Guardian UK | Reader Supported News | May 4 2012
OPINION ~ So, Occupy got it together for May Day – at least, in New York City. You would never know it, though, from mainstream news: those reports were full of what I call the “erectile dysfunction” narrative, the default narrative in American new coverage of mass protest. “Why Occupy May Day Fizzled”, as CNN had it: flaccid efforts, always in “drenching rain”, that may be well-intentioned but have no staying power.
But if you click onto the new site Occupy.com – or if you actually went to the rally held in the late afternoon in Union Square – it was a very different story: thousands of euphoric protesters, a massive sound stage, edgy hip-hop artists who had created Occupy anthems that were euphorically received by the crowd, and representation by dozens of community groups and unions in Manhattan. In other words – if built on further – a power base. Maydaysolidarity2012.org showed a coalition of what must be 30 unions and community groups, ranging from the Domestic Workers United, to New York Immigration Coalition, to Veterans for Peace Chapter Three, to the journalists’ union, the National Writers’ Union.
It seems Occupy has spent the winter changing its strategy – and building coalitions with existing community groups on the ground. This has paid off handsomely, at least as far as the May Day rally demonstrated. Because they had organized with a real city power base – the unions, without which Mayor Bloomberg can’t function, and which his “designated successor”, Christine Quinn, needs to have on her side – there was a world of improvement in their reach and effectiveness.
The media outreach was better, though far from perfect. They were able to get out messaging about news stories the media has ignored: reporting on Barcelona’s General Strike of 29 March, which, a flyer claimed, “brought much of Spain’s economy to a halt”. Occupy asserted that Spain’s electricity consumption dropped 24% on that day. They published a weekly “The Occupied Wall Street Journal” May Day edition, which had an actual schedule of the day’s events on the front page, and retailed news “from the front lines”: Occupy UC Davis, it reported, “permanently closed a campus branch of a US bank after a two-month student-led blockade” – which I hadn’t read elsewhere. Atlanta Jobs with Justice, Communications workers of America Local 3204, and Occupy Atlanta together “prevented 255 layoffs” at AT&T it claimed, after a 42-day-long tent occupation; and it asserted that Occupy Century Aluminum – “A group of retirees who occupied the site of their former West Virginia workplace” for 75 days won reinstatement of healthcare benefits.
The People’s Bailout, it continued, “a series of singing protests”, disrupted about six foreclosure proceedings in Brooklyn and Queens, and 79,000 people signed a petition publicizing the situation of a grandmother facing eviction – forcing JP Morgan to broker a settlement with her. If these news events, which have not been reported widely outside of Occupy media, are accurately portrayed, then this movement is effective, creating targeted actions, and growing. It explains the massive reaction by banks, telecoms companies and their allied police forces in major cities throughout America.
You would not know it from news coverage, portraying Occupy members as scruffy, stoned and vague, but the intensive activity of third-party security contractors reported on by Bloomberg News, not to mention DHS and NYPD infiltrators who are sharing their intelligence with banks, would have passed on to corporations these summaries of a genuine threat to business as usual.
The problems remain, however. One is messaging. Some of the claims of Occupy literature are outlandish, or at least unlikely: Spanish “strike participation ran between 80-100% in most industries.” Really? No links or sources are included, which would enable a reporter to check the assertion. And even “The Occupied Wall Street Journal” is maddening if you are trying to tell the story of Occupy’s evolution: while editors are listed by name, and there is the eternal infuriating general email box, there is no designated press contact with whom a reporter can follow up. Nor are there any links to back up the assertions in the text of all these achievements.
Potential news stories were many: had Ustream been censored, as one Occupy protester told me, with segments showing NYPD rudeness or unprofessionalism removed? If so, when? Whom could I contact about that story? What proof was there? No one “speaks for the group”, still, or even takes personal responsibility for the news it generates, so there is no one designated to answer reporters’ questions and help send real news about Occupy into the general news stream. I would warn, again, that this structure is a recipe for marginality: how can I report on these important-sounding events allegedly taking place across the country if no one will show up to verify them?
You can “find the movement online”: the newspaper lists sites ranging from Occupy.com to Occupytogether.org to occupiedmedia.com to occuprint.org. But as I combed the advance crowd the day before looking for someone, anyone, to tell me the goals of the day to come, no one was designated and no literature specified what those goals were. No press release had gone out, that I could find, detailing the impressive list of 30 community groups and unions that had come together – a big news story in itself. This lack of press communications and vagueness of messaging still create a situation in which Occupy media too often talks to itself, making unverifiable claims, and failing to capitalize on the important achievements it may well be generating in building these coalitions and taking these actions.
So I interviewed a random Occupier, which is the preferred way they like reporters to work. Marc Lombardo is charming, bearded, 29-year-old school teacher from northern California: he has been staying in McDonald’s restaurants until they closed, then sleeping on the street, compelled by his desire to be present for this event. He has been talking Occupy to high-school students – and getting a big response.
What did he want out of May Day? He wanted an end to capitalism, which he defined as a money value system alone, without people’s values included. He wanted an end to “the new Jim Crow”, author Michelle Alexander’s term – “the drug laws which lock up black and brown kids”. He wanted people to have access to meaningful work and sustainable economic models: he mentioned the Brazilian farmers’ collective, Sin Tierra.
“My hope for tomorrow,” he said, “is that we shut this city down.” He mentioned the historical origin of May Day in America, designated as a day of commemoration in the 1880s, he and many Occupiers noted, not by communists but by US labor groups in Chicago that were fighting for the eight-hour day, and for the weekend. “It is an historic day,” he said. Referring to the fact that few know this backstory, he added, “We are reclaiming the history that has been stolen from us.”
Well, it was a historic day: Union Square had sixties lefties such as independent blogger Danny Schechter (the “news dissector”) present, and media personality Laura Flanders, and renowned “Shut Up and Sing” filmmaker Barbara Kopple. But media heavyweights were joined by people across economic lines. I was suddenly hugged in the crowd by a lovely young African-American woman: I realized that she had bagged my groceries and chatted with me about politics at my local discount grocery chain. Many young African-American men and women were there with signs protesting “stop and frisk” – the NYPD’s controversial racial-profiling policing tactic – as were union members ranging from administrative assistants to immigrants’ rights workers’ to the old standby from the 1980s, CISPES, which protests US policy in El Salvador.
It was a joyful, diverse, euphoric gathering. But all this was also taking place in a police state, which it was calling into being by its very potential. I counted dozens of marked and unmarked police vans along 13th Street, and all of Fifth Avenue was a phalanx of police cars: a show of force. After the unions marched down 14th Street, in their red T-shirts, literally hundreds of motorcycle-riding NYPD cops followed them in silent rebuttal. Throughout the crowd, you could see contractors using a new technology: a device that looked like a phone with a sliding keyboard, but which they used to sweep the crowd in a horizontal motion.
The police state is locking in around Occupy NYC in new and quite terrifying ways. The day before, I had stopped by Union Square and chatted with NYPD officers. As I was interviewing Sgt Mimkin – having a peaceful chat about whether or not the constitution gives NYC residents the right to go home undisturbed (it doesn’t, FYI, but I was happy to be having that debate) – and even though I had identified myself as press, his fellow officer lifted up one of the handheld devices, held it about 10 inches away from my face, and snapped its mechanism. After I spoke with the officers, as I was interviewing Mike Lombardo – across the park – various undercover agents or contractors kept approaching with telephoto lenses, taking pictures of us. It was intimidating to protest, and intimidating to engage in reporting.
It did not end there. I noticed a white van flanked by NYPD across the street. A bucket ladder hoisted a white man in his thirties. He had a kind of camera device attached to a white horizontal plastic console and was sweeping the park with it. “What is that truck?” I asked Sgt Minkin.
“A bucket ladder,” he said, without turning around.
“Don’t you have to secure the park?” I asked. He didn’t answer.
I went across the street, and the man was out of the bucket, now surrounded by five or six white men with short haircuts. The van was marked “EMG security” and had 1-800-345-7711 listed on its side. I identified myself as a reporter.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Light post survey,” he said. I saw that they were holding maps of the park, with all the light posts identified. A white box, I saw, was affixed to many of the light posts.
“Your plates say, ‘Indiana energy’,” I noted. “How does an Indiana utility have access to New York City infrastructure?” He moved away.
I followed and kept asking. “I don’t understand. Isn’t it another jurisdiction?” Finally, he said: “Look, I am a contractor. Time is money. If you have questions, ask Con Ed.”
Later that night, I asked a contact at the ACLU what he thought I had seen. “I know one thing,” he replied. “They are not Indiana Energy. That was probably face-recognition technology.”
If so, or if it is another security technology, this raises possibility many serious questions: if third-party contractors are engaging in some kind of new-tech surveillance and using NYPD utilities as a framework, how can reporters oversee it? If they are private contractors, a FOIA request won’t reveal the program.
Face recognition is being developed by the military and the Department of Homeland Security – in contracts with third-party contractors. In itself, such technology could be defended, theoretically, as part of a security network, but if it has no public oversight, it could also be linked to protesters’ entire electronic profiles and used in a way that could – especially if Cispa passes – cripple electronically anyone caught in the data stream. Not to mention the fact that such new technologies have not been tested publicly for possible health consequences.
On May Day, the marchers partied; NYPD watched. The cameras, visible and possibly not visible, recorded. Banks sent out their armies: the NYPD is, according to BORDC’s Shahid Buttar, the seventh largest army on earth, and there is no effective oversight of its leader Ray Kelly at all. The sides squared off.
Is May Day’s Occupy turnout a chimera – a groundless gesture to be hedged in by rapidly escalating new surveillance technologies and punitive new laws? Or is it a new beginning – a base, finally, to be built into a massive electoral lobby, built out of “the people’s coalitions”, with sound messaging, reporter follow-up, and clear legal and political strategies?
As I type, listening to the police helicopters that still hover over lower Manhattan, I can only hope it is the latter.
- Cenk Uygur, Naomi wolf and others weigh in on May Day success, media fail (occupyblogosphere.wordpress.com)
- Enlightened Messages For Your Soul
- Let’s break free..Mayday reports (thefreeonline.wordpress.com)