Over the weekend, my inbox exploded with angry messages from people who had just read this New York Times article (though it reads more like an op-ed) about the Occupy Wall Street protest. Ginia Bellafante gives a devastating account of the event’s attendees, depicting them as scatterbrained, sometimes borderline-psychotic transients.Go read the whole post. There is a lot more detail and points to consider (plus embedded links).
Bellafante, who is not a reporter but a columnist for the Times, offered a representation of the protesters that is as muddled as the amalgam of activists’ motives she presents in the span of the article. She first claims a Joni Mitchell lookalike named Zuni Tikka is a “default ambassador” of the movement. In one of the following paragraphs, she then describes the protest as “leaderless.” Either the people at Zuccotti Park have official leadership or they don’t (they don’t, by the way). So either Tikka is an official spokesperson who warrants first-paragraph favorability, or Bellafante’s own biases persuaded her to put the kooky girl dancing around in her underwear in the spotlight.
The more serious aspect of the protest—the “scores of arrests” that occurred over the weekend including the arrests of more than eighty people, several of whom the police first penned and then maced—is offered as an aside in Bellafante’s article (she doesn’t mention the macing at all). By the way, none of the young women in the following video are in their underwear.
Bellafante goes on to (rightfully) wonder why the response to the widening class divide hasn’t come in the form of a more serious movement. A proposed hypothesis never emerges, even though Bellafante almost stumbles across one when she describes a young man who is stopping by only in “fits and spurts” because his mother fears he’ll be tear-gassed by the police. It sounds as though Bellafante is on the cusp of critiquing the US police state that has completely terrified the activist community into submission, but then she retreats.
The main bone the article wishes to pick is the scattered ideologies of the attendees—a fair point. However, Bellafante never attempts to do the job of real journalism here, which is to use this slice of life to help her readers understand the world around them. Instead, she comes across as a rubbernecker leering at a particularly bloody wreck.
I remember my experience of demonstrations in the 1960s and 70s. Sure enough, there are a good number of kooks in a crowd. Even the idea of "demonstrating" is felt to be somehow wrong in a democracy where supposedly the people's voice is captured in the election. But elections presuppose and informed public which in turn presupposed an open and effective press. But these are rarely in place, so the role of a demonstration is to kick the system in the rump to force the press to pay attention. This in turn gets the wider public thinking about a topic that heretofore was ignored.
Demonstrations are important and effective. But a journalist who holds them up as a laughingstock is working hard to realize the right wing fantasy of shrinking government down to a size where it can be strangled in a bathtub. If you can turn the public into sleepwalkers by making demonstrations a joke, you will get the "government" you deserve, a robbers' haven where self-interested crooks run the show.
Here's the bottom line for Kilkenny:
... Bellafante reaches a far, far larger readership, and the ones who dismiss protesters always do because their corporate overlords love depicting protesters as flower-waving, stoned-out-of-their-gourds hippies. If you think those are the only people on your side, why get off the couch at all?So much for democracy in America. So much for America having a future.
This rubbernecking style of journalism is particularly dangerous right now because it amounts to criticizing a burning house for the color of its curtains. The curtains might be brash, ostentatious and completely unhelpful in maintaining the overall flow of the home’s ambiance, but it’s perhaps not the most pertinent detail of the moment. Here’s a more pressing question: Why are the people Bellafante described in her article the ones left behind?
The teargas aside starts to tap into something important: how the police state and its domestic weaponry and bureaucratic assist with the needs for permits to do anything in protests have successfully crippled the activism community. Activists are afraid. You can smell it in their midst. They talk about the constant presence of agent provocateurs and undercovers at every protest. They share battle stories of being abused by the police, like being tazed or held so long in makeshift police pens that they had to defecate in their clothing. And these are the brave ones that still show up to the protests.
It’s not mere paranoia. We know for a fact that the FBI monitors activism groups, and this practice reached a frenzied level during the Bush administration years. These intimidation practices continue under President Obama in the form of raids.
There's a reason why the founders of the America Republic made such blunt statements as the need to "water the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots". Those who run a society are not interested in protests or demonstrations. They will always paint them as loonies and malcontents. Real democracy unfortunately requires a real struggle. The trick is to work for change without being corrupted by the dark forces that those in power use against you. The real task is to remain hopeful and sane while the powerful paint you as a nihilist and crazy.