Media Sees Only Arrests
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It is an odd fact of the demonstrations surrounding the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles that the only protests that get mass media coverage are those where cops move in and people get arrested.
Look at the morning papers, turn on the tube: the news from the streets of L.A. is that on Monday nine people were arrested at a march to protest Gore's oil investments and that the police broke up a 8,000-person rock concert gathering that evening outside the Staples Center, carting off about 15 people who had thrown bottles and chunks of concrete across a high-security fence.
Today the networks and newspapers covered the arrests from Tuesday, when 25 animal rights activists were arrested after banging on a fur shop window and approximately 75 alternative transportation advocates on bicycles from a group called Critical Mass were surrounded and arrested by a legion of motorcycle cops.
But other than this kind of coverage (of police hauling off protesters to jail), the press seems to be fairly befuddled about how to describe what the demonstrators are doing.
At Arriana Huffington's Shadow Convention on Monday, Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek columnist, made perhaps the clearest comment about how the press feels. "The protesters have a moral responsibility to say what they're about," he said, indicating that the press no longer feels they should do the work of investigating and reporting.
Delegates feel similarly unclear about the demonstrators' intentions. "I don't even know what they're demonstrating about," Bill Hanner, a Michigan delegate and a teacher told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't think they're doing a very good job of getting their message out, because we're very willing to listen."
This is bad news for the thousands of activists, workers and students who have poured into L.A. to attend peaceful rallies on the drug war, police brutality, corporate power, globalization, youth criminalization, women's welfare, educational reform, capital punishment, sweatshop labor, Ralph Nader's inclusion in the presidential debates and practically any other issue on the progressive agenda you can name.
Their issues are important ones, but because they are so diverse and not directed for the most part at the Democratic platform being presented at the convention, they get little to no airtime. Instead, CNN shows footage of demonstrators in handcuffs and black-clad, bandana-masked anarchists walking down the street and then quickly returns to the business of covering the convention.
Certainly competing with the media event that is the Democratic National Convention is no easy feat. But leaders of the various activist movements in L.A. are being far from media-savvy. This may be because ever since activists had their coming out party in Seattle last November, there has been much hand-wringing about how to keep a coalition of labor, environmentalists, anti-globalists and other members of the American left together while remaining non-hierarchical. How to replicate the success of Seattle? How to get messages across? seems to be on many activists' minds.
Yet it has become clear to many watching the news this week that Seattle's success is not being replicated. "This weird psychology had set in where they're so afraid of losing the momentum of Seattle that they have to keep organizing the next Seattle or the whole thing will dissipate," said Naomi Klein, a Canadian activist and author of a recent book called No Logo. "And so a tremendous amount of resources and energy and creativity is being thrown into moving bodies to protest. But the protests since have not been as pulled together and the protests have been thrown together too quickly."
Klein believes that a centralizing issue for demonstrators and activists in Los Angeles should have been corporate influence over politics, an issue she says many Americans understand and can rally behind. Yet no such thing has happened. Speakers have continually raised the issue of corruption of politics by big business, but not in a way that has gotten the attention of the media who could disseminate their message.
The only real exception to this was Monday's Million Billionaires March, where 8,000-10,000 people showed up to support condemnations of the wealth gap and scream: "Corporation go to hell! Our community is not for sale!" Unfortunately, this successful protest was capped off by the concert outside the Staples Center where a few demonstrators became raucous and the cops moved in with their batons and rubber bullets. The media focused on the arrests, not the reasons for the Million Billionaires March.
An unfortunate problem with the demonstrations in Los Angeles is that activists are following the tactics of Seattle too closely. The Seattle protests were a success because they showed that collective-decision making could work to both organize people and get Americans to think about the WTO and the repercussions of globalization. Time magazine published a lead article about globalization and the protests, which included a diagram of the activists' decentralized organizing methods.
No such diagrams will likely come out of the Los Angeles protests nor many articles about what the protesters' were fighting for. Instead the media will probably focus on the LAPD's extreme and questionable tactics of crowd control, which the New York Times reported today may lead to a civil rights lawsuit by the Justice Department.
Legal observers are paying close attention to such events as the one that took place Tuesday when a group of about 70 mostly Latino youth activists were prevented from attending a Bus Riders' Union rally for better transportation in L.A. The police split the youth activists up into two groups and prevented them from getting on the subway.
"All we wanted to do was to peacefully protest the classist and racist infrastructure of the Los Angeles MTA," said Georgia Lopez, a high school student with a group called Macha. "Our neighborhoods are poorly serviced by dilapidated buses."
Also on Tuesday an all-evening standoff took place between cops and a crowd of people who had witnessed the arrest of the Critical Mass bicyclists a few blocks from the convention center. Instead of taking the bicyclists off to jail, police placed them in a parked paddy wagon, brought in approximately 100 motorcycle cops and stood with their batons, pepper spray guns and other weapons at the ready, waiting, it seems, for the observers to either attack them or disperse from the area.
"I have never seen anything like this before," said an observer from the National Lawyers Guild. "We are not the enemy!" shouted members of the crowd.
It is times like this when an activist leader (or even a few visible representatives from the various movements) would be helpful to get the message out to the press. These representatives could call in police abuses to media outlets and simultaneously talk up key issues. They could, as was the case during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the protests in Seattle, get Americans to understand why they are on the street.
It's not too late for this to happen. But with the clock ticking away and the media unimpressed by the demonstrators so far, this seems unlikely. After all, we live in an age when people like John Alter expect to have their stories served up through press releases and telegenic leaders practiced in the sound bite.