Young women being pepper-sprayed by cops on Wall Street? A protest movement claiming to represent 99 per cent of the population?
Missed it? Last week the #occupyWallStreet campaign kicked off, initially organised by the magazine Adbusters but now administered by a vertical cohort of groups and individuals on social media. It’s now day 11 of the protest and groups in more than 40 cities across the US and internationally have joined in. (There’s information about them here.)
The protests have been getting bigger and bigger, and they’ve been graced by progressive luminaries such as Susan Sarondon and Michael Moore, but unless you closely follow alternative media the protests might have escaped your attention.
They haven’t been widely reported in the mainstream media, and when they have, reports have turned on policy brutality rather than what the protest is all about. This isn’t altogether surprising. Read Jeanne Mansfield’s account of getting maced at the protests and the alarm about police responses makes sense.
One protester told the NY Daily News "I was shocked because it seemed like one person after another was being brutally tackled, and it wasn’t clear why". The many videos in circulation of protesters getting zapped with pepper spray provide clear evidence of police zealotry — but have also served to distract media outlets from why the protesters were there in the first place.
The New York Times has been criticised for missing the point in this article. Gina Bellafante wrote: "The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face."
Some progressive media outlets have been less than enthused too. Lauren Ellis in Mother Jones says the campaign is "lacking traction" and lists four reasons why — including police brutality being in the spotlight rather than the protesters’ concerns, and for a "kitchen-sink" approach she summarises thusly: "First make noise, then decide what the noise is all about?"
NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumarcher-Matos explains why the radio network hadn’t given the protests any coverage in this post. He quotes NPR’s executive director for news, Dick Meyer: "The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective."
Inadvertently, Bellafante and Meyer might have got it right. It’s very apparent that there is no one single reason drawing protesters to Wall Street and to other protests. One "clear objective" and group cohesion just isn’t the name of the game — so perhaps it’s not surprising that the media has taken a while to twig to what’s going on.
The protests started very small and not all the protesters who turned up have the same reasons for doing so. As Eli Schmitt in n + 1 wrote a few days after it all started: "We still don’t know exactly what the demands are. One of the members of our group, in discussing the criteria for a good demand, noted that Americans like to "get something" out of a political action. Repeal, enact, ban. We want visible, measurable outcomes."
The 99 per centers did get around to issuing a list of their "one demands" in response to the media’s desire for "one clear demand". It’s not one objective, but many — some of which are extremely abstract.
As Schmitt observes, the protests underway in Wall Street and across America don’t look much like the anti-globalisation protests of the early 2000s. The protest movement is changing and even though the original Adbusters call referenced Tahrir Square, the Occupy Wall Street movement gestures to a far more diffuse set of goals:
"Compared to other large-scale protests I’d attended in my life — the WTO protest in Washington D.C. in 2000, various antiwar protests throughout the early aughts — the aggravating causes here were less abstract. These were not Americans decrying foreign policy. They were Americans in debt, Americans out of work. This "day of rage" was inspired by personal injustices, best illustrated by anecdote rather than data. Along with all the familiar righteous ire at corporate sway in our supposedly democratic political system, there were tales of joblessness, debt, and desperation."
Ed Pilkington in The Guardian concurs, writing, "The protests were a lament for a nation in which, despite the 2008 meltdown, the financial system remains largely unregulated, where 46 million Americans live below the official poverty line, and where inequality is greater now than at any time since 1929."
David Weidner, writing in Market Watch, is in touch with the same rage and desperation; he just placed a slightly different emphasis.
"If you want to know how a nation supposedly by and for the people has become uprooted, one only needs to see how common young people, who are suffering so badly in this recession, were humiliated further by trying to exercise their given right to peacefully protest.
If this is justice, I’d rather break the law.
The bankers who brought us this mess not only walk free, they drive free in Bentleys paid for by money looted through toxic mortgages, trading debacles and derivative madness. Regulators, prosecutors and an administration patsy to big finance do nothing except hand out $1.3 trillion in bailout cash and guarantees."
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