William Brandon Jourdan is an independent filmmaker, journalist and writer. He is currently based in the Netherlands, where is working on a film about reactions to the financial crisis. One of his latest projects is the website Global Uprisings. In this interview, he discusses his video documentation of the last decade’s surges in popular unrest worldwide.
Many people may be aware of your appearance on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. You’ve been subjected to lengthy searches by ICE officials and have been told you are on a “list,” and this intrusive behavior by the authorities is now routine for you. Has this past year fared any better for you going back and forth between assignments in other countries? Have you and other journalists linked up to fight these developments under the supposedly progressive Obama administration?
My experiences at the US border have been less than pleasant and certainly haven’t gotten any easier.
In the Netherlands, where I live, I am usually “interviewed” at the gate by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement before I even get on the plane (on US bound flights). Upon arrival in the United States, my name is announced on the intercom and I’m taken to a homeland security office, where I’m held for several hours. I usually call a lawyer right away and record my experiences on paper right after arriving.
Routinely, I have to plan any trips to the US in regards to what I carry with me. My notes are always copied and any electronic data is also copied, so I don’t carry a journal, any hard drives, business cards or any written phone numbers, video cassettes, USB sticks, SD cards, or anything that I do not want to be copied. At the border, one has very little rights. If one were to bring an encrypted hard drive, they can seize it, so you are better off avoiding carrying sensitive material. It takes biopower to ridiculous levels.
It’s a huge ordeal, but I have not found a solution to it. I’ve talked to lawyers, including the ACLU, but the only way that one can challenge this is by challenging the entire US border apparatus. I have not found a lawyer that will file a lawsuit. It would be wonderful to find others that are going through similar situations, so that we can challenge this type of harassment.
During and after “Occupy,” many independent journalists have been targets of harassment and intimidation, and they are discovering this kind of retaliation by the state is routine. Do you have any advice for other young journalists, who are now just starting out to observe, record and report on direct actions and mass movements?
They should be careful with material that they record in general. Especially video journalists have to be cognizant of the fact that the state can use your material as evidence. I’ve had to deal with this over and over again. For instance, I had to do a three hour deposition with the Attorney General’s office for a case in Washington, DC. Since it was against an officer who assaulted a protester, I agreed to do it and was encouraged to do the deposition by an activist lawyer who was present for the deposition. In the end, the officer was fired and there was even an attempt to charge him with assault. In this case, the footage was helpful, but I realized that the state pays very close attention to video. Another example of how the state can use footage is what is happening with the Oakland police, and its use of forensic video enhancement software to identify what they view as wrongdoers.
While one should be careful, it is still true that video is a valuable tool for creating narratives and showing history in the making. It is important to give people tools for explaining historical events. Filmmakers or independent journalists should take the time to do a good job. Make sure to capture elements that add to the story. Show location scenery and make sure to do steady interviews with good audio. Shots of police brutality may go viral and help build a case against police, but it is also good to provide context and often times playing people as victims just makes people feel afraid. Making films or news documentaries requires the ability to compose a good shot, manipulate lighting, pay close attention to audio, and the ability to tell a good story. When you edit, make sure to actually look at it as writing a story, not narrowing down clips. It should not be a collage of events; it should be a story, a slice of history.
The media’s attention to the occupations last year was rather novel – for the first time in almost a decade, mainstream journalism was taking a look at a “left” movement. There were some dismissive and downright false soundbites, but sympathetic analysts also sometimes seemed to suggest that the movement “came out of nowhere.” Given your previous attention not only to the California student movement in 2009 but also Greece, how do you, as a journalist, think about and communicate the nature of mass action – when it comes to portraying the spectacular, “explosive” spontaneity of events, versus the kind of work and activism that goes into creating “ripe” conditions, so to speak?
The occupation movement developed due to historical conditions and how social elements came together as a material force in the midst of these historic conditions. I’m not sure that it was purely individuals or even small groups that merely created “ripe” conditions and that there was then an explosion of spectacular events. This is not to say that many did not seize upon historical events to create situations, but that it has to be contextualized. This is often the case, though not always. Most journalists are simply following the philosophy of journalism, which is formulaic and reductionist in nature. Also, news cycles very rarely allow time for research and journalists always want to make stories which are character driven. They often miss the big picture.
For me the narrative of the US occupation movement starts before Adbusters’ call to occupy Wall Street and even before California’s wave of university occupations. In my opinion, it goes like this. Firstly, some people in the US worked overboard to elect Obama and naively believed that he would fulfill his duties as the guarantor of some sort of social contract with the middle class. He had already supported the Bush’s first round of quantitative easing, which basically created massive amounts of money out of thin air with the hope of getting the economy back on track. He even left his campaign trail to vote on it. The first round of quantitative easing was seen as bailout and provoked the first Wall Street protest in September of 2008. This is something that should be noted, as many people joined the Occupy Wall Street because of a feeling of betrayal, which didn’t actually occur. Obama knew his constituency from the beginning.
Other notable early reactions to crisis were families refusing to leave foreclosed properties throughout the US, including organized foreclosure defense such as Take Back the Land in Florida, and the occupation of the Chicago Republic Window and Door factory in December 2008.
Then, the language of “Occupy” started in the US with the occupation at the New School in December 2008, which I covered. Many of the signs on the walls of the cafeteria, included slogans that were very much supportive of the waves of riots and occupations in Greece that resulted following the police murder of a young anarchist in the Athen’s neighborhood of Exarchia. So the New School occupation immediately connected itself to the occupation movement that was in Europe. After the end of the 3 day occupation in December, several pamphlets were published that were disseminated and widely read. Much of the writing was influenced by the Situationists, writings by Tiqqun, Théorie Communiste, and other left communist thought coming mainly from Europe. In the months following this occupation, there was an occupation of NYU and a second occupation of the New School. The actual first time that I saw the expression “occupy everything” was at the re-occupation of the New School during April 2009.
The April New School occupation had a more anti-capitalist sentiment, even ultra-leftist, which appealed to some organizers in California. California had been hit by a wave of foreclosures and was in a severe budget crisis. There was also a social crisis. There were the riots in January 2009 following the death of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African-American who was shot by a white police officer, which seemed to tap into this underlying social crisis. Many involved in the Oscar Grant riots were already seasoned organizers, who had been both involved in anti-war organizing and involved earlier in the alter-globalization movement. Many were also inspired by the December riots in Greece, the anti-CPE demonstrations in 2006 in France, and the Oaxaca uprising that had occurred in 2006 as well. Some were students in the University of California school system.
In July 2009, UC President Mark Yudof declared a state of a state of “extreme fiscal emergency” within the UC system and used this as a pretext for cuts and tuition hikes. This occurred following moves during the past years to securitize UC bonds using student tuition as collateral and while large construction projects were happening across the UC system. In the midst of this Yudof proposed a 32 percent fee increase for the UC. Some of the more radical students at the University of California Santa Cruz decided to occupy a building during September, while a walkout occurred at University of California at Berkeley, where there was a failed occupation. During the midst of this, an influential text called “Communiqué From an Absent Future” was released.
Over the fall, a series of occupations occurred throughout California. A three day student strike of UC from November 18-20 saw a wave of occupations on multiple campuses. I had the opportunity to be inside one of those occupations at Wheeler Hall in UC Berkeley on November 20th. Thousands of people gathered around to defend the occupation. This was a pretty interesting period and I believe the notion of occupying space was popularized, at least amongst students in the United States. I’ve even heard that an editor at at Adbuster’s magazine, Micah White, was at the Wheeler Hall occupation.
Following the November events, there were more building occupations and a mini-riot in Berkeley. A newspaper called “After the Fall’ was released which included communiques from all of the Fall occupations throughout California. Then there was a national mobilization against cuts to education on March 4th 2010. I managed to get arrested following a march that shut down a freeway in Oakland that was organized as part of this national mobilization.
Then the national student movement slowed down, but in California there was another riot following the verdict of Oscar Grant’s murderer in July 2010. Meanwhile, New York’s scene at that time was fairly messy and slightly dysfunctional. There were some union actions against cuts and some protests inside banks, but much of the student occupation movement had died down.
During the end of 2010 and early 2011, the European crisis kicked in full gear and there was the Arab Spring. There were large student riots against tuition hikes in the London starting in November 2010. In Tunisia and Egypt, there were revolutions and rebellions happened throughout the Arab world. In Greece, there were more riots and general strikes and the popularization of the “I Won’t Pay Movement,” a civil disobedience movement that encouraged people to refuse to pay for highway tolls, public transport, and even hospital treatment. Spain had a general strike in September 2010 and there were other major actions against austerity all over Europe.
During February and March of 2011, there were major protests in Wisconsin and the occupation of the Madison, Wisconsin state capitol building fighting against Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which was a budget balancing bill that would limit collective bargaining rights. This was after Governor Scott Walker gave major tax breaks to the wealthy and to corporations. Despite large protests and calls by some for a general strike, the bill ultimately passed and protests declined.
In late spring, a majorly influential action in regards to the US Occupy movement occurred with the May 15th movement in Spain and the movement of assemblies in Greece. Starting in May, people throughout Greece and Spain occupied public squares, set up general assemblies, and managed to politicize people who were not the usual suspects. By September 2011, these movements voluntarily dispersed or were crushed by the state. Most of the assemblies left the squares and moved into the neighborhoods, where they continue.
In the US, Adbusters proposed that people use the May 15 “Movement of the Assemblies” tactic while using some of the language from the original “Occupy” movement. Local anarchists held assemblies and organized a date of action for September 17, 2011. So then there was Zuccotti Park and the occupations that spread throughout the world. I’m not going to talk about this much, because it was widely covered.
One note that I would like to include is that the US Occupy movement is built upon the work of local groups protesting in the midst of capitalism’s latest crisis. Each local “Occupy” has had a character that is shaped by historic conditions and varies in political content. For instance Occupy Oakland, or the Oakland Commune is a bit rowdier than other cities, because it has a recent history that is consistent and more politically developed in my opinion. I feel that going back to this notion of a social contract that Obama was supposed to fulfill is important when drawing distinctions within the Occupy movement. In Oakland, there have been decades of high unemployment, so there are less people feeling included in any social contract. There is also the lack of respect for the police, due to recent high profile police shootings, and it’s easier to push back since there are only 650 OPD. In some parts of the country, Occupy is connecting largely to a middle class that is feeling neglected and wants to return to some sort of contract where they will have employment and security, but in the age of lower profit rates, this is not going to happen anytime soon. Once people understand this, then it will get interesting.
Your videography of Greece, a country perpetually in the news cycle these days, is especially interesting to me. I felt something deeply changed after the Greek insurrections of December 2008, even here in the United States, where there was very much an idea that it wouldn’t be enough to just sit and watch “history,” that it was necessary to join in, participate, and fight back; it seemed like things had fundamentally changed. The austerity programs threatening the lives of everyday people in Europe are just one facet of this new urgency or politicization, but as someone who’s been covering developments since the days of “alterglobalization” and the anti-war movement, does this dovetail with your observations?
The Greek insurrection was interesting because it showed a deeper legitimation crisis within Greece. It was also a major event, because it happened following the beginning of a global economic crisis. Young radicals around the world looked at the youth insurrection and were inspired because there were two crises that were becoming more apparent; the crisis of capitalist accumulation and the legitimation crisis. The economic crisis only helped to highlight deeper problems in a concrete manner. More people were proletarianized in the Western world.
Globalization was abstract to most Westerners. The wars in the Middle East had become normalized. The economic crisis shows where capital’s priorities lie and that is the accumulation of profits for a very small amount of people which we call capitalists. There will not be a return to “normality” unless this is profitable for the wealthy. The real struggle now is not pushing for a return to some sort of social peace, but rather moving forward.
Your films on Greece, Egypt, and Oakland make a point of giving activists, organizers, and “regular” people a voice. How do you, as someone determined to report on major social upheavals, communicate your task as an independent journalist to people on the ground?
Most of my connections internationally have been made through years of working with or knowing local groups of organizers. I look at what is occurring in the news or through websites and find what areas I feel should be expanded on. Most organizers trust that I am not going to burn them in an interview and understand that I’m trying to expand on under-reported stories and that this is not something that I am doing just to make money. Many people are happy to share contacts or go on camera, because often times journalists do poorly researched reports, write from the state perspective, or simply lie. This is not some indictment of the mainstream media, because often times independent reports are bad and occasionally mainstream reporters do great work.
Do you find people are more forthcoming or more reticent in tense, highly-politicized spaces such as Syntagma or Tahrir Square? What in your experience has changed about how you get subjects on camera, how you engage them, or has it changed at all?
Reporting in places like Greece is pretty stressful, due to a hatred of the media and the spectacle. There in particular, I’ve had to build trust and still have to be careful in the midst of sometimes violent rioting. Building trust is hard. It’s important to not have some sanctimonious feeling about being a journalist and having certain rights. That’s a very bourgeois notion. Sometimes people do not like their images taken and one should respect that right.
Just as Seattle ’99, Quebec, Genoa and then the Iraq War placed a new enthusiasm for independent media in the public sphere, the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt as well the Occupy movement have ignited enthusiasm for “citizen-journalism” once again – I myself took part in an independent journalist training workshop once in New York. I understand you were involved with Independent Media Center, a very admirable project that is still thriving, but also has been subject to police trolling, deliberate misinformation, and harassment from the FBI. How can independent journalists, open source media, radical bloggers and others can do to counter the constant closing of the commons of the Internet? Do committed journalists have any other choice but to fight back? It doesn’t seem like they have any cushy newspaper jobs waiting for them anytime soon…
While there are attempts to control the internet, for the most part independent journalists still have many resources at their disposal. People have to work constantly and find as many outlets as possible. Since the Indymedia days, I’ve put out material through other outlets like Counterpunch, Democracy Now!, and other left-leaning sites, but I’ve also contributed footage to mainstream outlets, which is rare. I regularly post videos and Vimeo and YouTube and try to push these shorts out through Twitter, Facebook, and get as many blogs to republish them as well. Recently, with my collaborator Marianne Maeckelbergh, I also started a blog called www.globaluprisings.org.
In places like Egypt, where many people don’t have access to computers, groups are organizing outdoor screenings of human right’s violations by the military and police. This is another way of disseminating information and is effective because it allows one to engage in dialogue with people directly. It’s more rewarding for me to meet people at screenings than to get a “like” on Facebook.
Paid media jobs are becoming more precarious, so you are right that journalists will not have security and will have to fight for their on survival. One interesting thing in Greece is that journalists are joining the general strikes. This will become more interesting once they aren’t striking as journalists.
You spent some time in Haiti, a country that has practically been forgotten. The corporate press rushed to cover Haiti with all the canned humanitarian intervention stories they could muster, while your work covered the autonomous, bottom-up organizing of everyday people working together. Even the more benevolent NGOs often paint a picture of people as helpless victims who require aid, money, American assistance, etc. What was your experience in these matters when you were there?
Haiti is a rather interesting place. It’s unbelievably impoverished and the population has been punished ever since they rose up against the French. Now, it’s occupied by the United Nations, whose forces have occasionally raped people, given them cholera, and fire tear gas into densely populated tent cities where children and elderly people live. Lots of the money going there for reconstruction has went into foreign NGOs who use the funds to pay stipends to individuals who are flown in from abroad. Once there, these individuals have to be housed and many have to have private security and translators. So lots of reconstruction aid is not going into building local infrastructure, where Haitians can help themselves. I was only there once for a couple weeks, so I am no expert. This is just my two cents.
Even more than the “fate of the Eurozone” under austerity, Haiti has been subjected to ceaseless destruction and exploitation. But as Rebecca Solnit describes in A Paradise Built in Hell, people have a tendency toward cooperation and altruism, tendencies that emerges following the anarchistic aftermath of a catastrophe, natural or otherwise, but are quickly suppressed. Your videography of the Oakland Commune draws a parallel here – how important is it not only to keep building this narrative of cooperative resistance and assembly, but to link its international implications and connections?
Well in the midst of the crisis, people have to find ways to make sure that people’s material needs are met. During a period of lower profit rates, states are not very generous. Capitalism functions to produce profits and while the super rich are still gaining profits, it’s because they have restructured economies to benefit them and this we can expect. In Europe, we are now officially in a recession. Peripheral states like Greece and Spain have negative growth rates and high unemployment rates and it’s going to get worse. In countries that are doing fairly well like for instance the Netherlands, austerity measures are still being implemented, while some right-wing leaders argue whether or not to leave the Euro completely (which shows that there is little unity above). The crisis is far from over and its those at the bottom that will have to pay. People would do best to squat housing units in areas where people do not have housing (while avoiding self-marginalized autonomous scenes), mobilize people to materially fight austerity through social strikes such as “I Won’t Pay” in Greece and now Portugal, organize wildcat strikes, get basic necessities like food, continue occupying spaces, and take whatever they need. I do want to stress that these actions in themselves cannot be fetishized as purely prefigurative developments, since they are dependent on capitalism (existence of housing, reactions to austerity, agricultural production), but they do show people ways of living that aren’t dependent on exchange relationships or profits and that can possibly challenge the rule of property. At the same time, people have to fight harder and grow faster. The right is gaining throughout Europe and will take advantage of the crisis and deteriorating social conditions to gain power. Any movement now needs to grow a set of teeth.
As for the US, the economy maybe seem like it’s improving now, but the Euro crisis will have effects there as well. Not to mention that the US economy is dependent on Chinese growth and the insane growth rate there is not at all sustainable. Also, overall unemployment in the US has not improved dramatically and there are still lots of people who are upset and will continue to be unemployed as the government cuts benefits for the poor.
There is potential that exists and it’s a moment that should not be taken for granted. It is in these moments that new ideas are born. As for a coherent ideology, we’ll see what happens.
Your journalism hasn’t shied away from the worldwide reverberations of crisis, revolt, strike, state brutality, and spiraling conflict. I wanted to underscore your attention to Paul Mattick, Jr. who highlights in his book Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism precisely that: the worldwide, systemic collapse of capitalism. Mattick has made a special point of mentioning Rebecca Solnit’s work as inspiration for some of his thought in the book, but there is a bit of political prescription in its conclusion. I want to pose the controversial question as to whether people’s autonomous power in response to the rather grim unfolding of the 21st century needs to be defended at the level of organization. If we know that disaster is looming – and Mattick himself is particularly dire on this note – and we know that state power is going to squash whatever expression of solidarity comes up about spontaneously in the rubble and ruin of things, is it not unreasonable to ask why an organization shouldn’t preemptively position itself to strategically exercise power? Not only to help people, not only to network together in effort of mutual aid, but really at the level of power, to keep things in check away from capital, from reactionary groups or even military powers?
I’m not positive what strategy is best for dealing with the current situation or a large scale. I’ve seen a lot of interesting tactics, but strategically we have not thought it out and it is difficult because we are unsure where the future will take us. For the short term, there are material needs that have to be filled. Globally, capitalism is being restructured and more people are being exposed to poverty and misery. It is important that we come together, find out ways that we can get all of our needs met, and confront that which is destroying our lives. There is very little security right now and we have to find the ability to function while being involved in what is a great historic moment. The stronger and more together we are, the better we will be when confronting capitalism. We have to be able to feed ourselves, while simultaneously not dropping our combative aspect and fetishizing small Band-Aid remedies as some solution. If we are able to strengthen ourselves, our networks, then we might eventually start to see another way of living. This has to be on a mass scale.
Trevor Owen Jones is a librarian and a writer.