Images from Kanye West's
Protester turns and faces police.
Police attack on horseback.
Police shoots at protesters.
Protesters launch at police line.
Police office rips of gas mask of protester and sprays pepper spray at close range.
Protesters scatter as police emerge from tear gas in the streets in riot gear.
At eye level, the audience experiences the aftermath of tear gas.
The camera framing is on the ground with activist, experiencing the confusion and chaos from the streets
Image circulating on Twitter connecting Ferguson and the Palestinian struggle, an example of how solidary is frequently communicated with street media.
An example of tweets from the people in Palestine giving advice about tear gas in Ferguson, image obtained from Twitter.
A man stands with his back to a police barricade with an explosive in his hand, a Molotov cocktail. The only sound is the flick of a lighter that ignites the rag wick of the bomb as he turns to face the police. A medium shot of his torso captures the context of a chaotic street scene; there are angry homemade-weapon wielding protesters on one side and faceless militarized police forces on the other. The man launches the bomb into the police barricade, in slow motion the audience is encouraged to anticipate the raging fire that will emerge on impact. The following montage places the protesters and police in a direct clash, providing a close shot of an angry police dog, a reverse shot of masked protesters, back to baton wielding police, and a final reverse shot of protesters launching toward the police line. This is not a news report or activist video; these are images depicting multi-millionaire rap artist Kanye West in his 2012 video, “No Church in the Wild.” The video features an aggressive protester, Kanye West, being glorified for violent street fighting. Images of protest, citizens clashing with police, and spectacular representations of battle in the city streets are not a new phenomenon. The pattern in which excessive, repetitive, and accentuated violence is mapped onto representations of protest across media culture is notable.
Contemporary images of protest circulate in a variety of unusual contexts; commercials, movies, online networks, news reports, and rap videos. The roots of protest images emerge from a less spectacular place. They can be found in the Worker’s Film and Photo League’s impulse to document strike lines in the 1930s, the video culture jamming of the guerilla television movement of the 70s, anti-nuclear proliferation and labor videos in the early 1980s, the AIDS activist video movement in the 1990s, and the street tapes from the anti-globalization protests that followed. The ways in which mainstream media frame political and social issues has been a site of scholarly inquiry, but too little attention has been paid to how the visual discourse of radical media—produced outside the forces of the market and the state—operates within public culture (Downing 2008: 42).
The purpose of this essay is to analyze the visual discourse of social movements and protest images through contemporary street tapes. This includes an analysis of the participatory culture emerging around these works. Street tapes are moving image media—often edited quickly or in camera—that reflect remnants of undocumented history from the streets, often in conjunction with public events. These works attempt to construct media through the eyes of the common people rather than politically privileged, economic elites or media professionals that typically control the spin on public content. When cameras become inexpensive, mobile, cheap and easy to use, street tape culture tends to flourish. “Street videos” or ”street tapes” have a history that far precedes the YouTube era; this form of video production initially emerged during the late-1960s to mid-1970s. The style evolved from the first inexpensive, lightweight, portable, hand-held moving image cameras (1/2 inch reel-to-reel Portapaks) that were used to generate moving images of public life, in streets, living rooms, and churches. Video could now record where larger, more expensive, and cumbersome equipment could not be easily be used.
The feature-length documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like (Friedberg and Rowley, 2000) is an iconic film representing the street tape culture emerging around the anti-globalization movement at turn of the 21st century.[open endnotes in new window] A critical mass of activists from all over the world arrived in Seattle to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in November 1999, marking one of the most significant instances of social protest in several decades. The street tapes from this event feature massive demonstrations and coalition building that took place over five days of political struggle. The footage shot by more than 100 different activists, patchwork video recordings vary in production value and are diverse in approaches to interviewing and framing. This is What Democracy Looks Like is comprised of street tapes that were initially streamed on the Internet or collected during the protest through the Independent Media Center, an experiment with organizing independent media production around massive demonstrations.
A loosely structured Independent Media Center (IMC) emerged in Seattle to provide technical and news media support for activists attempting to document the WTO protests. The IMC functioned as a clearinghouse for information and resources to help citizens create and share their own media (Phillips 2000). Throughout the week of demonstrations in Seattle, the IMC uploaded raw footage and news reports in real time on a self-publishing website, competing with the opposing news reports from mainstream television, newspapers, and radio news outlets. This marks a key shift in street tape culture because activist participatory media were keeping pace with the mainstream news cycle on a parallel broadcast network online, a circumstance that eluded previous generations of street tape activists.
The visual representations of political struggle in the This is What Democracy Looks Like street tapes depict a celebration of life in the streets of Seattle: puppets, street performers, drum circles, elaborate costumes representing wildlife, and free form dancing. There are also brief segments that explain the historical, contextual, and political issues at stake with globalization. Yet, the narrative arc of This is What Democracy Looks Like and the arresting moments of the video streaming out of the Indy Media Center during the protests were circulating, among other types of video, repetitive violent sequences and montages of police dominance. The street tapes bear witness to the police use of excessive violence and the protesters helpless against a well-equipped military unit. There are a number of scenes of protesters forcefully pinned down, thrown around, and beaten by police. In one powerful scene, a protester is pinned down by his neck against the street asphalt by a police officer’s knee as the protester screams:
Other aggressive images include police ripping off gas masks and spraying fire pepper spray in protesters’ faces at close range while sitting protesters are attacked with nightsticks. Some of the most affecting images are shot in the midst of tear gas and pepper spray as videographers attempt to run away from an aggressive and unrelenting police force in full riot gear. The camera framing virtually places the audience in harm’s way, struggling to see through the tear gas. When protesters are recovering from pepper spray on the ground, the camera records them at eye level. The street level camera framing encourages the audience to enter into the protesters’ space of disorientation, chaos, and confusion. It has been well documented that the Seattle protests hijacked the media agenda of the World Trade Organization meeting (Meikle 2002: 8). Who does the self documented street tape address? Are they geared toward audience(s) interested in globalization or are the street tapes about discourse happening in the margins, aimed toward the margins, speaking to those already in the know?
This essay advances a visual and ideological critique of alternative media frames found in street tapes that were produced from the WTO protests and provides an account of how these particular images circulate. In the final words of their essay, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle,” DeLuca and Peeples charge scholars with the importance of charting the topography of our new world and its omnipresent media environment of image combat, the “primal scene upon which culture is produced and enacted” (DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 132).
I will argue that the framing and structure of This is What Democracy Looks Like encourages a celebration of the image as disruption by fetishizing state violence. This form of visual discourse encourages collective identification with an abused citizen and has given rise to the distribution and reproduction of what has been termed, “protest porn” or “riot porn” in activist circles. Protest porn is one of many forms of street tape culture, focused on a particular framing of activist practices. It is a rights-based visual discourse, primarily but not exclusively focused on spectacular images of political agitation between the state and its citizens. The camera is used as a witness to unlawful acts perpetrated by authorities and as a mechanism to check the interests of the state. Beyond witnessing, these images depict a victimized citizen, immersed in a noisy, unpredictable, and dangerous democratic space. Images of intense battle in the streets are represented in successive repetition or edited together in montage with dramatic music and the violence becomes the climax of the narrative arc. Ironically, the content of protest porn cannot be ignored, the necessity to bear witness to aggressive police actions upon protesting citizens, especially as police forces in the United States and around the world have moved towards militarization in the last 20 years. It is necessary to record police abuse against citizens exercising their rights in the streets; I am suggesting that we interrogate the potential applications of those representations and how they are used for mobilization. This project is interested in how we order, use, reframe, deliver, and curate protest images from the margins.
This analysis of contemporary protest video will proceed in three stages: first, this essay will examine how contemporary images of protest and agitation align historically with street tape culture; second, this article will address image events and provide a framework for conceptualizing protest pornography and how it addresses particular audiences and circulates in a new media environment; and finally, the paper will advance a theoretical framework for understanding the street tapes as protest pornography.
Street tapes as a participatory media culture
The evolution of street video reporting began with the development of affordable, lightweight and portable analog recording equipment in the early 1970s. Building community and democratizing access to production resources was the primary goal of early street tape culture:
This movement of early video makers gave baby boomers access to the resources to make their own brand of television. For the generation that grew up in the shadows of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, television was a critical way into understanding world events. The movement attempted to shift television’s content from placid entertainment and negative images of youthful protest toward a reflection of counter-cultural values. This new television reality was
By giving people access to tools that allowed them to document their lives and negotiate the world on their own terms, the movement created a vernacular space that had the potential to counter the prevailing dominant ideology of broadcast television.
The character of street tapes is marked by amateur production quality—due to the technical deficiencies of video but also because the increased accessibility of technology enabled many more inexperienced users to make media—which produced a distinctly vernacular cinematic discourse. The unsteady and unpredictable form presented images that could be perceived as raw data in an uncertain world. The aesthetic was a part of the political statement that functioned to validate the form of street tapes as a kind of argument:
While broadcast television was sanitized, narrated, over produced, slick, and run by elites, street tape culture could define itself against the mainstream in form and content. The spontaneous, untrained, shaky footage is edited in a way that does not draw attention to the creative decisions that make street tapes partial and selective. Instead, audiences perceive they are viewing raw footage from which they can piece together a story about the events on the screen.
This style includes spontaneous interviews with people from diverse backgrounds, filmed on the streets, in workplaces, and in the community. For example, early videomakers like Tami Gold with New York Newsreel and Judy Hoffman shooting video for Kartemquin in Chicago were experimenting with recording in-camera video on strike lines. These videos were screened at bars and community centers, often on the same day as shooting, as a way to bring people to the campaign. Horsfield and Hilderbrand argue,
Although street tapes are not free from the author’s decisions about framing, stopping and starting the camera, and placing shots next to each other, which are all a form of shaping reality. Many of the street tapes were designed as an interactive communication loop to contest the one-way communication model of mainstream media (Greenwald 2007:174). The People’s Video Theater in New York City was an alternative video journalism collective emphasizing political issues with videos such as Liberation 1970, Vietnam, and The Abortion. The collective recorded discussions in the street, inviting participants to watch the tape at a local “hardware station” or loft space outfitted with playback equipment. Post-screening discussions were also taped and once again played for participants.
The 80s brought Ronald Regan and deep cuts in arts funding, fueling a new legion of video activists. Anti-nuclear proliferation activists took to the streets to record infrequently reported protests and demonstrations. In the late-1980s and early-1990s there were and increasing number of street tapes that depicted a societal transition in worker-management relations, a burgeoning critique of media conglomeration, and an impending health crisis (Halleck 2002). In this exploratory environment, more militant activist collectives began building on these trends. The explosion of the AIDS crisis in the late-1980s and early-1990s produced a new kind of participatory video culture and activist intervention. The AIDS activist video movement documented demonstrations, the struggle for visibility, and the evolution of the disease from the perspective of those experiencing it. The videotexts functioned as a necessary and powerful counter-narrative to the absent or routinely negative depictions of AIDS in the mainstream media. Historically, there is an oppositional condition built into the fabric of street tape culture. Like most radical media, street tapes are constructed in opposition to the professional practices of journalism or routine content and seek to transform those practices. Most activist video collectives that produce street tapes can be characterized by
The turn of the 21st century marked the beginning of a (re)evolution in the organizing of publics around mobile media production, working at the same speed as mainstream news networks. The WTO street tapes and This is What Democracy Looks Like emerge in a time before social media and reveal a participatory media culture transitioning away from analog production and distribution models and toward early experimentation with digital formats. The evolution of mobile technology in the late 1990s coincided with a massive political uprising in opposition to globalization and an increased reliance on online information for up-to-date, underground, asynchronous information. The revolutionary moment was that activist could by pass the filters of mainstream media with self-publishing. Jill Freidberg, co-director of This is What Democracy Looks Like notes,
This was a significant moment for the culture as technology again became more compact, mobile, and inexpensive just as the Internet was becoming standardized with a growing user base while political conflict plentiful.
The street tapes that emerged from Seattle are ground breaking in terms of their function in radical media culture and limited in audience and diverse representation. The conditions were different in 1999, there were few online networks where sympathizing citizens could accidently stumble upon street tapes and follow the events from afar. The call to bring cameras and other recording equipment to the protests in Seattle was actually circulated in a paper flier and placed in the local community a week before the demonstrations. The self-distribution and grassroots screenings of This is What Democracy Looks Like was widespread, circulating globally in grassroots activist circles and educational institutions, traveling around the world to conflict zones, on campuses, during political struggles in places like Oaxaca, impromptu community screenings on the side of buildings in Europe and around the world. Much of the contemporary impulse to document street activism emerges from the groundbreaking participatory media culture and street tapes produced from the WTO protests in Seattle.
In comparison to today, the street tape culture in Seattle was insular in terms of addressing an already committed public but widespread in that the audience was global. Today, street tapes emerge in a world with well-developed virtual connections and increased visibility through online networks that are aggregated to distribution this mode of information. The videos that emerged from the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Anonymous exist in a very different context. For example, the street tape culture erupting from the uprising around the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri almost instantly produced solidarity videos and images from all around the world. Protestors in Gaza were even sending Ferguson protesters tips on how to deal with tear gas.In contrast with the conditions around the street tapes in 1999, these new networks and technologies with inexpensive mobile image production, emerge and disperse street tapes globally, synchronously and often before events unfold in the mainstream news.