Dispatches from the American Left (part 3)

Part one

Part two

“They know what they’re doing is wrong. I waited tables for 15 years, I’ve waited on these people, they know, even the miners know it’s wrong.” This is Mariah Gunnoe, who’s accrued a reputation as one of the most intense and dedicated movement leaders in the contemporary battle against strip mining, speaking to an audience mostly made up of young, middle-class students and activists, myself among them. Once again, she spoke with the ecstatic fury of a preacher, her voice swollen to a dramatic peak, body leaning toward us, hands outstretched and grasping as if to physically tear out our reservations. “You are the future — you have to do this!” She was right. No ordinary response is adequate to her story. To that voice, wavering in unresolved struggle between wail and command. Her war, to protect her home and family against strip mining coal companies, is a necessary one. It was never a question of choice. How can it be otherwise for those who fight wars?


“So how did you get involved?” is a question I was asked more often than I would have liked. What was I doing there? What would I do when I left? The question I might have wanted to ask, “what is the nature of the environmental movement?” quickly fell apart when I recognized the obvious, that today it includes everyone, such that politicians, CEOs, environmentalists, political activists and agitators, seem forced to engage each other on the same physical and ideological terrain. Socialists can’t challenge capitalists apart from the debate over the development and use of ‘alternative’ energy sources, which like their fossil fuel counterparts are owned by the capitalists. Activist organizations that seek expand and establish themselves beyond single issues have to face the same set of compromises as any NGO. Shopping for environmentally conscious products intensifies capitalist domination of the planet and our lives — most of us don’t own the means of survival, much less production. The worst suffering in the world is not everyone’s fault, but we are dependent on many common ‘mediators,’ whether they be ecological or, as is the case now more than ever, economic. We’re all involved, but not all committed. I mean that in the most universal sense.


One of the camp’s visitors was a political science academic, coming off a study of corporate boardroom culture to do an ethnography of activists. “There are some similarities,” she told me. “The free rider problem, for one thing.” She explained to me that good corporate citizens can resolve almost all difficulties (not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction, obviously) by referring to the mathematically determined bottom line. If someone is suspected of free-riderism, any investigation will be supported by solid criteria even if the relationship in question was temporary. But because of their necessarily greater openness, in activist organizations free riders are harder to expose. I asked her what anyone could possibly get ‘for free’ out of, say, a volunteer camp like the one we were attending. “Well, the sense of camaraderie that a close social environment like this one can foster, maybe. That’s the problem, it’s less well-defined. These camps, for example, they’re difficult and time-consuming to manage, they depend on creating new activists. You’ll notice as the week draws to a close there’s more pressure to attend workshops, more discussion of future organization. More insistence that you explain yourself. People are watching each other more carefully.”


When I do media work, I periodically ask myself, “what am I doing in this situation to not be a tourist?” I’m rarely satisfied by my answer.

During morning circle one day, someone raised a complaint about the presence of cameras. There were two teams of documentary filmmakers shooting all week long, and their subjects were starting to have intimacy issues. “I don’t want this to become like Real World MJS,” someone said. “Having a camera present changes the dynamic of any situation. What happens when we’re trying to plan actions?” No one said anything about the two local newspaper reporters scribbling in their notebooks, but regardless of medium, all ‘media people’ were forced to wear handmade red MEDIA badges, to keep them apart and “protect the camp” (the sole exception being the sketch artist, whose Faces of Katrina project made him sort of a celebrity and who incidentally didn’t allow himself to be photographed). One of the photographers, a college student about the same age (and race) as most everyone there, gave an apology on the verge of tears, with a plea that “we’re just like you. We care about this issue, we consider ourselves part of this movement.” It seemed well-received, but nevertheless, for the rest of the week, every workshop began with the organizer asking “are y’all comfortable being filmed?”

Preview of Francisco DiSantis’ Appalachian voices project

There are of course excellent reasons for caution around ‘media people,’ even if they aren’t (and these weren’t) agents of some massive corporation. As media effects theorist and environmental activist Julia Corbett puts it, “the media role in social protest is primarily one of stability and conflict control.” Much has been made about the distorting effects of mass media attention (or lack thereof) on protests, the Miami debacle being only one prominent example. But the problem goes deeper than corporate funding. Journalistic ethics dictate that the observer not be a participant. Though this line is often blurred in individual cases, the distinction between observation and participation is not. And since there are no disinterested observers, it’s not hard to see why the distinction between media and activism tends to be maintained (culture jamming, propaganda, and off-the-grid ‘zines and blogs aside). No one likes a narc, and the history of social movements in the U.S. is full of them.

Near the end of the week, I talked to half of the film crew from Canada — they were just a couple with a camera, but older and with a distinctly professional demeanor. It turned out that he was indeed a veteran of political and social documentaries, and he entertained me for a while with stories about his work with various celebrity filmmakers. I asked him how he felt about being chastised by the group for being too invasive. He said of course he understood emotional uneasiness around cameras, but excessive paranoia about the motives of ‘media people’ among activists isn’t uncommon either. After having worked with resistance movements all over the Americas, getting involved with everyone from Argentinian factory workers to ghettoized blacks in Toronto, he eventually concluded that “Americans wear the specter of the law more heavily than anyone else.” As a friend of his put it, “in America, they put the cop in your head. It’s frightening to me as a Canadian, and I imagine it’s frightening for them, too.”

The last thing he told me about was a series of observations on activist group behavior passed on to him by Allan King. Apparently there is a rule about proper timing for filming activist groups (of any size or scale). Exactly halfway through the shooting process, they will question their relationship with the filmmakers, and by reflection, their own motives. The question “what are they here to film?” becomes “what are we doing here, really?” “What does authentic commitment entail?” is preceded by “how should it be presented to others?” The camp’s moment of self-questioning did indeed occur — precisely — at the halfway point. “I didn’t believe it either,” he went on. “But that’s how it happens. Every time.” At three quarters of the way through the shooting period, the pace and intensity of the group’s planning and organizing escalate. Anxiety mounts. Passions rise. “You’ll be shooting the whole time. The earlier footage might be nice, but it’ll be fluff. These last few days, this is when you’ll get the bulk of your material.”

I expressed skepticism that the 3/4 mark was a consequence of being filmed and not just collective awareness of the meeting period’s finite duration, but he seemed pretty convinced of the power of his camera. “Most of the people here get what we’re doing and why it’s necessary. It’s just, you know, when you’re in your 20s you think this little cabin in the woods is going to change the world. But when you’re past 30, and you’ve seen a little more the magnitude of what you’re going to have to deal with, you know that to accomplish anything that big you need a really long reach. And you can do it yourself with a little handicam, or you can work with people who have, you know, done this kind of thing before.”


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