Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Q&A with New School in Exile Participant Chris Crews

In writing my piece on the New School in Exile and New Media, I had some interesting conversations with activists, past and present. Chris Crews, a graduate student in Politics and participant in the New School in Exile occupation, knew exactly what I was getting at in concentrating on new media and activism. He gave me some great answers to a few questions and I figured editorializing would not do them justice. So here are Chris's responses in their entirety:

ZP: Do you think live blogging and posting videos of actions while inside the building, in real time, was effective in making the student voice heard?

Chris Crews: Yes, I think it was critical to have real-time media reporting from within the building. We were able to keep outside supporters, legal teams, and the media informed as things were going down, and also to challenge the claims that the administration was making. Also, because of the power of the internet and blogs, we were getting letters of support from people in Greece, in Mexico, in Puerto Rico, in Malaysia, in Finland, basically in places we would never have been able to reach otherwise. And it also acted as a check against the university police and security. They knew that if they raided the place, we would report it as it was happening, thus ensuring they could not have a free hand to do whatever they wanted.

Additionally, I think it acts as a way to tell our story that engages with the younger YouTube generation who seems unable to read newspapers and magazines, but has no problem watching 8 minutes videos and animations. So for that group, it is also a powerful medium. Not only that, it serves to document events in a way that words alone cannot. A great example of that was one incident in particular where a high-up New School security official, Jose Villegas, slammed one student into the wall and threatened a few others. We have that all on tape, and can use that to make a case for the security acting in hostile and threatening ways towards the students. We can tell the press and the public that security is over-reacting, but when we show it it is especially powerful!

ZP: Was there any threat to your internet connectivity? Did any New School representative threaten to turn off wireless connections/electricity/etc.?

CC: Actually, the biggest threat was the poor quality of the wireless signal and the lack of any dedicated Ethernet connections. A few of us even joked about demanding better internet service in the cafeteria. But to the best of my knowledge, no, there was never a threat of turning off internet access. We did discuss that possibility, and had backup plans in place should that happen, as well as a number of people who could do updates via mobiles and blackberries with dedicated internet service. So ultimately it would have been a pain, but it would not have stopped our ability to communicate. To the best of my knowledge no one in the administration threatened to turn off internet service, and I'm not even sure if they control it, or if it is an outside service provider who has that power?
(NOTE: Elisa Deljanin of The New School Free Press told me in a separate email exchange that school officials DID discuss the possibility of turning off the Wireless Internet in the 65 5th Ave building during the occupation.)
ZP: Do you think you've been able to hold mainstream media accountable in this way?

CC: More or less, I think. Obviously you can't control what gets printed, and there were some stories, the NY Post in particular being the one that comes to mind, that spin things in ludicrous ways or at least not in the ways we feel are accurate. But since we were the main ones providing the media footage, statements and pictures from within the occupation, this did give us an unusually high amount of control over our own image, which is usually not the case in situation like this, and is worth noting. And overall, I think the media has been more favorable in its coverage because there is a perception that we have really legitimate demands and concerns, that we are not just an isolated incident, and that there is a whole institutional problem at work here that is being raised. The article in the New York Times today (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/21/education/21newschool.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink) is a perfect example of that.

ZP: I've been concentrating on two things in particular--one was the student response to Bob Kerrey letter calling the New School in Exile a 'security risk'. You guys then posted a Youtube video showing a security guard using excessive force against a number of students--with the message being "Who's the real threat?" Second, I was interested to see the comments on the NYtimes City Room blog posts from students getting more information out with a major newspaper. Basically then, what do you think this means for the future of direct actions if protesters are able to respond to attacks and report on police abuses in real time?

CC: I think this is important for two reasons. First, and this is definitely something that is an emerging benefit of new media technology, is the ability to get information out almost real-time on, for example, police raids or similar actions. So in the case of the Kerrey letter, we got it, were able to upload some video clips showing exactly the opposite was in fact happening, and then could use that to undermine his claims and bolster ours. That isn't something that could have been done even 20 years ago, and hardly even 10 years ago, at least not with this reach (ie. YouTube, the blogs, etc..) And as far as the NY Times City Blog, it's a mixed bag. It's a good way for other supporters to weigh in, show their support and add their views. On the down side, you get a lot of people who, in my opinion, have absolutely no idea what they are talking about and tend to leave comments suggesting they somehow know more than we do and have some moral authority over those in the occupation, that allows them to make snide and completely uninformed comments that only take away from the issue. But, as is the nature of blogs and comments, everybody gets their two cents, even if some posts are pure drivel.

ZP: I had some interesting discussions with Debra Sweet and Danny Schechter about their experiences trying to get their message out in the 1960s. They agreed that this is a clean break from their media struggles...I really think you guys were opening a new door here. What do you think?

CC: Absolutely. I'm a big media person, and so obviously I think it is a big deal. We were able to use film, printed text, e-mail, the Internet (blogs, YouTube, our web site), mobile phones and even Twitter to get information out and into the hands of others. I think that wide media saturation is critical for both creating a spectacle and for reaching a critical mass of attention than can shift the dynamics in a situation. Without all of that communication, who knows, we might have only been 30 people sitting in jail still in a New York processing facility? But we had that technology, and I think we used it really effectively, and that is a victory we will be able to learn from and build on for the future.

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