Occupy everywhere: Global protest discourses

In the final instalment of her three-piece series, Phoebe Fletcher from the University of Auckland’s Film, Television and Media Studies Department explores the progression of the Occupy movement.

Phoebe FletcherThe global movement of Occupy protests has shown remarkable reach and resilience in the months since it began in the New York financial district. 

In spite of a wave of police raids across America in an attempt to evict the protests, the movement now shows every sign of morphing into something that may have ramifications for the next few years. 

The last month of the protests has been punctuated by a step up in police action against the protestors that saw media evicted, an eighty-four year old woman pepper sprayed in the face, and students at UC Davis pepper sprayed while at a sit-in. The latter prompted condemnation from the UN Special Rapporteur Frank LaRue on the police response. Despite the night-time raids to evict protests, it is clear that the decentralised movement is still going strong.

Over the last few days, the Occupy movement in Washington DC has just extended to the Black churches, with ministers Jamal Bryant and Benjamin Chavis Jnr potentially providing the movement with a way of morphing and reaching further into African-American communities that have been divided in opinion over whether the protests were a middle-class white movement. 

There have already been prominent figures in the civil rights movement associated with the protests, but the ‘Occupy the Dream’ movement in Black churches with its homage to Martin Luther King may get more people on board.

An ‘Occupy Immigrants’ movement also began on International Immigrants day, drawing attention to the 11.2 million illegal immigrants who lack representation but call the country home.

In Occupy DC, some protestors have also begun hunger strikes and a small group has splintered from the movement and is attempting to gain representation and voting rights in Congress

With numerous movements articles emerging calling for everything from ‘Occupy Parenting’ to ‘Occupy the Torah’, the phrase has clearly entered the public vernacular – so much so that the word ‘Occupy’ is now banned in front of city names in China.

Decentralisation means the movement can expand to different causes

While there have been unified messages to come out of the movement (such as the demand for an end to corporate personhood), branches of the movement remain decentralised and calling for a variety of demands. For example, Occupy Windsor has taken up the cause of finding housing for the homeless.

Occupy Salt Lake City has been attempting to draw attention to the role of Walmart in entrenching global inequality, a model of stopping trade at ports that has caused some friction with the unions but has been replicated elsewhere. 

Members have also been active in targeting banks who have been active in foreclosures. For example, in Healdsburg, protestors have targeted JP Morgan Chase and Co and in Delaware they have targeted the Sheriff County Sales of foreclosed homes.

Violence equals viral

As discussed in my firsttwo pieces, the Occupy protests have been notable for their use of iconic imagery and the viral spread of these images. The danger of iconic imagery of violence and its ability to mobilise large groups of people is something that had been recognised by the US during the Vietnam War with the imagery of a 9-year-old girl running down the road while being burnt by napalm, an image that resulted in widespread protests across America. In recent wars that the US has been engaged in, there has been an attempt to control the spread of these images of violence, such as in the first Gulf War where news images were dominated by graphic maps and images from the fighter pilot’s cockpit, or more recently the use of embedded journalists to align the audience with a military perspective of events.

Over the last few weeks we have seen the way that these images work to give strength to a movement rather than to diminish its power. The achievements the movement has attained in the first two months are not to be scoffed at: the formation of a global viral wave of protests within three weeks, hackers reportedly taking out the Wall Street Exchange for four minutes, a withdraw your money from your bank and transfer it to independent credit unions day, thousands of people clogging the port of Oakland’s wharf, and so on.

In this sense, the pepper spraying of University of California Davis students resisting peacefully is a fateful miscalculation by police.  The latter example’s evolution into the “pepper spray everything policeman” meme, which saw the policeman photoshopped into everything from classic paintings to popular culture shows the danger in an ill thought through response of violence. (The viral nature of that meme was not really a surprise to those who have been watching. A similar phenomenon occurred only a couple of months ago with a photograph of two Chinese MPs that had their agricultural visit photoshopped by the government to make the grass greener before being relentlessly mocked by their citizens via the same technology).

Due to the relationship between violence and the spread of the protests, it is not unfeasible to suggest that in the future analyses of the protests there will be a lot of weight put on Bloomberg’s response to the occupiers as someone whose actions influenced the spread of the movement.

A rise in the global circulation of human rights images

The last few days has seen an ‘Occupy Cabinet’ movement begin in Cairo, met by a brutal response by the military government and the deaths of protestors. Occupy in the US is in return holding demonstrations of solidarity. That both Occupy and the Egyptian uprisings are feeding off each other is not surprising; both are international events that have received a lot of media oxygen.  This sits in contrast to the uprisings in places like Bahrain, which have largely fallen off the media’s radar due to a complete crackdown on internet and a lack of images in recent months. 

What we are witnessing is a rise in citizen journalism that is seeing the international circulation of human rights images where journalists are now competing with citizens for the scoop on the story.  This is where social media such as Twitter and Facebook intersect with the mainstream news to place pressure on gatekeepers to push items that traditionally would not have been covered up the agenda.

This is having a very real political effect, and even when the goals and organisation seem nebulous, as in the Occupy movement, it has the ability to dramatically change the political landscape.

Analysis is split on whether this will benefit Obama or not. Despite meeting the protestors, he has been the subject of scorn for the sponsorship of his campaign from Wall Street. However, Occupy still allows Obama to talk about economic inequality in a much more open way than before given that this is not considered a hot topic for voters in the US. This has seen some Republican commentators accusing the protestors of being pro-Obama, although they are not.

As Bloomberg has also arrested half of the Democrat candidates for 2013’s mayoral election, we can expect that the political ramifications of Occupy will resonate for some months to come.