Media Making as Participatory Democracy: Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street

“If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said,
then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” 
– The Port Huron Statement, 1962

 We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”
– Occupy Wall Street, 2012

Fifty years ago, the authors of the Port Huron Statement wrote that “Every generation inherits from the past a set of problems – personal and social – and a dominant set of insights and perspectives by which the problems are to be understood and, hopefully, managed.” 

Today, the generation that sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement has likewise inherited a distinctive set of problems and generated its own new insights and approaches to them. One of the most important characteristics of the Occupy movement is the expanding universe of media makers – citizen journalists, livestreamers, artists and others – who see their work as overtly political and a central part of the movement itself. 

New tools and technologies are empowering more and more people to commit acts of journalism – many for the first time – as their preferred mode of engaging with the movement. For many, grassroots media is not just a means to forward the goals of Occupy Wall Street. Creating media and telling a new story about our society is also an ends in and of itself. Media making is increasingly a political act as important as the occupations themselves.

Seek the Unattainable to Avoid the Unimaginable

The Port Huron statement was a radical vision for participatory democracy and an agenda for social change drafted by a group of students in 1962. The document gave new voice to a rising student movement that gained moment throughout the sixties and early seventies. While it defined a new political vision for participatory democracy, its vision for the role of media in democracy was almost identical to that of America’s founders.

In describing their ideal model of participatory democracy, the authors argued that “society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.” This statement echoes Thomas Jefferson’s well know quote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

While the Port Huron Statement reasserts that an informed citizenry is fundamental to the American experiment, they don’t go much further. While the role of the media in our democracy was seen as fundamental, it was largely understood as something outside of the movement itself. At the time, the media was still something that primarily happened to us. 

Media Making as Participatory Democracy

Photo by PaulSteinJC via Flickr

Like the authors of the Port Huron statement who described themselves as “looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” members of the Occupy movement are also looking out at the world with a sense of deep concern. But many of them are looking through the lens of a camera or the screen of a cellphone and broadcasting their vision of the world.

In the Nation Magazine this month Tom Hayden, one of the original authors of the Port Huron Statement, argued that “perhaps the most important issue for participatory democracy will be ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing information.” It should be noted that even while technology has put more and more media tools in the hands of people, policy decisions happening right now are putting more and more control of the media in the hands of corporations. Specifically, the Internet has democratized media making, but the policies that shape the future of the Internet are increasingly un-democratic.

While there are wonderful veteran filmmakers and longtime journalists working with and around the Occupy movement, OWS has inspired a new cadre of people to make media. Before arriving at Occupy Wall Street Tim Pool, the movement’s most well known livestreamer, had done little video work besides recording his friends skateboarding. “When I first arrived I thought: I know can add something to this, but it was extremely difficult to adapt,” he told BoingBoing, “After a while I realized, maybe the best thing to do is document this as truthfully as possible so we could have just transparency.” NPR reported on another new livestreamer, Colin Laws, who, after watching the Occupy livestream for weeks, sold his TV and video games, bought a ticket to New York and with no prior experience, joined the media team there. 

Similarly, last fall after losing her business and watching her marriage dissolve, 26 year old single mother Christina Kay (whose livestream handle is SacMediaTV) faced losing the childcare subsidy she depended on. All of this culminated around the time Occupy Sacramento was getting started in October of 2011. 

She began livestreaming a few weeks later during the General Strike on November 2. “I turned my stream on in the middle of civil disorder,” Kay told me, “There was a fire, things being thrown, windows breaking, things being shot at us… From there, I streamed everything.” Prior to this her media experience was limited to a few YouTube videos related to her sewing business and a short stint on a production set. Kay sees livestreamers as not just the eyes and the ears of the movement, but also the voice. “The livestreams keep Occupy delicately dangling in the public view,” she wrote in an email interview. Media so often pushes us apart, but media making can bring us together, says Kay. “Livestreaming awoke many activists and brought them together; uniting to uphold not only constitutional rights, but to also demand social-economical justice.”

It’s impossible to say how many people like Kay have picked up cell phones and wifi hotspots and taken up livestreaming Occupy protests as their first act of journalism. But increasingly, the Occupy movement is making clear that participating in journalism and participating in democracy are not so different. In his book Mediactive, which was published a year before Occupy Wall Street began, Dan Gillmor suggested that “In a participatory culture, none of us is fully literate unless we are creating, not just consuming.” Occupy’s emphasis on media making puts participatory culture at the center of participatory democracy. 

It’s tempting – especially after drawing a link back to Port Huron – to want some grand statement, a kind of media manifesto, from Occupy. In fact, many in the mainstream media struggled at first to report on the movement because Occupiers didn’t immediately offer a unified list of demands. However, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Occupy Wall Street doesn’t need a statement because its statement is being written and revised constantly at the pace of the Internet, by livestreamers and citizen journalists. Its declaration is its action, uploaded and tweeted as it happens, and the whole world is watching.

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