As of this writing in winter 2006, there is a paradox in American politics. On the one hand, we are fighting an unpopular war in Iraq–at least as measured by public opinion polls. (See below for more on this complex question.) On the other hand, there is no visible large-scale anti-war movement in the traditional sense. Many explanations are possible for such a seeming contradiction. Practically speaking, the lack of a draft relieves most young people of a sense of personal connection to the struggle in Iraq. But the Internet in general and blogs in particular have provided an outlet for activism and for creating organizational links between people distant from each other in space but sympathetic in politics, so that one could make a case that there is simply no longer a need to take to the streets. Perhaps the “whole world” is marching and watching via blogs, YouTube, Facebook and MySpace?
But there is another side to the story of war-related Internet activism: the propagation of the anti-anti-war cause. Proving that all blogging is global, the blogger “Zombie” of the blog Zombietime specializes in posting photographs taken at anti-war and anti-Bush protests, mainly in the San Francisco area. Images of men and women parading as skeletons, as suicide-bombers, bare-breasted or in drag, and sporting signs such as “Lesbians for Palestine,” “I love NY even more without the World Trade Center,” “Death to America,” and “Bush must Die” or variations thereof find gleeful reposting or hyperlinking throughout the conservative bloglands. Perhaps once upon a time a group of naked middle-aged and old people marching in Berkeley in support of “breasts, not bombs” would have attracted little or no press attention except locally. (This particular demonstration was indeed covered only in the alternative left press of San Francisco.) Among rightblogs, however, these images are repeated, discussed, and referred to as decisive visual evidence of, as one rightblogger put it, “the freaks and kooks” that make up the anti-war movement. Can blogging make or unmake a social movement? For the answer, watch the blogs, not the streets!
To cast further light on these phenomena I interviewed by e-mail “Zombie” of “Zombietime.”
When and why did you start ZT?
The whole thing started on February 16, 2003. I had just bought my first digital camera the day before, and I had not yet used it. Coincidentally, I had intended to go to an anti-war rally that Saturday, and I thought to myself — hey, why not bring the camera and test it out?
It seems a little hard to imagine in retrospect, but I was attending this anti-war rally in all sincerity, sympathizing with its goals. At least so I thought. I had been “left-wing” (for lack of a better term) all my life and had been to many protests of various sorts over the years. I was sort of going to this one out of habit. The Iraq War had not yet started — the goal of the protest was to prevent it.
Yet somewhere in the back of my mind I was feeling ambivalent. The events of 9/11 had kindled new political feelings in me, but they still weren’t completely formed, even over a year later. I was going for the purpose of protesting the war, but was that really how I felt? I was confused.
I walked to the protest in kind of a fugue state. And when I showed up, my world changed. I was shocked and mortified by the messages people were carrying. There were overtly anti-Semitic signs, banners blaming 9/11 on conspirators in the U.S. government, guys dressed up as suicide bombers, and all sorts of craziness. I took out my new camera and started clicking away. By the time the march was over, I was a changed person. If that was what the “Left” had become, then I wanted no part of it.
Keep in mind that at this stage, I still did not have a Web site. In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about how to make a Web page. Zero. But when I got home and uploaded my pictures to my computer, I thought to myself: if only everybody could see what I just saw. It would open people’s eyes. It was only then that the thought struck me to make a Web page with my photos on it. The Internet service provider I was using at the time offered free “users’ pages,” so I spent a day or two teaching myself a couple of rudimentary html codes, and I put the pictures on my “user page.”
Even after I had done that, however, no one knew about the page but me. A month or so later, I discovered (rather belatedly) the world of blogs, and when I started making my first comments online, I mentioned my photos. I was amazed at the reaction I got! People raved excitedly about them.
But, oddly, that was it. For a full year I didn’t go to any more protests, or take any more political pictures. I thought this single Web page of images was a one-time thing.
Then, a year later, on the evening of February 10, 2004. I was walking through the University of California campus in Berkeley, when by chance I passed by a building with a large crowd of people in front, apparently waiting to get inside to attend a lecture. But something was odd — various people in the crowd were screaming at each other. I also noticed that there were a lot of people wearing kaffiyehs and hijabs, and also people wearing yarmulkes. I stopped to watch for a while, and all the arguments seemed to be about Israel, terrorism, Islam, and so on. I asked someone what was going on, and they told me they were protesting an appearance by [foreign policy scholar] Daniel Pipes, who was scheduled to speak in just a few minutes. Now, at the time, I had never heard of Daniel Pipes. On a whim, I decided to stay since I had my camera with me that day. I recorded the arguments before the lecture, the disruption of the event itself, and the threatening behavior of the anti-Israel crowd afterward.
I figured out how to make a second Web page on my user site, and uploaded the pictures. This time, the response was explosive: various blogs themselves made posts out of my pictures, and linked to my page. I got tens of thousands of visitors within a few hours of putting the pictures online. Generally, most people’s blog entries at that time were simply a re-posted newspaper story, or a free-form rant. I discovered then that people were hungry for “original content,” the raw meat of newsmaking.
That was the day when I truly emerged as “zombie” — February 11, 2004, when my Pipes photos first got noticed by thousands of people. I experienced a “paradigm shift,” to use the technical term. From that day on, I fully embraced my “zombie” persona and went to document political events whenever I possibly could.
I didn’t actually start “zombietime” until later that year. The photo reports on my little free “user’s page” became immensely popular, and I overstepped my bandwidth limits exponentially. My ISP basically kicked me out for overloading the system, so in September of 2004 I launched “zombietime.com.” The word “zombietime” doesn’t mean anything — I was hoping to use simply “zombie.com” but obviously that had been taken long ago. So I just came up with a random memorable new word. The rest is history.
You post pics/items on many subjects, but what would you say is the main “theme” of the blog?
There are three themes. The first, obviously, is a platform to expose the craziness that has emerged on the left side of the political spectrum since 9/11. The second theme grew out of that: it became abundantly clear that my photo essays were revealing aspects of these rallies and events that were not being covered by the mainstream media. I would post photos and videos of extreme lunacy at some event, and then the “legitimate” media would come out with their own story on the same event, and it would be a total whitewash — they would hide what really went on. So more and more I made it my mission to expose not just went on at this or that rally, but to show how the media is biased in covering it. I emphasized my point with a mini-essay I called “Anatomy of a Photograph,” showing how a photo of a protester published in the San Francisco Chronicle was intentionally misleading. That mini-essay got a massive amount of attention, showing that the public is also hungry for incisive media analysis. So, that has become the second theme of zombietime — analyzing media bias. Thirdly, I have used zombietime and my reputation as zombie to promote the notion of “citizen journalism” — individual non-professionals who go out and report on the news themselves. I have encouraged and trained many “acolytes,” or people who have asked for advice on how to emulate what I do. My long-term goal is to create an army of “zombies”, exposing the truth around the world.
I’m writing a bit about the political education functions of blogs: what would a reader–say, one of my students–learn from ZT that they would NOT learn from mainstream media?
What you’ll learn from zombietime, hopefully, is that the media intentionally doesn’t give you the whole story. Every newspaper article has a “slant” that is often impossible to perceive, because the bias is created through the omission of critical information. Since 92% of reporters classify themselves as “liberal” (according to a survey I saw recently), the slant of stories is almost always “left-wing.”
Tell me about an event/incident that you covered that you think was very newsworthy, but was not covered in the local/national big media.
Well, as mentioned above, it’s not that I’m covering events that the MSM doesn’t cover at all. Frequently, there will be a small article or two about whatever event I’m covering, but the mainstream articles will leave out all the crucial information. A good example of this is the Tookie Williams execution vigil, on December 12, 2005. There was media from all over the world outside San Quentin that night — hundreds and hundreds of journalists from the print, television and online media. And yet not a single one of them reported on what I reported on: the violent assaults against the handful of anti-Tookie protesters in the crowd; the sheer insanity of many of the pro-Tookie crowd; the deification and glorification of Tookie by the speakers; and so on. My photo essay not only records what went on that night, but also records how the media purposely failed to report it.
Why do you think the protests you cover are largely absent from MSM?
Because they make the anti-war left look bad.
How do you “cover” protests?
There’s really nothing interesting to it. Living in the Bay Area as I do, it’s easy enough to find out about all the upcoming political events — they are all publicized widely. So, I’ll just note down in my mind an interesting upcoming event, and if when that day arrives I have some free time and the gumption to go out “zombie-ing,” I’ll grab my camera and head out to the protest. That’s all there is to it, really. Since I was a lifelong “liberal,” I effortlessly blend into the crowd, so that’s never a problem.
As for my regular daily schedule, or what my profession is, or how I operate at the rallies themselves — I can’t reveal that kind of info. Sorry!
There is a lot of work in my field (see below) on how protesters put themselves in a problematic situation where on one hand they WANT media attention and try to look/sound outrageous to get it, but then find themselves looking ridiculous on TV which may be counter productive to their cause. Do you get a sense that some of the folk you picture are putting on a show to shock or simply expressing what they really feel?
To be frank, I think that most of them are insane. Actually, literally insane. In the spring of 2004 there were a lot of soccer-mom types attending the anti-war rallies, but what happened is that they saw the virulence and irrationality of their fellow protesters, and never came back. Since that time, every subsequent protest has gotten smaller and smaller, as the sane people peeled away. By now, at the end of 2006, the only people that go to these rallies are the hardcore lunatics.
I know that may seem harsh, but I have lived in this milieu my whole life, and just about everyone I know is a radical. So I’m not speaking as an outsider, criticizing the “freaks.” Speaking as an insider, they really are out of their minds. Yes, that includes many of my friends as well — they may act normal one minute, and then go off the deep end the moment any political topic arises.
So: are the protesters simply trying to shock people, or are they expressing what they really feel? The answer is “Yes” to both, because what they really feel is the need to shock people. That is the essence and the extent of their emotions at these events. Adolescent fury.
What would you consider was your greatest picture-taking coup in protest coverage?
That’s a tough call. You’re putting me in a “Sophie’s Choice” dilemma here, to choose one of my “babies” at the expense of the others. I can’t do it! Too many to choose from. Just go to zombietime.com and choose your own favorites!
If you had to give advice to people planning to hold an anti-war rally–who want to be taken seriously, but not mix their message with silliness and irrelevancies–what would it be?
Well, to be frank, I don’t want them to be taken seriously, so I’m certainly not going to give them strategic advice. My first and only suggestion is: cancel the rally. Because the very essence of a rally as a political statement undermines your legitimacy in most people’s eyes. If you’re out in the street chanting about this or that, you are guaranteed to alienate most observers, merely by the form of your communication. Anti-establishment political rallies are tainted as a concept.
Update from Zombie responding to this post pre-publication: Regarding your introductory paragraph, it contains a few concepts and theses that, to me, unconsciously buy into the media’s false picture of contemporary history. You say, for example, “On the one hand, we are fighting an unpopular war in Iraq.” I disagree with the assumptions behind that statement in no fewer than three ways.Firstly, by my analysis, we are in fact no longer fighting a war in Iraq. The Iraq War lasted only a few weeks, during which time the US forces overran the country, defeated the Iraqi Army, and seized control of the government. War over. Everything that has happened since then is either a “mopping up” operation, pacification police work, and/or trying to suppress a separate internecine civil war that broke out two years afterward. So, though I know I’m going against commonly accepted wisdom, I would challenge the very concept that the US is fighting a war in Iraq right now at all.
Secondly, the media is now stating that the “war” (as they put it) is “unpopular,” based on the results of the mid-term elections, with the Democrats gaining some seats. The presumption is spouted everywhere that the election was a referendum on the “war” — a notion that I reject. Midterm elections are NOT national elections — they are a series of local elections all scheduled to happen at the same time. If one looks at each of the Democratic gains in Congress, one can see that about half the seats were picked up because the Republican candidate was involved in some kind of damaging scandal, and the votes were more about personality and integrity than each candidate’s political positions. And most of the remaining Democrats who won did so by running to the right of the Republican candidate. Only in a handful of cases was the Iraq “war” a campaign issue, and in those races, there was no clear victory for the anti-war side (Lamont lost to Lieberman, for example, and Webb and Allen ended in a virtual tie). The left-wing media wants us all to believe that the vote was a referendum against Bush, but I reject that as sheer “spin” with no basis in fact.
Lastly, To the extent that the “war” is “unpopular,” it’s not for the reasons that the media is portraying. There is an anti-war movement, to be sure, but that’s only half the equation. There’s another huge segment of the population that is unhappy with the way the war is conducted because it is being waged too lightly. They want to see the overwhelming use of force, not the PC pussyfooting around that is the current modus operandi. Most polls ask the misleading question, “Do you approve of the way Bush is conducting the war?” and they get a 60% to 65% “Yes, I disapprove” response. But those polls are purposely designed to NOT ask the follow-up question, “Do you think the war is being waged to forcefully or too lightly?” I’ve seen just a handful of polls that did ask follow-up questions of that sort, and they all revealed that half of the disgruntled respondents were to the right of Bush.
Editor’s response to Z’s response: You raise some topics that people will want to read more about. Indeed the very term “anti-war” is misleading because it conflates many variations of opinions about “a war.” During the Vietnam War, for example, a substantial amount of people “opposed” to the war said they were actually opposed to the WAY it was being fought–not hard enough! By the loose definition Barry Goldwater and Abbie Hoffman were anti-war…
For the complexities of what are “pro-war” and “anti-war” opinions and/or images see:
Kernell, S. (1978) “Explaining presidential popularity,” American Political Science Review, 72, 506-522.
Milstein, J. (1974) Dynamics of the Vietnam War: A Quantitative Analysis and Predictive Computer Simulation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Mueller, J. (1971) “Trends in Popular Support for the Wars in Korea and Vietnam,” American Political Science Review 65: 358-75.
Mueller, J. (1973) War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Perlmutter, D.D. (1998) Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Framing Icons of Outrage in International Crises. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Perlmutter, D.D., & G.L. Wagner. (2004) “The Anatomy of a Photojournalistic Icon: Marginalization of Dissent in the Selection and Framing of ‘A Death in Genoa.’“ Visual Communication, 3(1): 91-108.
For more general treatments of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement see:
Garfinkle, A. (1995) Telltale hearts: The origins and impact of the Vietnam antiwar movement. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Gitlin, T. (2003 ed.) The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.