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Public protest, media, and economic justice

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | September 25, 2011

On September 17, a group of US citizens inspired by the successes of public protest in other countries occupied public space on Wall Street, the location in Manhattan that has come to stand for the excesses of the financial sector.

Not only does Wall Street stand for the banks that fueled the ongoing “Little Depression“; it is also a focus for critique because bankers and brokers have rapidly returned to the same high levels of compensation that strike most people, in a country with massive unemployment, under-employment, and declining wealth, as grotesque.

Occupy Wall Street has carried on for more than a week. As time ticked on, a theme emerged in alternative media across the country: the protest, activists and progressives noted, was being ignored by the mainstream media.

So is that charge fair? It probably depends on where you get your news from, and one thing it does is bring to light a potentially critical difference between a place like Spain— one of the models for the “Day of Rage” called for Wall Street– or even Egypt, where massive protests in Tahrir Square provide the most visible model for similar protest movements world-wide.

Not only is the U.S. population larger — it does not turn to any single or even small group of sources for information. Both television and print/online are splintered into many outlets.

At least in print, there was major media coverage of the planned action from the beginning. But organizers have cause to complain about the tone of most of the US media coverage.

On September 16, New York Magazine published a feature story about the planned protest. It laid out what would be the most common media model: ridicule. The idea of a “leaderless resistance movement” opposed to the conditions that produced our current society– in which, as the protest organizers have repeatedly noted, wealth (and political power) is concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population– was, it seems, too simple.

CNN also covered the planned protest in advance. While it shared the bemused-by-the-kids tone of the New York Magazine article, it gave a more coherent account of the genesis of the protest, and included such details as that solidarity protests were planned in 74 cities around the world.

CNN quoted one of the organizers, who made it clear that the Wall Street action was meant to be the start of a process, not the end:

“It takes a lot to rise up and reform the global economic system,” Lasn says. “And maybe this time we fail. But if we do, we’re just setting the tone for the next revolution.”

What both of these early media reports fixed on, to the exclusion of any substantive discussion of the issue of economic inequality that fueled the protest, was the lack of a specific demand from the protesters. The organizers did play into this by describing processes that were going to be used to arrive at a demand: “crowd-sourcing” and a “people’s assembly”. The organizer interviewed by CNN was quoted saying the demand would be about

“taking to task the people who perpetrated the economic meltdown”…”The demand could be some stupid lefty thing like ‘overthrow capitalism,'” Lasn says. “We’re hoping it’s something specific and doable, like asking Obama to set up a committee to look into the fall of U.S. banking. Nothing extreme about that.”

“Stupid lefty thing” and “nothing extreme about that”: when the organizer is so quick to distance protest against economic inequality from an established political position, it suggests at the least some ambiguity about how the protest was supposed to be perceived.

Business media source Bloomberg News reporting, ironically, played the story as straight as possible. Reporters there actually did the work needed to independently verify that there were protests expected in banking centers including Madrid, Milan, London and Paris. The Bloomberg story took the goal of the protest directly from the original website promoting it, saying that the aim was to get “President Barack Obama to establish a commission to end ‘the influence money has over our representatives in Washington’.

Once the protest began, according to Google News, coverage was widespread, with increasing numbers of stories over the course of the week:

Timeline of articles

Timeline of articles

An AP news story, published (among other places) on ABC’s website on Sept. 21, reported that the group occupying the site was down to 200, but that they intended to remain in place as long as possible in the hope of keeping a spotlight on the issues. But again, what those issues are seemed to elude the AP reporter, even though she quoted some eloquent (and admittedly diverse) formulations of what individual protesters saw as the issues:

an unemployed 21-year-old, said he was there because he doesn’t think it’s fair “the way that the rich get more breaks than the poor….What I really want to achieve is to educate people about what’s going on with the economy right now…A couple of the ways that we might be able to fix it, you know?”

Or as another participant quoted said:

“The enemy is the big business leaders of Wall Street, the big oil company leaders, the coal company leaders, the big military industrial leaders,” he said. “I came out here because what I see — and what I feel most people in this country see — is an economy and a system that’s collapsing.”

Where early stories focused on the “crazy kids” angle, as a core of participants persisted, marching in lower Manhattan and other locations, media reports expanded to include coverage questioning police tactics in what currently are reported to be around 90 arrests. The spectacle of police using Mace or pepper spray against unarmed citizens reached the blogs of the New York Times, the national newspaper of record.

While US media continue to find the motivations of the Wall Street protest mysterious, international commentators have a different view. Writing in the Guardian in the UK, Amy Goodman was able to boil the issue down to this: “Banks are sitting on cash hoards and corporate profits are riding high – yet ordinary US taxpayers face joblessness and cuts”. She wrote that

their message was clear: “We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”

In videotaped interviews with participants, Goodman provides what even the best US coverage fails to give: an account of the economic forces that are the target of this protest. Those she interviewed include anthropologist David Graeber, who said

“If you look at who showed up, it was mostly young people, and most of them were people who had gone through the educational system, who were deeply in debt, and who found it completely impossible to get jobs…The system has completely failed them… If there’s going to be any kind of society worth living in, we’re going to have to create it ourselves.”

In the Guardian, Goodman quotes Graeber, author of Debt: the First 5,000 Years, at greater length about one of the economic forces that has polarized US society:

“Debts between the very wealthy or between governments can always be renegotiated and always have been throughout world history. … It’s when you have debts owed by the poor to the rich that suddenly debts become a sacred obligation, more important than anything else. The idea of renegotiating them becomes unthinkable.”

It is issues like these that remain tacit in the US media coverage, with its by-now fixed storyline that Occupy Wall Street is a bunch of kids with time on their hands playing at being revolutionaries. Yes, it is not nice to pepper spray children. But then, they aren’t observing the rules.

It remains for places like Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting to call out the essential problem with coverage, which is not (just) the degree of visibility accorded protests like this in the US, but the selective nature of who and what gets coverage.

As FAIR writes, “What if the Tea Party Occupied Wall Street? Corporate media skip anti-corporate protests”, a claim for which they then provide solid documentation.

None of this is surprising. But it ought to be troubling that we live in a society where serious issues are not covered seriously. We all deserve better.

Comments to “Public protest, media, and economic justice

  1. Summary: anthrologists _really_ know what the protest is about, and are annoyed that the media aren’t paying attention to them. Instead, the media are actually interviewing and quoting the protesters! How dare they!

    • Hank, with respect, your comment makes no sense. As I note, individual protestors were eloquent about what is at issue. Yes, I am proud that an anthropologist (who, by the way, was among those protesting) has added his special perspective to the mix. My complaint is with the media that try to portray the protest as having no defined point when it has in fact a complicated yet clear message: stop economic injustice.

      • “My complaint is with the media that try to portray the protest as having no defined point when it has in fact a complicated yet clear message: stop economic injustice.”

        I agree with Hank S on this. That’s your opinion as to what the protest is about. It’s not at all clear that the quoted protestors agree with you on that. There’s quite a bit of incoherence to those quotes. Unless they’re fabricated (evidence for that?), they indicate that protestors had different views as to the “point” of the protest. Hence, no single defined point.

  2. Funny, how public sector workers such as police and corrections officers are asking for Americans to protect their job/pension/health care security from Republican/Conservative spending cuts (examples in Wisconsin and Ohio). But then the police state pays us back by beating, gas, shoot with rubber bullets and wrongfully arresting Americans who are demanding accountability from the Wall St con-artists who ruined our economy. The Class War has begun and the LAW better get out of the way.

    Back in the late 90’s while the Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay were busy selling out the American middle class for a very few silver spoon trust fund babies…

    I don’t remember the public sector union workers standing up for their private sector union brothers and sisters. Check out this newpaper headline from 4/16/99 article titled: “Mattel to layoff 3,000 workers. WALL STREET CHEERED the news of restructuring, sending Mattel’s stock up nearly 16 percent…” WHAT? We all know how IT turned out now that our children have all the latest LEAD based toys from China.

    Questions one must ask: How did Wall Street become the enemy of the American working class? What did the 90’s Congress legislate to make it easy for Corporations to move jobs out of the country? Would the police of the time blame 3000 Mattel workers for being VERY angry? Because that news article was about as “in your face” as it gets…

    The reason why I bring police into the picture is because law enforcement UNIONS and associations have become some of the most powerful, wealthy entities on the American political scene. I can’t help but remember how many times in US history POLICE harassed, abused, beat, gassed and shot those who supported UNION organizing efforts. Public Service UNIONS have the sort of job/pension/healthcare security those of us in the private sector can only dream about.

  3. One of the most pithy critiques of the mass media came from the Reverend Jim character in the situation comedy ‘Taxi’:

    “The best thing about television is that if something really important happens — anywhere in the world, day or night — you can always change the channel.”

    Prone to distraction we are; providers of distraction the corporate media strive to be. It’s almost an ideal market!

  4. Thank you Rosemary: “But it ought to be troubling that we live in a society where serious issues are not covered seriously. We all deserve better.”

    It appears that the current GOP dogma is dedicated to spreading the cancer of anarchy, at least temporarily overthrowing American Democracy to get their way regardless of consequences of unemployment, poverty, climate changes and chaos they are producing.

    Hopefully your timely, most important post will produce an exchange of ideas it deserves because it is time for the intellectual community take responsibility for making the right things happen with the required sense of urgency, at a time when our politicians are failing to do protect our Democracy, culture and quality of life today and into the future.

  5. Thank you for drawing attention to this protest on Wall Street. I sometimes go through a stretch without watching the news, and somehow I missed this one!

    You are right that there is no one source of news these days, thank goodness. It’s up to all of us to search out various sources, read and watch critically and piece things together. I think those reporters who try to get organizers to come up with concrete demands, and then ridicule them for their lack of “focus” don’t understand the nature of movements.

    This Wall Street action seems very broad-based. I see people from every ethnicity and walk of life (even some of the employees in their Brooks Brothers suits are giving the thumbs up in the windows). I see the unemployed, the homeless, students, workers, and also the 72 year old middle class mother who went back to work to help her two daughters pay their mortgages.

    There are many class and social interests represented by the participants. Probably the one thing that unites them is disgust that institutions and individuals have been able to get ahead by breaking the law to such an extent they’ve undermined our economy.

    I think as a start. the protestors can agree that Obama should order an investigation of banking in America and that the right people and practices should be held accountable.

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