Indymedia defined an early era of networked protest — and showed us another way the web could work.
The streets that night were carless. They were blocked, but there was no room for cars anyway. There were thousands of people outside. Some were running, some were locked arm-in-arm. Others were clad in full body armor — those were the Seattle Police. The cops wore helmets with screens to shield them from the smoke grenades and tear gas they were spraying directly into the crowds, forcing people coughing and crying down to the pavement, which was covered in glass from chain-store windows smashed by roaming protesters. “You suck, you fucking cocksucker,” a man yelled as an officer in front of him began firing rubber bullets that left painful welts on the legs and arms of the people they hit.
That night, November 30, 1999, the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference was supposed to be held. But demonstrators had taken over the city, confining the world leaders from over 150 governments who had arrived in Seattle to participate in the round of global trade negotiations to their hotel lobbies. At one point, the action moved to a street downtown where a group of activist-journalists had set up a newsroom in a donated storefront. They called it the Seattle Independent Media Center (IMC). As smoke thickened the autumn air, protesters poured inside to seek refuge from the tear gas that made it nearly impossible to see and even harder to breathe. The cops tried to follow them in, but those inside quickly locked the doors. Their cameras were rolling, filming the police the whole time. This was where Indymedia was born.
The Seattle IMC was stocked with donated computers for uploading and editing video and for writing articles. This content would then be posted to a website, indymedia.org, which went live days before the protests began. The motivation behind opening an activist newsroom, according to Jeff Perlstein, one of the founders of the Seattle IMC, was to provide a different perspective on the protests than corporate media. “We couldn’t just let CNN and CBS be the ones to tell these stories,” said Perlstein in a 2000 interview. “We needed to develop our own alternatives and networks. That’s where the idea for the media center came from — the necessity for communities to control their own message.”
It worked. During the WTO meetings, IMC journalists provided up-to-the-minute coverage and produced daily video segments. The Indymedia website clocked in 1.5 million unique visitors in its first week of operation, surpassing traffic to CNN’s website during the Seattle protests.