Who am I?
This is a rhetorical question, I think.
I recently announced on twitter that I’d be taking a break from on the ground reporting to catch up on writing a slew of analyses I’ve had on the back burner for the past few months. My intent was to deprive myself of the distraction of in-the-moment coverage, the stress that comes from being in a space where at any second people around me might get brutalized, and the exhaustion that comes from being on high alert until everyone disperses safely; the task of observing, processing, and reporting what’s going on to provide a full picture without leaning on filming faces or just letting the camera run.
My hope in taking a break from being on the ground was that I’d give my brain a break from spinning a hundred miles an hour without reprieve. It’s no exaggeration to say that I am laser focused on the environment I cover every moment I’m awake. I’m constantly thinking about how to do better, sifting through unresolved questions, putting pieces together. Whether it’s observing shifts in collective behavior, tracking upcoming or ongoing events, analyzing what all of the work means, gauging what’s next, or desperately begging news outlets to let me do the work I’m doing for them rather than them lifting my stories wholesale (who then get it wrong and/or credit me by the wrong name) — no matter what, I’m in it 100 percent. I can hardly hold a conversation that has nothing to do with the activist scene these days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the middle of a sentence and then get immediately sucked into the work, only to re-emerge minutes later with a “Sorry about that… What was I saying?” When I’m on the ground, I can chat with someone for a few minutes before a timer goes off in my head urging me to snap focus back to everything else. I tell people “I’ve gotta do a loop” more often than… anything, actually.
This isn’t healthy, but it’s what happens when your job isn’t one you get to clock in and out of. It occurs to me as I look through this long list of articles yet to be written that maybe the reason I can’t seem to focus on writing them is because my mind is preoccupied with something else: What the fuck am I even doing? This, you’ll be unhappy to hear, is a recurring question catapulted to the forefront of my brain thanks to everybody’s favorite character, Mr. Trauma.
Sometimes, I don’t know if what I’m doing even counts as work. I know when I’m updating on twitter I’m putting time stamps on my intellectual property. I know the footage I take and post is the result of developing a sense of what best illustrates a situation with as much consideration as possible in keeping people safe.
But then there’s Mr. Trauma, pushing me to disappear by sowing endless seeds of self doubt. What am I doing? Who am I to be doing what I’m doing? Who am I at all, and is what I’m doing anything?
The one thing I know definitively is the abuse I’ve experienced is not enough to stop me. I’ve been assaulted, harassed, doxxed, and badjacketed. I’ve witnessed so much brutality. I’ve even deliberately dehydrated myself for hours on end because I can’t pee whenever I need. I’ve had to have difficult conversations with my roommate about what to do if I’m arrested. Hospitalized. Killed.
Everyone I know who has reported on demonstrations in the past year has been through this. That my experiences are shared is something that helps me cope — it’s not just me — but that brings great sadness for the same reason. We have put ourselves through so much in an effort to illuminate and uplift information that might otherwise go unseen or deeply misreported.
If you had to boil down what I do to its most simplified version, the answer is “I cover protests.” But it’s so much more than that. To get the story right takes a deep backlog of knowledge — knowing, for example, that RefuseFascism is the bane of activists’ existence and has been for ages. Or knowing who’s considered unsafe by the community (Activist John, for example). Understanding the nuances between different groups that seem similar on the surface but are markedly different in character. The conflicts that emerge between, say, longtime abolitionists and those who claim a title because it’s the latest trend term. Or the conflicts between activists who are all fully with it but who have differing views on what work works best. Learning to distinguish between internal drama that can and will be resolved within the community (that would be harmed by exposition) as opposed to ‘talk aboutable’ information to deter further violence. The tightrope walk between providing a fuller scope of understanding to those outside without coming across as patronizing or overly simplistic to those inside — or its inverse, the tightrope of not going too inside baseball, the goal in both being to illuminate instead of isolate.
In previous posts, I’ve used as a tag line “Notes from within and without.” This is a reference to Nick Carraway’s positionality in The Great Gatsby; “I was both within and without,” he says, then follows, “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I cut the latter in lieu of highlighting the dissonance of existence in a space while unable to fully enmesh in it. The phrase felt apt for my role since I’m an anarchist with a background in labor organizing knowledge but, being press, I have to draw firm boundaries on how involved I can be. For example, I can volunteer at a food drive but I can’t carry a shield. Hell, I lit a cigarette in press gear and a certain far right propagandist had a field day alleging I’d helped set the fire I was using for my cigarette. It resulted in probably the most badass footage of myself that will ever exist, but also came with it a huge pile-on of harassment and a target on my back for being “fake news” and “antifa press,” with local Trump supporters declaring (falsely) that I show up to their events to film faces. I don’t, because they’re all known and their events are largely extremely boring. Not worth getting covid over.
To engage in the action I’m covering is to hinder my ability to do the work of covering the action. I witnessed someone get thrown to the ground by police only a few feet from me. I instinctively reached out my arm to de-arrest them and had to force myself to pull back, reminding myself that my role is to document. I know I wouldn’t have been able to de-arrest them anyway: We were surrounded by police with barely any space to move and certainly nowhere to go. Anyone who attempted a de-arrest that night got arrested, too. Had I extended my arm out further, I would not have been there to document police violently drag a woman over a line of bikes. Or document a cop in black bloc emerge from the crowd to abruptly tackle someone on the sidewalk. Still, that moment plays in my head constantly. A terribly perfect encapsulation of my being within and without.
This is the bitter reality of those who document protests have to swallow. To engage is to limit what is shown, what is seen, what is made known. We could talk about “centering yourself” as a problem here, but I see it more pressingly as a safety issue. Many ignore this reality and wind up targets. They also make those who abide by the reality more unsafe. If you pretend to be press hoping to use it as a cover for engaging, thinking it will keep you safe, all it does is teach police to view all press as illegitimate; propagandists who deserve to be targeted early to shut down what they can document. Even though I don’t engage, police still view any press who cover protests as “outside agitators” who simply show up in the hopes of creating “anti-police bias,” even though the simplest fix there is for police to not brutalize people. It’s not our fault you did misconduct.
But this is why I’m fairly silent when I’m on the ground. My role is to document, and my documentation is in itself participation as information distribution. Even the most passive observer, if reporting on a scene, is in some capacity actively engaged with the context and contours of that scene. If you’re doing it right, you should feel overwhelmed with elation when nothing bad happens and exhausted from being actively aware of a million things flying around at once.
Someone engaged in a protest is focused on what they’re doing. Someone documenting a protest is focused on what everyone is doing. When your role is to have your head on a swivel so you can document, process, and cohesively report what is happening all at once, you end up absorbing a lot.
It should come as no surprise, then, that a quick check on Twitter of the reporters who were on the ground at protests for any extended period in the past year have taken heavily to either shitposting or disappearing or a flex combination of the two. No amount of collective sharing can combat the need we all have to suck our brains out of our skulls and put them in a warm bath for a bit. Lately I’ve been imagining pulling my brain out of my nose like a giant pink booger and putting it in a big container, letting it rest on my kitchen table like a roast freshly pulled out of the oven. Let it soften up a bit, relax a little.
As I try to let my brain rest, all the normal trauma responses kick in. I have clinical anxiety that sometimes, after a density of triggers slam against the walls of my skull for a long enough period, results in executive dysfunction. I stop eating. Sleeping. Taking care of myself. Handling basic chores becomes insurmountable. Taking a break from reporting on the ground means my brain has some legroom to kick my anxiety into high gear. And one of the most common forms of anxiety is sweet, sweet, existential dread.
I don’t know if what I’m doing matters. I don’t know if it’s even anything. I can’t publish my breaking news beyond tweeting it out and I certainly can’t get published on a platform beyond myself my inside baseball analyses about why everyone hates megaphones. I’m throwing my brain against a wall, seeing what sticks, and going “Is this anything??” Granted, I have enough sense to know when there’s a story. Even if it’s too niche for a publication to run or too short to merit a Medium post, I can take the scattered dots of experiences and stitch them together into a cohesive narrative of events. It’s not crafting a narrative out of nothing or deciding there’s a constellation where there isn’t one. It’s untangling a knotted lump and identifying the throughline. This is a developed skill that I am still working to improve on, that I will likely never master but that I endeavor to improve on every time a little flag goes up in my brain that tells me “there’s something here.”
I know I’m not the best reporter covering protests. I don’t have a staff job — never have had one — and I don’t have the academic background of most professional reporters (I majored in English with a concentration in literature, so my wheelhouse is critical analysis). It’s a struggle for me to think of which sources to contact when reporting out a story. These knowledge gaps are usually filled by editors (on behalf of legal who “would want us to ask ____ for comment on this”) or experience with the foundations of reporting for a publication. I’m good at analyzing what’s happening and how it fits in the broader context. I’m an encylopedia of knowledge when it comes to the activist community. If you need to know who to contact to feed the unhoused in your neighborhood, I can think of who to contact. What I don’t know is if what I’m doing is anything. All I know is I’ve got this unrelenting urge to keep doing it. I’ll figure out what “it” is later. I just hope when that later comes, the “it” helped, if only a little.
This is all to say that whatever it is I’m doing, it’s a lot to handle. I’m doing my best, as we all are, and I’m trying to be better, as we all are. It’s not easy to get punched so hard you bleed and to continue reporting through the waves of dizziness that follow. That’s what these past few months have been, both literally and emotionally. It’s hard to move past that to get to a place of writing a deep dive analysis about anything besides the too muchness of it all. But those little flags that pop up saying “there’s something here,” they come from the same place that first told me to dive in and to keep going. Unable to detach myself from the innate drive to document and report while also struggling to click back into a position to absorb everything going on outside of me, it seems I’m forced to report on myself, the circumstances I find myself in and the uneven hills and valleys of being a human whose job is to operate beyond human instinct. All of which is driven by a hope that by speaking it out loud, some of it will be purged so I can focus beyond myself again. Because the story isn’t me. The story is you: what you’ve done, what you’re doing, what you’ll do next. And that’s one I want to be around to document, to look back on and know whatever it was, it mattered.
To quote that overly quoted book again, And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.