For a country founded by protest, there are far too few activists in America. Rather than embrace the activism of our founders, today many Americans view protests and protesters as unlawful, disruptive, as angry and alienated. Recall the responses to the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle. Those demonstrations were part of a broad-based grassroots mobilization against the agenda of the World Trade Organization. But how were those on the streets portrayed? Reading the headlines of the day, one would think the streets of Seattle were filled with raging youth who bombed and set fire to buildings, battered the police, and caused more mayhem than did the Joker (played so powerfully by Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.
The mainstream media’s major coverage often portrayed the protestors as violent groups with no clue as to what they are talking about. Writing in the Washington Post, staff writers John Burgess and Steven Pearlstein suggest “A guerrilla army of anti-trade protesters took control of downtown Seattle today, forcing the delay of the opening of a global meeting of the World Trade Organization.” As William S. Solomon, writes in the Monthly Review (52:1) May 2000:
The coverage of the Seattle protests in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times shows a common theme: Only zealots hold radical critiques of the WTO, which actually represents the best hope for the world’s future. This theme is developed in many ways. First, radical critiques are attributed solely to marginal figures who hold unconventional, impractical, and possibly unwise views. “Who on earth were they,” the Los Angeles Times wondered, “and what were they so mad about?” (December 3, p. A1). Such people represent “an array of special-interest groups” (LAT, December 3, p. A1), unlike the WTO delegates, who presumably represent virtually all of the world’s peoples. Worse, some of the protesters are anarchists: a New York Times headline read, “Dark Parallels With Anarchist Outbreaks in Oregon” (December 3, p. A12). “
Tens of thousands joined in rallies and marches against WTO policies, shutting shut down the WTO (temporarily) through nonviolent civil disobedience. Other, much smaller groups, went beyond permitted demonstrations and used property destruction to protest against the WTO and big corporations. Seattle authorities responded with a massive show of police force and creation of a “no protest zone.” In the protest’s wake, the Seattle Police Department’s reputation was damaged by officers’ lack of control and brutal response in the streets, and Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper quickly resigned.
The media’s portrayal of protestors interfering in global trading missed the both the police violence and something that history has shown us: change has often been made through public protests: abolition of slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, revolutionary wars, civil wars and revolutions across the globe. In fact, mass protest of government policies on this continent is at least as old as the property destruction that characterized the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
Yet in America and elsewhere, mass media, government and corporations (which may well be one and the same) are manipulating public perceptions of protests and activists. Such manipulation is designed to squelch protest and dissent. Just look back to the assigned “free speech zones” or “protest zones” during the Bush administration where people opposed to Bush policies were quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event. As Matt LeMieux, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. asserts,
Herding dissenters into far-away zones, while supporters are allowed to get within earshot of the president, serves absolutely no purpose other than to suppress certain viewpoints. Free speech rights are simply meaningless if they can only be exercised in an area far away from the intended audience. (Freedom Underfire: Dissent in Post-9/11 America. ACLU, 2003)
So why I am writing about the WTO protests of 1999, you ask? Today I nodded in agreement as I read Claire Potter’s “London Calling: A Reflection on British Violence And American Political Passivity” and her account of recent protests in England and reflection on “the extraordinary passivity of Americans, and of American students, who respond to reduced access to education by studying harder, getting better grades, and stepping on the people who can’t compete.” I’ve been lamenting American passivity of late, especially during the debt ceiling debacle. What will it take to bring Americans into the streets I wondered.
The there was this post by a high school friend on Facebook:
Message to all the rioters ……….. u wanna be big men and fight to the death , well get your sorry little arses on the next plane to Afghanistan and stand alongside real men, they’re called SOLDIERS and they are fighting a war, unlike you bunch of pathetic wastes of space !!!!!!COPY AND SET AS YOUR STATUS IF YOU AGREE
And I thought, here we go again. The legitimate protest doesn’t get any media attention, but once building are burning and cops are in the street the media awakens. Non-violent, peaceful demonstrations don’t draw viewers, but show footage of fire and destruction and the public can’t turn away. Throw in a sexy headline such as The Times “Mobs rule as police surrender the streets” and “Anarchy in the UK” from the Daily Star, and it’s must-see-news. So it was with frustration that I wrote
Do you know what they are protesting?? Yet another police shooting of a black man. Police were arresting him when he was shot. I also imagine their outrage might also be fueled by litanies of injustices perpetrated by systems that target a specific demographic (black men) and the police corruption linked to Murdoch.
When my friend wrote “That still does not give them the right to destroy other peoples property, Desertdem! My god destroying all those store fronts and the fires? Protest fine but not this way!” I was compelled to respond that
I wasn’t condoning the destruction of property but rather speaking to the nature of the social, economic, and judicial injustices and inequities that fuel such protests. London has not become a war zone, as some reports might suggest, and your comparison to Afghanistan is unwarranted. You assume protesters “want to be big men and fight to the death.” I don’t see any such motivation. I see people who are outraged by severe cuts to social programs, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the lack of jobs. I read recently that Britain today is less equal in terms of wages, wealth and job opportunities, than at any time since the crash. Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by some 30 per cent. Does any of this sound familiar? Again, I do not condone the destruction of property, but I wholeheartedly support activism and protests against social, economic, and judicial injustices and inequities. I wish more Americans would turn off the mind numbing Dancing with the Celebs Singing with the lame tv shows and read about what’s going on in this and other countries. We might be in the streets then as well.
Not ready to release my high horse yet, I responded to another of her post that pointed out that Americans aren’t rioting in the streets despite the economy (paraphrased) with the following:
You miss my point: Americans SHOULD be protesting, but too many of us are too complacent. Too many have bought the narrative that draws no distinction between real political dissent and angry violence. You and the media are branding these people “rioters” rather than considering they might be activists. Change, real political change rarely comes from peaceful protest. Name one political change in this country that has not been accompanied by violence? It’s so much easier to call these people “thugs” and “sorry sons of gun” than it is to consider the complex social, cultural, and economic issues that drive them. Lest we not forget, the men who founded this country did so during a political upheaval and armed conflict.
Unfortunately, when I pressed post I discovered that my friend had deleted her original post and all the comments with it. I say unfortunately because once again a legitimate debate can’t be sustained. Disputes are seen as impolite and offensive, especially when one tries to explore the complexities rather than rely upon the easy answers.
This, of course, isn’t new. I can name thousands of actual protests–against slavery, in support of woman’s suffrage, against child labor, working conditions, intervention in other countries, in support of farm laborer’s rights, a woman’s right to choose, against the WTO and more–in which protesters were characterized as mobs, rioters, anti-American, communist, outside agitators, disaffected youth, dissenters, and more. But what continues to frustrate me is how easily the media paints protesters with the brush of rioters, thugs, and the like, and how readily viewers see that canvas without considering other possibilities. Certainly there are those who see legitimate protest as an opportunity for mayhem. But we need to understand the differences between righteous anger and legitimate protest, and the destructive behavior of those who care and often
no know little about the cause.
It is simply too easy to dismiss and ignore all the social, economic, and judicial injustices and inequities that fuel protests whether they be in London, Cairo, Seattle, or Beijing. I have marched with Quakers in D.C and been astonished by the destruction in our path, not caused by me, the Quakers I was with, or the other people whom I knew gathered around us, but by others with whom we had no association. I have been arrested for simply standing outside a chemical company–standing on public land–because some other group I didn’t even know about had set fire to an outbuilding. Sadly, it’s the fires and destruction that so many focus on.
As with many protests today, the issues that motivated the London activists are real and global. We ignore or simplify them at our peril.