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How Elite Media Strategies Marginalize the Occupy Movement

Jackie Smith

I took the decision by Foreign Affairs to report on the Occupy Wall Street protests as a sign that the movement was having some success. Not surprisingly, however, this favorite journal of foreign policy pundits offers “expert” commentary that reinforces a theme that has dominated corporate media coverage of the OWS movement. Rory McVeigh’s online essay, “How Occupy Wall Street Works” presents a highly misleading image of OWS protests that reinforces the mainstream media representation of most left-wing political protests as disorganized, violence-prone mobs. Despite the writer’s scholarly credentials, the account neglects a large body of relevant research.

Despite popular and media images, extensive research documents the fact that mass movements are by and large nonviolent in nature. Some, such as the Indian Nationalist movement and the U.S. Civil Rights movement embraced nonviolent principles for moral and spiritual reasons, while many others are largely pragmatic. Also, most research on protest shows that when violence occurs, it is virtually always initiated by authorities. While McVeigh is correct that often individuals or small groups take advantage of mass protests and initiate violence, it is important to recognize that activists themselves—including those in the Occupy Wall Street movement-- have developed and advanced strategies to minimize risks of violence and to isolate individuals using such tactics. There are accounts of this being done in protests ranging from the 1999 anti-WTO protests to the recent protests ofindignados in Spain. Activists in the Occupy Wall Street movement have engaged in extensive discussions of their nonviolence principles and have been developing methods to enforce them at actions and in the camps. 

McVeigh also claims that the 1999 anti-WTO protest in Seattle was unsuccessful, and that this failure is because protesters “failed to effectively manage violence.” As someone who has researched and written on this protest and the larger global justice movement of which it is part, I think it is crucial to set the record straight here. First, the claim regarding the “success” of the anti-WTO protests is debatable on several fronts. The “Battle in Seattle” was one of several contributing factors that led to the breakdown of international trade talks in the WTO from which the organization has still not recovered. Moreover, this protest marked the start of a continuing wave of mobilizations against the inequities of the globalized economy that has been building around the world for well over a decade through, for instance, the World Social Forums and their hundreds of national, regional, and local counterparts. The Occupy Wall Street protests should be seen as part of this mobilization against the policies that have fueled economic globalization. A closer look at participants in the Occupy Wall Street efforts would show extensive overlaps with individuals and organizations that have been informed by, if not active in, these earlier struggles.

Second, the suggestion in McVeigh’s piece that Seattle protesters initiated violence contradicts extensive evidence pinning the blame for the violence on the Seattle police. An official inquiry deemed the “Battle in Seattle” effectively a police riot, and former police chief Norm Stamper has confessed--and other observers witnessed--that it was police use of tear gas that triggered violent responses from a small number of protesters. Stamper further observed that “My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose… gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict.” What is more, social movement researchers have documented what Stamper notes is a dangerous trend towards more militarized forms of policing that both undermine democracy and fuel protest-related violence (See, e.g., della Porta, Donatella and Herbert Reiter, Ed(s). 1998. Policing Protest: The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Nevertheless, mainstream media have helped perpetuate the false notion that political protesters (at least those on the left) are the cause of violence. Illustrating the active role mainstream media have played in advancing this image, the The New York Timesprinted an erroneous article stating that anti-WTO protesters in Seattle threw Molotov cocktails at police. Pressure from supporters of the movement led the paper to retract the statement two days later, “but the original error persisted in later accounts in the mainstream media.”

Accounts that reinforce the dominant but incorrect stereotype of protests as violent and dangerous events instill fear and suspicion in public discourse and discourage non-activists from participating in movements. Moreover, the dismissal of previous protest movements and the failure to recognize how past organizing work has advanced the knowledge, skills, networks, and resources available to the Occupy Wall Street protests reinforces the mainstream story line that popular efforts to organize for social change are weak, sporadic, and ineffective. This cynical representation of movements plays into the hands of defenders of the status quo (a.k.a. “the 1%”) by dampening people’s sense that political engagement is potentially effective and therefore worthwhile.

The problem of extreme inequality is a result of the systemic practices tied to economic globalization, and it has done great violence to countless millions around the world. We have been privileged in the United States to have been insulated from the worst effects of this inequality until quite recently. Any serious attempt to understand the Occupy Wall Street movement must look critically at the assumptions behind mainstream media portrayals of these protests and focus on the real violence that is being done by a system that has long worked to benefit very few at the expense of the many. Professionals offering commentary for elite media outlets like Foreign Affairs should be mindful of the elite agendas behind these publications and resist being framed by these agendas. They should also refrain from commenting on movements without engaging in research that extends beyond mainstream media reports themselves.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. She is author or editor of numerous books and articles on global organizing and social change, including "Social Movements and World-System Transformation," "Social Movements in the World-System: the Politics of Crisis and Transformation," and "Social Movements for Global Democracy." She helps coordinate Pittsburgh’s Human Rights City Alliance and is a member of the steering committee of the US Human Rights Network’s Human Rights Cities Alliance.

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