The War on Occupy
by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 12/2/11
First it was ignored by the media. Then it was brutally attacked by the police, ridiculed by the press, and embraced by an outraged and tormented public. Then, for a moment, we had a short romance—a minute when it was acceptable to take the 99 percent seriously. This was the dawn of chaos—that sweet moment when a society comes to life, when the rulers seemingly lose their grip on the national zeitgeist. Historically, this moment is usually followed by repression. Picture tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square, soldiers storming Tahrir Square, riot cops evicting Occupy campers. Plutocrats always squirm in ugly contortions when they believe their privilege is threatened.
The punditocracy promised the plutocracy that Occupy would go away when the rain, snow, and cold came. The occupiers would get bored without their video games. They’d go home.
But this didn’t happen. Occupy camps continued to multiply, even as sunsets came earlier and leaves fell from trees. They proliferated into something more than just a passing oddity or a tourist attraction craved by second-tier cities wanting to be taken seriously. In the end, it was the movement itself that started to be taken seriously, embraced by most of the nation’s population.
The camps offer easy geographic points where people can go and instantly opt out of apathy and helplessness. More so, the camps threaten a rebirth of the traditional town square—a place where people can build community outside of corporate-engineered consumer environments and culture. Think of a sort of mall where ideas, rather than products, dominate—where there’s freedom of speech instead of just advertising.
Now you can see why the Occupy camps, like the camps in Tiananmen and Tahrir Squares, have to go—why the one percent feels a need to fumigate the house before the holidays. Christmas is supposed to be the shopping season, not a time of year to reflect upon social inequality and planetary survival. People should sleep out to buy TVs, not to change the world. When families get together for the holidays, they shouldn’t be reflecting on the moral bankruptcy of consumerism, but should be slaves to their wants, punctuating their holidays with sales events.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that when the pre-Christmas attacks against Occupy finally materialized, as they have in the last two weeks, that they would be national in scope, and involve a synchronicity between the police and the corporate media.
The media attacks follow a time-tested script: The occupiers aren’t like us. They’re dirty. They sleep in tents and don’t even care that they’ve missed the best Black Friday deals. They’re freaks, and we only write about them because America loves a good freak show. Consider the national media rebooted—back on message after an impulsive flirtation with the popular imagination. Once this new, revamped message gets out, vicious police attacks against Occupy camps stop being an outrage, and instead become entertainment, like “reality” TV, where degrading vignettes of poor and working-class people in crisis pass for amusement. Think Cops, Jerry Springer, Judge Judy.
None of this newfangled coverage comes as an accident. The Washington, DC “issue advocacy” firm, Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford, whose clients include Koch Industries, Verizon, MasterCard, AT&T, Bloomberg, Fidelity Investments, and the Financial Services Roundtable, recently proposed a blueprint for a propaganda war (my terminology) against the broad-based Occupy movement. In a leaked memo to the American Bankers Association, CLGC pitched a proposal to construct “negative narratives” about the Occupy movement and its supporters, which would, if effective, marginalize the movement in an attempt to create a disconnect between it and the 99 percent.
Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford boasts, on its own website, of its Washington “insider” status and its ability to “kill legislative threats” to its corporate clients’ profits. The CLGC memo targeting Occupy is among some of the best testimony to the real impact that this nascent movement has had. Occupy’s message about Wall Street greed and social inequality, which the corporate media still claims it can’t quite clearly hear, according to the memo, “has the potential to have very long-lasting political, policy and financial impacts.” Hence, they warn, corporate leaders shouldn’t dismiss Occupy as “a ragtag group of protestors,” but instead, should take the movement seriously as a formidable threat. Of course, such a threat to the one percent would best be marginalized by portraying it as a ragtag group of protesters.
Enter the corporate media and its newfound concern that Occupy encampments are attracting the homeless. Working- and middle-class Americans are uncomfortable with homelessness. Pundits seem to assume that mere association with these American untouchables will discredit the movement—hence, a “negative narrative.” And we certainly can’t let homeless folks sleep in our parks.
Stop and think about this for a moment. Homeless people didn’t lose their humanity when they lost their homes. Nor did they lose their right to participate in the political process, including their right to protest, or their right to join the Occupy movement. Why should the presence of the homeless discredit the movement? Why shouldn’t this marginalization of the homeless instead discredit the media?
And it’s not just the homeless that seem to be getting special scrutiny in recent Occupy coverage. It’s pretty much anyone with an embarrassing anomaly, from veterans who might have overstated their service to odiferous campers who are now finding themselves featured in the press as negative narratives.
On the police side of the equation, there seems to be an uncanny similarity among recent actions across the country. Violent, unprofessional, counterproductive, and seemingly stupid police moves have been inexplicably replicated, despite their lack of law enforcement efficacy, by various agencies. It’s as if all of these actions stem from one articulated strategy, poor as it seems in retrospect. And perhaps they have. The Huffington Post, In These Times, and a slew of alternative news organizations are chasing leads pointing to federal law enforcement coordination of the Occupy camp take-downs. There is evidence of a conference call involving mayors in cities that subsequently saw pointless police violence against Occupy demonstrators.
These attacks are expensive, and they come at a time when cities don’t have money to waste on the political targeting of pesky opponents. The corporate press is raising this issue. But rather than applying critical coverage and asking tough questions about the pointless violence, they’re instead parroting a canned anti-Occupy spin.
Take this Associated Press headline from November 25: “Occupy Protests Cost Nation’s Cities at Least 13 Million Dollars.” The headline, of course, is misleading. It wasn’t the Occupy activities that cost cities money—their infrastructure is financed by donations. What cost cities money are police actions mostly aimed at harassing the Occupy movement. With most of these actions arguably unnecessary, the AP spin amounts to little more than a classic case of blaming the victim for his or her victimization. Think of a hit man complaining about the high cost of bullets. This is the one-two-three attack. Bad media, for instance, about “unsanitary conditions,” followed by police attacks, say, in response to health code violations, followed by more bad media, blaming the “homeless” protestors for making the police harass them. It’s hard to swallow, however, that the police violence we’re seeing is in response to not enough bleach in the kitchen rinse water, or tents set up too close to porta-potties.
They just don’t get it. This petty harassment will not slow the Occupy movement. It doesn’t need Zuccotti Park anymore. The movement is a reaction to the pathology of unbridled greed that’s ruining our nation and out planet. We can’t take it anymore—literally. That’s why people are rising up. It’s not like we like to stand out in the rain and cold. And we certainly don’t appreciate being gassed, sprayed, or beaten. It’s just that we can’t take it anymore. And we’ve just realized that perhaps we don’t have to.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of communication at Buffalo State College. His book, People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia (University of Tennessee Press, second edition, 2011) examines acephalous social movements and the temporary autonomous zones of resistance and celebration that they create.
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