The Iguana and the role of the movement press

For the Iguana’s tenth birthday (October, 1996), we ran the following speech by way of an introduction to the Iguana. This speech was given by co-editor Jenny Brown at the Censorship in America Conference hosted by the Civic Media Center in April 1994, as part of a panel entitled “The Role of the Alternative Press.”

We talk a lot about the mechanics of censorship, the role of the editor, the role of the gatekeepers, how television stations, or bookstores, or libraries, decide what to say, what to stock, what to acquire. Sometimes so much so we forget about the goals of the various outlets whose censorship we are discussing. For example, what are the publishers of the Gainesville Sun’s goals in publishing the Sun? Do they do it out the of goodness of their hearts to inform the community about the Danny Harold Rolling trial? Is it to decrease unemployment in Gainesville? [Audience member answers “Money”]. That’s one goal. Is money the only goal? How about power? Power for what? To hold on to the money they’ve made? Power to support the candidates and policies that will help them keep–and increase–the money they’ve made? To make things nice for their community–which is peopled by the top university administrators, the corporate executives, the hospital boards of directors, bank presidents, and their families.

If we keep this in mind it’s no mystery why they say some of the things that they do say–and don’t mention some of the things that they don’t mention–in their newspaper. Financial scandal at UF? Call up your buddy at the Sun to make sure it doesn’t hit the paper. Graduate students getting uppity? Make sure your side is presented to the editor at the next elite social gathering. A radical running for City Commission? Tell your buddy at the Sun how much it would hurt development-they’ll understand, they’ve got some money in it themselves.

You know, if I made 20, 30, 50 times what the everyday person on the street makes, I’d be a little worried about how I was going to keep ahold of it, too. That kind of imbalance doesn’t maintain itself without some effort, especially when ordinary people realize that these millionaires don’t work nearly as hard as we do, and spend a lot of time at parties and playing golf, and going on vacation in faraway places, while we’re sweating it out 40, 50, 60 hours a week in the offices, construction sites, factories, newsrooms, print shops, hospitals, nurseries and classrooms of America-doing the work that keeps it all going.

I say this because if you view things this way it becomes less of a mystery why the debate is so narrow in the Gainesville Sun. It’s not because the publishers and editors of the Sun can’t see another way–another vision of society. They can, but it’s one in which they aren’t on top. I bet that kind of keeps them going.

Well, a vision of a better society keeps us going in the alternative, or independent press.

I should give a little background on the Iguana–it was started in October, 1986 as a photocopied newsletter, and we started with our present format in January 1990 on newsprint, 16 to 24 pages with a print run of 4-5,000 We have 700 subscribers. It’s paid for by ads, subscriptions, and benefits–concerts by local bands who appreciate what we do–and recently we’ve done a film series. Subscription is on a sliding scale, with $10 being the average. We have no paid staff, not because we don’t think it’s a good idea, I think the movement needs to become more able to pay people so they don’t have to spend most of their time making a living, but we just can’t afford it at our current level.

Like the Sun, we publish in the interests of our community. But our community is the working people and the students of this town. Why? Because that’s who we are. That’s who writes the articles. That’s who our audience is, that’s who our subscribers are. Within that large group of people, we specifically focus on the people and organizations that are pushing to improve our lives in our community and in our country.

Our philosophy, if I can use so formal a term, is that the good things that we have today: weekends off, the vote, public schools, abortion rights, all of these things were won in a fight. They were taken in a fight, by the powerless, against the powerful. A fight that was, in many cases, vilified by the corporate press.

Those fights were led by people who were affected by the situation. Whites did not defeat Jim Crow in the South. To the extent that it’s been defeated, African American people did it. Men on the Supreme Court did not ‘give’ women abortion rights, women agitated, spoke out, marched, illegally did their own abortions, to the point that the Supreme Court didn’t dare not liberalize the law.

If you work for the University, you got a pay raise because the unions fought for and won it. The legislature was trying to break the contract. You also get two 15 minute breaks and health benefits because of a union fight. We get a weekend because our brothers and sisters in the union risked their jobs and livelihoods and some–many–lost their lives to win the 8 hour day and the 40 hour week. [And if you got a raise when the new minimum wage law went through, you can thank the men and women of organized labor for that, too.]

The Iguana itself is a product of the movement. It was started to coordinate the activities of the many Central America-related organizations and energy that was created in the fight to stop Contra aid, in which the U.S. government was sending guns, advisors, and money to help overthrow the revolutionary government of Nicaragua.

How does our movement understanding translate into practice? We try to get people who are involved in the specific struggles to write something. If they don’t have time, we run transcripts of what they say in speeches, or what they write in press statements. An organization works really hard to say their points just right in the press statement, but many reporters rely on a spur-of the moment interview with one of the leaders, members, or even passers by, to get their story. We try to get close to the source, because those are the people most involved in the given issue, who have the best grip on the situation, who are going to understand the nuances, and who have been grappling with the problem.

Now I realize this differs from the general theory about objectivity and balance that reporters are taught to have. But we see things differently. Our goal is not to “get both sides of the story” as if a story had only two sides, as if a reporter could “get” that. As if a reporter were an objective funnel with no biases, merely telling the “truth.”

We say, let the people doing the organizing speak for themselves. The reader can decide if she agrees or disagrees, if she likes it or hates it, if it’s true in her experience or not true, if it speaks to a need or doesn’t. As people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used to say, “Let the People Decide.” (I guess that’s instead of “let the editor decide,” or “let the reporter decide.”) How could the people decide based on the Gainesville Sun’s caricature of the anti-Gulf war movement? How could you tell if it was a good thing or a bad thing, based on the coverage there was? A lot of us in the movement have had the experience of going to an event and then reading the paper the next day and wondering “Was I at the same event as that reporter?” Scott Camil went to serve his country in Vietnam and came back and looked at the press coverage in the free USA and wondered if they were talking about the same war. Running articles by participants cuts down on that distortion.

Another role that we have discovered we have, surprisingly, is that the back issues of the Iguana serve as a little movement history. This has helped, recently, since the Nazi skins are back in town and people who are organizing against them can look at the back issues we have which detail the organizing that has gone before: what worked, what didn’t, what the organizers learned. Questions like “don’t give them your energy” versus “confront them wherever they are” were debated out in our pages.

We have an index, which helps us find old articles, and all our back issues are in the Civic Media Center, if you want to check them out. And since we reprint so many original movement documents and accounts, a lot of it’s pretty good original source and first-hand information. First-hand accounts and original sources are recommended by historians, in fact.

Another helpful aspect of being a movement publication is that having reporters at events, especially if they have tape recorders and cameras, makes the police less likely to arrest you and if they do arrest you, less likely to hurt you, and if they do hurt you, less likely to get away with it. A classic example of this is my own arrest for photographing and objecting to the arrest of a UF student who refused to pack up an anti-racist literature table on campus. The photos I took were used in the trial, and the student, Pete Self, was found not guilty of obviously fabricated charges of resisting arrest with violence.

We use photos for illustration, as well as protection. For example, when UF was cracking down on political literature and t-shirt sales and amplified sound for political events–bake sales, sales of Vodka t-shirts, amplified sound for Slugfest all went forward unmolested.

We ran a pictorial essay exposing this double standard, and explaining UF’s official rules. UF’s reaction was to ban on-campus bake sales, so we ran an article on that in the next issue.

When the klan rallied here, we ran photos of the klan members in the paper, so people would know who they were. One woman actually discovered that she was working with a klan member, as a result of our photos.

As movement reporters, we feel we have a duty to try to record what goes on, even if the organization that’s putting on the event forgot to record it. So we have tapes of trials, interactions with police and UF administrators, hearings, etc. which form another history archive of Gainesville movement stuff. Sometimes we run a whole transcript to expose bureaucracy, for example when students confronted Doug Diekow when Student Services charged a student with speaking out on UF’s “free speech zone”, the Plaza of the Americas. That got really good reader response.

I said earlier that the Iguana was started as a product of the movement. We still are of the movement (or movements) for freedom and justice. Because we are of the movement–not passive observers–we understand certain things that you only get from participation, genuine care, for the movement and striving for its goals.

This includes two simple things: as organizers, we know it’s important for people to be able to get in touch with groups, so we try to always run addresses and phone numbers so people can get in touch with the organizations that are working on issues we cover. It also extends to more complicated things. We do very little telling people how they should run their struggles which you see at regular intervals in the Sun and Alligator, usually in form of opinion pieces and darts and laurels, as in, “Well we see the need for-fill in the blank: Women’s Student Center; Black History Month funding; divestment from South Africa–but why do you have to be so loud/radical/persistent about it? You’ll just alienate people. You’re just hurting your own cause.’

When the Black Awareness Movement took over the UF Student Government offices (Dec. ’91) and had a massive sit-in demanding Black Student control of the Black History month budget, there was no question in our minds about why that was necessary. We know, from experience, why you have to be loud about it. Their anger and passion was not mysterious to us. One, we knew that African American students saw the need for it and knew the situation best. Two, we knew the students had already gone “through channels”–we’d been following it. Three, we know people don’t sit in in offices on a whim, or for self-aggrandizement. People don’t risk getting kicked out of school en masse on an ego trip. They were there demanding that the school provide money for teaching history, after all.

We take sides. For example, we did not reveal who was inside during the BAM occupation, but not because of the standard journalistic reason, which would be that they would not talk to us again. We wouldn’t do it because it would be risking a person in the struggle. It would set back the movement. It would hurt what we are all fighting for.

We realize that the Iguana has organizing potential beyond the actual newsletter itself. We use the mailing list to mobilize people. We sent out a card inviting people to this conference, for example. Our calendar is intended to get people off their butts in front of the TV and out and supporting local politics, art and culture.

I want to close by mentioning something Joe, the other co-editor, said when we were talking about what I should say here. Distinguishing us from other publications he said “We dare to be serious.” We dare to take the movement seriously. That’s because it’s a very difficult and serious task, an historic task, making changes in society. Those of us who take it on need all the help and support they can get. If we slip and fall we need the assistance and encouragement, not the ridicule, of everyone who is benefiting from the fight.

And now, since I’m an organizer: If you work, if you are a woman, if you are a member of an oppressed race or nation, if you are a student, if you are gay or lesbian, if you breathe the air–have I covered everyone yet?–there are organizations out there fighting a fight that will benefit you. If you want more of those benefits, if you want them to succeed, and not get smashed, you need to join an organization. Just on this campus I’ll name some groups: Campus NOW, your union: UFF, Graduate Assistants United or AFSCME; Environmental Action Group, Black Student Union and Gator NAACP, Hispanic Student Association, LGBSU, Freedom Coalition, I don’t care if you disagree with half, or 2/3 of what they say, you need to get on in there and pay your dues and make your voice heard.

Jenny Brown is the co-editor of the Gainesville Iguana, a member of Gainesville Women’s Liberation, and a member of the National Writers Union (UAW 1981).