It's easy to talk about how indymedia and the visible anti-neoliberal globalization movement appeared out of nowhere in 1999. As if it sprung magically out of the tear gas as a fully developed living breathing movement. It's a romantic myth which has been useful in the spread of indymedia. But it's not true. The Seattle WTO protests grew out of years of struggle and a coalition building effort and a lot of luck. Many social movements grew and converged at the same time as having a tremendous tactical victory in the streets.
So first i will explain a bit of how the social movements made the seattle wto protests a success. There were many years of very reformist and conservative unions who have declining membership who took on the free trade fight. They had fought and lost against free trade agreements with Canada and Mexico. So they understood the importance. Then there were social justice groups and the normal leftists. These groups were aware of the WTO through organizing against APEC and NAFTA. Folks had been inspired by protests against the G8 and many other groups. There was an idea, that elsewhere anti-globalization protests had been successful and how it was 'our turn'. So this broad spectrum of leftist groups included many media activists who created indymedia.
The last group which is important, specifically in Seattle, were Earth First! and the radical environmentalists who had been fighting for the preservation of forests. They saw how trade agreements where having a large effect on their struggles. Earth First! practices a kind of militant non-violent direct action. They setup blockades and do land occupations. Seattle 99 was the first time that these tactics had been brought to an urban setting in large way. It was EF which blocked the streets and prevented the start of the WTO meetings. There were a 1000 activists who locked themselves together and blocked the streets and were arrested.
The point is, many activists came to seattle with different understandings of why the WTO was a problem. There were multiple coalitions and fighting between groups, but everybody agreed to protest against the WTO. Most of the Unions rejected any kind of militant protest, with the exception of the Steelworkers and ILWU which crossed the AFL-CIO's lines and joined the blockades.
So how did seattle happen? It was a gradual process. In 1994 the US, Canada, and Mexico signed a major trade treaty, NAFTA. The treaty integrated the countries economies and created trade dispute courts which superseded national law. There were protests and social movements against NAFTA, but they did not gain widespread support. The day NAFTA came in to effect the Zapatistas started their armed uprising and took control over parts of the Mexican state of Chiapas. This marked a turning point. The Zapatista rebellion influenced many activists in the US, and around the world. They provided a vision for how radical social change can be sought, and provided a new critique of neo-liberalism.
The Zapatistas also showed how social movements can collaborate. They build out this model of a movement of movements. The idea that there isn't a single party or vanguard which will lead a social revolution, but rather that we can have many intertwined movements which can struggle together. They organized large encuentros of movements and created an idea of how to build radical resistance in a post Soviet world. In the North American context this meant a way to address and connect 'identity politics' which was about racial, gender, ethnic, or other movements with environmental movements, social justice, unionist, and a wide variety of groups without one needing to take dominance.
There has been an media activist movement which has been played an active part of social movements in North America since the 1960's. These are the activists who setup underground newspapers, community radio stations, public access tv, and independent film collectives. This movement has grown, and had some successes. By the mid 1990's there was a series of conferences and organizing around the concept of radical media. Media could be used for social change and activists could create cross media and cross organizational alliances. Some of the media activists with Paper Tiger TV and other groups were very interested in the Zapatista ideas coming out of Mexico. They asked Subcomandante Marcos to delver an address, via letter, to their conference.
Marcos Wrote: "In August 1996, we called for the creation of a network of independent media, a network of information. We mean a network to resist the power of the lie that sells us this war that we call the Fourth World War. We need this network not only as a tool for our social movements, but for our lives: this is a project of life, of humanity, humanity which has a right to critical and truthful information." [ www.tmcrew.org/chiapas/e_media1.htm ]
It is that idea which lead to the eventual formation of indymedia. The idea that we need a network of resistance. Of course Indymedia didn't spring in to being with a poetic declaration of intent. In 1996 there was an attempt to build something like indymedia became, it was called Counter Media [www.cpsr.cs.uchicago.edu/countermedia/]. In Chicago people setup a 'people's newsroom' to cover the protests against the Democratic National Party Convention. It was raided and shutdown by the police at the same time as the police shutdown an anarchist conference associated with the protests. There were a few issues as to why countermedia didn't take off. First was the internet was not as widely used medium, and the website of coutermedia was not as easy to use, you had to email in stories to get them published. The url was not easy to remember or catchy. But a big part of it was there was not critical mass of people, organizations, or networks. The protests against the Democrats in 1996 were just not that big. Everybody quickly forgot about them.
In Australia and Europe activists after 1996 worked on developing easier ways to publish online. This happened at the same time as people played with the concept of blogs, websites which are easy to publish and organized chronologically. The Cat@lyst anarchist technology collective in Sydney Australia created an application called Active for managing activist information. It included a directory of organizations, a calendar, a forum, and a news posting system. The software was used in a number of cities in Australia to help connect activists and keep them informed about their community. Other projects such as DAMN, the Direct Action Media Network, Protest.net an activist calendar site, nadir.org, squat.net, sindominio, igc.org, etc... were playing with the same concepts. How to use the net to bring together activists and help organizing.
In 1998 a loose coalition of groups, many with support of professional NGO's were able to put a stop to the MAI, Multilateral Agreement on Investment, using savvy media tactics and mailinglists. This group never had to resort to massive street protests, but the success of stopping the MAI convinced many that institutions like the WTO could be taken on and beaten. That year also saw a rise in the number of street protests against other aspects of neo-liberalism such as the G8, the IMF, and the World Bank. Each time there was a protest, if the activists were lucky, somebody threw up a website to keep track of it and share the information with others. Most of the online information was shared via mailinglists which were only exposed to a smaller group of already dedicated activists.
In June 1999 there was a major jump in activity with the G8 meeting in Cologne, Germany and J18 protests. Many websites were setup which included streaming radio, television, posting pictures and articles. The protests were held in 43 countries, but were most intense in London where activists shutdown the financial district. The websites created to cover the news created the model for what indymedia was to become. Most of them are still online. You can see them here: bak.spc.org/j18/, www.urban75.org/j18/, and using the active software from australia, j18.cat.org.au.
The activity was divided up in to many names, many groups, but it was the model that became indymedia. Video activists made documentaries and ran pirate tv stations, radio activists produced reports to send via mp3's to many radio stations while running a streaming web radio which some terrestrial stations rebroadcast, writers wrote articles about the issues and posted them online and printed a newspaper to be distributed during the protests. The website had photos and breaking news.
What was missing from the j18 was physical newsroom which indymedia created, and a unified brand. We didn't have a single point where we could say, look, here, this is how we got the news out. Indymedia took the model which evolved and exposed it to more people, at a time when everybody was looking for new models for protest, and when the corporate press was amplifying what we had to say.
Before the J18 protests happened activists in Seattle were preparing for the WTO to come to town. A year of coalition meetings and organizing took place. A small group of people started meeting about the idea of a media center. A group of a dozen people with a core of 4 organizers meet about taking the ideas they had seen elsewhere and help created and using them for the protests. They found a space in downtown seattle which they could use as an office, made contacts with media activists to invite them, and build out the first indymedia center. Their goal was clear. Create a space and environment for media activists from other cities to come, collaborate, and cover the protest and issues. It was not the intention of the organizers to create media themselves, but to make it possible for others to do so.
Over 400 media activists showed up and participated in this media center. The website came online at the last minute and received substantial, for the time, traffic. The protests themselves were a resounding success and that propelled indymedia and it's sister organization at the time, the DAN, the Direct Action Network, forward. Indymedia was a one off event, created as a temporary autonomous zone to cover the protest. But it was created in the context of this larger media movement, with activists who were thinking back to the Zapatistas who said we need to build a resistance communications network. At the height of the chaos there was a meeting at the indymedia center. The police had barricaded the door shut, tear gas was seeping in from the street, activists were crowding the space, some seriously injured by police violence. Jeff Perlstein gave a short speech during the meeting. He said "we are creating something which we hope will be a model for the future," for other places, and other struggles.
After the protests passed, there was a proposal to create subdomains, city.indymedia.org and to use the name, brand, and website as a way of unifying the media activist network during these large protests. The activists to participated in the Seattle WTO IMC were inspired and took the model with them. Without asking for permission, new indymedia centers were started by people who had participated in existing ones. The network spread organically, quickly, without plan or formal communication. It took a year and a half before any formal decision making process and communication were created for us to use within indymedia.