The protesters’ media guru


Matt Ruben with signs used by protesters during the Republican National Convention

Photoby Candace diCarlo

Matt Ruben was a little blasé about being interviewed.

This was understandable. After all, the Ph.D. student in English and urban studies had just come down off a stint as media guru that pushed him in front of TV cameras a dozen times in two weeks.

“When I did my first press conference, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m in a press conference,’” laughed Ruben. “By the second week, I was like, ‘God, not another one!’”

During the Republican Convention this summer, Ruben was a member of the R2K Network, the coalition of liberal-to-left activists and organizations that helped coordinate anti-Republican demonstrations.

As a member of the R2K Media Collective, Ruben provided media services, hooking journalists up with spokespeople and protesters to interview. He did spin control, trying to keep coverage of the demonstrators what media hacks call “on message.” And he organized and spoke at those darned press conferences.

“Journalists left us messages saying we were the tightest, most organized media team they had ever worked with in years of covering protests. It was weird to hear this from people who … were openly hostile to us.”

Throughout all this, he worried that the city might shut down the independent media workspace, as police had already done to activists’ puppet-making space in West Philly. During the convention, police did close the media space for an hour, acting on reports of a man threatening to jump off a nearby roof. “But they didn’t shut down anybody on the block except us.”

Left-wing spin control, police-dodging, and occasionally taking orders from activists many years one’s junior — these are not typical extracurriculars for your average ABD (all but dissertation) trying to get ahead on the job market.

But it’s all in a day’s work for Ruben, who’s no stranger to activism or community involvement. In the fall of 1993, barely a year after arriving at Penn, he co-founded the multiracial, youth-powered peer health education non-profit now known as the Youth Health Empowerment Project, or YHEP. In addition to continuing as a grant writer for YHEP, he’s also written grants and volunteered for Philadelphia groups including the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, AIDS rabble-rousers ACT UP, and the education nonprofit White-Williams Scholars.

Nor is he a stranger to the Penn idea of linking academics to community activism. A couple of former hot-button campus issues — the restrictions on sidewalk vendors and the outsourcing of facilities management — became great fodder for his dissertation, which investigates ways that market-driven American political thought shapes urban development.

“I took on urban studies because I was interested in Philadelphia,” said Ruben. “I want to be a politically responsible academic, and to me that means studying where I live.”

As for the future, Ruben believes the RNC protests — along with last November’s WTO protests in Seattle and April’s World Bank/IMF protests in Washington — are just the beginning of something much larger.

“I think this may be the most important movement of my lifetime. It’s not a single-issue movement but something broad-based, directly in opposition to economic inequality and the excesses of corporate capitalism. It was great to finish a long day of work with R2K and know that it was going to continue the next day and beyond Philadelphia.”

Originally published on August 31, 2000