Over the weekend, my inbox exploded with angry messages from people who had just read this New York Times article (though it reads more like an op-ed) about the Occupy Wall Street protest. Ginia Bellafante gives a devastating account of the event’s attendees, depicting them as scatterbrained, sometimes borderline-psychotic transients.
Bellafante, who is not a reporter but a columnist for the Times, offered a representation of the protesters that is as muddled as the amalgam of activists’ motives she presents in the span of the article. She first claims a Joni Mitchell lookalike named Zuni Tikka is a “default ambassador” of the movement. In one of the following paragraphs, she then describes the protest as “leaderless.” Either the people at Zuccotti Park have official leadership or they don’t (they don’t, by the way). So either Tikka is an official spokesperson who warrants first-paragraph favorability, or Bellafante’s own biases persuaded her to put the kooky girl dancing around in her underwear in the spotlight.
The more serious aspect of the protest—the “scores of arrests” that occurred over the weekend including the arrests of more than eighty people, several of whom the police first penned and then maced—is offered as an aside in Bellafante’s article (she doesn’t mention the macing at all). By the way, none of the young women in the following video are in their underwear.
Bellafante goes on to (rightfully) wonder why the response to the widening class divide hasn’t come in the form of a more serious movement. A proposed hypothesis never emerges, even though Bellafante almost stumbles across one when she describes a young man who is stopping by only in “fits and spurts” because his mother fears he’ll be tear-gassed by the police. It sounds as though Bellafante is on the cusp of critiquing the US police state that has completely terrified the activist community into submission, but then she retreats.
The main bone the article wishes to pick is the scattered ideologies of the attendees—a fair point. However, Bellafante never attempts to do the job of real journalism here, which is to use this slice of life to help her readers understand the world around them. Instead, she comes across as a rubbernecker leering at a particularly bloody wreck.
Okay, she managed to interview a few strange and inarticulate individuals, but I could do that at any protest. No meeting of this kind is a monolith, and you can always find a couple people who are there simply because the cause is fashionable, or their friends dragged them along, or they’re tripping balls and just stumbled across the thing and are desperately looking for a safe place to ride out the terrible journey. Gawking at these people doesn’t help us understand, say, why a million other people haven’t joined them in the streets, demanding an end to the corporate hijacking of their country.
Now, in Bellafante’s defense, the protesters described in her article do exist, and they’re super-loud and eye-catching. But in my experience, the quiet people who mingle on the edge of the crowd are the ones you want to speak to—the sort of half-in activist who will probably have to go back to work on Monday, if they’re lucky enough to have a job.