Jeff Perlstein had no exact forecast for WTO week. But the media activist knew countless groups were heading to Seattle with their own messages, messages he knew for the most part would not make it to mainstream news.
So he decided to launch an alternative news service: "a 24-hour activist newsroom" for like-minded visitors. "Here were bright, talented people coming from all over the world. But they weren't gonna lug their editing decks from Guatemala or Harare. We had to set things up so they could help record what would happen."
Perlstein had his idea on Sept. 1. By the third week in October it had become a reality: the Seattle Independent Media Center. As a local organizing team worked out touchy logistics, the center rapidly accrued experienced media partners: San Francisco's Whispered Media, Changing America and Videoactive; New York's Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish Television - as well as Boulder, Colorado's Free Speech TV.
With messages flying back and forth across the Internet, all worked to create one huge mutual project: a half-hour TV program that would be produced each day. It would center on those who came to represent labor, the environment, civil rights, international law and indigenous nations. Every morning, the finished films would be uplinked by satellite - and anyone, anywhere in the world, could broadcast them at no charge.
Not only did they succeed in their real-time mission, next month the day-by-day documentary they produced starts re-airing on public-access stations all around the country.
Lawyer Dan Merkle is one of a dozen locals who played kickoff roles, helping raise financial support and find the center an office. The activist reporters and filmmakers, he notes, organized carefully. "Everything was hammered out and totally systematized. We're talking weeks and weeks of 18-hour days and meetings." Merkle found the center a site just steps from Benaroya Hall. A church on lower Queen Anne loaned them premises for an editing center; Benham Gallery donated darkroom facilities and the space for impromptu interviews.
Meanwhile, the center prepared to register affiliates, assembling more than 100 packets of information for videographers. In return for access to the center's space, applicants agreed to three obligations: They would act "responsibly," represent the center sensibly, and agree to donate work toward the larger, collective effort.
More than 450 people registered. "There were a lot of established media groups," says Perlstein, "and there were people who had a public-access show in Dubuque. There were Internet correspondents and single individuals, from around the country and around the world."
The project also brought home former Seattleites. One was Eric Galatas, who now works for Free Speech TV, a cable-TV programming service that handles alternative offerings.
Galatas is one ex-Seattleite who knows his activists. Initially, he moved here to work on "Northern Exposure," but stayed until little over a year ago. During that time, he helped found several local institutions: SIFVC (the Seattle Independent Film and Video Consortium), SIMC (the Seattle Independent Media Coalition) and his own baby, Citizen Vagrom. The latter embraced a number of routes to media activism: a Web site, a public-access show on television, an e-mail newsletter and a monthly video magazine.
Galatas helped the center find a presence on the Web. "This crack Australian Webmaster named Matthew Arnison just happened to visit Free Speech TV. He'd made an incredible site around the G8 summit last June. That was in Cologne, in Germany, but he made the site from Australia."
So Seattle's Webmaster at the center worked with a partner in Sydney. "The results were incredible. You could upload a video file, an audio file, anything, right away. You didn't even have to understand HTML. You just came to the center, filled in a form and punched a button. Up it went and it was available right then."
The Web site was constructed and run using Linux, the "open-source" operating system no one can legally own. In sync with many anti-WTO protests, this made an anti-corporate statement of its own. A local fast-growth Internet company, encoding.com, donated assistance in sending raw video straight to the center's Web site.
By WTO week's Monday, the site was getting a million hits daily. Galatas says the server looked like a time bomb. "They had it on this little box, and it was simply burning up! They had to move it onto different servers right away." While viewers in every time zone followed their online journal, center crews were hauling in a constant stream of footage.
Despite police blockades (which by Tuesday actually hemmed in their office), center editing teams worked solidly through each night. At 11 a.m. each day, they unveiled a new program. Then, through satellite uplink by New York-based Deep Dish TV, it was broadcast internationally.
As the week unrolled, each episode was captured and titled: "Seattle Prelude," "The Siege of Seattle," "Occupied Seattle," "Political and Environmental Hostages" and, finally, "This is What Democracy Looks Like."
The final touch is an hourlong version: "Showdown in Seattle: Five Days that Shook the WTO." While the talks collapsed and civic fingers started pointing, the center decided to consolidate its work. "Showdown" contains the week's most important messages, shorn of overt editorializing or sensationalism.
Local Jill Freidberg spent a week pulling this hour together, distilling five segments into one compelling piece. Since separate groups had edited each segment, this was difficult. Yet the final cut makes an asset out of its shifts in style.
"Showdown" has already enjoyed a week of packed local screenings and more are planned when the holidays are over. The tape itself is proving a popular holiday gift.
And the center is still busy. It is currently occupied compiling its footage into an archive. It will be available to activists, historians, other filmmakers - and to lawyers. "This is one production," says Perlstein, "which will run and run." ------------------------------- To get tape
"Showdown in Seattle" may be ordered directly for $10 a tape, plus $3 shipping via priority mail. Copies may also be picked up from The Independent Media Center, 1415 Third Ave., Seattle; 206-262-0721 (call for holiday hours). The center's Web site is located www.indymedia.org.