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.
I’m reminded of Matthew Prowless, a 40-year-old father of two, who attended the Occupy Wall Street protest, and who is as unassuming of a man as I’ve ever seen—not someone who would have caught Bellafante’s gaze. He wore a baseball cap and stood with his friend by a group of black bloc protesters, whom Matthew was eyeing curiously like they were exotic fish in an aquarium.
When I spoke with him, Matthew called the louder aspects of the protest (the black bloc, the “protest yoga,” etc.) distractions from the far more serious cause.
“My home has been seized, I’m unemployed, there’s no job prospects on the horizon. I have two children and I don’t see a future for them. This is the only way I see to effect change. This isn’t a progressive issue. This is an American issue. We’re here to take our country back from the corporations,” he said, adding he fears for the future of the United States where corporations can now spend unlimited, anonymous dollars to elect the candidates of their choices. After the protest ended for the day, Matthew couldn’t occupy the park because he had to go care for his two children.
I also spoke with a young man named Kevin Stanley, a nurse who made the trek to the protest filled with optimism and left feeling simultaneously elated and disappointed. He was alarmed that the protesters (he calls them “kids”) are held up in Zuccotti Park without the presence of medical professionals. During his time there, he treated three cases of hypothermia and a person going through withdrawal as well as infected wounds from not being able to care for open blisters.
It’s a shame Bellafante didn’t run into Kevin, because they actually agree on the poor organization aspects of the event.
“Many times the communal nature of things will get the actual task done quickly, but all the competing views with no defined hierarchy just reminds me of Lord of The Flies,” he said.
For every batshit-crazy quote Bellafante presents, I can match it with a calm, articulate response from another attendee. I guarantee that. However, that’s not the point. I’m not a believer in the “perfect objectivity” goal for journalists because it’s impossible to ever obtain. Human beings inherently possess prejudices and biases that blind them to aspects of reality. Bellafante is less likely to see the Matthews. I’m less likely to see the black bloc.
Yet we risk much when we traipse into this false-equivalency territory. The two approaches I’ve described above aren’t given level platforms in our society. Bellafante reaches a far, far larger readership, and the ones who dismiss protesters always do because their corporate overlords love depicting protesters as flower-waving, stoned-out-of-their-gourds hippies. If you think those are the only people on your side, why get off the couch at all?
This rubbernecking style of journalism is particularly dangerous right now because it amounts to criticizing a burning house for the color of its curtains. The curtains might be brash, ostentatious and completely unhelpful in maintaining the overall flow of the home’s ambiance, but it’s perhaps not the most pertinent detail of the moment. Here’s a more pressing question: Why are the people Bellafante described in her article the ones left behind?
The teargas aside starts to tap into something important: how the police state and its domestic weaponry and bureaucratic assist with the needs for permits to do anything in protests have successfully crippled the activism community. Activists are afraid. You can smell it in their midst. They talk about the constant presence of agent provocateurs and undercovers at every protest. They share battle stories of being abused by the police, like being tazed or held so long in makeshift police pens that they had to defecate in their clothing. And these are the brave ones that still show up to the protests.
It’s not mere paranoia. We know for a fact that the FBI monitors activism groups, and this practice reached a frenzied level during the Bush administration years. These intimidation practices continue under President Obama in the form of raids.
Now, imagine you have a job you can’t get time off from, or kids. Are you going to risk that precious job security, or the safety of your children, to go protest in an event that may—if you’re really lucky—get some dismissive coverage in the New York Times?
There was a time when individuals cast aside those fears because they had union-protected jobs, and unions organized events with tens of thousands of confidence-inspiring fellow members in attendance. While those events do still occur, they’re a rarity these days as union membership dwindles, the privatization of the country continues and the establishment media still don’t grant them fair coverage when they do occur. Not one of the young people I spoke to at the Occupy Wall Street protest said they were union members. Bellafante is right in the sense that they are scattered, lost and leaderless, but she never explores why that’s the case.
While the left loses the valuable organizational mechanism of unions, the right has gained corporate masters like the Koch brothers to disseminate millions of dollars into astroturfing campaigns to organize and destroy on their behalf. While the left makes signs, the right has already deployed troupes to scream at town hall events.
These are the kinds of massive oppositional forces activists find themselves facing these days: an incredibly oppressive police state and a corporate cash monster bearing down on them from the right. Meanwhile, their union support army is either in retreat or preoccupied fighting other battles on other fronts in Wisconsin or Ohio, or one of the other forty-eight states where anti-union legislation was introduced this year courtesy of ALEC, a front group that serves as proxy for corporate interests.
Instead of bemoaning the fact that protesters haven’t arrived in matching uniforms with a coherent PowerPoint presentation, these are the issues we should be addressing. Of course the majority of Zuccotti Park occupiers are young, brash and lost. They’d have to be to do something like this, and risk getting hypothermia for the chance to be ignored and belittled by the media. Young people are always the first ones willing to risk comfort and security for the romantic vision of a better tomorrow.
No, a movement can’t be supported on a shaky foundation, nor do I expect journalists to also serve as activism advisers, but Bellafante’s piece does nothing to help us understand why Zuni Tikka is the last woman standing.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally referred to Ginia Bellafante as a "critic." She is a columnist. We have corrected the text to reflect that.