|That's my affinity group, Disturbed Occupants, first thing in the morning. Thanks to Mary for great pix.|
If you read the article carefully, it’s clear that there were more than the “few hundred” protesters it alleged were there. The authors mention disruptive actions at six different buildings as well as three marches of a few hundred people each, and they can’t believe that all the same people were on all of them, especially since the participants in one were referred to as “white-haired” while another was called “mostly young.”
Once upon a time, when major news events were chronicled strictly by professionals and printed on paper or transmitted through the air by the few for the masses, protesters were prime makers of history. Back then, when citizen multitudes took to the streets without weapons to declare themselves opposed, it was the very definition of news — vivid, important, often consequential. In the 1960s in America they marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; in the ‘70s, they rose up in Iran and Portugal; in the ‘80s, they spoke out against nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Europe, against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against communist tyranny in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe. Protest was the natural continuation of politics by other means.
And then came the End of History, summed up by Francis Fukuyama's influential 1989 essay declaring that mankind had arrived at the "end point of ... ideological evolution" in globally triumphant “Western liberalism.” The two decades beginning in 1991 witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Credit was easy, complacency and apathy were rife, and street protests looked like pointless emotional sideshows — obsolete, quaint, the equivalent of cavalry to mid-20th-century war. The rare large demonstrations in the rich world seemed ineffectual and irrelevant. (See the Battle of Seattle, 1999.)
There were a few exceptions, like the protests that, along with sanctions, helped end apartheid in South Africa in 1994. But …"Massive and effective street protest" was a global oxymoron until — suddenly, shockingly — starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.
But wait, to whom did the protests seem “ineffectual and irrelevant”? Not the people who were affected by the wrongs we were protesting. Those of us participating only felt that way because the media refused to let anyone know about them. Of course, I was in the antinuclear movement and the protests for sanctions in South Africa, and it’s not like the mainstream media was a big cheerleader for us even then. Protesting Israeli occupation in the U.S.? Please!
Still it is true that by the mid-1990s, the tiny media window that had been open to progressives slammed shut. It became an unwritten rule that left-wing protest would only be covered if it could be spun as a crime story. The bigger the crime, the bigger the story.
For the last twenty years, we’ve understood that if you wanted to be covered in the mainstream press, you had to have arrests. The problem for us in San Francisco is that the SFPD and the City figured that too, and it’s become next to impossible to get arrested for civil disobedience in San Francisco.
Hundreds of people risked arrest on Friday, some by locking themselves to buildings, others by blocking streets for hours, but only 23 were arrested. The majority of those arrests were at the Wells Fargo headquarters. We had at least 40 people prepared to be arrested there, but the police only arrested people at the back and side doors, leaving those of us at the large public entrances with “Wells Fargo Bank” signs over them to languish in the rain as long as we chose. Same at a number of Bank of America branches. The police won’t arrest people unless the banks tell them to, and the banks don’t want the bad publicity of mass arrests on their property, especially if the pictures are going to show people being manhandled with their logos prominently visible.
Because people were so spread out during the day, the only way the media could possibly have known how many people were out there was by asking the police, who couldn’t have known either – they only knew about actions that businesses complained about. No one called them about the line-up of poets and musicians performing at various locations around town, or about the Iraq Veterans Against the War reenactments of Search and Destroy operations around town.
There was a small amount of property damage and a minor clash with police late Friday night when activists took over a vacant hotel. (According to the Chronicle, people threw Bibles at the police.) Needless to say, that action, which most of us who participated in the day of action didn’t even know about, got the most coverage. On Saturday night, I was watching the news and suddenly there was a shot of my friends being hauled away from Wells Fargo. The voiceover said, “The Occupy protests are over, now the cleanup begins.” They showed someone sweeping up glass at an auto dealership, and then immediately went back to scenes of bank blockades and street marches. I thought, “Wow, we look so good.”
And I also thought, “I’m not in favor of violence or random property damage, but it did get us two days of coverage.”