Stanley Rogouski is an embedded photojournalist in Zuccotti Park with Occupy Wall Street
While it may be an exaggeration to say that Washington, D.C. is the city where protest movements go to die, it is no exaggeration to say that the Capitol Mall is where they go to cloak themselves in invisibility. During the Bush years, antiwar rallies of upwards of 100,000 people were routinely ignored by the corporate media. It was easy, therefore, to predict their response to a "permitted" rally by Occupy Congress on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The Washington Post would compare the number of protesters allowed by the permit, 10,000, to the number of protesters who showed up, a little over 1500, and publish a short article declaring that "the rally fell far short of expectations." Fox News would find, or manufacture, some kind of outrage.
I won't spend too much time bashing the corporate media. Their refusal to cover "Operation Ceasefire," an event held in September of 2005 which mobilized so many anti-war protesters that the crowd was able to surround the White House, pack the grounds near the Washington Monument, and spill out onto the neighboring streets, was a clear example of journalistic malfeasance. Their decision not to give saturation coverage to Occupy Congress, an event that, at its height, never included more than 2000 people, is a bit more difficult to attack.
It might, however, be instructive to use Occupy Congress to discuss exactly why the corporate media has failed so miserably over the past few months in its coverage of Occupy Wall Street. While a Tea Party rally that, like Occupy Congress, began early on a cold, rainy morning in January, continued well into the evening, lobbied Congress, occupied the steps of the Supreme Court, and ended up by marching on the White House would probably receive saturation coverage from Fox News, and, perhaps, even MSNBC or the New York Times, thinking about it begs the question. To compare an Occupy Wall Street event to a Tea Party rally is a bit like comparing a Grateful Dead jam session to an episode of American Idol.
A newspaper reporter covering a Tea Party rally knows exactly what to expect. He knows how to find the obligatory moments of outrage and comic opera, the misspelled signs and gun-toting rednecks babbling on about birth certificates. Whether he's a sympathetic conservative Republican or a hostile liberal Democrat, he doesn't have to do much work. The rally begins on time and ends on time. Lawn chairs are unfolded and stay in place. At the end of it all, he can walk over to a press liaison and pick up a well formatted press release full of the latest talking points from groups like Americans for Prosperity or the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can then go home, write his piece, and, when attacked from either the right or the left, he can pat himself on the back for his even handedness.
How exactly, on the other hand, does he cover a movement like Occupy Wall Street? What is the best medium to bring to the world the kind of sprawling, unfocused, and sporadically militant carnivals that the Occupy movement consistently puts on? How do you even begin to approach an event that can last 3, 6, 12 hours or longer, or, paradoxically, be shut down by the police in 5 minutes?
We can, of course, call out Fox News for "reporting" on a "stink bomb" that occupiers threw over the White House fence when Fox News had no reporter on the scene. Fox Nation's putting up a photo of the Capitol Police taken at noon near the Rayburn Building and labeling it as a photo of "a tense situation near the White House," was flat out lying. But what do we say, for example, when the Washington Post quite accurately reports that Occupy Congress attracted only a few hundred people early in the afternoon during the permitted rally, but misses a later, spontaneous march on the White House that swelled to several thousand people, but which was not mentioned in the press release?
Occupy Congress began Tuesday morning exactly the way Naomi Wolf writes in the Village Voice, with a few hundred occupiers milling about in the rain on the West Lawn, some looking bored, and a few others, unsuccessfully, trying to bait the Capitol Police into a confrontation. A lot of it was silly and childish. The organizers at Occupy Congress might have done well to explain to their supporters that the rally on January 17 was a permitted rally. To obtain a permit on the Capitol Mall, the organization putting on the rally is required to take legal responsibility anything that goes on during the time specified in the permit. Tearing down a few yards of loosely strung mesh netting put up by the Capitol groundskeepers to protect a few patches of unseeded, muddy earth is hardly a revolutionary act in any event. Let us hope that minor scuffles with the Capitol Police and a few acts of petty vandalism will fall far short of the ammunition Occupy DC's enemies need to shut down their encampment at McPherson Square.
On the other hand, some of the attempts of some of the occupiers near the Rayburn Building and on the West Lawn of the Capitol to police some of their rowdier fellow occupiers were just as silly. One woman near the Rayburn Building declared that she was so intimidated by the sight of a few teenage girls in bandanas that, unless the girls unmasked themselves, she would leave the Occupy movement and never return. The girls refused to take off their bandanas, and she flounced off in a huff.
Earlier that morning, I attempted to engage a pair of middle-aged women in a discussion about the purpose of Occupy Congress. Should we vote or not vote? If enough people met with their congressional delegations on well-defined issues, would it do anything to counteract the pernicious influence of corporate lobbyists? How could we have prevented Congress in 2008 from voting for the bailouts?
It was all going well until I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, an occupier I knew from Zucotti Park tearing down a piece of green mesh protecting what appeared to be a planned seeding of grass. I tried to keep the conversation going, but I knew it was over. The two women had already turned their attention to the petty drama unfolding a few yards away. The mainstream media had gathered around. They wanted a sound bite from the young man who had attacked the green mesh, and from the middle-aged couple determined to prevent it. But, really, who cared? Putting the mesh back up probably cost the groundskeepers an extra 20 minutes the next morning. The Capitol Police did not see fit to intervene. I doubt ABC even saved the footage.
The fact that the Occupy Wall Street is a marathon being covered by a media more accustomed to reporting on the 50 yard dash, means that even some of the freelance and independent journalists who have attached themselves to the movement occasionally have trouble covering it accurately. Has the movement for example, really been all about pepper spray, which figures in almost all the "iconic" photos of Occupy movement in the mainstream media? Or has the media's obsession with easy to digest drama biased their coverage in favor of a shallow narrative about protesters brawling with police? Have the protesters, in turn, started to tailor the way they protest with an eye to getting media attention? A freelance photographer has to make a choice. Does he want to preserve an accurate visual record of an ever changing, perhaps fleeting movement, or does he want to sell photos? If he wants to sell photos, he narrows his vision. He blocks out everything but that split-second opportunity to get "the shot" of that dramatic arrest even if that dramatic arrest does not convey an accurate impression of what went on that day.
How do you cover a marathon, or a soccer match when you know your viewers want to watch slam dunks and steroid fueled home runs? A Norman Mailer or a Hunter S. Thompson, a "gonzo" journalist able to immerse himself in the Occupy Movement over an extended time, is, perhaps, the only kind of writer who can accurately report back on what exactly Occupy wall Street is all about. George Packer and Keith Gessen, for example, have made very credible attempts with long, sympathetic articles in The New Yorker. A local TV anchor person, on the other hand, or "city beat" reporter for one of the tabloids, someone who thinks in sound bites and is dependent for on access to crime statistics from the police, will probably cover the movement as nothing more than a nuisance to the local deli owner. He will, in all likelihood, ignore the larger, national issues about the influence of corporate money on politics that the Occupy movement is keeps trying to raise all the while, perhaps even sincerely, expressing his confusion about its "demands."
Having personally experienced the heavy handed, quasi-fascist tactics of Bloomberg's private army near Zucotti Park, I'm not usually one to say anything positive about the police, but I will admit that, during the attempts of Occupy Congress to meet with their congressional delegations in the Rayburn and Canon buildings, the Capitol Police did a credible job of de-escalating any potential conflict. While very few of the occupiers were actually able to meet with a member of congress on such short notice, they were all whisked efficiently through the metal detectors and allowed to bring symbolic "pink slips" to the offices of majority leader John Boehner and individual members of Congress like Joe Walsh. It was quite satisfying to notice that when the police calmed down, so did the protesters. Stripped of the opportunity for petty drama, the occupiers pushed themselves into honing their arguments on the issues.
It was a striking contrast to the NYPD's practice of closing down all of Seventy-Ninth Street every time Occupy Wall Street even makes an appearance in the neighborhood. While the corporate media has framed Michael Bloomberg's decision to live in his private fortress near Fifth Avenue instead of in Gracie Mansion as a commendable exercise in cost cutting, very few have pointed out that public buildings mean public access. While the Capitol Police were obligated by law to give Occupy Congress access to John Boehner and Joe Walsh, Bloomberg is under no such legal requirement to open his palace on the Upper East Side to the citizens of New York. Whether he has the right to shut down Seventy-Ninth Street is, of course, another question and will undoubtedly be the subject of ongoing litigation.
The most dramatic moment of Occupy Congress came much later, unexpectedly, long after the corporate media had gone home, and the sun had gone down. Sloshing about in the dark in the mud on the West Lawn, I was just about to pack it up, go to Union Station and upload my photos from earlier in the day, then take the midnight Greyhound Bus home, when a march took off for the Supreme Court to protest the Citizens United decision. No longer only a few hundred people, Occupy Congress had now swelled to 1000, perhaps 1500, perhaps even more. Where had they all come from? Even I was confused.
Knowing how Cornel West had been arrested only a few months ago for demonstrating on the steps of the Supreme Court, I was certain that the DC Metro Police would set up a roadblock to prevent anybody from approaching the building, but they had been caught off guard. It would be impossible to overstate the drama of seeing more than 1000 people on the steps of the Supreme Court chanting "money is not free speech." If the corporate media wanted a sound bite tying up the message of the Occupy Movement or a striking image not involving pepper spray, there it was. But, of course, they were nowhere to be found. There were several very talented freelance photographers who did take photos of the huge crowd on the steps of Supreme Court and at least three people "live streaming" the event, but whether anybody in the mainstream media will buy the photos or pick up the footage remains to be seen.
It wasn't over. The chant "money is not free speech" became "to the White House." I found myself getting swamped by the crowd, now probably more than 2000 strong, that took off for Pennsylvania Avenue. Framed by the shimmering white light of the Capitol Dome, they continued onto the White House. As they marched on, I wondered, if they would be allowed to "occupy" the area in front of Lafayette Park, or if they would meet up with a road block along the way. I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike in 2000, when the police roped off a protest against the IMF and kept thousands of people standing behind orange netting for hours, the Metro cops were either caught off guard, or they had just thought better of the situation and chose to tag along and watch. Either way, Occupy Congress ended up in a large rally along the White House fence that lasted for almost an hour.
Later that night, I opened up the liberal web site The Daily Kos and the conservative web site Fox nation. Some of the commentators at the Daily Kos were outraged that Occupy Congress would protest a liberal Democratic President facing a tough campaign for re-election. Fox Nation made vague accusations about a "stink bomb" having been tossed over the White House fence, even though it was obvious that Fox had had no reporter on scene, and their members were all ablaze with desire for tasers, police batons, and pepper spray.
What interested me far more than the alleged stink bomb was a young couple I met on Pennsylvania Avenue, both in their early 20s, who pointed at the familiar building, and asked me if that was, indeed, the White House. The man added that he had, perhaps, once been to the White House as a small child, but he could not say so for sure. I was at a loss for words. I was baffled. "Are you joking?" I finally asked. Even though their accents were as American as my own, I quite sincerely wondered what foreign country they were from.
They were, of course, as American as I am, both from the Pacific Northwest, near Seattle, and, while it would be tempting to laugh at them both, I will resist that temptation. As a matter of fact, they probably have more of a right to laugh at me than I do to laugh at them. I had voted for Barack Obama in 2008, convinced that he would begin to roll back the abuses of the Bush regime. I had been seduced by the brilliant marketing campaign David Axelrod had begun to assemble as early as 2004, but these two were a lot smarter. They had ignored the presidential race altogether.
Perhaps they offer a clue into that baffling "lack of demands" the corporate media is so obsessed with in the Occupy movement. Neither this man or this woman was representative of any individual member of Occupy Congress, most of whom seemed to be political geeks like myself. But perhaps they represent the spirit of Occupy Wall Street as a whole. I saw little or no personal animosity towards Barack Obama at Occupy Congress, but even less respect. The liberals at the Daily Kos see him as their savior. The conservatives in the Tea Party see him as an antichrist who has taken "their America" and stolen their "honor." This man and this woman saw him as irrelevant. For most of the occupiers, President Obama is just another mainstream politician seduced by corporate wealth. They may have voted for him in 2008, but now he barely registers. If the United States government barely exists except to collect your taxes and to hire police to beat you up, why have a list of "demands?" Why even pay any it any attention at all? The White House? What's that? It's just another palace of the 1%, no different from Bloomberg's limestone pile on Seventy Ninth Street or Aaron Spelling's compound in Florida.
It's hard to imagine a more damning, or accurate indictment of the state of American democracy.
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