By Fine Print Staff
The Civic Media Center is Gainesville’s alternative library of independent, non-corporate media. It’s celebrating its 15th anniversary on Oct. 18. Though the center, also known as the CMC, looks at first glance like a funky, political used bookstore, it is actually a lending library, a music hall, a poetry and arts venue, a hub for progressive grassroots organizing and a social center for local liberal, progressive and radical activists all rolled into one. In the lingo of the worldwide movement that developed originally in the 1970s and 80s in Europe, the CMC is a kind of “infoshop,” a collectively run community space that relies on volunteers to provide facilities and services to the public, primarily in the form of access to information.
The media center was founded in 1993 by a grassroots organization known as the Gainesville Alternative Press Group. It included the editors of the Gainesville Iguana, a progressive news monthly; MOON Magazine, a city-paper type alternative monthly with a countercultural slant and liberal editorial politics; Prairie Fire, a radical University of Florida student paper; Mahogany Revue, a black community paper covering North Central Florida and national news and opinion; FACT, or Friends of Alachua County Talk, a local politics and environmental watchdog group’s newsletter; and CRISES Press, a Gainesville-based publisher devoted to promoting small press, alternative media and left politics among librarians and other bibliophiles. The group’s members came together out of frustration with the pro-corporate bias and government propaganda in the mainstream media in reaction to the trend of media consolidation with ever-increasing numbers of individual media outlets being owned by ever-decreasing numbers of giant corporate conglomerates. They saw that despite the public’s access to a constantly growing variety of different forms of media (including the Internet, which was still relatively new at the time), the number of perspectives offered seemed to shrink in proportion. And the information presented was more and more slanted to promote the profit interests of multinational corporations and back government policies that increased those profits, from corporate welfare to warfare.
They decided that to promote media and political education that reflected democratic values and real diversity in their community, they needed to have a physical space to house and present alternative media to the public. They took advantage of the fact that dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky was scheduled to speak in Gainesville in the fall of 1993 and organized to open the center on the day of his visit. Chomsky’s detailed analysis of the ways in which media is used for propaganda purposes in a “democratic” society was an inspiration to the Gainesville Alternative Press Group. He participated in the opening ceremony on October 18 and spoke on the UF campus later that evening.
The center has come a long way and gone through a number of changes since 1993. In 1994, the CMC organizers made a very wise move from the original location in two small second-floor rooms across from the University of Florida to its present location at 1021 W. University, still just a few blocks from UF but with a wide-windowed storefront and more than twice as much space. With the rise of the Internet and digital media, organizers added public access computers and a DVD projector to the facility. In the late 1990′s, after the closing of the Hardback Cafe, Gainesville’s legendary working-class punk rock bar, the CMC experienced a brief stint as the area’s No. 1 venue for local underground rock bands. After a successful run of CMC-sponsored documentary film screenings at the Hippodrome State Theater came to an end, the CMC decided to continue showing films in-house at the center on Monday nights. As the collections have increased and programs have expanded, local organizations such as UF/SFCC Campus NOW that once rented offices and storage space at the center have moved out.
The core of the media center’s mission is to help individuals and groups educate themselves on political, social and cultural issues. The library of books, video and audio materials, which are available for checkout to members, and the in-house collection of thousands of magazines, journals, newspapers and DIY ‘zines, provide the physical means to achieve this end. The library is also a key aspect of the CMC’s fundraising. Members give a $10 to $20 yearly donation, for which they get a card that lets them check out materials. Many members give more than the requested amount, and some donate multiple times per year. Overall, memberships provide the center with a little bit from a lot of folks. They are the center’s most important source of income.
The other primary aspect of the center is its role as a community organizing space. As we are constantly reminded during election years, participation is the key to democracy. The center helps facilitate Gainesville citizens’ participation in movements from the local to international levels. It also helps organizations by providing space for events that help activists network with each other and connect with the public. In addition to providing space for other groups, the CMC works in partnership with groups on the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College campuses and in the wider community to produce events such as speak-outs, teach-ins, mass meetings and talks by well-known people in order to help broaden and enrich the political discourse in our community. Over the years, the CMC has hosted or collaborated on events as diverse as “town hall” meetings on election fraud, speak-outs by union janitors resisting being forced onto the night shift at UF, the Winter Soldier II speakout by Iraq Veterans Against the War, feminist video and discussion nights, Earth First! action campaign recruiting drives and organizing meetings and report-backs for mass mobilizations, such as, the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami. They’ve hosted or co-sponsored speakers ranging from local activist, author and historian Lizzie Jenkins, to local Civil Rights activists Joseph Judge and Carol Thomas, to historian Howard Zinn, Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian and filmmaker Michael Moore.
The Civic Media Center is a heroic achievement of grassroots organizing. It has often been a struggle to keep the space open. Similar spaces around the world, especially those with a more sectarian approach, tend to be short-lived and suffer from lack of broad public support. But the support of the community has allowed the board of directors, staff and volunteers of the CMC to persevere and build the organization and facilities. The center represents our community’s contribution to the next wave of popular resistance to corporate greed and government abuse of power to the coalition of liberals, radicals and counterculture people who hold it together and keep it going. They organize around access to information and the use of alternative information as a launching point for action on issues that affect the everyday lives of people here and around the world. Visitors to the CMC seem to enjoy the space and some say they wish there was a similar place in their hometown.
Gainesville’s has the CMC, and it belongs to all of us. The CMC would like to invite you to come participate in your local information insurrection. Stop in and sign up for a membership, search the database for that elusive political book or ‘zine you’ve been wondering about or peruse the DVD selection. Come to one of the weekly events, such as the documentary films screened every Monday at 8 p.m. or the Poetry Jam, all styles invited, every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. Check the calendar on the CMCs web site for other upcoming events, including the month-long series of 15th
Anniversary celebrations in October. Most of all, come on down to the weekly volunteer meeting, Thursdays at 5:30 p.m., and see how you can get involved and make things happen in your community through the Civic Media Center.
James Schmidt is a poet, activist and farmworker who is currently serving as a co-coordinator of the Civic Media Center. He signed up to volunteer for the CMC at Noam Chomsky’s UF speaking engagement way back in 1993, and has been hooked ever since.
The CMC’s 15th Anniversary celebrations will include: a benefit concert by famed Gainesville political rockers Against Me! (who played some of their first shows in Gainesville on the CMC’s stage) at Common Grounds on October 5th; a concert at the Thomas Center featuring singer/songwriter Sam Pacetti and the Aaron O’Rourke Trio on Thursday, October 16th; a forum on local media at the CMC on Friday, Oct. 17th; and an open house and birthday party with music and poetry by local artists on Saturday, Oct. 18th.