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Nieman Watchdog

When the Left Revolts, Who Will Deem it Newsworthy?

Is Protest in America at a Turning Point?

John Hanrahan

Protesters link arms as they try to sit and avoid arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge during an Occupy Wall Street march in New York October 1, 2011. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

Last spring, two midwestern academics unveiled a comprehensive study (pdf) that impressively documented a serious answer to the question: Where are all the activists who, in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, turned out in the streets in the tens and even hundreds of thousands to protest? The question takes on added significance in light of what may be a major anti-war, anti-corporate protest and “occupation” scheduled to begin October 6 in Washington, D.C., on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

The academics’ answer: In great numbers, many Democratic activists retreated to the sidelines with the election of Barack Obama, whom they perceived at the time as being an antiwar candidate who would not continue the military policies of President George W. Bush.

Now, all that may be changing. In the last month, street activism by progressives has shown a dramatic resurgence (a development that, as usual, has not yet been fully grasped by the mainstream press) – kicked off with two weeks of sit-ins outside the White House that produced 1,252 arrests of opponents of the 1,700-mile Alberta-to-Texas-Gulf of Mexico, environment-threatening Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. That was followed by the ongoing demonstrations and anti-corporate “occupation” by hundreds of mainly young people of a park near Wall Street, in a protest of big bankers’ greed and grim job prospects, that began somewhat haphazardly on September 17.

Originated with the generic call to “occupy Wall Street” from a Canadian magazine, Adbusters, in mid-July, the basically leaderless New York protest has now grown and spread to other cities (including Boston and Chicago) and has won the backing of AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and national unions such as the United Steelworkers of America. In a major development that could give the protests added momentum, several of New York City’s major union locals and community organizations are joining the protests.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have resulted in approximately 1,000 arrests since their start, including some 700 during a march on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1, and have produced charges by activists of brutal police tactics and of unprovoked use of pepper spray during a Sept. 24 march that resulted in mass arrests. To underscore and publicize police behavior, more than 1,000 Wall Street protesters marched on police headquarters in Manhattan on Sept. 30. 
This upsurge in street activism, combined with the feedback from their own organizing efforts, has increased organizers’ turnout expectations for the October 6th protests in Washington. Their organizing efforts thus far have won endorsements from some 150 organizations – large and small, secular and religious, antiwar and veterans’ groups, progressive publications and blogs, advocates for single-payer health insurance and numerous other domestic causes – from across the country. The action also has the endorsement of numerous prominent individuals, as well as on-line pledges to participate from several thousand people. 

One important question as the October 6th actions begin: Will this upsurge in activism on environmental and economic issues such as jobs and Wall Street/corporate greed translate into vigorous street protests in D.C. against the decade-long war in Afghanistan/Pakistan? Are some of those Democrats who were previously antiwar activists, when President George W. Bush was calling the military shots, now ready to come off the sidelines? And will the mainstream news media – virtually invisible at the tar sands pipeline protests, and either absent or condescending in the early days of the Wall Street protests – be there?

Until the academics’ study, the common wisdom had been that the absence of a military draft, along with other factors such as increased police intimidation and militarization, constitute important reasons for diminished protest numbers. While the presence of a draft to fight unpopular wars arguably would add to the number of protesters, the academic study by the two midwestern professors concludes that the reason the once-large antiwar movement of the early 2000s diminished in numbers later in the decade had nothing to do with the draft, which was eliminated three decades earlier. Rather, much of the steam was taken out of the antiwar movement after the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress in 2006 and sank even further with Obama’s campaign and election in 2008. 

“While the election of Barack Obama had been heralded as a victory for the antiwar movement, Obama’s election, in fact, thwarted the ability of the movement to achieve critical mass,” wrote professors Michael T. Heaney, assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan, and Fabio Rojas, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Their study found that a substantial number of self-identified Democrats, who formed the largest bloc of the antiwar activists in the early years of the two wars, “withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success, in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Heaney and Rojas based their findings on their surveys of 5,398 demonstrators, as well as interviews with movement leaders, at antiwar protests between January 2007 and December 2009.

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Global Exchange and the antiwar organization Codepink: Women for Peace, characterized Democrats’ defection from the antiwar movement this way in an article she co-authored earlier this summer with writer/broadcaster Charles Davis: “Instead of continuing the hard work of organizing and protesting unjust wars, too many people took the election of politicians with ‘D’s’ after their name as their own Mission Accomplished. Instead of continuing direct action, too many were content voting for ‘their’ team and calling it a day, never mind the [war] policies those they voted into office continued” with Obama in the presidency.

Or, as prominent civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley put it to Nieman Watchdog: “They confuse working for justice with working for the Democratic party.”

Heaney told Nieman Watchdog earlier this summer that, based on their data, “we predict that the antiwar movement will remain in abeyance as long as a Democrat is president. There may be small antiwar protests, but nothing will rival the scale of Bush-era protests circa 2003-2005.” This, despite the fact that polls consistently show that a sizable majority of Americans want United States troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq quickly.

While acknowledging the study’s conclusion about Democratic defections from the antiwar movement with Obama’s election, organizers of the October 6th actions told Nieman Watchdog that the tar sands pipeline and Wall Street protests indicate that the reluctance of many of Obama’s 2008 supporters to take to the streets to protest the president’s policies has begun to wear off with some of his core constituencies: environmentalists in the case of the pipeline protests (who are already upset with Obama for recently bowing to pressure from industry and congressional Republicans and shelving clean-air standards for smog); and, in the case of the Wall Street protests, young people under age 30. 

Some of the young activists in New York self-described themselves to reporters and bloggers as facing a bleak employment future while Wall Street and corporate America are thriving under Obama’s watch. Many of the pipeline arrestees (people of all ages, but mostly middle-aged and older) wore “Obama 2008” buttons as they called on the president to veto the pipeline project, something he alone – and not Congress – has the power to do, and challenged him with chants of, “Which side are you on, Obama – Which side are you on?”

The October 6th events will be based in D.C.‘s Freedom Plaza, two blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the form of what organizers say will be an ongoing Tahrir Square-like “occupation” that will feature speeches, discussions, music, marches, and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, with many protesters planning to camp out in Freedom Plaza indefinitely, just as some Wall Street demonstrators are currently doing in Zuccotti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza).

Organizers said that the key issues of the October 6th protests are directly in the political mainstream as polls indicate they are favored by “super-majorities of Americans.” These include: taxing the rich and corporations; ending the wars, bringing the troops home, cutting military spending; protecting the social safety net, strengthening Social Security and establishing an improved Medicare for all; ending corporate welfare for oil companies and other big business interests; transitioning to a clean energy economy, reversing environmental degradation; protecting worker rights including collective bargaining, creating jobs and raising wages; and getting money out of politics. Organizers said the event is occurring “at a pivotal time – the beginning of the 11th year of war in Afghanistan and a new federal fiscal year that promises austerity of everything except weapons and war.”

One of the organizers of the October 6th actions, Kevin Zeese, told Nieman Watchdog: “We don't know if the tipping point has been reached, whether the Tahrir Square moment has arrived, but it is approaching quickly.” Regardless of how long the D.C. actions continue, Zeese said, “We want to leave Freedom Plaza with people trained in civil resistance and non-cooperation” to “allow people to stop cooperating with the current economy that funnels wealth to the top one percent while everyone else gets poorer.” He said organizers were aware “that one protest will not be sufficient and we are planning for a long-sustained effort” that people can continue in D.C. and in their own communities.

Regarding the Heaney/Rojas study, Zeese commented: “There is no question that if John McCain were doing the same things President Obama is doing that we would be seeing mass protest. And, if President Romney replaces Obama and continues the same policies the protests will escalate rapidly. Partisanship does make it hard for people to see – and even when they do, to act. That being said, more and more have seen the reality about Obama – his domestic policies are Wall Street- and market-based, his foreign policy is militarism. And, more and more are fed up and taking action.”

Zeese, an attorney and head of an antiwar organization Come Home America and an economic justice group,, further noted: “If you watch the YouTube videos, tweets and Facebook entries of the occupation of Wall Street and the tar sands protest it is not uncommon for people who voted for Obama to speak disparagingly of him now. He has lost the support of many who he thought he could take for granted because they had nowhere else to go.” 

Those Democrats who withdrew from antiwar actions, Heaney and Rojas wrote, “had been motivated to participate [in the movement] by anti-Republican sentiments” and were encouraged by the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2006 and by the campaign and election of Barack Obama as President. Obama’s early speech against the Iraq war when he was an Illinois state legislator had given hope to his antiwar supporters that he would govern as an antiwar president.

Somewhat surprisingly, as Obama proved not to be an antiwar president, his stepped-up war plans in Afghanistan in his first two years in office did not send a lot of Democrats back into the antiwar movement, the authors wrote.

“Indeed, the election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the antiwar movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions,” Heaney and Rojas wrote. Even as Obama kept the war in Iraq going and escalated the war in Afghanistan, instead of causing anger among Obama supporters and reinvigorating the antiwar movement, “attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement dissipated.” This led to the collapse of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), “the movement’s largest and broadest coalition” which had been one of two large-scale groups to organize almost all of the major demonstrations throughout the previous decade.


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Organizations supporting the October 6th protests include Progressive Democrats of America, the Green Party U.S., Black Agenda Report, Tikkun, Sojourners, ANSWER (which has organized several major antiwar demonstrations over the last decade), CodePink, Veterans for Peace, United for Peace and Justice, Roots Action, the War Resisters League, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Fellowship of Reconciliation, firedoglake, Healthcare-Now, Single Payer Action, Just Foreign Policy, Occupy Wall Street, War Is a Crime, Witness Against Torture, World Can’t Wait and various religious organizations and clergy activists.

Prominent individual endorsers include Ann Wright (retired colonel, State Department diplomat and activist), Baldemar Velasquez (co-founder Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, and MacArthur Fellow), Chris Hedges (former New York Times war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner), Cornel West (author and professor of African American studies and religion, Princeton University), Coleen Rowley (former FBI agent and whistleblower and a Time magazine co-person-of-the-year in 2002), former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia), Rabbi Michael Lerner (head editor of Tikkun Magazine), Ray McGovern (former CIA analyst and presidential briefer), Sibel Edmonds (former FBI language specialist and whistleblower, founder National Security Whistleblowers Coalition), Ted Rall (political cartoonist, past winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award), and Rocky Anderson (former mayor of Salt Lake City).

Before it fades completely from our consciousness, we should remind ourselves that in mid-February 2003 – without any threat of a military draft or any other sacrifice required of non-military people on the home front – hundreds of thousands of people in some 150 or more U.S. communities turned out to protest the impending invasion of Iraq: an estimated 400,000 or more in New York City, up to 200,000 in San Francisco, some 60,000 in Los Angeles, 30,000 or more in Seattle, 10,000 in Chicago, 4,000 in Colorado Springs, and so on. Worldwide that weekend, an estimated 6 million to 10 million people turned out for street demonstrations against the subsequent “shock and awe” invasion in the most massive outpouring of antiwar sentiment in world history.

Even in the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan – a tense period when the nation was recoiling from the attacks of September 11, 2001 and pro-war sentiment was at its highest – as many as 20,000 people turned out for an antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., just 18 days after the attacks. Up to 10,000 more rallied in San Francisco, 3,000-5,000 in New York City, and some 2,500 in Los Angeles. A week later, 10,000-12,000 people marched from Union Square to Times Square in Manhattan in opposition to the Bush administration’s Afghanistan invasion plans and newly-coined “global war on terror.” In April 2002, an estimated 75,000 people rallied in New York, as speakers included family members of the victims of the 9-11 attacks. Heaney and Rojas noted that “large-scale mobilizations” continued in 2003, 2004 and 2005, but then began to taper off in numbers as Democrats began to experience electoral success.

Despite the Democratic defections indicated in the Heaney/Rojas study, even two months into the Obama administration on the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, antiwar protesters were still able to put together a march on the Pentagon that drew 10,000 people. Smaller rallies of up to 4,000 people were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, San Diego, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities that weekend.

Even as street protests became smaller in numbers with the Democrats’ 2006 electoral successes, the professors found that in 2007-2008 self-identified Democrats still constituted as high as 54 percent of antiwar protesters at demonstrations they analyzed. In January 2009, the number of self-identified Democrats declined to a still fairly high 37 percent, but this number dropped preciptously to 22 percent in December 2009 as Obama neared the end of his first year in office. Meanwhile, activists identifying themselves as members of third parties (such as the Green Party and Libertarian Party) “became proportionately more prevalent in the movement,” increasing from 16 percent in January 2009 to a high of 34 percent in November 2009. Because Democrats are more numerous in the general population than are members of third parties, the continuing “withdrawal of Democrats from the movement in 2009 appears to be a significant explanation for the falling size of antiwar protests.”

And press coverage of the Oct.  6 rallies will be...?

What kind of coverage of the October 6th anti-war, anti-corporate actions in Washington, D.C., can be expected from the mainstream news media? Given the almost nonexistent coverage of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline protests at the White House in August and September, and the initial (non)coverage in September of the ongoing Wall Street protests, the prospects aren’t promising. Organizers have alerted major news media to the October 6th protest, but told Nieman Watchdog they will be relying primarily on alternative media to carry accounts of the various activities.

The Washington Post, during two weeks of tar sands protests and 1,252 civil disobedience arrests  just a few blocks from its newsroom, had the following coverage: First off, a promising start, with an op-ed piece four days before the protests began from prominent environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, one of the organizers for the protests. That was followed by a first-day, 150-word arrest story – and then, nothing – until a last-day-of-protest op-ed piece  by a writer for the conservative National Review. The latter piece mocked the participation and arrest of actress Daryl Hannah during the protests as “too 1970s-ish” and ignored the serious issues raised by the impressive nonviolent actions. The on-line version had a different headline – “When Celebs Like Daryl Hannah Get Arrested for a Good Cause, It’s Bad P.R.” – than the more derisive regular paper version, which was: “Daryl Hannah Busted? Shrug.” Hannah’s arrest was only one of 1,252, mind you, and hardly symbolic of why thousands of people have turned out for pipeline protests in both the United States and Canada over the past month. The pipeline issue was trivialized further with Hannah’s arrest being covered only in the Post blog reserved for celebrity news, “Celebritology” – as if the protests were, you know, all about Hollywood stars – while all of the other arrests after the first day were covered not at all. That “Shrug” headline beautifully sums up the Post’s “who-cares” attitude toward progressive protesters up to this point.

So, in two weeks of protests with scores of arrests each day, the Washington Post – as it regularly does with protests from the progressive side of the spectrum – could find space for only 150 words of news, hardly more than a Tweet, for the biggest environmental action in years. And those 150 words, written by a police reporter who apparently wasn’t even at the protest, led with the 65 arrests that day but did not mention the name of the pipeline, or the fact that, specifically, it was a tar sands oil pipeline – which carries additional environmental risks with implications for global warming. The article, in fact, did not address any of the environmental issues of concern to the protesters.

When there was coverage by major news media of the Wall Street protest in its early days, the tone was usually condescending, typically portraying the action as some sort of lark in the park by a bunch of confused, layabout kids and aging hippies, as in this column by Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times with the headline, “Gunning for Wall Street with Faulty Aim.”  The ever-more-timid National Public Radio, as of the ninth day of the Wall Street protests, had provided no coverage at all, with executive editor for news Dick Meyer telling the NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos that the events were not newsworthy because they “did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.” (Wrong on every count, as actual news and blog accounts have demonstrated, including mass arrests on the eighth day of the protests amid charges of excessive police use of force, including pepper spray.)

In the early days of the protest, it took David Graeber, of London’s Guardian newspaper, to talk seriously to the protesters and actually tell Americans just what those crazy kids – with their chants of “the banks got bailed out, we got sold out” and calling themselves “the 99 percent” in contrast to the 1 percent who control the largest share of the nation’s wealth – were all about.

Wrote Graeber: “We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates. Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?”

Now, with 700 more arrests of protesters on October 1 on the Brooklyn Bridge, and with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof declaring the protests are achieving traction and have the spirit of Tahrir Square about them (although he, too, makes the obligatory condescending remarks about the protesters), it will be hard even for NPR to ignore the Wall Street protests.

There has been an outpouring of well-informed criticism of the mainstream news media’s initial coverage and non-coverage of the Wall Street protests. Some broadcasters and print journalists, mostly commentators and columnists, early on viewed the Wall Street protests as significant. These include Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC (for his devastating critique of police behavior, including the use of pepper spray, at the September 24 Wall Street march), Keith Olbermann (of Current TV), Alyona Minkovski of RT television’s “The Alyona Show, RT’s “The Thom Hartmann Show,” Amy Goodman of Pacifica’s “Democracy Now,” Tom Ashbrook of National Public Radio’s “On Point,” as well as David Graeber of The Guardian, and Will Bunch, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Numerous bloggers, including Glenn Greenwald, Kevin Gosztola, and Lisa Romero presented observations that should be read by any serious journalist as to what constitutes real news, and for explanations of why progressive actions get ignored or pooh-poohed by major news outlets. As the Wall Street action concluded its second week, mainstream media coverage has picked up considerably. The New York Times has begun to redeem its earlier fatuous coverage with some solid, straightforward articles on the protests and the police response, such as this one describing arrests of 400 – later increased to some 700 – protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1. As Nieman Watchdog has shown in articles here, here, and here this summer, there have been numerous smaller but nonetheless significant antiwar actions in the last few years that have been almost universally ignored by the mainstream news media, thereby adding to the impression that there is no real visible opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (to say nothing of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, etc.). The Post’s local editor, Vernon Loeb, even told us that two of the antiwar protests we cited to him should have been covered by the Post, but weren’t. And then the Post proceeded to all but ignore the tar sands pipeline protests.

As we demonstrated in those earlier articles, while protests have diminished in size from the earlier years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the antiwar movement has kept busy with smaller (often dramatic) acts of civil disobedience, vigils, teach-ins, and lobbying efforts. One such action was a successful campaign last summer by Peace Action, Code Pink and others to get the National Council of Mayors to pass a well-publicized resolution calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and to “bring the war dollars home.”

Additionally, Peace Action has – in its own words – been “filling Town Halls across the country to bring a simple message: Move the money from wars and weapons back to our communities.” In Maryland, a coalition of 60 community organizations formed by Peace Action Montgomery – has hosted town halls throughout the state in recent weeks. On Sept. 20, Peace Action noted, the coalition hosted a town hall meeting in Silver Spring that drew more than 400 attendees, and followed this with another well-attended town hall in Baltimore. Earlier in September, North Carolina Peace Action held a similar town hall meeting in Durham. Such events are occurring with considerable frequency across the country, yet seem to be unknown to the national news media.

Well before the tar sands pipeline and Wall Street protests, Kevin Zeese, one of the October 6th organizers, told Nieman Watchdog there were growing indications that the political climate was gradually shifting, and that progressives were becoming more vocal on a variety of national, state and local issues. Zeese pointed to scores of local protests around the country – that were, with few exceptions, ignored by the national press – on “a wide range of issues from tuition increases and school closings to mountain top removal and the mistreatment of Bradley Manning (accused of leaking documents to Wikileaks),” to say nothing of the huge continuous demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s anti-public employee measures. (Zeese, in fact, compiled an eye-popping partial report, with video links, of such significant protests – not even including major labor protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere – most of which received nothing more than local press coverage, if that. The events in Zeese’s partial compilation were all happening at a time when, to read the national press, you would sense that all Americans on the left were lethargic and that only the Tea Party on the right was an active force in citizen action.)

In writing for the last few months about the mainstream media’s disdain for progressive activism, this reporter is still at a loss to explain why that attitude persists. Sam Smith, editor of the on-line Progressive Review’s “Undernews,” suggests that protesters should be heartened by any media criticism they get, since as was shown during the era of the civil rights and Vietnam war protests, “when they’re telling you that you’re rebelling against them in the wrong way, you’re winning.” Smith compared establishment journalists telling protesters how to properly conduct a demonstration as “a little like a drunk in a bar instructing someone on how to give up alcohol.”

Will Bunch, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News who covered the Wall Street protests early on, gave as good an explanation as we’re likely to get during a recent appearance on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” program on Current TV. Commenting on the early non-coverage or condescending coverage of the Wall Street protests, Bunch said: “A lot of people in newsrooms still are not in touch with the real pain and the real suffering of 25 million who are unemployed and underemployed.” Paraphrasing PressThink weblog editor Jay Rosen, Bunch said: “It’s kind of un-cool for a journalist to take these people who want to change the world seriously.” Olbermann chimed in that if the more than 1,000 people on the first day of the Wall Street protests had been Tea Party-ers protesting Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s monetary stimulus policies, it would have been “the lead story on every network.”

Rosen, who also teaches journalism at New York University, coined the term “the church of the savvy” for Washington journalists who regard savviness – rather than being right or wrong – as “the prime virtue.” As Rosen has observed: “The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you...They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.” To the savvy, “the center is the holy place: political grace resides there. The profane is the ideological extremes. The adults converse in the pragmatic middle ground where insiders cut their deals. On the wings are the playgrounds for children.” The savvy position themselves as “practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy...”

Many journalists, it seems, pay lip service to the First Amendment, but turn their backs or grow disdainful when people actually exercise these rights in the streets. In such a climate, idealistic activists such as those at the tar sands pipeline and Wall Street protests, obviously, can be safely ignored by the major news media or condescended to as not being rooted in the practical, real world. Real grown-ups don’t need to protest.

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