Occupy everywhere: Busting the myths

In part two of her three-piece series, Phoebe Fletcher from the University of Auckland’s Film, Television and Media Studies Department explores the myths behind the Occupy movement. For starters, are the protestors out of line with mainstream opinion? No. And they're not a bunch of unemployed hippies either. 

Two months after the protests began, Occupy New York was stormed a few days ago at 1.30am by counter-terrorism police who claimed that the protestors had violated sanitation orders. It was a media blackout – press had their passes torn from them by officers without identifiable numbers, the NYPD declared the airspace their own and CBS’ news helicopter was kicked out, and Democrat City Councillor Ydanis Rodriguez was beaten by riot police and left the scene in an ambulance bleeding from the head.  The BBC complained that they were denied access, another reporter bemoaned having his camera lens smashed by a baton, and arrested reporters includedAP writer Karen Matthews, AP photographer Seth Wenig, Daily News reporter Matthew Lysiak, NY Observer reporter Patrick Hedlund, freelance reporter Paul Lomax, NPR freelancer Julie Walker and NY Times reporter Jared Malsin.  Only a few reporters managed to get through the NYPD’s clearing of media, these included Penny Red from The New Statesman, Josh Harkinson from Mother Jones and Colin Moynihan from The New York Times.

Many other reporters were stuck reporting from around the periphery as the event was watched on various live feeds that even included a broadcast of the police radio by thousands of people across the world. Yet again, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg has stoked controversy in an eviction order that defied legal basis and has further provoked debate over the freedom of the press and the right of individuals to freedom of expression and protest in a democracy.

What is interesting about last night’s raid is that the attack on the press has the potential to change the way that the media has represented Occupy. Initially, the most notable difference was the way that the protests were treated differently than recent protests, such as the Tea Party.  Twitter was awash with discussion of this double standard in the early days  - why is it that in the US you can turn up to a right wing rally with a gun but camping in protest of banks meant little media coverage?  

John Stewart of The Daily Show perhaps summed it up best: the media has only two settings – blackout and circus.  However, the result of this lack of analysis meant that many key facts of the protests initially dropped out of the media in favour of an incredulity at the protestors’ perceived lack of demands.  In the last section, I outlined how technological developments across international protests had led to the emergence of Occupy. In this segment, I’ll look more specifically at the structure of the protests and busting some of the myths around Occupy that have been prevalent and hindered their understanding. 

Myth #1: The protestors are out of line with mainstream opinion 

The middle classes in the United States were hit particularly hard by the 2007 economic crisis, which led to a large number of foreclosures (10% of those with mortgages in 2009 with an eviction every 16 seconds). People went from middle class living in houses to living in their cars, tents or shelters, and the economic outlook for the United States has not really improved, particularly with the fragility of the Eurozone threatening to double dip the nation.  While unemployment is only officially at 9.7%, it is estimated that this is distorted due to the casualization of the workforce in the US, and that under-employment may be as high as 20%. Official unemployment statistics for some cities is as high as 30%, meaning that you have a situation where in some cities 1 in every 3 people is unemployed, and more generally 1 in 5 people underemployed.   This gave $700 billion of taxpayer money to bail out banks under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, an act that was not popular with many Americans. A poll by the White House showed that just 30% of Americans supported the bail out. It also meant that despite the diversification most of this fell into four major banks.  This perception was recently backed up by a study done by systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who found that:

… global corporate control has a distinct bow-tie shape, with a dominant core of 147 firms radiating out from the middle. Each of these 147 own interlocking stakes of one another and together they control 40% of the wealth in the network. A total of 737 control 80% of it all. The top 20 are at the bottom of the post. This is, say the paper’s authors, the first map of the structure of global corporate control.

While the media positioned the Occupy protestors as being out of step with the rest of society, polls taken in early October positioned them as being en pointe with mainstream opinion, with a TIME magazine survey on October 13 finding that 54% of Americans supported the protests. 

Myth #2: The protestors are a bunch of hippies and unemployed

This is not true, although certainly high levels of unemployment have fed into the protests.  There have been plenty of well-known figures that have backed the protests, including Nobel Prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, economist Robert Reich, academics Cornel West, Lawrence Lessig and Slavoj Zizek.  Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke expressed his sympathies for the movement. Feminist and former advisor to Bill Clinton Naomi Wolf was arrested in a well-publicized incident for walking on the pavement on the way to a Huffington Post gala and was told by police that if she returned she would be tracked through facial recognition technology for the rest of her life. There have been plenty of politicians that have been hovering around the movement, but as the protestors are wary of politicians, they have largely not been allowed to speak.  The presence of these prominent people means that Occupy looks set to influence political debate in the US for quite some time, with Mayor Bloomberg having arrested half the Democrat candidates for Mayor in 2013. They are proud of it as well, using their arrests as political credentials.

In fact, what we do know about the protestors is that this is certainly the first movement that has been driven by what is known in the advertising and tech worlds as early adopters of technology.  Right from the beginning, protestors were aware of a lack of privacy and heightened surveillance on Facebook, so instead were using applications such as Vibe, where you can control the duration and geographical distribution of your tweets, beta platforms such as Diaspora that allow for hashtag following and even had their own Android applications. 

Myth #3: The protestors are white

This particularly damaging myth came from Conservative Michele Malkin’s blog which was picked up by Fox News, who then struggled to find a photo of all white people to accompany the article.  Malkin is herself Philipino and anti-immigration and very popular as a right-wing commentator. In fact, there has been a strong Latino, African American and indigenous contingent present at the protests.  For example, African lobbyists include the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Black is Black Coalition, the Black Panthers, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Cornel West and Dr. Boyce.  A couple of weeks into the movement an Occupy the Hood movement began which furthered this. Some of the groups, such as Occupy Toronto have expressed their solidarity with indigenous groups, and Occupy Melbourne has called for a Treaty with First Nations. The phrase ‘Occupy’ has generated a lot of controversy among indigenous peoples, who argue that the land is already occupied, but notably on a global scale the phrase is now being adopted by other indigenous groups, such as the occupation of the Belo Monte dam in the Amazon. At the very least, such negotiations have allowed for an open conversation on power and its distribution within society. 

Myth #4: The protests have not achieved anything

Occupy is an experience in direct democracy, and this has contributed to both its longevity and its difficulty in being interpreted.  The hand signals come from the work of anthropologist David Graeber, who was present at the initial meetings of Occupy.  Specifically, they were techniques developed for direct democracy consensus making in his work with the Betafo community of former Afro-Carribean slaves in Madagascar. They have proved to be one of the defining elements of the movement, which have allowed the protestors to communicate information across the crowd where the use of loudspeakers is illegal (such as in New York).  It has also allowed for the open nature of the discussions. Many people visit the protests to discuss and workshop ideas, and each day has a General Assembly.

Aside from the remarkable uptake of the movement which has drawn attention to notions of inequality in American society, they have achieved some concrete objectives. The overlying message of the protests is one against corporate greed.  This has led to protestors worldwide endorsing the notion of a ‘Robin Hood’ or Financial Transaction Tax, which is also known as the Tobin Tax in EU discussions and is a tax that Bill Gates also endorses.  That this is currently being discussed at the G20 does show some political power from the movement.