I hadn't heard from my son, Dave, for awhile. After protesting the WTO meeting in Seattle, he should have been back in sunny California. Then I got the call: "Hi Mom, sorry I didn't call sooner but I've been in jail."
If a mother wrote a memoir, it would be the opposite of Fielding's childless Bridget Jones. No fishing for a date or showing off her legs as a TV news reporter. A mother's memoir would describe the toddler's first words, that brilliant drawing in the eighth grade, and of course, the usual maternal worries about a twenty-something: did he get enough to eat while he was in jail? How did he end up in jail? He went to college to study film but his summer camp was the AFL-CIO sponsored Union Summer. After that summer of organizing workers in (pre-WTO) Seattle, he returned to college in the fall and successfully organized the cafeteria workers. He finished college and immediately set out to organize health workers. Now, he helps organize the organizers as the webmaster for Local 250 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). (The California bay area's local is the second largest local after 1199 in New York City.)
Dave's the poster child of the new protest generation. It is his generation who took over the administration building at Harvard and who are fighting for adjuncts and graduate teaching assistant rights. New graduates join unions to fight for grass roots, bottom up power. Judy Collins once sang out that "lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes." Now the mill workers have been replaced by service workers, in the high rises, in the hospitals, in the fast food joints. Their call for help is seen everywhere, in the WTO battle in Seattle, the FTAA protests in Quebec, the G8 in Genoa and at your local movie theater.
And it's Dave's union, SEIU, that's helping those janitors and health workers to earn a living wage. Director Ken Loach is agitating with his new movie Bread and Roses and Dave and the rest of his generation are agitating using not only film and video, but also every other media imaginable, especially the Internet.
College students and cleaners, unlikely bedfellows. But, in fact, starting with the Battle of Seattle, there was an unlikely coalition of unlikely groups: treehuggers and Teamsters, nuns and anarchists.
How did these groups manage to organize well enough to all be at the same protest? To all get civil disobedience training? To finally stop the trade talks? The answer is the Internet. There were sites set up devoted to explaining the impact of globalization to every sector of society. The sites featured very specific concrete examples of how the WTO's policies affected everyone adversely. Dave describes examples like these: say Venezuela wants to import dirty gasoline but because of our EPA laws we don't allow it. Venezuela appeals to the WTO which ruled that US regulations about cleanliness had to be changed. We then notified the WTO that we could comply by changing gasoline regulation rather than pay $150 million in annual trade sanctions. That got the environmentalists riled up.
Trade agreements have also gotten the unions protesting. In Georgia, for example, textile factories have closed because they can't compete with the 30-40 cents an hour being paid to workers in Mexico. And it didn't stop in Seattle as the 100,000 marchers in Genoa proved. Again environmentalists, labor, students and concerned citizens who were locked out of the democratic process wanted their voices to be heard. And the powers that be are worried about how protesters are organized. The Italian police raid on one independent media outlet show just how worried they are.
According to Humor is Dead, www.humorisdead.com, an excellent web site devoted to revealing the unfunny effects of capitalism in a hilarious way, the Italian police pulled a midnight raid on the offices housing the Independent Media Center (IMC) and Genoa Social Forum.
The IMC is perhaps the most important of the alternative venues for progressive news. They're not just in Italy but all over the world. The San Francisco group, www.sfindymedia.org, according to their website, has modeled itself on the original Independent Media Centers set up to cover events in Seattle (November 1999) and Washington (April 2000): "Since then, the indymedia network has grown internationally as media activists around the world establish ongoing local IMC's."
The Internet is a venue for thousands of web sites devoted to progressive causes. Some sites are comprehensive guides to all forms of humanitarian issues and activism and some are devoted to a specific cause. For example, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is a "global network of networks" showing "how the web is and can be employed for advancement of progressive causes."
Zapatistas in Cyberspace (www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/zapsincyber.html) has 27 pages of annotated links devoted solely to the struggles of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. According to their web site, circulation through the Internet has become "one of the most successful examples of the use of computer communications by grassroots social movements".
The APC is but one of many links on the Viking's Guide to Activism on the Web, an aggregate of links (www.escape.ca/~viking/activist.html). The Viking Guide divides its links into Resources, Watchdogs and Tools, covering comprehensive sites, humor, critical analysis, training materials and tools. It also links to Link Crusader, another good list of links. And additional good aggregate site is Infoshop with its "list of pretty cool web sites."
Another very good comprehensive site is Z Magazine's Znet which offers useful information and links. In April 2001 they published a Global Economics Crisis site "as a source for understanding global economics and trade issues and particularly in preparation for ongoing demonstrations about economic justice Mobilization for Global Justice (www.a16.org), shouts out to "De-Fund the Fund! Break the Bank! Dump the Debt!" on the home page. They urge users to get involved by adding events to their online calendar and comments to the bulletin board. They also have a networking list. There is news about all the past protests, such Quebec City, and a call to get involved in upcoming protests. Tradewatch.org, Zmag.org, infoshop.org, and the International Action Center (iacenter.org) are other sites covering anti-capitalism issues and events.
Another great site that covers global issues as well as US politics, the environment, work, health, etc. is Act for Change (actforchange.org, part of workingforchange.com). They constantly update the site, featuring different issues. Last June, they listed various problems with the environment, with a "Take Action" button right next to each annotated issue so that members of Congress could be encouraged to do the right thing. The most important environmental issues were listed: oppose Bush's attack on endangered species, curb global warming, stop the dirty chemical industry, protect the arctic wildlife refuge from oil drilling and demand environment-friendly cars.
The EnviroLink Network has a web site, (envirolink.netforchange.com) being developed as a resource for those working for social and environmental change. There are links on the left side of the home page for organization, education resources, progressive careers, governmental resources, actions and related topics such as the greenhouse effect. The news headlines cover such topics as the Kyoto climate change treaty, endangered whales and nuclear dumps. Some topics are covered in depth such as how to reduced use of toxics and a design for an affordable eco-house. The Envirolink Network also offers customized features for community actions and a list of events all over the world, including "Sustainable Sweden Tour" and greening the campus in Muncie, Indiana.
Besides a call to action with the headline, "This is your world. You can do something to change it," Protest.net's "Activists Handbook" offers very practical information such as solidarity techniques for jailed protesters from The Midnight Special Law Collective. The why and the how of activism is spelled out as well as "tips, tactics, & tidbits" on coalition building, communication, countering the religious right and using the radio. Of all the well-known issues covered in the aggregate sites, the only one that doesn't show up a lot is feminism. A Google search brings up the "Women's Web Links" site (www.euronet.nl/~fullmoon/w-active.html), featuring "Feminism/Activism/Politics". Clicking on "Feminism" bring up an alphabetized list covering everything from the abortion rights to women in Bosnia. However, this site is incomplete and hasn't been updated since September 2000.
As comprehensive as the Viking Activist Guide, Link Crusader, etc. are, they don't link to it or include site such as Guerrilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls political site, Guerrilla Girls Broadband (www.ggbb.org) is new, but the older one has been around for a few years (www.guerrillagirls.com). They cover the lack of recognition for women artists, recently featuring the fight against the low numbers of women and people of color behind the scenes in the film industry. Viking has one link called "Solidarity-Socialism-Feminism-Activism-Labour" which is a socialist organization formed to build broad coalitions. This spring, Act for Change featured an article on supporting the "Go Girl" legislation. The article was contributed by the Feminist Majority and explained how the program could empower young women to pursue math, engineering and technology.
Web sites are one important way that the Internet is being used to inform and organize. Email is also used to notify readers about actions and provide template letters and petitions. These tactics are being used to squash as well as support causes, bash the IMF and defend pro-choice, thank Senator Jeffords and condemn the Taliban. On Aug. 1, an Act for Change email blast featured a "Global Warming Sweepstakes." This was a way to take a stand against Bush's energy policy and to urge the cocoa bean and chocolate industry to stop child slavery.
Both web sites and email function as "media substitutes," according to Jim Walch's book In the Net: An Internet Guide for Activist. The mainstream news doesn't carry it, or it buries it, so alternative media is crucial. As Humor is Dead points out, unless you get your news from the Independent Media Center, you might not have heard about the raid on their office, even though it's something the media should be interested in if only from self-interest.
Besides being a substitute, or alternative for the mainstream news, the Internet also, in Walch's terms enhances interaction by allowing sharing and distribution of knowledge and ignoring hierarchy. He could add another important point, that the Internet has a low barrier to entry. Many groups have a flat management structure and it's not expensive for a group to put together a listserve and keep their constituents informed.
Walch has analyzed the historical use of the computer to support "emancipatory action." Besides the organizing, though, one way the web can emancipate is simply by featuring workers.
When SEIU Local 250's webmaster/producer (I had to get my son back in here) asked emergency medical services workers to name the one thing they would change about their jobs, they said "recognition". So he took their photos, wrote up their stories, and splashed the homepage with their picture captioned: "Margaret Woodall (left), Lori Murdock and other Stockton EMS workers talk about their passion for saving lives." Then he them called up and said, "take a look."
The web allows organizations to inform, organize and demand change. It can inform everyone about the passion for saving and improving lives ó in an ambulance and or the barricades. And since Sept. 11, the web is also being used to mobilize "Action for Justice, not War" at www.9-11peace.org.
Margaret Lewis Bates is associate professor and director of Foundations/New Media Media & Communication Arts Department at City College of New York.