The Civic Media Center
By Hope Dean & Naz Hussein
Gainesville’s Civic Media Center (CMC) is technically a library — stacked with rows and rows of books ranging from queer poetry to the works of Karl Marx. But in-between the shelves, it has a heartbeat.
The CMC saw this best when the alt-right white supremacist, Richard Spencer, showed up to host a talk on the University of Florida’s campus in 2017.
As a home base for several groups like Dream Defenders and the National Women’s Liberation — leftist organizations who support diversity— the blood of the CMC began to boil at the news, said James Schmidt (he/him), one of the CMC’s former directors. It only worsened when UF “rolled over and showed their belly,” allowing Spencer to speak with no complaints.
“A lot of us in the communities said, ‘Fuck that! We’re not going to let these boneheads take over half of the UF campus!” Schmidt said.
So the CMC became a base of operations to the hundreds of people pooling into the heart of the CMC. Its empty rooms became storage for protest signs and flyers. Its floors became the training ground for nonviolent action and crowd directing training. When rumors came in that white supremacists would target the space, teenagers from the local punk community ran foot patrols all night to protect the CMC.
By the time Spencer’s talk started on Oct. 19, they had amassed a protest of over 2,500 people, some who had traveled from as far as Atlanta and Miami.
“It was beautiful. It was amazing,” Schmidt said. “[Spencer] was never able to get his shit together after that.”
But protests make up just one sliver of the Civic Media Center. Since 1993, the CMC has been educating people on leftist politics through its large collection of free-to-read books and magazines. But it’s also a multipurpose center for poets, musicians, activists and artists to come together and share their work — and it’s one of the last of its kind.
** Disclaimer: The models in this photo, any photos below, and the video are NOT the interviewees in the writing pieces **
“And off we went”: The Origins of the CMC
The CMC starts and ends with one thing — community.
That’s been the case since the very beginning, said Joe Courter (he/him), one of the CMC’s founding members. Courter has published The Iguana, an underground community newspaper, since 1986, and was part of a group called the Gainesville Alternative Press. He and other small local papers met at the house of Charles Willis, a Korean War Veteran and member of the American Library Association, to help him judge entries for his own review magazine.
One of Willis’ passions was promoting alternative media, such as the work of underground publications or smaller publishers. So when news came in that Noam Chomsky — a prominent linguist, philosopher and political activist — was coming to town, the group banded together to create a place for alternative media, riding on Chomsky’s coattails.
On Oct. 18, 1993, the Civic Media Center opened — the same day Chomsky arrived in Gainesville. Their first event was a round table conversation with the activist himself.
“Some sign-up sheets were passed around. Out of that came our first core volunteers,” Courter said. “And off we went.”
Willis funded the CMC for its first year, when it had set up shop in a building right by The Swamp Restaurant. Both spaces no longer exist. Then, they moved to 1021 West University Avenue in 1994, and finally to their current address of 433 S Main Street in 2008.
And all the while, the CMC was growing.
The first books to the collection came from Willis, and then from a volunteer’s mother whose bookstore was closing. In 2007, the CMC even received the entire personal library of Stetson Kennedy, a prominent author and human rights activist based in Jacksonville.
But while it was supposed to be a space for people to find alternative media, it grew into something else entirely, Courter said. In 1995, its staple Thursday poetry jams began after a group of Santa Fe College students expressed interest. Musicians flocked to play gigs, and countless activist groups used the space as a center of operations.
“The idea of actually having a physical space was kind of new to us, you know? We hadn’t had that before,” Courter said. “There's a whole parade of people who've been working at the CMC as volunteers or coordinators and have gone on and had their lives changed by it.”
Yet Manu (she/they), a current CMC board member, admits there is more to the origin story. The CMC was established by white men, whose approaches didn’t always align with the surrounding community of color, they said.
“Most places in downtown Gainesville used to be Black. What used to exist before the CMC was a Black-owned grocery store,” Manu said. “So the CMC will always have room to grow because it started from a place that wasn’t doing the right thing.”
“You are allowed to exist without being asked for anything”: The Current CMC
The CMC may be a library, but it’s also a community space that nurtures the needs of Gainesville members and active participants, former CMC coordinator Kaith Leen (they/them) believes.
In their previous role, Kaith Leen pulled people to the space by cultivating relationships with organizations and individuals throughout Gainesville. From collaborations with the grassroots Dream Defenders to the local record label Dion Dia, the CMC hosts events from educational panels and general meetings to film screenings and silent discos.
“The CMC does a lot better with active relationships with other entities. I think music, food, and art can really bring people together,” Kaith Leen said. “At the CMC, you are allowed to exist without being asked for anything.”
Connect the Dots, a music, media, and visual arts collective, is one such entity born at the CMC. It was started by Manu to create safe music spaces and prioritize marginalized bands and musicians. Manu established the collective while running music shows for the CMC.
“It was a guaranteed way of fundraising, but it was also something that was mine,” Manu said.
Queer the FEST, a punk music festival that Manu organized with Em (they/them), a former CMC coordinator, also began at the CMC. It served as an alternative for people not represented by FEST, the bigger music festival held in Gainesville annually.
Manu and Em formed a band together called Themme, where Manu sings and plays the guitar while Em plays the bass. Their favorite moment was playing at Queer the FEST 2019, their first live show as a band.
“It was magical, seeing our many months of practice come into fruition in the place where we are most active and where the people that we love were there for us,” Manu said.
These days, COVID-19 makes it difficult to host live events like Queer the FEST, but that doesn’t mean the CMC hasn’t adapted to current circumstances.
JoJo Sacks (she/her), current coordinator of the CMC, said that while the center’s physical space is closed, events are still happening online. The pandemic has even allowed them to collaborate via Zoom with other information shops that reside anywhere from North Carolina to New York.
But one service remains in the CMC’s physical space — the Free Grocery Store.
The Free Grocery Store takes fresh produce that was going to be dumped from grocery stores and repurposes it. Before the pandemic, the CMC would set up tables inside on Tuesdays and have people fill their bags — but now that COVID-19 restrictions are in place, the CMC delivers the food all around Gainesville to over 300 people.
“Even though we've been closed, we're using the space for the essential organizing functions of Gainesville,” Sacks said. “That’s why the CMC is so essential. It’s almost like a home base.”
“We have to make sure that we can keep the CMC alive”: The Future of the CMC
After 27 years, the CMC is the second oldest information shop in the entire country and the last of its kind in the Southeastern United States, Sacks said. The challenge now is keeping it open.
The CMC sustains itself entirely on community donations and money from events like Queer the FEST. Being classified as a non-profit helps for tax purposes, but its organizers are often still focused on the difficult task of paying the bills from month to month.
The coordinators oversee various roles and operations, from event planning, volunteer management, cleaning, and fundraising to taxes, communications, and librarian work, Kaith Leen said.
The catch? There’s usually only one to two coordinators working at a time, and they’re spread thin across the various responsibilities that need to be accomplished.
“You basically fundraise for your check,” Kaith Leen said. “It’s a lot of hard labor,”
The pandemic hasn’t helped. The fundraising events that the coordinators, volunteers and entire space rely on have been canceled, making it even more difficult to keep the place afloat. But that doesn’t mean the CMC is giving up.
“Each day we're open is an act of resistance,” Sacks said. “We have to make sure that we can keep the CMC alive.”
And part of that ongoing life is fixing the CMC’s past mistakes, Kaith Leen said. Most of the people who visit the CMC are college students or older white folks who frequented the space during their youth — but the CMC could be doing more for people of color.
“The CMC doesn’t have an agenda, but I think it thrives the most with coordinators of color, who really make an effort to connect with the native community and not just the university,” Kaith Leen said.
Despite bittersweet realities, the CMC deeply touched and altered Kaith Leen. The young activist moved to Gainesville in 2017 because of the CMC and its potential opportunities.
“I attribute over half of my relationships in Gainesville to the CMC. It also made me the organizer that I am today,” Kaith Leen said.
For Em, being a CMC coordinator was the best job they’ve ever had, aside from the difficulties. Em fondly recalls No Borders Fest held at the CMC in 2019, a radical celebration including Fight Toxic Prisons, Dion Dia, and Connect the Dots.
“People from all over showed up. There were talks, dancing, silent discos, and an art exhibit,” Em said. “It was so beautiful to have every part of the CMC used, especially to build relationships.”
The Civic Media Center hopes to continue holding such events. But whatever the future holds, it comes from beyond the wall of COVID-19 — something that can’t be gone soon enough, Sacks said.
“I do really hope that we can eventually get back to a time where folks can come together and feel safe, and feel seen and heard,” Sacks said. “We're all really craving and needing [community] right now.”
Photo Executive Director: Hannah Diasti, Photo Director: Luis Parera, Photographer: Luis Parera, Photo Editor: Luis Parera
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