The crumpling, fake chest-muscle padding clad in the garish shades of Superman red and blue accentuated his lanky build, perhaps more than his...civilian clothes...would have. A pair of thick, black frame sunglasses with pink lenses alternately rest in front of, or on top of, his regular wire rimmed glasses. Although the advertisement on the Internet for the "We, the Media" Fourth of July party read: "costumes STRONGLY encouraged," Mitchell Szczepancyzk (pronounced "shchih-PINE-chick") is the only person who came dressed up.
"I had never been a superhero before, but I didn't want to be a cliched one," explained Szczepancyzk, the not-so-mild-mannered alter ego of his self-invented "Media Man."
Twenty-nine-year-old Szczepancyzk is a charter member and the elected president of Chicago Media Action, one of three organizations that came together last Friday to sponsor "We, The Media," an event celebrating Chicago's independent media.
"We, the Media" was not typical of the events that usually take place at the buddY space, 1542 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. While the spacious, well-worn loft did host some of the usual 20-something, art-student-hipster-crowd, also in attendance were young couples with toddlers, high school students and baby boomers. According to the rough count at the door, over 130 people came to the event, which started at 4p.m. and didn't end until midnight.
More than a few of the attendees who braved the steep, windowless and graffiti-marked staircase that precedes the buddY space were greeted at the end of their journey by Karen Young, the Treasurer of Chicago Media Action. Young was dressed very simply -- her only ornament was a long, fluffy red-white-and-blue feather boa.
"A couple of years ago, on the Fourth of July," Young began, "I started thinking...How great it would be to celebrate Real Americans; Americans fighting for a better life for people, like Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King."
Young worked a couple shifts collecting the suggested $10 donation. The event made "just over a $1 thousand dollars" she said. The money will be split evenly among the three sponsors of the event: Redline Radio, Chicago Indymedia and Chicago Media Action.
"It's Worth It! Promise!" read the flyer, regarding the suggested admission price. "We, The Media" had an exhausting number of activities to engage its patrons, and although some were more successful than others, all were undeniably unique. The "15 Minutes of Fame" Soapbox, which consisted of an upside-down milk crate wrapped in patriotic crepe streamers, only drew one participant (the fearless Media Man).
Two blank mural canvases, with a collection of paints at their feet, sat untouched in the sun at the edge of the back porch for a couple of hours. The porch, which was actually the huge, sun-drenched expanse of the first floor roof, extended all the way out to meet the Blue Line El tracks. Like shy little kids, a small group approached the mural and added a few swipes of primary color with the foam brushes. That was all it took to unleash a barrage of potential painters. The canvases were full within the hour.
Donned in a black t-shirt, with black kerchief tied about his neck and short dread locks smooshed under a black base-ball cap, Matt "Z," a member of the Student Liberation Collective and recent high school graduate, hardly seemed to have broken a sweat in the sweltering glare of the summer sun. Matt requested his last name be withheld from print, as his activism has earned him some undesired police attention in the suburb he calls home.
"The only way to have a media in a democratic society," Matt stated confidently, "is to have a democratic media in which every person can participate...anything else is suspect at best."
"We, the Media" also hosted a live radio broadcast, courtesy of Redline Radio. Redline Radio is a pirate radio station. Basically, that means Redline Radio has a transmitter and no license. "I would love for us to be legal," said a charter member of Redline Radio, who asked that his name be kept out of print to avoid prosecution. Redline Radio is a dues-funded organization, which means they have no internal structural hierarchy.
Sitting in the sun, smoking a cigarette, the anonymous D.J. explained the value the "We, the Media" event held for someone involved with an independent radio station. To celebrate previous Fourth of July holidays, he has partaken in other, more traditional activities, such as building a float for a parade. The floats he worked on represented issues he was concerned about: One was anti-sweatshop, another anti-nuclear. "I've been booed," he said, "It seems really weird when we live in a democracy...It's a voice and why would you try to silence that?"
When the lights were turned off for the movie, it was hard not to become aware of the setting sun streaming in the vast, curtain-less front windows. It was amazing to behold an excess of twenty people, with rivulets of sweat running down their cheeks, cram into the room in an orderly manner to see " 'The 7,000' Chicago's Hotel Contract Fight." The film was created by Larry Duncan, producer of "Labor Beat" on CAN-TV Chicago, channel 19.
The film was a documentary piece about the events leading up to and including the successful strike of Chicago's hotel maids in August of 2002. The film used lots of interviews with women involved in the struggle to tell their own story.
"People talk about the "dumbing down" of American culture. I think that's rubbish. It's not the norm and it's not to be catered to," said Duncan, who is also a member of Chicago Media Action.
There was plenty of live music to enjoy throughout the night. One of the bands, "The Chariots" (formerly known as "Monkeypox"), drew a crowd of admirers that stretched all the way to the porch door. "They sound like...a cross between a blues band and a rock-a-billy band. He has real self-assured vocals, velvety, like Elvis," said Katy Gallagher, a 23-year-old fan.
Vocalist and guitarist Coleman Brice possesses a constant smile. Brice feels that in the music industry, "There is a symbiotic relationship. Major labels have in-house indie (independent) labels. Indie labels help discover the new music, which the major label then puts on the scene."
Everyone who attended "We, the Media" received a copy of the "inaugural" 2003 edition of the Chicago Independent Media Guide. This guide was the crowning collaboration of the event, an amazing collection of independent media sources, complete with contact information.
Inside the back cover of the guide, which he hopes to become the first of many, Szczepanczyk writes: "Many are the stories of people who, while channel surfing or web surfing or browsing, happened to chance upon that TV show or radio show or magazine or book or web site that gets them involved in improving the world. But the dice are currently loaded in favor of finding for-profit mammoth media interests which do the exact opposite. This, I think, is the primary motivation for independent media and for this guide to Chicago's independent media: to improve the odds, for producers of these outlets, for users of these outlets, for all of us."