Remember a couple years back when about 3,000 raucous demonstrators crowded into Westlake Park for a permitted rally in support of health care reform? Probably not, because unless you were there you probably never even knew it happened. There was almost zero media coverage of this orderly event apart from my own post to HA. This was one of the largest political demonstrations to hit our downtown in years, yet the Seattle Times, our region's alleged paper of record, couldn't be bothered to even mention it.
No media, no message. If a tree falls in the forest, and all that.
And yet a few months later, when at most a couple hundred angry teabaggers showed up on a street corner to mark their party's anniversary by waving their trademark poorly-spelled signs, the Seattle Times devoted a reporter, a photographer, and 20 column inches to the celebration.
I once complained to a local journalist (I honestly don't remember which one) about our media's failure to cover that health care rally, and he dismissively brushed it off as "just another union photo-op," before going on to suggest that if labor really wants to get its message out, perhaps they should buy some ads. The tea partiers on the other hand, I was told, well, they were making some real news... you know, by open carrying weapons to rallies, and screaming down congressmen at town halls, I suppose.
Yes, the Tea Party garnered a disproportionate chunk of media coverage and mindshare, partially because much of our corporate media ownership sympathizes with their cause, if not downright instigates it. But say what you want about the teabaggers, they also told a pretty good story. Not a particularly coherent story, or a well-informed one, but a good story nonetheless in that they never shied away from the narrative primacy of conflict. And since reporting is at its core storytelling, conflict is hard for reporters to resist.
That, of course, is the whole key to the Occupy movement's media success: Intentionally or not, it is a movement entirely grounded in conflict. Its name is an active verb that implies conflict, its motto a constant reminder of the economic conflict between the One Percent and everybody else. The ongoing battles to establish and maintain its urban encampments may appear to be a distraction from or tangential to Occupy's message of corporate abuse and income inequality, yet these standoffs are in fact a palpable actualization of the symbolic conflict that has always been at the movement's core. And of course the occupiers many skirmishes with fist-throwing, bicycle-shoving, pepper-spraying police provide audiences with conflict as compelling as anything you'll find on TV. This is a movement so tailored to the era of reality television, I'd be surprised if there already isn't a show in production.
In other words: It's a damn good story!
Skip forward to last night's march, as much a "union photo-op" as that 2009 health care reform rally, only with just a third the participants and an arguably less urgent message (fixing our nation's bridges, vs fixing our nation's health care system). But because this time they coordinated with and borrowed the mantle of the Occupy Seattle demonstrators, and because instead of politely and orderly filling a city park, they instead chose to shut down a goddamn bridge, this time they got the media attention they deserved. Helicopters flew, TV news vans descended, and the protesters and their message were featured on the evening and 11 p.m. news.
And this time the "union photo-op" made it not only into the Seattle Times, but smack into the middle of its front page. "University Bridge seized in rush-hour rally for jobs," the headline declares. Now that's the kind of media that money just can't buy.
So to all of you who vociferously claim in the comment threads that you support the Occupy movement's objectives, but disdain its tactics, I ask you: What exactly don't you get about civil disobedience? Shutting down bridges and intersections are an inconvenience for ordinary citizens, you argue, while camping in public spaces is an eyesore and a public safety hazard. I even heard complaints about the march on the Sheraton during JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon's speech, that it would somehow make a bad impression on out-of-town guests.
Really? So what would you rather they do? Apply for a permit and then orderly assemble in Westlake Park to politely recite their grievances (though not during the holiday shopping season, because that might interfere with commerce)?
Been there, done that. And it doesn't work.
And if you think their civil disobedience has been an inconvenience to you, try being a participant. Do you think the protesters like marching through the freezing rain? Do you think they enjoy camping out on the pavement, or getting themselves arrested or beaten or doused with pepper spray? Do you think the organizers of yesterday's action wanted to piss off motorists and bus commuters? Of course not. But this is what works. Faced with corporate media hostile to their agenda, if they want to get their message heard, the protesters have no choice but to give reporters the one thing that they can't resist: A great fucking story.
The Occupy movement is a lot of things, some of them good and some of them bad, and there's no question that their tactics have alienated some of their supporters. But there's also no arguing with their success at shifting the public debate towards at least talking about issues like jobs and economic justice. Before last night's march, SEIU Healthcare 775NW president David Rolf, one of the organizers of that ignored 2009 rally, remarked on how at a recent debate, even the Republican presidential nominees were embracing some of issues of the Occupy movement. "Occupy Wall Street won the Republican debate," Rolf laughed.
And they didn't win it by being polite.