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“Take the Red Pill of Media Justice”: Third World Majority and Media Justice Activism
From Ida B. Wells’s black radical journalism challenging U.S. “lynchocracy” in the turn of the century to the Black- and Chicano-led Civil Rights Movement’s constitutional challenges of segregationist radio and television broadcasting policies from the 1950s-1970s to the recent Media Justice Delegation at the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, the media justice movement has always understood that media access without institutional and discursive power is a losing battle in the long-term war for socioeconomic, environmental and racial justice. Unlike the bipartisan “media democratic reform” movement with its’ overwhelming focus on media policy reform (aimed at corporate-driven deregulation and consolidation), media justice activism has couched the fight for nation-based media democracy within a larger global-based struggle to build social movements capable of challenging the fundamental roots of media power—namely, how the media engage and create culture, representation, meaning, and structural, symbolic violence. According to the Third World Majority (TWM), media justice is “a movement in which community organizers are waking up to the media abuse that assaults our communities everyday”; a movement that “speaks to the need for the creation of just media structures that are liberated from corporate control and consolidation and are accountable to our communities” (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 3). It is no coincidence that TWM started in Oakland, CA not far from the Youth Media Council (now the Center for Media Justice).
In this brief dialogue piece, I conduct a textual analysis of TWM’s strategic communications training guides and communications capacity building curricula aimed at advancing social change in criminalized communities. Strategic communications (historically used by the private sector, by government, and by the political Right) has been reframed and utilized by media justice organizations to ensure a space in wider political debates for youth and communities of color, to restore fairness in media ownership and representation, to empower spokespeople from communities of color to counter wedge issues, and to reverse the prevailingly negative images of youth and people of color in mainstream media. Instead of focusing only on doing direct public relations (for example, press lists, skilled spokespeople, pitch-perfect analysis of communications outlets and their market penetration) TWM worked to underscore the importance of long-term capacity building to strengthen the power of grassroots immigrant-based, youth-focused, and anti-racist organizations and social movements.
In the TWM screenplay entitled, “Chapter 1: Take the Red Pill of Media Justice” readers meet Ayesha who, like the character Morpheus in the popular sci-fi film The Matrix, holds out a red pill in her palm encouraging the audience (like Neo) to swallow it in order to “know the truth”. Ayesha faces the audience, dwarfed by the Godzilla-like, TV-bellied monster representing media monopoly and consolidation and states: “We here are like Neo, taking that pill of Media Justice. There is lots of ways to find your way to the movement. It can start like this by a couple of folks sitting down and talking about what's wrong with the media. And going deeper than what’s on the surface. Do you think that the media all of a sudden became racist, sexist, and homophobic overnight? Concentrated media is part of the larger systems of oppression that are attacking our communities” (4). After demonstrating the various forms that media production and media justice organizing can take, Ayesha declares: “When I talk about media justice, I don’t want to talk about another thing I am against; I want to talk about something I am for!” Ayesha launches into an explanation of how the right to communicate is a fundamental human right that is basically “F****D” when the “media is owned by and representative of the interests of people in power”. She ends by invoking Malcolm X and declares that she is going to “take back” her “right to communicate by any means necessary” (4).
Ayesha’s segment is immediately followed by “Chapter 2: Bust a Frame,” a training segment which instructs youth about media monitoring, messaging, and framing. Connor, a homeless trans youth of color, leads this training and declares: “life in the margins is bigger than the stereotype and defies the soundbyte” (15). Not knowing where to start on his/their journey to “bust a frame” and create a counter-narrative or oppositional political framework, Connor decides to “frame the framer” and “flip the script” on mainstream reporting of gender queer and trans communities of color.
Xochi, the renegade graffiti artist who does not abide by corporate appropriation of public space (“I have always done graffiti. Just because corporations have the money to express themselves doesn’t mean I have to pay…to play in my city”) (26), completes the media justice-training trilogy in “Eyes on the Prize” by discussing the nuts and bolts of digital media pre-production and production. For Xochi and the rest of the TWM, “creation is liberation” especially when the ultimate goal is to activate and mobilize girls and trans youth of color most impacted by multiple, intersecting forms of mass-mediated violence (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 6).
TWM’s popular educational training manuals and curricula stress both the product and process of engaging in media justice activism. As co-founder Thenmozhi Soundarajan explained, “there’s value to movement both in terms of the process and product” (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015). Demonstrating the link between community-driven production and process is Desis Rising Up and Moving or DRUM’s digital story entitled “Drumbeat”. Actively resisting the “Sally Struthers missionary filter” (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 10) in which working-class South Asian (“Desis”), Muslim, and Arab girls and young women of color are solely represented as willing victims of their own “backward” communities and not of U.S.-driven hetero-patriarchal, imperialist state violence, DRUM’s Youth Power narrators perform spoken word and tell stories of community-driven resistance replete with action shots of protests and banner drops against racial profiling, hetero-sexism, and U.S. foreign policy. This film is “team building focused” and is “about going into…a shared place of a kind of imagining and visioning” (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015) in order to unite generations and various racialized immigrant and refugee communities experiencing heightened surveillance, criminalization, and deportation. The film effectively undermines discourses championing state-sanctioned liberal politics of recognition as the only feasible and pragmatic form of resistance offered to those victimized by hetero-patriarchal, white supremacist, and neo-imperialist state violence. It resists the “language fatigue” so common among those media makers and community organizers working with communities already at the point of crisis who target their messages overwhelmingly to liberal and progressive policy makers, government officials, academics, philanthropists, and other opinion-makers. As the writers of TWM’s “Tell It Like It Is” media training manual elaborate:
Sometimes, as organizers we get language fatigue. We get used to creating anitiseptic narratives about our crises in our communities for the people in power: government officials, funders, opinion and decision makers. This language deadens our original memories of these experiences, which is ironic because they are what moved us to action in the first place. (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 8)TWM and DRUM—from the pedagogy of digital media training manuals to production tutorials—privilege a decolonial politics of self-determination and self-recognition rather than uphold a politics of recognition that is palatable to the “whitestream” or mainstream media and liberal consuming public. As Indigenous activist-scholar Glen Coulthard argues, “the empowerment that is derived from [a] critically self-affirmative and self-transformative process of desubjectification must be cautiously directed away from the assimilative lure of the statist politics of recognition, and instead be fashioned toward our own on-the-ground practices of freedom” (Coulthard 2007, 456; emphasis in original).
In 2008, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence organized SisterFire, a national women of color multimedia arts tour that traveled across the country for approximately six months. TWM co-partnered with SisterFire’s national organizing committee to publish a media training and support manual geared to those local organizations which demonstrated a commitment to “host an event with a larger circle of your community members about the ways we survive the violence in our community with sadness, hope, joy, and renewal in true revolutionary divaship” (SisterFire’s Media Documentation Packet, 2011, 2). The SisterFire INCITE training manual states how the collective aimed to build a new Indigenous and race-radical trans and feminist anti-violence movement that did not rely on—that was directed away from—the carceral or settler state to challenge intimate, interpersonal, and sexual violence:
Violence against women affects us all, with the SisterFire tour, women of color are stepping up and speaking about their survival in the face of this violence and naming the cost to our society we all face when the State is unchecked as the larger perpetrator of violence in our community. (11)By utilizing digital media production, TWM and SisterFire participants not only worked to raise the visibility and profile of grassroots organizations that held a trenchant analysis of systemic violence against girls, trans youth, and women of color, they theorized the kind of incommensurable politics that are needed to build both a new and sustainable media justice movement and feminist and trans of color anti-violence movement that does not rely on the carceral or settler state.
In order to ensure that TWM’s “own on-the-ground practices of freedom” would continue to shape and drive their curriculum and pedagogical processes, media-makers and community organizers underscored the importance of being mindful of the tools of media technology that were chosen to produce and disseminate their work. As the writers of TWM’s SisterFire media training manual elaborate:
As organizers working for global social justice, we must be mindful of the tools of technology that we use to disseminate the success of the work we do. We must strive to not perpetuate and replicate the legacies that film, video and photography have established against communities of color within the United States, youth, peoples of the “Third World,” women and LGBT communities (e.g. surveillance, imperial anthropology, misrepresentation, etc.). At Third World Majority, we believe in creating media structures of self-determination where we control and dictate how we represent ourselves and tell our stories whether it is in the mainstream media, a local community radio station, or in our own Sisterfire produced media pieces. In sharing your experiences during Sisterfire, it is important to respect the self-determination of all the people and voices that become part of your own media campaign and documentary pieces. (SisterFire’s Media Documentation Packet, 2011, 3)And as Thenmozhi Soundarajan shared in an interview Carrie Rentschler and I conducted in February 2015:
You know, I think that one thing that is really important is – people don’t ask themselves a lot - enough about - when they’re working in a digital environment, is: where does my tool come from? What is the political economy of my tool, and how do I relate to that as an artist interested in self-determination and justice? A camera is not just a camera, a computer is not just a computer - it is a set of highly precise technological components that are put together in an ecosystem of injustice and environmental degradation. And to understand that from the hardware up, we’re looking at the legacies of ongoing colonialism really, I think, shifts the process and the urgency of how we use these tools, that are kind of bloody by those relationships, for our own self-determination. Like, in order to make that loss of life count, we really have to make what we say matter, you know. And I think that we assume that everything is of ease and disregard the violence around that. So I think that, one of the things that I really appreciated about the thinking work behind our curriculum and our pedagogical process, was to bring that forward into our training. So our teaching story, “Who We Be”, would be the opening lecture to start putting into the context of how do we understand what our role of story is, and going back from the history of the camera and colonialism, … (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015)
TWM, from the “choice of weapon” to the pedagogy of digital media training manuals, was mobilizing against the multiple ways that racialized and gendered Others are made vulnerable to premature death by carceral state violence and white settler colonialism. Ultimately, the media justice movement co-created by the TWM continues to challenge media necropower and the racialized gendered violence that it mobilizes and sustains by privileging a decolonial politics of self-determination and self-recognition.