In this Oct. 18, 2011 photo, an Occupy Wall Street protestor speaks into microphone for a live-streaming online interview at the media area in Zuccotti Park in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
From its inception, the Occupy movement has had a contentious relationship with the mainstream media. On September 17, a few hours into the first day of the occupation, as a couple of hundred people assembled in Zuccotti Park, some demonstrators were already complaining of a “media blackout.” I was there, as an enthusiastic participant, yet even I wasn’t convinced the event was particularly newsworthy: in May more than 10,000 people had marched through nearby streets airing similar grievances; a month later protesters camped for two weeks outside City Hall as part of a protest called Bloombergville. Yet accusations flew through the Twittersphere. The traditional media are ignoring us! Why aren’t we big news?
Before long, Occupy Wall Street would be. When protesters managed to hold their ground through the weekend, sleeping on hard concrete and eating pizza donated by well-wishers from around the world, reporters began dutifully to file stories. But the charge of a media “blackout” persisted until September 24, when shaky video of several young women being cordoned off and pepper-sprayed point-blank by a white-shirted police officer was uploaded to YouTube. With that video Occupy went viral, and by going viral it went mainstream.
Over the six months since, through an unpredictable combination of savvy social media use and name-brand coverage, Occupy has cast a tremendously large shadow, making an impact in many ways disproportionate to the numbers of people involved in the core actions. By embracing transparency and pursuing maximum visibility, the protest on Wall Street provided, in the words of one activist, a “virtual template for occupation” that inspired people around the world to follow suit. But now, as Occupy endeavors to find its footing in a post-encampment phase, it may need a new approach. The limitations of social media and the downside of total transparency are revealing themselves just as mainstream media attention is waning. If Occupy doesn’t become more strategic about the images and messages it projects, the movement may be left talking to itself.
Left-wing activists have long had a rocky rapport with the mainstream media; in this respect, Occupy is nothing new. Organizers tend to be deeply suspicious of the corporate press, which generally ignores or belittles them. At the same time, they need mainstream outlets to spread their messages and grow their movements. One might ask, philosophically, If there’s a protest and no reporters show up, did it really happen?
Nobody knew this better than Martin Luther King Jr., who had a knack for staging dramatic, mediagenic confrontations. In 1965 during the march to Selma, Alabama, he told a Life photographer who had put down his camera to help a protester being beaten by police to go back to taking pictures: “Your role is to photograph what is happening to us.” If King was an organizer working today, he’d remind protesters to keep photographing themselves. Theoretically at least, there are now as many “channels” as there are people attending an event. With social media, every protester can broadcast his or her experiences and opinions for public consumption.
But Occupy’s habit of obsessive self-documentation isn’t just pragmatic—it’s a matter of principle deeply woven into its DNA. “Without a doubt, a founding principle of OWS is transparency,” says Carrie, a member of the Occupy Wall Street facilitation and minutes working groups (who asked that I not give her last name). “We are trying to create within OWS what we want to see in the wider world. Too much happens behind closed doors in our society, so it’s incredibly important to put it all out there, both the good and the bad, so people can make up their own minds.” To this end, each Occupy Wall Street working group has to post minutes from its meetings online (check out nycga.net). The goal is for everything that happens at Occupy Wall Street to be visible to anyone who wants to know about it.