Published: November 23, 2011
One of the large advantages politicians and public figures have in the media is the ability to “stay on message.” As long as you can get a camera in your face (and at that level, it’s not too difficult), repeatedly saying the same 20 words that comprise the idea you wish to spread is almost a snap. Sure, quite often you’ll have some annoying interviewer or reporter trying to get a real answer out of you, but in case you haven’t noticed, nobody really answers the questions they’re asked anymore anyhow.
If, however, you happen to be a large, leaderless group of people, message discipline is almost impossible. And that is the second-biggest problem facing the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The biggest problem they face is, of course, the large allied movements against them: corporate industry (think the Koch brothers), corporate media (think Fox News), and a political class that serves those interests (think the Republicans and the tea partiers). If you can’t form a single coherent message—which is what today’s media almost requires—then someone will step in and form it for you. Which is why all the images you see and often the stories you hear and read play up the image of jobless, unwashed hippies in drum circles starting fights with police.
But for Occupy Wall Street, the medium is the message. It’s the fact that they are there. If you’ll recall, before the movement began, the public discussion was largely about the debt. Not jobs, and not about how the top 1 percent or 0.01 percent of the country had in essence looted the treasury and is in the process of trying to permanently tilt the playing field in its direction.
It struck me that there are a lot of similarities between what is now happening in New York (and in some instances in Oakland and Denver) and my experiences in Third World oligarchies when I was young. Since when, in the supposed rule-of-law United States of America, do we make it a practice to conduct after-midnight raids with hundreds of riot-clad police on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators after clearing out the press? One could be forgiven if instead of thinking New York in 2011, you were reading about Manila in 1985 under “elected” dictator Ferdinand Marcos, or perhaps Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti in 1986.
There are all the signs: billionaire authority figure in charge (New York Mayor Bloomberg), check. Overzealous indiscriminate paramilitary-dressed police (New York, Oakland), check. Late-night police raids (New York), check. Clearing out the media “for their own protection,” check. Indiscriminately beating or arresting reporters (New York), check.
In a bit of supreme irony, a reporter and a videographer for the conservative web publication The Daily Caller were beaten by New York City police at the Occupy Wall Street protest and given aid by the protesters. The Daily Caller, started by right-wing gadfly and former political writer Tucker Carlson, had previously mocked the OWS movement, with articles titled, “Note to Occupy Wall Street: Rape, riots, murder, arson, pushing old ladies down the stairs, lice, and crapping in public don’t poll well.”
Well, it’s been my experience that if you have the law on your side, you conduct crowd-clearing operations in broad daylight, with the press in attendance, like we allegedly do in rule-of-law democracies. You welcome scrutiny, because you know you’re in the right. If you’re sure that you have the law and public opinion on your side, you don’t wait until after midnight, like you would in, say, Communist China. You probably don’t need to be firing rubber bullets into crowds, as in Oakland, or shoving legal observers up against the wall with riot batons, like the police in New York did to retired New York Supreme Court Judge Karen Smith.
Smith said on the Democracy Now radio program that as a legal observer, she witnessed a police officer throw a woman to the ground and begin beating her after the woman simply asked about the status of her daughter in custody. “I walk over, and I say, ‘Look, cuff her if she’s done something, but you don’t need to do that,’” Smith said. “And he said, ‘Lady, do you want to get arrested?’ And I said, ‘Do you see my hat? I’m here as a legal observer.’ He said, ‘You want to get arrested?’ And he pushed me up against the wall.”
It is incidents like these that make it easy to start wondering what has changed in the American character where not only can authority behave as if we’re all in an armed camp, but a sizeable part of the nation can be convinced that it’s just about a bunch of dirty hippies taking over a park.
It’s no wonder “message discipline” has come down to hand-made signs distributed across social media. Given who has the money, the power and, the megaphone, it’s all we’ve got left.
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