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Occupy’s National Gathering: Seize the Moment!


Outside of a few attention-grabbing events like the May Day or NATO protests in Chicago, the nation’s mainstream media have all but consigned the Occupy movement to the trash bin of yesterday’s news. Occupy participants around the country know better, however, and they are converging on Philadelphia for a National Gathering of Occupy groups from June 30th through July 4th.

Indeed it is time for Occupy to once again seize the moment. However, people on the left need to do some hard thinking about what that phrase means. I trust that the planners of the National Gathering have been carefully considering how best to seize the moment. How will the rest of us react?

Corporate media coverage of the Occupy movement is totally unsurprising. It follows a long-established pattern for coverage of protest movements going back at least to the early days of the post-World War II civil rights movement. Protest news is conventionally about the protest and protesters, not the target of the protest. Once a protest is no longer new, it is not deemed “newsworthy” by the commercial mass media unless the protesters are wildly or violently expressive, or unless a massive turnout suggests growing movement momentum. Dramatic conflict, potent imagery, and compelling personalities are the watchwords of TV news –think of the endless political scandals and media celebrity fixations, as well as police-protester clashes,  that bombard us via the tube. As the national press competes for image-saturated reader attention, these characteristics of mainstream news have spread throughout the culture, and they have a great deal to do with how the wider public views protests.

But the other systematic characteristic of mass media news has to do with coverage of protest targets –the issues and institutions that produce protesters’ grievances. Here the media are totally conventional, afraid to venture outside the conventional goal posts of public debate established by Democratic and Republican leaders and other “credible” members of political, economic, and academic elites. The corporate media are, after all, crucial institutions through which the elite maintain their hegemony.

Compare, for example, any Democracy Now broadcast to any of the mainstream TV broadcasts of a protest. From a critical vantage point outside the kind of perspective your typical Democratic or Republican leader expresses, Democracy Now offers its viewers substance and depth on what the protest is really about. The networks, cable and otherwise, basically single out one or two individual protesters for sound bites against a backdrop of eye-catching visuals, while simultaneously framing and “balancing” the protest sound bites through the viewpoints of  “credible” authorities who attack, dismiss, or at best condescendingly patronize the protesters. The mass media also automatically gravitate towards any violence; indeed, the mere fact of protest is reflexively framed as posing the “threat” of violence, even if the protest is totally nonviolent.

Innumerable studies, including my own, have documented the way mass media news is contained within boundaries. Only certain perspectives and interpretations of events are taken seriously, and these invariably reinforce conventional beliefs about the nation’s political and economic institutions as well as the foundational myths about our history.

This means the nation’s political discourse lacks the critical understanding that a very vital, if volatile, left can provide (instead, the mass media consider someone like President Obama or Nancy Pelosi as the “left”). It also means conventional politics are completely devoid of an informed understanding of history. Indeed, I would argue that much of the left’s “volatility” can be linked to the fact that left perspectives are –and have been for as long as there have been mass media— effectively excluded from our common discourse (though, of course, when left perspectives threaten to become too intrusive, state and corporate propaganda and police repression help to marginalize them). Lest we repeat the errors of the past, we need to understand this history –our history, or in Howard Zinn’s phrase, the people’s history.

Think of the way the nation’s mass media have covered the Occupy movement. First, they ignored it. Then, after New York police pepper-sprayed two women in the graphic video that went viral on the internet and especially after the mass arrests of hundreds of Occupiers trapped by police on the Brooklyn Bridge, they became fiercely attentive. But in seeking the meaning of this protest movement (i.e., its targets), they insisted that the movement had to come up with a set of “demands,” as if this widespread and diverse uprising were a kind of lobbying group seeking specific legislation from Congress. Yet Occupy’s emergence represented an extremely wide range of people and viewpoints, all fed up with a system that was patently not working for the vast majority of the American people. Ever since the occupations were forcefully shut down, the mass media have noticed large-scale actions undertaken by Occupy folks, though this coverage has typically been pre-occupied with police-protester “skirmishes.”

What does all this mean, then, for the next phase being hashed out and planned at Occupy’s National Gathering. 2011 was an extraordinary year of popular uprisings in the United States and the rest of the world. All these protests movements –from Arab Spring, to the national uprisings in Europe and elsewhere, to the struggles to support collective bargaining rights and public expenditures in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, to Occupy Everywhere— continue in one form or another. They do so because their grievances remain valid; the issues have not gone away.

For starters, we need to understand the history of the last time popular uprisings were spreading through the nation and world –the era commonly known as the “sixties.”  I have argued elsewhere that the crucial characteristics of our mass media –their boundaried discourse and their preoccupation with drama, personalities, and visuals— had important implications for the way the protest movements of the 1960s evolved, and thus for the direction this nation moved in the years after the 60s era. Overall, media images helped to spread protest activity, inviting people into the era’s social movements; yet at the same time, while feeding off these images, the media’s boundaries meant that the rest of the nation was told that spreading protests from the mid-60s on were occurring because of a so-called “generation” of disaffected youth. Not surprisingly, the more youthful members of these movements were disproportionately engaged in the kinds of activities that the media zeroed in on (or at least they looked the part to mainstream reporters). Crucial critiques that lay at the core of each of the era’s movements were virtually excluded from mainstream discourse. They were, in effect, illegitimate.

The results, ultimately, were enormously destructive of the democratic potential that vibrated within each of the era’s movements. Feeding off the more “newsworthy” media images, the forces of political backlash –and commercial exploitation— had a field day. Ultimately, these forces prevailed, producing the neoliberal catastrophe we current live in. The media’s generational fixation also helped to isolate the young, or at least many of them. Along with increasing police violence and state repression, as well as the continued escalation of the horrific war in Vietnam, protesters’ very isolation from the nation’s “legitimate” discourse helped to radicalize them. Yet in mass mediaspeak, there was no such thing as a legitimate radical criticism, there was only youthful militancy. Indeed, the mass media defined militant behaviors as “radical.”  The effect, particularly on younger protesters in the process of finding and expressing their social identities, was poisonous for democracy. As documented in a variety of activists’ retrospectives from the racial struggles of the day, the antiwar movement, the New Left, and the women’s movement, youthful movement groups fragmented as each argued over the “correct” stance while struggling to define itself apart from the conventional offerings of American institutions.

Take, for example, the antiwar movement. Recoiling in moral horror at what the United States was doing in Vietnam and its neighbors, more and more movement participants became radicalized by what they saw, heard, and read of the war –meaning at the very least that they viewed the war as an American attack on the people of Vietnam. In other words the very opposite of the consensus assumptions expressed by both hawks and doves in the media’s conventional debate. Given the exclusion of this view from legitimate media discourse –as well as the public’s distance from what the war was really like on the ground for both the Vietnamese people and American soldiers— the antiwar movement struggled endlessly with how to get its argument and evidence across to the wider public.

One solution was the use of symbols, and thus individual protesters began to show up at antiwar rallies carrying Viet Cong flags –visual imagery that expressed both their alienation and their outsider view of the war, but imagery the media were drawn to like moths to light and media consumers could readily read as “anti-American,” aided, of course, by the forces of backlash. Fed by growing frustrations over the ever-escalating war, the other solution pursued by segments of the movement was to engage in increasingly confrontational and/or militant tactics.

The fact that the war was being openly contested throughout much of American society, made growing numbers of an increasingly attentive American public turn against the war. In fact, by 1971, a majority of Americans believed that the war was “morally wrong,” and by 1978 72% of the American public had come to what was in essence the core antiwar movement belief: “the Vietnam war was more than a  mistake, it was fundamentally wrong and immoral.”  Yet, tellingly, as public opinion against the war increased over time, so did public hostility towards the antiwar movement that people encountered in the media. For years after the war ended, the antiwar movement continued to be targeted and distorted by a host of public officials and right-wing crazies.

One clear lesson I draw from this history is that if the Occupy movement ultimately seeks the transformation of our neoliberal political economy into a truly democratic society, mass actions that seek mass media attention need to continue but need to be carefully constructed with the aim of reaching a wider sympathetic public. Antiwar militancy arguably did build pressure on the Nixon administration to bring the war to what it considered a premature end, but the costs of that militancy remain with us today. Thus, for example, burning an American flag during the January Occupy protest in Oakland, or using black bloc tactics (e.g., smashing store front windows after a powerfully successful action closing the port of Oakland) may feel like an authentic expression of what one is feeling at the time, and militancy can legitimately be viewed as the most effective way to further one’s objectives. But these are not the way to reach a wider sympathetic audience, as long as other means are available, if one’s objective is build a powerful movement. [Fittingly, the LA Times on-line featured two images on its front page the day after massive police violence cleared an occupied abandoned building: a line of police defending a defaced building from further attack, and the burning American flag.]

The 99% symbol of Occupy Wall Street brilliantly communicated precisely the kind of symbol that can and did reach the rest of America. Continued media visibility is important for Occupy’s future as a way of keeping Occupy issues in the public eye and potentially reaching wider audiences. Thus nonviolent mass actions –for example, sit-ins blocking the eviction of people from foreclosed homes— would continue to link Occupy sympathetically with victims of the very institutions that created our current economic recession, and most people outside the 1% know someone who has had their home foreclosed. I would argue, too, that the time is right for a sustained campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience on the steps of the Supreme Court, another institution heavily implicated in the recent theft of democracy.

By holding a National Gathering in Philadelphia, Occupy folks are also pursuing another important tack in coming together for face-to-face conversations through which they learn more about the diverse perspectives across the nation’s occupations and begin to work towards a more coherent analysis of what is wrong, why it is wrong, and what needs to be done about it. The tensions between freedom of expression for diverse viewpoints and the political imperative of some form of unity are inevitable in social movements, and participating in a movement is a crucial aspect of political education. The various Occupy’s around the nation have already adopted democratic processes that help to safeguard the importance of free expression and diversity within the movement, and various Occupy caucuses reinforce this quality that tended to disappear in some of the late-1960s subgroups. It will be interesting to see if the National Gathering can move closer to a unifying vision of where it believes we need to go.

If I were able to be present in Philadelphia, I would put forward the argument that a comprehensive critique of global capitalism ultimately needs to be a fundamental part of the core Occupy message, and a compelling vision of a fully participatory, democratic society must form the vision of where we need to go. I agree with those who argue that capitalism requires and fosters forces that are incompatible with human justice, global peace, and a sustainable future for humanity.

Thus I believe it is important for Occupiers to engage with articulate critics of capitalism and its by-products –people like John Bellamy Foster, David Harvey, Noam Chomsky, and many others— but is perhaps most fundamentally important for them to understand, as Frances Moore Lappé has argued, that capitalism and our current neoliberal politics ultimately rest on a vision of human beings as essentially self-interested atoms. Given this assumption (and the elite domination it produces), impersonal mechanisms like the economic marketplace and checks and balances of fragmented political institutions are offered as the means of allegedly producing liberal social goods. Yet this very reliance produces precisely what it assumes: self-interested behavior, the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and growing powerlessness on the part of most people.

Democracy, on the other hand, rests on the vision of humans as developing social beings, equipped with the scientifically-documented instinct of empathy towards other humans, the ability to come together cooperatively to resolve pressing problems and attain desired common goals, and the desire to find meaning in their lives. What becomes crucial is the kind of environment these developing humans encounter in their lives. A democratic society –a society, not just a system of government— is one that is built on trusting these human qualities while increasingly finding ways of nurturing them as humans grow and develop throughout their lives. There’s a great deal of evidence that much of the wider public recognizes that the democratic vision is far more appealing than the capitalist vision, especially as the costs of the latter become more and more evident.

However, the public has long been taught that it can’t trust the democratic vision it is drawn to. It’s time to turn that around.

Despite the National Gathering’s impulse towards national (and global) connection, the continued activity of local Occupy groups remains crucially important to this movement’s future. Recognizing the importance of occupying a space in our cities, many Occupy groups have now sought legitimate ways to occupy storefronts and abandoned buildings. Outreach to the wider local community from these spaces is crucial if the Occupy movement is to broaden its base and become the kind of movement the powerful have to listen to. Even if this activity is ignored by the national media, as it will be, along with use of the internet and social media, it becomes the crucial way the Occupy movement can convey its meanings to the wider public in a manner many can respond to sympathetically. Indeed unmediated interaction with the public –i.e., face-to-face conversation— is crucially important. It also happens to be the very basis of a democratic society. If we stop conversing with each other, including those we disagree with, we will remain divided –and ruled.

Thus I would argue that Occupy needs to pursue two paths at the local level. As many local Occupy groups have, it needs to reach out and interact with a host of other relevant groups –labor unions, other economic justice groups, progressives of all kinds, groups organized around racial, gender, and sexual identity, and groups mobilizing around ecological and land use issues— to form a working coalition for a variety of local actions and activities. Simultaneously, I would argue that Occupy should take a page from the work of community organizers, and engage with the wider public –seeking out their articulation of their grievances, inviting them to join with others in local actions, and articulating Occupy’s increasingly coherent understandings.

Ultimately, I believe, Occupy and the wider coalition of sympathetic groups need to come together in some form of democratic, loosely coherent organization, though I say that fully aware of the importance of centrifugal forces that propel separate groups down their separate paths. At the local and state level, these coalitions could evolve towards the kind of umbrella organization used in the Wisconsin struggles, “Wisconsin United,” thus giving both breadth and a populist feel to the groups that came together to fight Governor Scott Walker and his neoliberal agenda (a struggle that’s far from over). In much of the world, political parties are the natural form for these groups to take, but unfortunately, until several basic reforms are achieved in the U.S., our political system is structurally stacked against so-called “third parties.”  By definition, though, parties are coalitions of interests that come together to shape political outcomes, and ultimately this is what has to happen.

Until then, an expanding, increasingly coherent Occupy-based movement that can draw on wide public support is needed if we are to begin to create a just and sustainable future. Way back in the late 1940s, political scientist E. E. Schattschneider argued that democracy “begins with an act of imagination about people,” that they are “equal in the one dimension that counts: each is a human being, infinitely precious because [s]he is human.”  Count me among those who believe the future has to be democratic –especially if we are to have a future.

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

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