4 May Day Stories the Corporate Media Missed While Fixating On Obama's College Girlfriend
Signs on May Day represent a missed media story.
Photo Credit: Sarah Seltzer
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A series of May Day tweets from Reuters encapsulated the failure of much of the American mainstream media to understand the Occupy movement. First the outlet declared the spring resurgence to be a "dud" based on a rainy morning of pickets in midtown Manhattan attended by scattered dozens or even hundreds. Then an hour later a second tweet arrived saying that Occupy had come back and was not in fact a dud because tens of thousands converged in Union Square.
But the true stories of the day lay in between these snap assessments. The problem was, they weren't being reported.
The corporate media has rarely had a comfortable relationship with mass social protest movements -- covering amorphous groups of activists is not as sexy as, say, covering a soundbite-filled debate. In social movements one finds complexity, often no clear hierarchy and differences within the ranks. And yet, all this nuance and diversity is an opportunity for fascinating coverage, an opportunity that has been largely missed since Occupy began.
And missed for what? On Tuesday and Wednesday, my Twitter stream and RSS feeder flooded with stories about young Barack Obama's love letters to his then-girlfriend, which had just been released by Vanity Fair. Many of these journalists, even progressive ones, couldn't spare a thought for the thousands of people amassing all over the city and country in solidarity with the dispossessed, but they were eager to crack jokes about Obama's analysis of T.S. Eliot: a shiny bauble of a story.
A politician's biography will always hold interest. But the chattering classes' fuss over the Obama piece demonstrated priorities; the more trivial story, full of easy opportunities for wit and commentary, was grabbed at, dissected and disseminated, while the more complex but important stories of the day lay mostly bereft of the deft reporting and analysis they deserved.
In November, I wrote about the major ways the media had failed to take advantage of the opportunity Occupy provided for analysis. Here are four more stories just coming out of May Day that the media has forgotten or sidestepped (to varying extents).
Story #1: Income inequality is still here--and so are protests.
Media stories on Occupy suffer from the same "horse race" problem that provides a frequent subject for critique in mainstream coverage of elections. "Media coverage is so focused on headcount numbers, and police and protest clashes: 'is this a win or a lose? How many people got arrested? How many roads were taken over?'" says videographer and Occupy activist Kathleen Russell. When the focus is on the win/lose dichotomy, she says, no one is "talking about the reason people are out there, or what they are fighting against."
Allison Kilkenny also addressed this problem in her post at the Nation. Russell and Kilkenny's assessment from the streets is borne out by the reality in the newspapers and on television. Comedian and independent journalist John Knefel crunched the numbers for FAIR and discovered that while Occupy brought income inequality to the media's attention, Occupy's fading from the media landscape has meant its issues have faded as well:
As mentions of “Occupy Wall Street” or “Occupy movement” waned in early 2012, so too have mentions of “income inequality” and, to an even greater extent, “corporate greed.”
But income inequality hasn't measurably improved --in fact, "the United States is now about as economically unequal as Uganda and more unequal than countries like Pakistan or the Ivory Coast."
That's why people are still participating in the protests. One man I stood next to at the Union Square rally said, "I'm unemployed. I had nowhere else to go."
Story #2: Outsize police presence and infiltration, scary new police tactics.
Justin Remer, the roommate of Joe Ryan, one of those arrested in these raids, told AlterNet he was awakened at 6 in the morning with a flashlight in his face by NYPD. They asked him about his May Day plans before Ryan--who had little to do with Occupy--was arrested on a six-year-old open container violation. A third roommate, Zachary Dempster, who seemed to be the actual target of the invasion and questioning by the cops, had been arrested at an Occupy-related party this winter.
Even though the six NYPD officers were quizzing the apartment's residents about May Day plans, Remer told me, they had to keep up the facade that they were there for the old warrant. "I don’t know what they were hoping to find," Remer said. "It definitely felt like they’d found an excuse to come and give the impression that 'we’ll be watching.'”
This tactic, Gawker's Adrian Chen noted, is something the Bloomberg administration has done in the past, and gotten sued for, during and up to the 2004 Republican convention.
-Sexual harassment, plucking protesters from the crowd: Tuesday's demonstrations saw even worse police activity than the early morning break-ins, including the now-infamous "snatching and grabbing" of random protesters from the crowd for arrest, a fear-based approach that has replaced the less media-friendly "kettling." There's another linked tactic at work here: David Graber has written a harrowing piece about "the apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protesters."
-Overly large police presence, unnecessary corralling of march: At Gothamist, Christopher Robbins noted that "police forced the protesters to backtrack down Union Square West and only permitted participants to leave from two exits. The crush of the crowd combined with the heat made the waiting unbearable." During my exit from Union Square, a cop told complaining protesters that if they let the "50,000" people through more than two exits at once it would be "chaos." But there was more chaos caused by people, including children and the elderly, being unable to cross into and out of the area. This was a tactic used to intimidate and frustrate those attending the peaceful mass rally in the afternoon.
Overriding all these tactics was a huge police presence, completely outsized based on the number of demonstrators. Natasha Lennard summed up my feelings when she wrote, "The NYPD is the seventh largest standing army in the world, and on the evening of May 1, New York felt was a city under military siege — it was terrifying."
All of these tactics are not about keeping the peace: they are about demoralization, fear, intimidation and inconveniencing protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.
Story #3: Historic coalition between labor, students and immigrants.
To me, the seemingly disparate groups that came together comprised the big, unreported story of the day--a Left that looks different from its past.
Anyone who follows Occupy knows that there have been big disagreements at public meetings, and people who have walked away from the movement since its inception. Yet through it all, all winter, the hard work of coalition-building took place. In previous iterations of the Left, working-class labor unions have been unallied, if not outright hostile to radical students and young people. And similarly, racism and competition over jobs has divided organized labor from immigrants, documented and undocumented alike.
But on Tuesday in New York City, organizers from OWS, racial justice, immigrants' rights groups, labor and elsewhere made one of the most concerted efforts I've ever seen to not step on each others' toes and embrace each others' issues. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd noted in her report for AlterNet, in Union Square, organized labor and immigrants' rights group shouted each other out from the stage, warmly and genuinely.
This atmosphere extended to the streets."I was marching alongside a group of anarchists, and a few feet ahead of us was an immigrant rights group. Everyone was feeling the same sort of energy," said Russell. Molly Knefel, who co-hosts a political podcast with her brother John, and spent the whole day live-tweeting, had the same impression: the day offered something for everyone. "Certain actions were meant to calm, safe, family-friendly, immigrant friendly," she said.
Story #4: Organizing peacefully without hierarchy is not easy.
If you've ever tried to organize a big event for your workplace, school, charity or religious institution, you know it's not easy. Now try imagining doing that--except organizing hundreds of events on the same day with a loose group of people who refuse to appoint leaders, don't have a hierarchy, and let everyone speak his or her mind. I've often thought that journalists don't understand the hard work of grassroots organizing, and the number of forces that have to triumph for it to be successful.
To both Molly Knefel and Kathleen Russell, the story of the day was that the OWS organizers and their allies pulled it off and managed to stay fairly respectful while sticking to their own organizing model and working with established groups.
"There were multiple actions all over the city, all of which were quite-well attended and well-organized. There was Williamsburg bridge march, there was a high-school walkout, there were teach-ins in Madison Square Park and all of the actions in and around Bryant park," says Knefel. "It was a day full of many diverse actions that also had a variety of targets and a variety of appeal to different groups.”
Russell, who has participated in Women Occupying Wall Street all winter, was equally impressed with how "smoothly" the day went. "It was one of the first actions that I’ve been involved in in which all the people working to make the action work on the ground were really happy with how it went off," she said, noting that the safe spaces created for immigrants' rights groups and families were by and large respected. "There was just a lot of coordination, communication and solidarity."
The peaceful outcome of the day certainly makes the pre-dawn NYPD raids seem absurd.
Both Russell and Knefel were unsurprised, but disappointed in the media coverage they saw when they woke up sore and exhausted on May 2. Russell, for one, is eager for activists to work harder at creating their own media and messaging--with the same energy and intensity they focus on direct actions.
Perhaps that's the best approach in the face of an indifferent media. Knefel said, "I keep joking that it’s going to be June and people are still going to be saying 'it’s going to be cold soon and they’ll go away.'”