Occupy Chicago in 2012, Not 1968

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Common Dreams

Occupy Chicago in 2012, Not 1968

The Occupy movement and echoes from the 1960s

This past week billionaire George Soros warned that the world capitalist system faced the potential of massive street violence if not “collapse.”

A day or so later, the Adbusters group that put out the original call to Occupy Wall Street published a provocative “Tactical Briefing” calling for a “Showdown in Chicago” at the G8/NATO summit in May.  Arguing “we’re not going to put up with the kind of police repression that happened during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968,” the call to action urged “jammers” to “prepare for a big bang in Chicago this Spring.”

And then, turmoil in Oakland over the weekend: a violent police action clearing public space, mass arrests, protesters’ violence, a flag-burning, etc.  For people of a certain age, these events convey a sense of déjà vu.

With good reason.  Chicago ’68 is, of course, a galvanizing flash point for the 60s era as a whole, whichever side one came down on.  It was also a hugely important turning point the world politics, but more on that later.

Mass media coverage of the Occupy movement has generally followed the exact same pattern it followed during the 60s era, with significant implications for how that era turned out.  Mainstream discourse has failed to give due credence to the most widely shared argument of Occupiers: our democracy is broken, corporations own our politics.

On the other hand, the mass media are all over any violence that may occur, and their response to Oakland is telling.  Mass media cameras zeroed in on police defending public buildings from vandalizing protesters; one protester who burned an American flag got front page coverage in the on-line LA Times; overall, stories on the violence concentrated on violence by protesters.

This is exact echo of mass media accounts during the 60s, except for a handful of cases, chiefly in the southern civil rights movement, where protest images could be seen sympathetically by wide majorities.

Contemporary activists need to understand these dynamics.  This is how mass media behave, reflexively.  Protests are invariably seen as “deviant” forms of politics; “normal” politics occurs when “leaders” sit down to negotiate, vote, or orate.  The drive to maximize readership and audience size means the most dramatic, colorful, and especially conflictual actions or actors will be prominently featured.

Almost immediately “credible” leaders will denounce the movement, equating it with the more extreme images and personalities.  And thus the backlash sets in, and mass audiences are led away from learning how they might, in fact, share the values and goals of the protest movement.

Another 60s echo is that the media images –even more widely circulated today via social media— invite individuals to act in the very ways the media notice.  So while protesters often find their views are not taken seriously by the media, some behaviors, symbols or appearances will at least be seen by the public eye.  As one young black male put it after the Watts riot of 1965, “We won because we made the whole world pay attention to us.”

However, despite being triggered by cases of police brutality, the urban violence of the 60s era was the first target of the backlash campaign that eventually produced the broken world we live in today.

An even more telling example: as police attacked them violently, antiwar protesters at the 1968 Chicago convention chanted “The whole world is watching,” confident that the wider public would be appalled by what the Walker Commission later called a “police riot.”  Instead, a majority of the public, viewing the conflagration in Chicago through the mass media, sided with the police.

The Occupy Movement is going through a winter of transition, building plans for General Assemblies to map out the movement’s activities in the spring.  There are many levels at which Occupiers need to strategize about what should be done –in Oakland, in Chicago, and elsewhere. 

I would suggest a few considerations that reflect the work I have done on mass media and the 60s era.  My perspective is grounded in a belief in real democracy, government by the people.  In addition to sharpening its own focus, I believe Occupy needs to do three things.  First, reach out to and engage a wider circle of the public in ways that help the public see why the political and economic systems are not working for them.  This includes reaching the many Americans who the system is leaving behind but who have thus far bought the faux populism of the billionaires’ Tea Party rhetoric –an effective, long-running propaganda campaign that has its roots in backlash attacks on the 60s.

Second, through its example, the Occupy movement needs to inspire others to join in what would be an historic and enormously fulfilling effort –one that would truly lift people out of dead end grumbling about their daily struggles.

Third, the movement needs to strengthen connections with what is happening globally –both the uprisings around the world and the deteriorating biosphere we all share.  The time to join in creating an historic transformation is now.

The G8 summit in Chicago offers a great opportunity for the movement to grow on all three of these fronts, but it also carries enormous risks.

60s era history makes clear that it would be disastrous to repeat Chicago ’68.  In the lead-in up to the August convention, colorful anarchistic groups like the Yippies advertised their “plans” for love fests and putting LSD in the city’s water supply.  Committed to a successful Democratic party convention, the city stonewalled the protesters’ efforts to fine venues for peaceful protests, and Chicago’s police unleashed staggering violence against the protesters, some of whom fought back.

It is very clear today that the city of Chicago, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, is already setting in motion the mechanisms of repression.

There’s a final 60s connection here.  If the mass media’s way of “remembering” the 60s hadn’t reduced the very important and empowering struggles of that day to absurd stereotypes about youthful rebellion and colorful personalities, protesters today might be more conscious of their connection to a past that could teach much.  Among other things, they might realize the folly of burning the American flag as a form of protest.  Much like those who flaunted Viet Cong flags in the 60s era, they seek a way of symbolically expressing their feelings of outrage and alienation, failing to realize (or even care about) the millions of Americans who will find the symbolism offensive.

Given that mass media fail to trace the symbols, or the sporadic acts of violence, back to their origins in the conditions people protest against, it is up to the protesters themselves to find ways of communicating their meanings to the wider public in ways that public can hear.

Ted Morgan

Ted (Edward P.) Morgan (epm2@lehigh.edu) is Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and author of the recent What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (University Press of Kansas).

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