The Revolution Will be Televised: Images, Suppression and Occupy Wall Street

By Cailean MacLean

Much has been written in the past weeks over the growing influence, reach, and geographic spread of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. What originally started as a call by Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters and a relatively small (in protest terms) demonstration and occupation of Zuccotti Park in south Manhattan has been snowballing exponentially. Sympathy rallies and occupations have taken place across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Some have called the rallies an alternative Tea Party rally, referencing the right-wing rallies which followed the election of Obama and the bank bailouts or more ambitiously an American counterpart to the Cairo uprisings of the Arab Spring. At their core, however, is a clear and express demand for both economic and equitable justice and the right to make this demand heard.

Numerous factors have contributed to the spread of this popular movement, most importantly the resonance that the rallies have with a population facing continued unemployment during an age of corporate bailouts and record profits for major banks. Equally important for any protest, in a time where soundbites and iconic symbols are often the keys to capturing and maintaining attention, is media exposure. With the increasing ubiquity of camera phones, YouTube and Twitter, these moments and symbols can emerge without warning.

Two weeks ago at the New York OWS rally, a handful of young women, protesting non-violently were kettled and pepper sprayed without warning, left gasping on the ground while the officer in question walked back into the crowd. Captured on camera, posted and publicized on YouTube, the images eventually appeared on news outlets throughout the US, igniting additional protests, offers of food and monetary aid to the protestors, as well as criticism and increased scrutiny of law enforcement and actions to suppress or limit the OWS movement. Most important, however, has been media airtime and exposure and coverage of the central message: that a small minority has financially benefitted at the expense of the vast majority of Americans. Building on this, the rallies have continued to spread and moves by law enforcement to break up the growing camps, especially by methods considered unwarranted or subversive, have only led to further publicity and increased support.

The Arab Spring, while drawing from a wellspring of anger towards unrepresentative governments, rising food prices, and rampant corruption, was touched off by the public immolation of a fruit vendor. This in turn led to riots, a crackdown, a strengthened public response, and eventual regime change. The images of police repression in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were instrumental in both hardening domestic resolve and building foreign support and moral superiority in favour of the protestors.

While it is impossible to compare the experiences of the OWS protesters to those who suffered under Mubarak and unfair to compare the heavy-handed actions of some members of the NYPD to the homicidal actions of the Egyptian security forces, both had a similar effect in two vital ways. First, publicised suppression attracts air time and sympathetic commentary. Second, as opposed to warning potential protestors off, it has tended to increase support as well as galvanise and strengthen the solidarity of existing protestors.

While these movements were far too complex and widespread to have their expansion attributed to something as simple as a single iconic image of a civil or human rights violation, these images can be invaluable in achieving a democratic end. In an ironic way, the ubiquity of cameras as well as the traditional resort to heavy-handed suppression of crowds, can often have the effect of realising the goals of the protest better than any traditional dialogue.

It must be kept in mind that media coverage can be a double-edged sword. When the protests against the London police shooting of Mark Duggan degenerated into opportunistic rioting, images of burning buildings and looted stores quickly united the country in condemnation of such “lawlessness”. Many desperate questions about isolation, stunted opportunities, and social disengagement faced by the urban poor were lost in a strict law and order response engendered by such images. Simultaneously a lack of a coherent narrative, or rather the failure to report on a coherent narrative, can strangle a social movement, preventing the offer or implementation of real reforms. Accordingly television coverage of the OWS protestors’ message has remained lax, with American commentators focusing on the “lack of coherent policy goals” while seemingly ignoring the very clear OWS demand for jobs and economic justice. This is why media flashpoints, images, slogans, and even scenes of oppression play a vital role in forcing media coverage and eventual analysis.

More recent actions against OWS, including the heavy crackdown against protestors in Boston will increase the focus on the movement. Should the OWS maintain a non-violent and popular focus on the plight of the middle class in America then it should continue to gather active and passive supporters, and eventually become a serious factor in political decisions. Even today political blogs and commentators are attempting to divine just what role these protests will play in local and national politics in both North America and Europe. While OWS has neither demanded change on the order of magnitude seen in North Africa it can still play a role in reminding politicians (American and otherwise) where their priorities lie.

About the Author:

Cailean MacLean is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. He recently graduated from the University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies with an LL.M. in International Law and Relations.

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