Toward An "Overstanding" of Genoa and Jamaica
There were bodies in the street, blood on the ground and army patrols racing back and forth. Horror registered on the faces of the sullen, angry people who witnessed the carnage.
No, I'm not talking about Genoa, but Jamaica. A straight if unseen line links the death of an anti-globalization protester and hundreds wounded at the Group of Eight summit in Italy with events on the Caribbean island where what Dr. Martin Luther King used to label a "silent riot" among the poor has been going on for years.
It was there that at least 25 people were gunned down in the streets this month alone, many of them by a police goon squad misnamed the Crime Management Unit. According to the wire services, the incident grew out of gang battles that have gone on in the slums of West Kingston for decades, although a government investigation is underway that will likely indict, as these postmortems tend to do, the brutality of the security forces.
The drama was presented as a crime story, as we've seen before in movies like "The Harder They Come" or heard in the lyrics and rhymes of reggae. Crime and over-punishment is a Third World narrative that can be read about every day. Only the current situation is a manifestation of a larger crime, the ongoing abuse of the developing world by the so-called First World.
There was more to it, much of it not reported.
In Jamaica, I once heard a phrase I will never forget. Back in the early 1970s, I told a group of Rastafarians that I thought I understood what they were saying about poverty and oppression in a colonial society. They answered using slang I had never heard before, words like "sufferism" and "downpressor."
"Don't understand, mon," I was told in a thick patois. "If you understand, you are under it and don't get it. You need an 'overstanding.'"
"Yeah, mon, when you overstand, you are over it and can see the whole t'ing, and then you can penetrate. When you are under it, ya miss it. True, true."
They were right. What we need today is a big-picture "overstanding" of how so much of the desperation that fuels crime and repression in the developing world is connected to the imbalances and misery that top-down globalization, in league with local elites, is producing. Such an "overstanding" would also lead to a better grasp on why young people are flinging themselves into the jaws of police power with such ferocity.
Life And Debt
Unfortunately, it is hard to get this from most media accounts. Fortunately, in the case of Jamaica -- the country that produced reggae superstar Bob Marley and larger-than-life leaders like the late Michael Manley, who local people once called "Joshua" with almost biblical reverence -- a new documentary film in limited distribution by independently funded director Stephanie Black called "Life and Debt" offers the missing context.
The film explains how the country's economy has been distorted and undermined by policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It shows, industry by industry, why many in Jamaica are living in growing dependence and poverty. It documents, as news accounts do not, how economic development strategies imposed on the country forced Jamaica to slash education and social services, while establishing trade zones that function as sweatshops for global (mostly U.S.) manufacturers.
Seeing these issues on the big screen makes a powerful impact. It also underscores the need for independent journalism and documentaries that investigate the issues of globalization in detail. Happily, "Life and Debt" is making the small indy circuit, playing the Human Rights Film festival, one tiny theater in New York and other venues.
"Life and Debt" also reports how the Manley government tried in the mid-'70s to call for a new international economic order within the framework of democratic capitalism. The effort failed, thanks to the overt unresponsiveness of the international financial forces now condemning the protesters in Italy for not "dialoguing," alongside covert -- and largely underreported -- destabilization strategies mounted by the CIA and World Bank-ers.
In the aftermath of this summer's killings, Jamaica's The Gleaner newspaper is filled with angry commentary. Writes one contributor, Dawn Ritch: "This Government has no regard whatsoever for the rights of poor people, and I am outraged and disgusted by its conduct over the last several days."
Stephen Vasciannie links the problem to the deterioration of the government itself: "It is clear: Aspects of the Jamaican state are falling apart, and the Government is quite clueless as to how to end this steady deterioration."
Robin Lim Lumsden points to a background of "state abuse, and the abrogation of citizens' rights that if unchecked will lead to totalitarianism and invasive state control." Like many other observers, she sees political forces behind what many media outlets picture as apolitical conflict.
Across the ocean in Italy, protesters are trying to call attention to issues like this that the news media for the most part don't focus on. When there is violence, especially when someone dies in a protest, it makes the news, and in this case, perhaps because the shooting took place in front of so many photographers and reporters, it captured front pages all over the world. As is usually the case, the protest is news, but the issues it raises -- including the fact that these protesters feel shut out of most media outlets, which routinely downplay the issues that galvanize them -- are rarely mentioned in mainstream media accounts. For example, a month ago, after protests in Gothenburg, Sweden, a march by 30,000 people was ignored while some rock-throwing by a smaller group commanded the headlines. In that instance, I got a call from a journalist at the Ma'ariv newspaper in Israel who discovered that the Associated Press had distributed an in-depth analytical piece on who the protesters were and why they marched in such numbers. He asked me to comment on why none of the top newspapers in the world carried it.
It was somehow symbolic that the Genoa events took place in a country now led by right-wing media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, a man who has built an empire by using media to promote his own views. I was not surprised when The New York Post, owned by fellow mogul Rupert Murdoch, carried a prominent column by Rod Dreher in its Sunday paper saying that the dead Italian activist Carlo Giuliani "deserved what he got." You expect this from the tabloid press, but unfortunately tabloid values are infiltrating so much of the media. Imagine how much attention the story would have received if Chandra Levy, the current darling of U.S. TV coverage, had been on the barricades in Genoa.
This is not the first violence or death in the upsurge against globalization, as The Nation reminds us: "The slaying yesterday by Italian police of a demonstrator outside the Group of Eight summit in Genoa was not the first killing of an activist protesting corporate globalization, as much of the press is reporting. Dozens of demonstrators have been killed in India, Nigeria, Bolivia and other countries where anti-globalization movements are, for reasons of necessity, more advanced, impassioned and militant than those now taking shape in Western Europe and the United States."
Many of those deaths were barely noticed in the West. In Genoa, the activists were ridiculed by U.S. President George W. Bush who spoke predictably only of the "tragic loss of life." President Chirac of France saw things more incisively, saying: "The elected leaders of our countries have to consider the problems that have brought tens of thousands of our compatriots, mainly from European countries, to demonstrate their concern, to demonstrate their wish to change." When was the last time you heard an American leader use words like "our compatriots" or "the wish to change"? Chirac also noted that "one hundred thousand people don't get upset unless there is a problem in their hearts and their spirit."
New Media's Impact
While media issues are not on the front burner, these protests occur with a powerful assist from a new type of media. Sociologist Lauren Langman and two of her students, Douglas Morris and Jackie Zalewski, discuss this in a paper posted to the Progressive Sociologists Network: "Globalization is not just an economic transformation," they write, "but has had a profound implication on politics, culture, meaning and communication. It cannot be thought of apart from the Internet, a revolutionary media in which the many can communicate with the many. This has allowed a massive proliferation of progressive and indeed radical activist listservs, Web sites and MUDs [multi-user domains]. For example, we get most of our information about the protests from the Independent Media Center network, but there are hundreds of others to choose from. From IMC, we found linkages to the Web site of Genoa Social Forum, (a large network of movements), and while the Web site content is in Italian, some is translated into English."
If you haven't checked out these sites, you should, to get a feel for the passions and experiences of individuals who tend to be represented only in group shots and the "hot footage" that grows out of confrontation. The Independent Media Center, popularly know as Indymedia, activists are participatory journalists who believe in being the media, not just appearing in it. The battle is literally flowing into their offices, as Michael McCaughan reports in an e-mail that sounds like it could have been written on the West Bank:
"A woman arrived into the Indymedia Center in Genoa this evening, blood streaming from a head wound. She had been trapped behind police lines in the afternoon where she went to take refuge from the street battles. Seven police officers approached her, grabbed her and beat her, took her film and the batteries from her video camera. Adam Porter then walked into the Indymedia center, a former sub-editor with Loaded magazine. He had two gashes in his leg. He had been covering the basta march, where 25,000 people descended peacefully on the red zone, wearing protective body armor but carrying no weapon. The mood in Genoa is one of indignant rage, a righteous rage that a peaceful protest could be set upon in such a savage way."
On Saturday night, police in Genoa raided the building housing the IMC activists with tear gas and batons. Some media equipment was seized and journalists attacked. You can hear a Free Speech Radio report directly from the scene.
At the same time, it must be said that anti-globalization messages do get diluted when indignant rage overwhelms the political focus, or when protesters allow a violent fringe with little inclination toward building a mass movement to set the tone. As most in the movement know, the real fight is not with the police but with the policy-makers and the policies they impose.
Unfortunately, in a world of growing divides and inequalities, there are sure to be more Genoas and Jamaicas, and their battles will be told in different ways. In the future, it is likely that world leaders will meet over satellite TV hookups or online, making it harder to confront them or hold them accountable.
It seems clearer than ever that those of us who, broadly speaking, share the values of this movement and who want the dangers and opportunities of globalization to be debated, need to do a better job of communicating the real issues and getting more media visibility for them. We can't let the action faction and street-fighters define the struggle or its goals. Michael Albert, editor of Z magazine, is challenging fellow activists to strengthen the movement before the expected next round of protests at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. this fall, not simply to lash out at property and the police. He writes: "Given our resources and means, we must educate about the issues at stake more widely. We must attract and sustain ever wider and more lasting support."
The truth is we all need more of an "overstanding" if we are to overcome.
Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000," from Akashic Books.