The framing of protest is referential. Horsed police attack protesters in street. Image from Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” on left, image from This is What Democracy Looks Like on right.

The framing of protest is referential. Police force dominates in streets. Image from Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” on left, image from This is What Democracy Looks Like on right.

The framing of protest is referential. Protester prepares for battle. Image from Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” on left. Image from This is What Democracy Looks Like on right.

Four police arrest one protester. Image from This is What Democracy Looks Like.

Youth leader discusses the possibilities of solidarity with the crowd.


The circulation of protest pornography

Activist street tapes differ from other participatory media subcultures such as fan culture, which is centered squarely inside a commercial milieu that is industrial, mass produced, and created for a broad audience of online viewers. In the 1999, for example, activist street tapes circulated within a fairly small and unknown network of alternative media websites on the fringes of the mainstream. At that time, street tapes were also available for purchase on DVD in spaces of leftist cultural production and often screened in non-traditional spaces (bookstores, university campuses, infoshops, [10][open endnotes in new window] community centers, parks, the sides of buildings, and living rooms). The circulation of street tapes was minimal, yet to stumble upon these works was often to become a part of a particular activist culture. As Michael Warner suggests about emerging publics:

“To address a public or to think of oneself as belonging to a public is to be a certain kind of person, is to inhabit a certain kind of social world, to have at one’s disposal certain media and genres, to be motivated by certain normative horizons, and to speak within certain language ideology” (Warner 2002: 10).

The cinematic language and the rights based visual discourse as well as the social world that these tapes uncover within the text do not reflect a discourse of promulgation—bringing outsiders into a movement. Rather, at this moment, the street tapes function as a kind of internal discourse.

Street tapes have a conflicting relation to mass culture, mostly constructed oppositionally to the mainstream but with participatory production practice that sought to bring people together. Early street tape culture was based on a hope for the potential of this kind of media to bring people together, to help speak across difference and potentially restore justice. Social movement media have been historically concerned with addressing ”ordinary” people, creating media that seeks to reveal and mobilize (Atton “Internet” 2004). Since social movements often have to tap into widely known cultural codes to address a larger culture, it is problematic that the most pronounced images emerging from the anti-globalization movement, those now part of the historical archive, reduce the massive coalition building of this era to a street brawl.

In the decade after Seattle, protest pornography is a growing form and culture among radical activists, facilitated by the easy exchange of images in an online media environment and aided by the growth and personalization of online communication in the form of social media as well as lightweight mobile recording equipment. In a way that Michael Warner suggests, publics are created through the circulation of discourse; publics enable

“reflexivity in the circulation of texts among strangers who become, by virtue of their reflexively circulating discourse, a social entity” (Warner 2002: 11-12).

Several blogs have emerged specifically to circulate images of violent political resistance. Online public spaces such as Riot Porn,[12] Peace Love Petrolbombs,[13] Bombs and Shields,[14] and Our War[15] have emerged as clearinghouses for the merging of radical politics and images of physical resistance in the streets.

The Riot Porn blog, in particular, is widely referenced as a public space for sharing and commenting on these images as a genre. This website embraces a broad definition of riot pornography that includes direct action but also includes other visual images of public rioting, such as riots that occur after sporting events. This blog includes links to additional information such as Google Riot Newswire, Yahoo Riot Audio and Video, and Riot Videos on YouTube.

It appears that the street tapes from the WTO protests were framed for, and circulated within, the community that produced them. However, these images also found an audience in activist communities online and some film festivals. For example, the Lost Film Festival, which has traveled the globe since 1999, is an interactive experience programming storytelling with short films. One of the video short genres is

“hot amateur protest footage from around the world appropriately called Riot Porn by the festival organizers.”[16]


The visual discourse of Kanye West’s video, “No Church in the Wild” indicates that protest images are a discourse of power, appropriated for use across media culture, using the form and content of alternative media as a visual template to covey anti-authoritarian political ideology or a kind of street authenticity. The discourse is referential, as the images in the video were recreated from some of the typical framing and content of protest street tapes. The framing of police, the hero shot of activists, and images of battle are hauntingly similar. The address of street tape may be narrow, speaking to those already in the know. However, the discourse it has set in motion, how it circulates and reproduces, is a powerful trope throughout public culture. In this way, the stakes of representation are considerable, the images’ social movements communicate reverberate profoundly in our cultural understanding of democratic practice and direct action.

The IMC’s involvement with a growing global justice movement created a unique opportunity to mobilize diverse activist groups and generate solidarity around critical media issues (Anon 2001). Street tapes, at their core, are a response to the politics of unfair representation of ideas, people, circumstances, and events in the mainstream media. The essential value of radical media lies in its ability to expose power, often at the cost of delivering hard news (Atton 2002a: 29). Because the violation of free speech and assembly rights in Seattle 1999 were unexpected in terms of the degree of physical force exerted by police, the event’s original focus on globalization — the reasons that brought protesters to the streets — waned in comparison.

While the Independent Media Center has organized counter-publics in unforeseen and potentially radical ways, street tapes could be self-published and broadcast to a global community. Because of the rapid pace of production — sometimes instantly — there is little time in the moment to consider the restorative potential of the images that are circulated. Many of the street videos streaming on the Indy Media website during the protest include representations of protest as recurring acts of police domination with little context. This is What Democracy Looks Like does provide some context, although unclear how that mitigates the use of protest porn strategies within the text.

The visual discourse of protest porn is not good or bad. But it has become a recognized visual style challenging for the goals of mass visibility and the process of social change. The images of protest pornography may aid understanding direct action as violent spectacle that comes with a tremendous threat to physical safety, while trading off articulating the process of globalization that brings people to the streets. The collision between visual discourse and social movements is most productively examined for how the images function in the process of social change and in whose interest. Visual disruption as polarization is one mode of street tape culture—with many other possibilities. It is the persuasive undercurrents in the visual discourse of protest pornography that could be interrogated by activist practitioners. We need to open a space for (re)imagining street tapes that speak to a larger culture in terms of representing and encouraging a participatory impulse, to explore options with framing as to avoid desensitization, and to consider multiple audience reactions while still bearing witness to the violation of rights and police brutality which citizens often experience by exercising the basic acts of democracy.

The street tapes that emerged post-Seattle from movements across the world, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street and in the aftermath of the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, this form of media has emerged as a formidable aspect of democratic culture globally, at the turn of the 21st century. In the last 15 years, the activist impulse has been similar in these street tape cultures in spite of strikingly different political, historical and technological circumstances. Fifteen years after the WTO protests in Seattle, activists with cell phones begin to prove how unimportant that mainstream news screen becomes as the traditional models of journalism begins to buckle under the weight of digital media innovation and online citizen journalism. In 1999, however, there was not any clear way around the mainstream news screen. Then activists were taking control in regards to media representation of the protests by creating their own rapid-pace media and documenting the world from their own perspective. Documenting the street life of protest was a tremendous act of resistance. Now it is time to assess the content of street tape culture, the patters of representation, and the conventions of media circulation to better understand the impact and effectiveness of these works contributing to furthering democratic life.

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