at the UC IMC while reinforcing plans to demand the impossible at the Fly-Over Infoshop.

A bike co-op project still operates out of the latter’s building. Members collect spare parts and old bicycles to provide bikes and repair training to kids for free. Ongoing administrative encroachments on academic freedom at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – as with the U of I chancellor’s hire-fire of Steven Salaita last summer after the Palestinian scholar tweeted critically about Israel during its assault on Gaza – faculty in UIUC’s history department discussed relocating off campus and renting space in the IMC building to take advantage of the autonomy Indymedia nurtures. An IMC project running for five years, “Outta the Mouths of Babes,” functions like a more exciting radical radio format version of the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” TV series, empowering children to become “youth correspondents” who explore the city and report on what they see. Their statements are recorded for radio pieces about how youth perceive their cultural and political environment.

One of the first goals organizers set for the Fly-Over Infoshop back in the fall of 2014 was how to transform the then-neglected Big Muddy IMC into a place where parents would feel comfortable leaving their kids for a workshop without sacrificing the commitment to making the space antagonistic to those in power. Infoshop walls are now adorned with a giant-size image of a mass sit-down demonstration on the strip in Carbondale in May 1970 when the university was forced to close because of protests, and an anti-police poster prominently displayed, courtesy of CrimethInc, reads: “You won’t fuck with us much longer.”

Chynoweth said explaining the rationale behind those messages in conjunction with community engagement in hands-on projects can create the kinds of knowledge and solidarity needed to transcend established injustice – in Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale and wherever else.

“For groups that are participating in direct action work and doing radical interventions in the system there needs to be a parallel infrastructure that supports them,” she added.

James Anderson is a freelance journalist and a doctoral candidate in the college of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.