Category Archives: Media Narrative

Stopping Traffic on a Rainy Day; To Block or not to Block?

Yesterday was a rainy day along K street, famous for its lobbyists who make a living promoting corporate interests.  For the beautiful, loving, rabble-rousers, it was a day of action.  Thousands were gathered in protest of the lobbyists’ work.  Around three o’clock, about twenty lay down in the street.  They were covered in plastic and signs.  They stared up at the sky.  Medics walked in and out of the prone group which blocked traffic.  Two rows of police surrounded them, prepared to make arrests.  Along the sidewalks a crowd chanted, said words of support, and attempted to influence the cops -who stood with stoic resistance.  Everyone was soggy.  The rain was as constant as the action.  I was standing slightly in the street, speaking to a reporter -words that I knew he was not looking for.  Then the line of cops moved in; “get off the street or you will be arrested.”  I moved.  Soon the arrests followed.

I had thought about risking arrest that day, but decided against it.  I had mixed feelings about the scene.

On the one hand, I believe in civil disobedience.  In 2003, I jumped a police barricade, protesting the war in Iraq.  My heroes, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were the types who would risk-arrest in the face of unjust laws and unjust social order.  But a lot of people would not risk arrest.  Being arrested (even for a just cause) carried with it a stigma which I knew often prevented people from taking action for social change.  And I wanted to take a real committed action again.  I was happy for the protesters laying in the street, taking bold action.  They were breaking the stigma of arrest within themselves and, in the process, reaching a sense of empowerment like I felt when I jumped the police barricade.

On the other hand, I had reservations.  These are well summarized in an article written by George Lakey about the WTO protests.  Lakey writes,

…there are times when stopping traffic may be the best we can think of…  However… [suppose] we take the point of view of the bystander or the television camera. When the police drag away protesters who are blocking a city intersection, what is the message of the protesters? The World Bank has policies that hurt people? Maybe, if the bystander or television viewer is willing to make several logical steps or leaps of imagination. There’s no reason to expect that bystanders and TV viewers will work hard to make those connections, especially when the excitement is in the physical conflict itself between arresting officers and activists.

In the end, I think blocking traffic is better than nothing, but it does not particularly call out to me as something to put my body on the line for unless I can make a clear case that I am blocking something horrible which is being transported down that road (weapons, for example).  My preference would be to shut down the buildings lobbyists work in (instead of the street), although I know this involves complicated logistical and strategic decisions.

I am uncertain; but I suppose there are three points I want to make.

  1. I am proud of the protesters who risked arrest, who were willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believed in.  I think they are brave people who stood up for the nation and the world’s well-being.
  2. If you are witness and support for an action, do not taunt the police.  Seriously.  Stop that.  I know, police are representatives of an unjust system.  To one extent or another we all are.  Chanting “shame,” or “what would your children think,” or claiming you will make a “citizen’s arrest,” is inviting the press to think we are crazy when the cops are behaving reasonably (when they are not, it is a different story).  This is also inviting the police to be angry and unsympathetic (and they will direct that anger towards the people who are actually taking a risk, not the fool standing on the corner trying to rile up trouble).
  3. The struggle is not about protesters versus police.  In this case, it is about democracy being sold to corporate interests, and protesters resisting the lobbyists who represent those interests.  I also think that, when the message of an action is less clear, it is more likely to become hijacked by the common, tired, and almost ritualistic meme of protester versus cop.  Bear in mind, this is not a message of change; it is only a continuation of what we are used to.
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Narrative of Violence from Friday’s Occupy DC Protest Distracts from the Message

There has been a lot of media coverage about Friday night’s march to the Americans for Progress conference at the DC Convention Center.  I was at the protest.  I saw the movie about the Koch brothers which preceded our arrival at the Convention Center.  I was watching the gate into the parking lot where the gathering began.  Most of the media coverage centered on events that happened shortly after I left however, focusing on two main stories of violence.

One story has been told by conservative media.  A woman fell down the stairs of the Convention Center.  The narrative is she was pushed.  For less conservative media, the main story has been three demonstrators hit by a car, and then given tickets for things like jay walking.

Both of these stories indicate to me how past events become confusing for those who cannot actually investigate what happened for themselves, and are dependent on media narrative .  One story being covered by conservative media and another being covered by less conservative media indicates how tales of violence are used for political agendas (why else would media with clearly different biases choose to focus on different stories?).  This practice makes me generally distrustful of narratives.  If I only have a non-investigative, machine-like, narrative producing media to guide me, I cannot know if the woman fell, was pushed, or was accidentally nudged.  I also cannot know if a driver decided to barrel into protesters, if the protesters actively got in the way, or if some combination occurred.

This is why investigation is important (although it is a sadly dieing art).  I have to admit that I have not given my own proper time to investigate what happened (nor do I have access to, for example, police witnesses), but there are some things I am clear about.  First, Some conservative writers have described Friday as a “riot.”  That is absolutely misleading.  Second, I am sure this media focus on interpersonal violence is a distraction from the real issues -the structural violence (i.e. lack of health care, lack of job security, lack of being treated with dignity) in a world which is geared to serve the 1%.  And this distraction is the main concern which makes me write this post.

I worry that Occupy DCs protest tactics are ultimately feeding into a distracting media narrative which focuses on a few sensational events at the expense of the issues.   Surrounding a building, standing watch at its exits, and confronting its occupants does not, in and of itself, make a coherent statement.  Signs, interviews, chants, and the Koch brothers movie, can help with messaging (as can a press release) -but unless the message is overtly clear it becomes lost as soon as something sensational happens (such as someone falling down the stairs or being hit by a car). There is no obvious cure for this challenge, although there are several things that may help.  If protesters stood in front of the building with a giant banner describing how the Koch brothers are purchasing our democracy, I think the message would be more obvious.  If protesters were still confrontational but less aggressive (this means, standing vigil and making statements but perhaps not getting in people’s faces), I think it would lessen the chance of violent escalation and losing police/public acceptance.  Finally, the more occupiers do our own outreach, the less we need to depend on the media to spread, and inevitably distort, our messages.

Now the movement finds itself on the defensive as it holds a press conference arguing the details over who hit whom at an isolated event, instead of arguing the details over how people are taken advantage of every day throughout the nation and the world.  This is not a criticism of Occupy DC’s choice to hold this press conference, but is an illustration of how the media can very subtly but profoundly shift the conversation.

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