Dan Merkle is one of the organizers of the original Independent Media Center in Seattle. He graciously took the time to respond, via email, to a list of questions regarding the thoughts behind creating the IMC and the process of creating it.
FP: Since I wasn't in Seattle, I am trying to get a picture of the thoughts and organizing that went into forming the IMC. I understand that the dream started with just a few people sitting around talking about the upcoming demonstrations. Who were they?
DM: Jeff Perlstein and Jimmy Mateson, two local media activists/community organizers from Seattle.
FP: How did it get around to forming a collective to cover it?
DM: Jeff contacted several media activists in Seattle to see if they were interested. He then went to Austin, Texas and hooked up with several media activists around the United States who were also interested in the project.
FP: Why did you think coverage was needed over and above what the mainstream press would do?
DM: I had been following the corporate press in Seattle for the six months prior to the WTO and they had blacked out any of the substantive issues from the progressive community. I therefore knew that they would be biased during the convention and I wanted to make sure we had the opportunity to get the progressive voices out to the rest of the world.
FP: Why use the web?
DM: The internet is relatively inexpensive, quick, efficient and has many different components to it -print, video, audio and photo.
FP: What kind of outreach was done? How did you get all those people together in a matter of a few weeks?
DM: Jeff's contacts at the Austin conference were very important and Jimmy Mateson also had good contacts across the country. However, mostly we just put the word out to the media activist organizations. We knew they would be coming to Seattle and that they would need a location to set up their equipment and to have a central operating location. So we knew if we built the center and provided the resources that a lot of folks would show up.
FP: How many people eventually showed up?
DM: We had approximately 500 media activists who used the IMC.
FP: Where did they come from?
DM: We had a core team of probably 100 people from the Seattle area and the rest were from all across the United States and some from abroad.
FP: What were their skills?
DM: Across all skill areas: video, photo, print, computer, organizational, admisistration, runners. We also had a a lot of people that didn't have specific technical skills, but who assisted tohers, and they provided valuable help as well.
FP: How were volunteers coordinated or did everybody just do whatever they felt like doing?
DM: We formed approximately eight workgroups, which each had their own coordinators and sub groups. They were very organized and focused.
FP: How did you handle security?
DM: We had a good security team that we developed within our base.
FP: What were your thoughts about security and infiltration and so on?
DM: Security system is critical merely because of the more basic considerations, such as protecting the equipment, the chaos that goes on in the streets and in the IMC, and because of potential flare-ups of personalities. There are a lot of people who become stressed or have not worked with others in difficult situations, and there are times when it is helpful to have a security team in place that has been authorized by the group to deal with challenging situations.
We weren't that concerned about infiltration other than to put in basic systems (although we weren't aware at the time that we would be so successful and on the radar screen). The D.C. project had thousands of hits from federal agencies and its more important now to take this issue more seriously.
The other important aspect to this issue is that the work we are doing is legal and critical to a healthy democracy. When you come from this perspective you have nothing to hide and no reason to be insecure. That said, many people might want their identities protected. It's also important to have back-up systems in place including another location in case of a shutdown, and back-up equipment and server systems.
There is always the possibility that infiltrators may be involved to create chaos or impare the operations. Whether there is infiltration or not, it is critical to make sure that more than one person ins involved in important aspects of the work to make sure there is back-up support.
Most of our strategic communications were in small, affinity-based meetings. However, many of our general communications are on email which is easy for law enforcement agencies to monitor, so we just became comfortable that the work we were doing may have been monitored, and not to worry too much about it.
FP: How many hits on the web site?
DM: I believe we had around 1.5 million hits.
FP: How far away was the storefront you were in from the events?
DM: Our main locations were in the middle of the protest areas and about six blocks from the convention center. We had four other locations that were within six to fifteen blocks from this area.
FP: How much money did it take to put the IMC together?
DM: Approximately ,000.
FP: Where did it come from?
DM: Individual donors, fundraisers, tape sales and screenings.
FP: What happened to the IMC in Seattle after the event?
DM: It continues to operate and has a two-year lease at the main location. We are committed to helping other communities around the world set up IMC's. There are currently 18 IMC sites around the world and many more are underway. We also wanted to demonstrate that it is no that difficult to encourage and mobilize others to build relationships in their communities to create similar networks.
FP: What role do you see the IMC having in Seattle as an ongoing collective?
DM: To support underrepresented communities and to assist them in learning how to create media for their own communities as well as creating media ourselves. We are also working with various arts and much organizations, which are also important for progressive social change.
FP: What else would you like to say?
DM: The main function of the IMC model is to identify various organizations, communities and individuals who can help create a network that can create and distribute progressive messages. The IMC in Seattle was not about a handful of individuals who can create content; Rather it was about people who understood the need for a progressive media network and were committed to building the infrastructure that would allow others to create their own media. This model is an example of the power of supporting your community.
The only way this model works is for all of us to reach out to others, and to offer our resources and skills to help them further their own mission. In return, they will hopefully support the IMC project. This outreach requires humility, communication, coordination and respect. Once these dynamics are in place the project can move forward at a significant pace.
Another important component is to focus on "How can we make a certain project work," rather than the traditional approach of identifying reasons why something won't work. Our communities are filled with bright, creative and visionary people. If people are comfortable and are supported, they will find the ways to make things happen.
The biggest challenge is to overcome apathy, fear, insecurity and mistrust. We have demonstrated that it's hard work to accomplish this goal, but it's much easier in the long run than living day-to-day under the old system that we are leaving behind.