Is Livestreaming the Future of Media or the Future of Activism?

Is Livestreaming the Future of Media, or the Future of Activism?
It might be both. A report from Ferguson, and your laptop screen.

On Wednesday evening, hundreds of chanting protesters marched fast down Tenth Avenue after a grand jury declined to indict an NYPD officer for killing Staten Island street vendor Eric Garner with a chokehold. They moved over the pavement between cars and buses, past a smiling taxi driver who gave high-fives out of his window while honking in time with chants of “Black! Lives! Matter!” There was a lot to watch. In the middle of the action, James Woods, a big, bearded white guy wearing a black hoodie and a bulky backpack, gazed into the screen of the smartphone hoisted on a monopod in front of him as if in a trance. Woods is a live-streamer who goes by the handle "James on the Internet." At that moment, around 1,500 viewers were watching the protests through his smartphone’s point of view, on his account. The images and sounds he was broadcasting changed swiftly with the energy of the protest. At one point, Woods’s stream was filled with a sea of prone bodies blanketing the surface of the West Side Highway, in what organizers called a “die-in.” Then it showed the crowd chanting “we can’t breathe,” surrounded by hundreds of police. And then, suddenly, he headed uptown, along the empty, blocked-off road. Police were gone, except for an NYPD helicopter above, and Woods — along with the protesters he was following — moved faster. The video was unsteady but continuous: Woods’s job, as he sees it, isn’t to mediate imagery, but rather to vacuum up as much of it as he can.

Countless television news crews stalked the protesters through Manhattan as well, but for Woods, they were interlopers on his turf. During Thursday night’s protests, he kept streaming into the early morning, eventually ending up in midtown with the last hard-core marchers, who were dispersed by an NYPD sound cannon. He’d also filmed the protests in New York over the killing of the black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which have now bled into protests over Eric Garner’s killing. Woods brought his viewers along as protesters blocked the Willis Avenue Bridge in Harlem, and as thousands filled Times Square shouting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Each day on Twitter, viewers hit him up to find out where the protest would be that night. Over the previous ten nights, he’d racked up more than a million views on his account.

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Woods was inspired to start live=streaming by firsthand experience with the limits of the mainstream television news networks. He tells an origin story that begins with his disenchantment in 2011, while working as a producer in Atlanta for Nancy Grace’s HLN show. The show was filmed in CNN’s headquarters, where he could peek into the control room and watch producers stitch together broadcasts from dozens of camera feeds displayed on a bank of monitors. He watched CNN’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests as it was made and was appalled by what he perceived as an obvious whitewashing playing out before his eyes. “You could see in one monitor the police would be violently arresting somebody, and instead they'd go to another monitor and there would be Bob. And Bob would be three blocks away, and there'd be like ten hippies behind him, and he'd be like, ‘Nothing happening here, Steve, back to you!’” Woods soon visited the encampment of Occupy Atlanta, told them he worked in television, and asked how he could help get the word out.

Since then, livestreaming has come into its own as a raw alternative to cable news’ slick packaging and personality-driven coverage. The unrest in Ferguson was the medium’s watershed moment — at its height, more than a half-dozen dedicated streamers tracked the protests, including both independent activists and corporate feeds from Vice and Fusion. Live-streams from the Ferguson protests on a single service — — attracted 1.5 million views the day of the grand jury decision that let police officer Darren Wilson off the hook without an indictment.

Cops gas protestors in Ferguson, as livestreamed by John “Rebelutionary_Z” Ziegler

Livestreaming isn’t just popular: It also lies smack in the middle of the contradictions that accompany a highly politicized spectacle like Ferguson in the age of social media. It’s protest as reality show, or maybe reality show as protest. It offers hours of unvarnished footage that seems more authentic than cable news, but live-streamers tend to be so closely linked to the movements they cover that they become protagonists in the story they tell. And to some of the live-streamers’ dismay, their success at raising the profile of their issue attracts the very forces of Establishment media (with its attendant narrative-shaping and sound-bite-seeking) whom they believe it’s their mission to counteract.

With things relatively quiet in Ferguson since the grand jury decision, the center of protest over police killings of black men has shifted to the Garner demonstrations in New York City. Woods and about a half-dozen other New York City–based streamers have been documenting the protests, and late last week, three prominent live-streamers flew to New York from Ferguson to follow the action as well. The Ferguson crew includes the activist live-streamer John “Rebelutionary_Z” Ziegler, who has been living in Ferguson, on and off, since August 19. He has filmed many turbulent protests, but he’d never feared for his life as he did on his first night in Ferguson, more than a week after Brown’s killing, he says. The small suburb of St. Louis was already front-page news, seized by the first wave of chaotic protests that involved looting and arson and a spectacularly militarized police crackdown, when Ziegler drove down from his home in Rockford, Illinois. Just before midnight, Ziegler was walking with some protesters and media through the streets of Ferguson, broadcasting to his Ustream account from his iPhone, when an officer pointed his rifle at a protester in front of him and threatened, “I will fucking kill you! Get back!” Ziegler demanded to know the officer’s name. “Go fuck yourself,” he said. Ziegler taunted the man, repeatedly calling him “Officer Go Fuck Yourself.” The video went viral, and the officer, Ray Albers, a lieutenant with the St. Ann, Missouri, police, was forced to resign. Ferguson was clearly the place to be for anyone who believed, like Ziegler, in the power of live web video to help change the world. He soon moved to Ferguson full-time, and he quickly developed an audience. At the height of the action, Ziegler had as many as 40,000 viewers watching live, or nearly 10 percent of MSNBC’s prime-time viewership.

But when I landed in St. Louis on November 25, the night after the announcement that Darren Wilson would not face charges for killing Michael Brown, Ziegler sent me an urgent text. “DO NOT GO TO FERGUSON! ... Texts and other messages are not looking good/safe. Another media person was just carjacked … ” Ziegler told me to meet him instead in Shaw, a St. Louis neighborhood 13 miles south of Ferguson that had become a secondary hub of anti-police protest, after cops killed another black teenager there this fall.

An officer in Ferguson tells protestors, “I will fucking kill you!”

I found a crowd of about 20 people marching up and down the sidewalk on a main thoroughfare, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” All eyes were on Ferguson, but Ziegler dutifully filmed the Shaw protesters, gripping a monopod attached to his iPhone in the middle of the crowd as they took the street. They could only block one lane of traffic, but that was enough to prompt two dozen police in riot gear to rush across the street and drive them back onto the sidewalk with threats of arrest. The dramatic response to their puny crew amused Ziegler, who noted to his viewers that it was the cops, not the protesters, who were blocking the most traffic that night.

The crowd made its way back to MoKabes, a local coffee shop that functions as the protests’ southerly headquarters. The night before, after the grand jury decision was announced, police shot tear gas into the street in front of MoKabes to disperse protesters, and it seeped into the shop. If you were watching Ziegler’s live-stream, you could have followed him as he dodged rubber bullets in the gas-fogged street, then rushed into MoKabes and down into the basement where protesters were forced to take shelter.

That evening, a racially diverse crowd of activists sat at tables warming themselves with free coffee and recharging their phones. Among them was Leigh “Short Stack” Maibes, a live-streamer who lived in the neighborhood. Ziegler was crashing at her house. He’d taught her how to live-stream and they had since become an informal team, often going out shooting together. Maibes, who is white, believes this role is the best one she can play. “I would prefer to be behind the camera than on the camera, “ she explains, “because I believe that that's a space that should belong to black leadership.”

Now Maibes scrolled through her Twitter feed, grimacing and shaking her head. The reports from Ferguson were like something from a war zone, all fire and tear gas, and her viewers wanted to know why she wasn’t there to give them a front-row seat on the action. Live-streamers have an intimate, sometimes fraught, relationship with their viewers. Most rely on donations collected on crowd-funding sites like Fundrazr and Indiegogo, and their audience functions as a sort of crowd-sourced production team and assignment editor. Viewers offer tips about police and protester movement and help moderate the chat fields embedded in the feeds. Maibes knew she needed her viewers’ support, but tonight, exhausted after two weeks of awaiting the grand jury decision and halfway through another sleepless night of streaming in Shaw, she was frustrated by their nagging.  

Eventually, she called a protester in Ferguson to see if there were any chance of streaming there. “How bad is it up there?” she said. “You can’t get it in? That’s what I thought. That’s what I was telling people! I’ve got so many people complaining that I’m not up there. But I’m not going to go around shooting riot porn. My whole thing is filming police interactions with protesters. That’s not what this is. This is people setting things on fire.” She hung up. Ziegler told her not to worry about the haters. “Those people are just jerks,” he said.

The rise of livestreaming as a form of news coverage can be traced back to the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and 2012. The journalist Tim Pool, now the director of innovation at Fusion, began to stream live from Zuccotti Park and the countless demonstrations that swept New York City that fall and winter. Pool’s stream became a way for Occupy sympathizers from around the country to virtually experience the atmosphere of the encampment. It was also a symbol of the movement’s tech savvy. As Occupy grew into the biggest political story of the winter, Pool became a minor celebrity in his own right. When the NYPD violently evicted protesters from the Zuccotti Park encampment early on the morning of November 15, Pool was the only journalist broadcasting live pictures from inside the park.

For Ziegler and many other live-streamers working today, this was a formative demonstration of the medium’s power to present an alternative view. “He had the world up for like 12 hours watching that,” says Ziegler. More than 750,000 people tuned into Pool’s stream that day. “I kind of said to myself, maybe that's what I can do. Maybe that's my place in a movement like this, to see if I can help out.” Ziegler began livestreaming at Occupy Chicago and other leftist demonstrations in the area. In 2012, he was arrested while streaming the NATO summit protests. The video shows him disappearing beneath a heap of riot police. “They threw me on the ground and put knees to my neck and started punching and kicking me on the side. All this for filming,” he says. Shaken by the experience, he put down his phone and took a break from streaming, until Ferguson.

Leigh “Short Stack” Maibes confronts a cop

“When Ferguson happened, I was up all night watching the live-streams; I was on Twitter helping spread information. After about a week, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I knew they were lacking independent coverage to show what was happening,” he says. He quit his retail job at an agricultural-supply store and moved to Ferguson.

The form is well suited to an event like Ferguson, which practically demands you choose a side before engaging with it. A live-stream is limited by what the streamer can physically access in real time, and so the most compelling streams are often produced by sympathetic participants, rather than outside journalists. Ziegler, for instance, has won the trust of the activists on the ground in Ferguson. As an unabashed supporter, he can get shots mainstream media can’t. He specifically tries not to broadcast information that would harm protesters. For instance, he decided not to stream a secret meeting in which activists discussed their upcoming action.

Ferguson organizers welcome his presence and see live-streamers as a useful tool — combination bullhorn and insurance policy. “They provide a way for people to watch us and protect us,” says DeRay Mckesson, a prominent protester who runs a daily Ferguson newsletter. “We get nervous when live-streamers aren't there.” Viewers fashion themselves into far-flung cop-watchers and will clip videos for use in potential legal cases. Antagonists of Ferguson activists have also started clipping videos that they claim show protester illegality in order to forward them to authorities. One Ustream user who goes by the handle "Nothiefsallowed" simply rebroadcasts activist streams while providing his own running commentary urging police to arrest the lawbreakers.

If the live-streamers’ reality show has a villain, it’s the cops. Ziegler, whose live-stream is cross-posted to the police watchdog site the Free Thought Project in exchange for a small stipend, sees one of his jobs as holding police accountable. In October, Maibes’s boss at the Re/Max brokerage where she works as a real-estate agent received a call from a St. Louis police officer named Keith Novara. Novara claimed he simply wanted to give her a “heads up” that she might be getting some angry calls about Maibes’s activism. Maibes saw this as intimidation. She called the officer back and confronted him on speakerphone while Ziegler filmed the conversation. She uploaded it to YouTube and filed a complaint with the St. Louis Police, which opened an investigation.

But no streamer has produced more viscerally effective, if questionably sensible, confrontations with police than Bassem Masri, a local St. Louis live-streamer and activist and the object of a fair amount of bad press for his provocations against media and police. When things get heated, he has tended to hurl outrageous vitriol at the cops, daring them to react with force. In one well-circulated clip, he informs officers trying to control a protest that he’s praying for their death. Masri boasted the largest viewership of all the live-streamers in Ferguson, at least until his phone was stolen in the middle of a protest on the night of the grand jury decision. Ninety thousand viewers watched the perpetrator sprint with the phone down the street and overheard him boast to his friend of the heist before the feed went dead. (Masri was in jail the entire time I was in St. Louis. )

The live-streamers’ other main adversary is the mainstream media. Many protesters in Ferguson can expound for hours about the problems with the media, from its obsession with “riot porn” to its credulousness of the police perspective. Interrupting CNN broadcasts with a chant of “Fuck CNN” has become a sort of nationwide meme post-Ferguson. Ziegler complains of network cameramen trampling protesters and CNN bodyguards throwing their weight around the protest zone. “The guys with big cameras couldn't give a shit about anything except getting the shot,” he says, comparing his activism to what he sees as their mercenary bent. “They don't care about anything but that paycheck."

Livestreamer Bassem Masri interviewed on local news

But the networks have started to take notice of live-streams as well. In the past few months, James Woods has started selling clips from his stream to television news outlets like Al Jazeera, RT, and the local ABC affiliate. “Even though the footage is lower quality, there's a certain grittiness and graininess to it that they find appealing,” he says. Tim Pool has landed a series of high-profile media gigs, first at Vice and then at Fusion, for whom he covered Ferguson. The mainstreaming of livestreaming, which is certain to happen sooner or later, will probably cause angst among those who view the medium as a form of activism. Ziegler already complains that Pool has lost his edge since going corporate. “He turned his back on the protesters,” Ziegler says. Pool now films from behind police lines and goes live only in short bursts, instead of the marathon sessions Ziegler sees as the essence of the form. “That's not livestreaming,” he says. “That's a bit, the same thing the MSM is doing.” I ran into Pool briefly in Ferguson and asked him what he thought about the proliferation of live-streamers there. He said it was mind-boggling to see the growth of the medium, but that the streamers in Ferguson were “less serious journalism, more wanting to show their point of view.”

The epicenter of the most recent protests in Ferguson — the main battleground for both the protesters and the media — has been a stretch of concrete in front of the spotless police department headquarters. I went there to meet Maibes and Ziegler in the afternoon the day after the Shaw protest. We were joined by a black woman who was so enthusiastically pro-protester that I thought she was one, until she said she was a freelance photographer, and two white twentysomethings from Kansas City, one skinny and adenoidal, the other wearing a T-shirt that read “Smash the Cis-tem.” A reporter and cameraman in matching red parkas were shooting a bit for an evening news package at the very moment we passed by. They stood in front of a decorative waterfall surrounded by a patch of loose, fist-size stones. The reporter bent down to pick up a stone and hefted it. He said, “Last night, the protests turned violent, with protesters throwing anything they could get their hands on.”

Ziegler’s head whipped around with an abruptness that would have been accompanied by a record scratch in a movie. The group diverted from the sidewalk, surrounded the reporter and his cameraman, and began hurling complaints about the reporter’s slanderous portrayal of the protesters. The guy in the Smash the Cis-tem shirt slid wordlessly into the narrow gap between the cameraman and the reporter, blocking the shot and smiling goofily into the lens.

The reporter, Josh Marshall from Kansas City’s KCTV5, glanced skeptically at the self-issued press badge dangling from Ziegler’s neck. He tried to explain that he was just reporting on what he and his cameraman had seen happen last night. Ziegler raised his voice. “But what it does is it bleeds anyone who isn’t doing that with the 20 or 30 people who are doing that shit,” he said. Marshall pointed at the rocks.

“I watched 100 or 200 people come down here last night and threaten our lives, and throw rocks — "

“Threaten your lives because you talk shit like this, you piece of shit!” Ziegler was now yelling.

“All right, wait, wait,” Maibes said, trying to calm things down. A producer, via earbud, told the reporter to kill the shot, and the cameraman lowered his rig. Marshall sighed and seemed to relax a bit.

“All right. Now that I’m not working, I’ll listen to what you have to say,” he said. Ziegler began to deliver his standard condemnation of the mainstream media, complaining that they swoop in to cover the protests and looting as if this were the whole story of Ferguson. He said that every time protesters turned violent, it was in response to police trying to clamp down with force. The freelance photographer described the daily injustices faced by black people, the years of oppression and racism, that lay at the root of the protesters’ anger. “Why is this the story?” she said, pointing at the rocks. Marshall explained that he had limited airtime — the “one-and-a-half-minute package” was cited repeatedly — and couldn’t include all that context. “My philosophy is: Whatever's happening, I don't want to be in the middle of it, all right?” he said. “My job is not to lose my life over a minute-and-a-half package.”

Bassem Masri gets his phone stolen while livestreaming

“We’re out here fucking 24 hours a day shooting live video that’s unedited,” Ziegler said in reply. “We sacrifice our lives, we sacrifice our safety to make sure that the lies the police spin and that you take and report as fact — because it’s the police and they must not be lying — we are here to counter that narrative. And you just eat it up. And when you’re not doing that, you just make it about yourself. Like, My life was in danger, so fuck these people when they get gassed tonight.”

By now, the conversation had gone on for 20 minutes and Marshall, perhaps sensing his cameraman’s increasingly wistful glances in the direction of the parking lot, said he had to go.

“I have a question,” said the freelance photographer. “Did any of this change how you feel?” Marshall looked her straight in the eyes. “I gave you 20 minutes, and I can say that it's the best 20 minutes I've spent in Ferguson over the past 72 hours,” he said with conviction. “Fair enough? Seriously.” Ziegler thanked Marshall for the dialogue and apologized for his earlier outburst. “I'm emotional right now and I'm a little fed up, and I apologize,” he said. Marshall and the cameraman walked away as the photographer called out, “Be safe!”

I asked the skinny protester if he believed Marshall had really been affected by the conversation. He said he did. “If he was that good of a liar he wouldn’t be working for KCTV,” the protester said. “He’d be working for CNN.”