copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

Activist street tapes and protest pornography: participatory media culture in the age of digital reproduction

by Angela J. Aguayo

"Democracy's dire, in-the-trenches presentation is a pepper spray to your cynicism."
San Francisco Examiner about This is What Democracy Looks Like (2000)

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.[1][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:

“I am not struggling! I am peaceful!”

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.[2] 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.[3] Building community and democratizing access to production resources was the primary goal of early street tape culture:

“[G]uerrilla television was configured not as a weapon, but as a cultural tool bringing people together” (Boyle 1997: 30).

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

“fueled by adolescent rebellion and utopian dreams, video promised an alternative to the slickly civilized, commercially corrupt, and aesthetically bankrupt world of [broadcast] television” (Boyle 1997: 4).

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:

“The low quality, grainy, and shaky footage was usually black and white and unedited, which offered a new type of straight-from-the-scene authenticity that challenged the presumed objectivity of broadcast television” (Horsfield and Hilderbrand 2006: 8).

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,

“Media activists saw handheld video equipment as a tool to document a new type of direct-from-the-scene reportage that was not manipulated, biased, or reshaped in any way to distort reality” (Horsfield and Hilderbrand 2006: 8).

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.[4] 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

“their attempts to free themselves from the power of government, the state and other dominant institutions and practices” (Atton 2004: 495).

 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,

“It was about sharing with the world an alternative version of what commercial media would not show.”

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.

Protest pornography

This is What Democracy Looks Like is a report film that primarily serves to inform people interested in the Seattle WTO protests and the events that occurred over five days. What is noticeably absent from this film is the usual collection of documentary authorities: politicians, professors, and media professionals. The various speakers interviewed in the film speak from a position of ordinary rank and file union people or respectable looking professionals, or regular folks who were eyewitnesses as well as participant-activists. The film represents activism as collaborative and diverse, bringing together different groups, strategies, and tactics including organized labor, environmentalists, students, workers, community activists, immigrants, representatives of the global South, and anti-imperialism activists. The most memorable, shocking and traumatic images of the documentary do not involve coalition building.

Some of the most affecting images in This is What Democracy Looks Like are shot in the midst of tear gas, placing the audience in harm’s way, as the camera records the violence at eye level. Protest porn is about how we order, use, reframe, deliver and curate those violent images from the margins. Whether these images of protest included historical context or explanations is significant because, if mobilization is a concern, the framing of activist practices matter. It is important to investigate how street tape images function to encourage us to engage in collective identification to better understand the restorative justice potential of the genre.

The framing of This What Democracy Looks Like that is central to this analysis depicts a citizenry at war with aggressive state oppression and violence, marking a stark departure from previous incarnations of street tape culture in which citizens “gave their raps on tape” with protest activities in the background. Seattle marked a distinct shift from largely nonviolent interactions with police shown in earlier moments in street tape culture.[5] The street tape culture depicted in This is What Democracy Looks Like (re)introduced a representation of combat between police and protesters not seen since the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. The difference, however, was that the earlier protesters were passive, using traditional civil disobedience and avoiding combat. The video sequences of confrontation where police are dominating protesters in This is What Democracy Looks Like are frequent, compulsive, and potentially shocking to mass U.S. public culture. In these videos, civic participation in the form of direct action is depicted as noisy, brutal, and aggressive. For audiences not familiar with the role of policing in social movements (Della Porta and Tarrow 2005; Tilly 2004), these images may reinforce the idea that protest is violent and irrational. The images of violent political struggle captured in IMC street tape culture are not isolated; rather, they are similar to other street tapes emerging from protests against globalization circulating at the turn of this century.[6] The timing and release of these street tape images served to inform and recruit people to new anti-globalization, anti-neoliberalism, and anti-imperialism projects. That is, the target audience was intentionally wide but in practice, largely addressing people already sympathetic and in opposition to globalization.

In his book Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, Kevin DeLuca (1999) explores how new social movements use media in a world enveloped in image combat. He argues that image events are rhetorical tactics utilized by activists. They are recorded political actions that bring the combat of mediated agitation directed at a wider mass culture. The premise is that, through image events, political action goes through the camera and launches a “mind bomb” that explodes in the public’s consciousness, transforming the way people view their world. Image events are not a new phenomenon. For example, various groups have marched on Washington for decades, going all the way back to the WW1 Veterans Bonus March in the 1930s, the 1964 Civil Rights march, and the dozens of million people marches of today. All of the events were designed to present strong images through the media, showing strong popular sentiment in favor of some new course of action.

Using the discourse of environmental activists, DeLuca draws from Greenpeace’s early whaling campaigns and Earth First!’s tree sitting events as examples of image events that didn’t necessarily change legislation, politics, or the need for resources, but effectively contested social norms and transformed key discourses (59). He argues a different terrain for social change is being negotiated—with new conditions—in an omnipresent environment of onscreen image combat on television, cinema, and online. The more dramatic and controversial the image event, the more likely it may disrupt mass consciousness. DeLuca proposes that the success of an image event is not measured by whether it changes the world. Instead, image events are politically effective in attempting to reconstitute the identity of the collective culture by creating discomfort in the minds of the audience, causing a shift in mass consciousness. In our current world, this is accomplished through images that disrupt and shock. DeLuca’s theorizing is compelling in its effort to understand the terrain of image politics, social movements, and information/image circulation, especially at this particular historical moment in which self-documentation, including street tapes, has become a more central element of our culture.

Image events as theorized may identify a tactic. However, the concept is narrow and problematic, primarily understanding images as polarizing, ignoring the potential for images to function in a variety of rhetorical capacities, produce solidarity, increase membership, or inspire new ways of thinking. Image events as theorized by DeLuca are at once limited in their function to create a challenge to structural or institutional injustice but fantastical in their ability to penetrate mass consciousness. Deluca easily concedes the idea that images can not function as more than disruption in this televisual context yet insists this disruption can alter mass consciousness. In the case of the WTO protests in Seattle, for example, the many image events reduce a complex set of issues around globalization to a rights-based visual discourse that functions to polarize viewer comfort and equilibrium—creating tension between images on the screen and belief in the government as a safe institution. But do these images enable political action or do they reinforce stereotypes of protesters as irrational agitators?

A conceptualization of image events may celebrate the image as disruption, but it should be open enough to explain a whole range of outcomes and possibilities. Without such rhetorical distinctions, image events may function as disruptive, but in whose interest? Deluca is analyzing the culture of images and the power of self-documenting political resistance but primarily in relation to mainstream culture. Street tape culture offers a unique set of circumstances and possibilities for mobilization that extend beyond the televisual screen. My concern is that understanding images and social movements as the celebration of disruption encourages a media culture untethered from meaningful social change.

“Protest pornography” marks a particular representation and reading formation for street tapes that encourages a distinct cinematic gaze. Sexual pornography and street tapes share certain cultural characteristics; they belong in the margins as a lowbrow genre that pushes the bounds of social acceptability. The term protest pornography refers to media that encourages meditation on the emotional arousal provoked by violent and spectacular images of political resistance. Such images are epitomized by metaphorical shots of citizens in violent struggle with an uncontrollable government apparatus as the climax of the narrative arc, a point for repetition and/or montage.The framing of protest pornography is seductive; the presentation of non-sexual violence in such up close detail the aesthetic resembles pornography. The representations of violence exceed what is necessary to convey meaning and creates a forced choice between identification with an out of control government apparatus or the principled but physically abused citizen.

When the term porn is used to describe the gaze on other objects such as food, representation of poverty, or the images of battle, it is less about the apparent content and more about the nature of representation itself (Jones 2013: 4). Those who use the word “protest porn” want to make a different kind of media. The hope is for images that penetrate the veil of consumer capitalist culture to insert a kind of urgency for the audience to invest in grassroots democratic practice in opposition to systematic injustice. They are often a reflection on the most intense political struggles of our time and that I will address these issues more in the rest of the essay. I will analyze This is what Democracy Looks Like as a key work from the recent past that sets up these issues and ways of thinking about street tape culture.

During the 1960s, the nightly news mostly reported images of nonviolent protests with occasional police violence. Therefore, it is especially dramatic when police violence does happen on the televisual screen, when we see citizens being attacked by police with fire hoses or dogs. At the time, these civil rights images were often taken from a safe distance, giving the audience an up-close but outside look at the brutality. In more recent times, during the WTO protest, activists recorded violent acts of physical oppression but from inside the protest and from the perspective of those being attacked. Recording equipment is now mobile and compact. In these tapes we also see protesters fighting back and the beginnings of a highly militarized police force culture. Based on such images, This is What Democracy Looks Like encourages understanding the Seattle protests as a David and Goliath street fight.

In her article “Pornographies of Violence? Internet Spectatorship on Body Horror,” Sue Tait suggests that watching suffering without mobilizing sentiment to eradicate such suffering trains us to imagine ourselves as victims of violence as opposed to actors with agency to resist such oppression (Tait 2008: 105). Tait is looking at the participatory cultures surrounding graphic, self-documented images during the Iraq war, specifically online forums that exchange this media. As soldiers have entered battle with mobile recording equipment and easy access to uploading media online, an underground tape culture has emerged. Tait argues that watching non-fictional body horror on the screen, people in pain, transforms the suffering subject in trauma into imagery that stimulates, fascinates and repulses the viewer. There is a point at which watching suffering produces immobilization as we become desensitized to the images.

Unveiling the contradictions of neoliberal democracy

For decades social movements have used some form of radical news reporting as a strategy of promulgation—communication designed to bring citizens to a movement (Bowers et al 1993). The street tapes produced by the IMC include stirring images of troubling political struggle; absent is dialogue across difference that is the iconic marker of democratic practice in the streets of an advanced industrial nation. This is What Democracy Looks Like supplements street tape footage with interviews that reflect on the protest events. For example, an interview with Yalonda Sinde, an activist with the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, is edited together with segments from the mainstream news media reporting on the WTO protesters, but in contrast to the news, she frames the police as violent and hostile. Sinde’s interview is also juxtaposed against footage recorded by activists, providing evidence that the violence and hostility was actually perpetuated by the police. Characterizing the mainstream news frames as problematic, Sinde remarks:

“Here is a perfect example as to why we need to fight. Because this city got up in arms about them breaking Starbucks windows, you know what I mean? They [protesters] didn’t go out and hurt somebody. Everyone, because the property, downtown Christmas shopping, was up in arms. To me that exemplifies we are fighting against Capitalism. And they [police] will go to any length to protect Capitalism.”

This segment poses a question about protest and violence to the audience, contributing to the rights-based visual discourse of the documentary. Armed with video cameras, many protesters congregated in the streets of Seattle, capturing images of peaceful protests, police brutality, reactions from bystanders in the streets, peaceful acts of civil disobedience, activist voices, and the evolution of events that resulted in repeated violent clashes between protesters and police. These scenes are powerfully edited together with street interviews.

The documentary primarily focuses on alarming images of what seems like a military operation in the streets of Seattle; protesters in the streets clashing with faceless police in full riot gear, who spray pepper spray, wield batons, and arrive on the scene in military tanks. Protesters in the streets range from kindergarten teachers to steel workers. As the four days pass in the documentary, the portrait of the average citizen in the streets becomes increasingly radicalized, having experienced solidarity with other protesters and violence by the police in the streets of Seattle.          

The images used in This is What Democracy Looks Like function as counter-arguments to the prevailing mainstream media stories, using sensational images of state-sanctioned violence to depict an out-of-control police force acting aggressively on peaceful protesters. Most of the visual images of protesters depict activists’ nonviolent, rational and cooperative actions. The street interviews reflect thoughtful citizens, earnest about fighting for a better future. In contrast, the police forces are dressed in full riot gear, the camera often panned upward so that the lunging line of faceless police are perched, ready for battle against unarmed citizens. This is experienced from the point of view of an activist on the ground, waiting for a physical altercation. Other images of violence perpetrated by police include attacking sitting protesters with nightsticks at the same time that tanks roll into the streets with police positioned on top, randomly shooting rubber bullets into the crowd.

The camera framing virtually places the audience in harm’s way, struggling to see through the tear gas. The chaos of billowing smoke fills the camera frame. The silhouette bodies emerging from the smoke step into frame, ominous music, disharmonious cords capture the space of the streets in Seattle as an unfamiliar place, another world away. 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.

The street tape footage in This is What Democracy Looks Like produces a distinct vernacular visual discourse. It is unlike other moments in earlier street tape culture that foregrounded activist voices against the backdrop of protest such as Skip Bloomberg’s Nuclear Disarmament: A Video Survey (1982) or Judy Hoffman’s What’s Happening at Local 70 (1975). These moments exist in This is What Democracy Looks Like coupled with images that place the viewer in the street, dodging rubber bullets, adjusting to the surrounding chaos, and visually bound by the police-enforced barricades. This particular packaging of activist video frames radical ideas within the confines a rights-based visual discourse. The images may distill and transform the radical systematic critique of globalization into a visual discourse about the protest; and the recorded media becomes evidence of the state violating the free speech and assembly rights of its citizens. Although the meaning of this framing might speak to a broader political body, the violent visual images collide with normative ideological beliefs about sacred U.S. institutions such as the government, democracy, free speech, the civic function of the press, and the free market.

Without a thorough understanding of these institutions as troubled, bankrupt, and potentially harmful to citizens at a structural level, the images may make it difficult for viewers to assimilate that disruption. Visual communication scholar Cara Finnegan argues that images function as enthymemes. That is, core persuasive elements of an image are found in the missing premise the audience fills in, often requiring reasoning in favor of the proposition offered by the image. In this case, the information necessary for the violent protest sequences to function as fuel for engagement is unclear. Efforts are made in the documentary to explain the negative impact of globalization, but little contextual history of the negotiation of free speech and assembly—that produced such visually arresting recordings of political resistance—is provided. The images assume the audience is well grounded in the legal and historical context of public protest and the struggle for public space. In fact, the most striking images of the documentary rely on that premise. This kind of cinematic construction of the protest documentary again reminds us that the targeted audience of address for these street tapes consists of those already sympathetic to the cause or networked within the activist communities circulating this discourse. The choice of focusing on violence as the climax and narrative arc of This is What Democracy Looks Like has consequence. The complexities of globalization and the global justice movement are distilled into polarizing images of a spectacular street brawl, an image event

Celebration of image as disruption

Deluca proposes that we live in new world in which images are the weapons of political struggle and the media are the space where power is negotiated. This contemporary media environment is characterized by

“1) private ownership/monopoly of the public screen, 2) infotainment conventions that filter what counts as news, and 3) the need to communicate in the discourse of images” (DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 136).

His version of the televisual public sphere attempts to rehabilitate much of the rich and turbulent sense-making process ignored by the normative ideal of procedural rationality central to the Habermasian concept of the public sphere. He finds value in celebrating the moment of image combat and disruption as an accomplishment. In this vein, DeLuca and Peeples consider the images deployed in mainstream media about the events around the Seattle WTO protests successful. They write,

“the symbolic violence and the uncivil disobedience fulfilled the function of gaining the attention of the distracted [mainstream] media” (DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 144).

There is a kind of parallel logic between the concepts of image events and protest porn.

Protest porn happens when street fighting becomes the dominant premise. It sets up a reading pattern of moving images from protests, with focus on the violent bits, the money shots, and other forms of aggressive visual stimulus. Pepper spray in the face, rubber bullets at close range, protesters tightly bound and dragged off to arrest, baton wielding police are the kinds of images that function as the climax of battle. The pornographic framing emerges in the intense close-up images of battle, represented in repetition or edited together in montage with dramatic music where the violence becomes the tension and climax of the narrative arc. Protest porn is about how we order, use, reframe, deliver, and curate the violent images from the margins. In radical media, the framing of protest pornography is a matter of degree. The context provided for these images has bearing on how we understand them, but it still remains unclear if the polarizing effects of protest porn are productive. The complexities and ambiguities of larger political struggles at hand—globalization, racism, and capitalism—are backgrounded in film as a consequence of protest porn. The dull days of organizing in between direct actions that often includes many more hours of labor, deliberation and calm presence are also ignored.

Social movement images—circulated in service of social change—should not be celebrated for their ability to simply polarize as hailed by Delcua and Peeples. Careful consideration should be taken so as to account for images, their intended audience and the real function of their circulation, even if they are intended to disrupt the social order. Image events are dense surfaces meant to provoke but the filmmaker must judge whether or not the provocation inherent to the image might contribute to social change.

Protest porn is a tendency in street tape culture, not the rule. Filmmakers use these strategies in varying degrees, intentionally or by impulse. The question is less about whether something is or is not protest porn. Rather, we must ask, what does framing of violent protest do in the context in which it exists? Additionally, how does framing of protest porn function to serve the larger interests of the struggle at hand?

To take a recent example, perhaps the street tapes of clashes between police and the citizens of Ferguson, MO, after the shooting of an unarmed teenager Michael Brown helped spark a national dialogue about the militarization of the police. The street tape culture emerging out of Ferguson is incredibly complex, including the work of hacktivist group Anonymous, who threatened action against Ferguson police if protesters experienced violence. The image of Ferguson protesters clashing with police, captured on cell phones and circulated immediately through social media was accompanied by a real threat by this hacktivist group; to release police records and personal information and embarrass authorities. Protestors are speaking to each other across global context in the matter of seconds through social networks already in place.

In contrast, This is What Democracy Looks Like did not exist in a world where street tapes were networked in a complex system picked up by major news networks and easily archived and circulated to global activists, where images of protest function to broadly disseminate information as events unfold. While the images of protest in This is What Democracy Looks Like deal in diversity by representing people from all walks of life, the street tape culture at the time was rather insular. Historically, the WTO images of protest in This is What Democracy Looks Like significantly influenced a generation of self-documented protest images, setting a kind of iconic tone for what will soon become two decades of increasingly militarized police force and the corresponding clashes with citizens in the streets.

It is important to note that creative control over these representations of protest happen on two levels; the initial recording of the event and the editing of such material. In our digital world these two creative tasks of interpretation and representation are not necessarily performed by the same person or created with the same intention. In TWDLL, the representations of protest are carried out collectively, as the documentary content was comprised of video recorded by over 100 activist and assembled by two directors putting images into context with extensive community feedback during the completion of the film.

Fetishizing state violence

Documentary texts in particular have been characterized in the media by activists and bloggers as sometimes encouraging a troubling visual meditation. Wildlife porn,[7] nuclear-test porn,[8] and war porn[9] are examples of the kinds of documentary framing that facilitate the arousal of the moving image. Tait argues that genres of pornographic framing and fetishizing violence share a commonality in acting upon the viewer’s body:

“As distinct from the pleasure of pornographic spectatorship, the horror viewers’ pleasure is of a different order to sexual arousal. Arousal derives from fear, terror, shock, and repulsion; it is experienced as both pleasure and displeasure” (Tait, 2008: 102).

It is not uncommon for the metaphor of pornography to be associated with media texts that encourage the audience to have an erotic relationship with the image.

In her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Linda Williams, 1999), Williams argues that pornographic images of sex rhetorically function in a particular manner, producing technological and social ways of seeing. These technological ways of seeing are similar to the practices of looking encouraged by protest porn. The co-director of This is What Democracy Looks Like, Jill Friedberg explains,

“I definitely think protest porn is a real phenomenon…what turns porn into erotica or storytelling is context. Protest footage with no context, that is smack down for the sake of smack down, is potentially detrimental because it lacks context and easily miss interpreted and the potential to desensitize which is what I think has happened anyway…One of the experiences we were all having in 1999 is we, the people, were really shocked to see Robo cops, to see storm troopers in the streets. These big friggen guns for launching tear gas canisters and concussions grenades. And now, people expect to see that at a little protest.”

Some of these highly militarized images were coupled with riot gear clad police on horseback, looming over the crowd. The collective imaginary provided by the images in This is What Democracy Looks Like is framed from the street activist perspective, looking up to the world in hope, only to be met with a smack down. After all, moving image pornography is grounded in the quest for uncovering unseeable truths of bodily motion. As Laura Mulvey pointed out, there are circumstances where looking itself is a source of pleasure. It is the pleasure of the look that gets transferred to other things by analogy, especially with the media screen (1975: 835). This practice of looking facilitated by protest porn is a meditation on the arousal, focused on the stimulating moments of resistance and, of course, iconic images of violent bodily struggle with an uncontrollable government apparatus.

In his work on horror porn, Steve Jones addresses the somewhat problematic but pervasive use of porn as a metaphor for understanding visual representations outside the sexual context. He argues that the use of porn as a metaphor is shorthand for offensive and distasteful, dismissing the value of what porn illuminates in this metaphorical connection. I would argue instead that pornography as a reading formation opens up a framework for understanding the arousal of the image. The images on the on the screen, the

“body-horror taps into the worst of our cultural fears” (189).

In the case of protest pornography, the illusions of bodily security and the dire threat to democratic process are exposed. It may be that protest porn is a way of working through the trauma of bodily violence in the streets through surviving the horror of battle.

Sadomasochistic (BDSM) pornography in particular uses narratives of power and arousal; an existing cultural framing that portrays domination and submission. These narrative tropes include prolonged scenes of bondage and discipline, dramatized suffering, a focus on binding and torture, the introduction of weapons, and ritualized forms of violence and domination. The properties of representing power in BDSM pornography parallel the iconic images of street tapes emerging in Seattle, producing a similar cinematic language domination and submission. What is essential here is this a similar desire to inflict and receive domination but unlike in sadomasochistic pornography, in conflict zones there is little value in consent.

The form of oppression crafted in the street tapes follows a basic dominant vs. submissive framework; that framework presumably helps distill a sense of a complicated and complex political struggle about globalization. The predominant framing projects citizens as victims being dominated by the state. These moments are punctuated with non-diegetic sound editing that employs stirring music to signal an important narrative arc in the story. The audience is encouraged to experience this characterization, invited to take the subject position of being physically dominated while having speech and assembly rights violated. The protesters have a kind of limited agency in this framework, principled but beaten.

Documentary texts that encourage a pornographic metaphorical reading pattern are nevertheless editing the sensory material into a film in different ways. This pattern may emerge differently depending on the topic and context. For example, many critics call documentary works that focus on the daily life patterns of animals at the cost of ignoring the human impact on the environment, a form of wildlife porn. In this context, the good bits could be the routine battle scenes between animals or feeding patterns, represented in successive repetition or edited together in montage with dramatic music. With protest pornography, the complexities and ambiguities of life, the dull stuff in between the protest action; organizing, planning, and waiting are ignored and backgrounded. The metaphorical reading pattern of pornography deals in an illusion; it offers escape from the totality of reality by substituting the pleasure of repetitive consumption of stimulating visual elements as stand-ins for a complex world. The repetitive consumption exceeds what is necessary to convey meaning. As a consequence, this framing supplants the issues that are of most concern to those engaging in the streets.

In activist street tape culture, and protest pornography specifically, video cameras are used as instruments of political struggle to reconfigure relations between the state and its citizens. The participatory media culture surrounding contemporary street tapes serves an important protective function for activists who experience violent police action for exercising their democratic rights in mass demonstrations.[10] In fact, the presence of cameras in these instances may serve an important security function for unarmed activists in the streets. From Rodney King to the present, allegations of police brutality have circulated with much more rhetorical force with the help of video evidence. The use of cameras as instruments of political struggle partly means allowing activists and the public to monitor abuses by police and other regulatory forces.

However, the security function of activist video recordings are tenuous. Cases like the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island who was chocked to death by police on tape, challenge street tape evidence, especially when a grand jury later decides not to indict the offending officer. Despite the lack of any legal justice prompted by the recording of Mr. Garner’s death, there is an undeniable impact to this documentation in public culture. The video provides the evidence for a counter-narrative to challenge police authority and gain presumption. Capturing the last moments of his life at the hands of police, the video records the faint pleas of Mr. Garner’s final sentence; I can’t breath, repeated 11 times. In the days that followed, protesters around the world marched in the streets carrying signs, wearing shirts, and projecting chats that immortalized Mr. Garner’s last words.  

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] 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 tapes 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.


Acknowledgment: I wish to thank the editors of Jump Cut and anonymous reviewers for their guidance. In addition I would like to thank Dana L. Cloud, Sarah Projansky and Jyotsna Kupur for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

1. WTO: Showdown in Seattle was the first documentary released by the IMC. It carefully chronicles the protest in Seattle, paying close attention to contextualizing events within historical and legal frameworks.

This is What Democracy Looks Like (This is What Democracy Looks Like) is a more slickly packaged and widely circulated documentary that chronicles the protest in Seattle with little historical, legal, or social context. [return to text]

2. I was first introduced to the term “protest porn” at a public meeting during the 2004 Independent Media Conference in Austin, TX. The discussion focused on the types of images produced through the IMC and their potential implications for democracy.

3. Although there were previous historical moments when activism was linked with documentary film, the contemporary activist video movement began in the early 1970s. For example, documentary film as a derivative of news reporting began with the development of the periodic newsreel in 1910. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Dziga Vertov headed the development of “Film Weekly” in Russia. This was a series of newsreels that captured a world at war (Barnouw 52). During the depression in the United States, the Workers Film and Photo League documented events such as strikes, elections, and foreclosures. Their newsreels were edited into small segments organized by events and news developments that functioned to capture the changes of a chaotic political world (111-112).

4. During this time, ACT UP, a prominent gay activist group, created a video collective called DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television). Gregg Bordowitz, a DIVA TV member, produced some of the most influential work in AIDS activist video, including Voices from the Front (Elgear, Hutt and Meieran, 1992) and Fast Trip, Long Drop (Bordowitz, 1995). The videos present stirring portraits of the political struggle over the AIDS crisis in both the public sphere and intimate close-up as Bordowitz struggles with the effects of the disease on his body. As reported in the New York Times ten years later, much of the work produced by the movement is “emotionally searing, since so many of the demonstrators and the creators of these videos were fighting for their lives in a race against time” (Holden). Like much of the video activist work that preceded the AIDS documentary movement, “The videomakers clearly positioned themselves in opposition to an unresponsive and often antagonistic government and mainstream media” (Hubbard).

5. Although, recent representations of activism that involve clashes between police and protesters begin to percolate and show up in the AIDS activist video movement. 

6. These works include We Interrupt This Empire, a collaborative work by many of the Bay Area's independent video activists that documents the direct actions that shut down the financial district of San Francisco in the weeks following the United States invasion of Iraq.

7. BBC Radio 4 ‘Today programme,’ 4 March 2006, Dr. Paul Toyne argues that wildlife porn is the gaze upon the planet’s most amazing wildlife without mention of the human-caused environmental threats that concern the planet. Therefore, wildlife porn is the framing of nature documentary that encourages the audience to feel good gazing upon the environment without triggering their consciousness in relation to their everyday actions and responsibilities towards the environment.

8. For a reading on how the U.S. government’s nuclear test films celebrate the recording of explosions as a grand scientific endeavor rather than political posturing, see Mielke (2005).

9. For discussions on the use of pornography to describe images that trivialize and distract from the key issues of war in exchange for an erotic gaze on violence, see Baudrillard (2005), Brockes (2003), and Chuckman (2005).

10. Activist groups like i witness in New York organize around using video to protect the civil liberties of citizens engaging in direct action. The collective monitors police conduct at First Amendment events with video cameras and has been successful at uncovering perjury abuse by police officers, revealed illegal surveillance and exposed lies in official police statements.

11. Infoshops are storefronts to distribute political, arts and sub-culture information. These spaces also serve as a hub and meeting space for activist groups.

12. http://riotporn.blogspot.com/

13. http://molotovlove.blogspot.com/

14. http://bombsandshields.blogspot.com/

15. http://www.ourwar.org



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