The Occupy Protestors: When They Refused to Repeat “We Are Free”, the State Cracked the Whip!
Author: Patrick Mugo Mugo
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 02/03/2012
If you are the leader of the free world, or of the Western world as some would say, and many among your peers hold that as evident, then certain behaviours cannot be expected of or associated with you. The latest 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index report published by Reporters Without Borders indicates that the worldwide wave of protest in 2011 that swept through the world has soiled America’s reputation and standing. Why? Because of the manner in which the American institutional apparatus cracked down on Occupy protest movements, plus the accompanying excesses, dragging the United States’ ratings in terms of press freedom down 27 slots, now to 47th position. In 2011, in the span of two months, more than 25 journalists were either arrested or beaten at the hands of the police, with the accusations including inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation (Reporters Without Borders, 2012).
At position 47 and with a grade of 14.00, America shares the press freedom platform with the likes of Argentina, Romania and Latvia. At the apex of the latest list are Finland and Norway, then Estonia, Netherlands, Austria, and Iceland, with Luxembourg, Switzerland and Cape Verde sealing the top ten. At the bottom, listed as the worst place to be as a journalist, is China at 174, and just below it Iran, Syria and Turkmenistan; North Korea and Eritrea are still further below, holding positions 178 and 179 respectively — positions they have refused to let go of for a few years now. Costa Rica, in 19th position, tops the Central American region with Namibia in 20th position setting the gauge across Africa; Japan in 22nd place takes the top position in Asia. United Kingdom, home to one of the most vibrant media in the English speaking world after that of America is ranked in 28th position. I hope you still remember how the United Kingdom dealt with similiar protests on her streets.
The irony of the story of America slipping 27 positions is that while these 25 journalist had to face the wrath of the police, the majority of the others, mainly from the mainstream media, were busy questioning or deeming irrelevant the Occupy protest movement. As the cartoon puts it, the Occupy protestors have had to contend with the accusation from America’s mainstream corporate media: that “they don’t really seem to know why they are protesting”. In other words, instead of investigating the issues that the Occupy movement has brought to the table, mainstream media opted to perceive the movement through the lenses of its owners, advertisers and the elite political class – a group on the opposite side of the Occupy movement and with whom the protestors have scores to settle.
It’s fine to say that the protestors do not know what they are protesting for, but beneath the surface, the few journalists who have had to contend with the wrath of the police can be credited with exposing the key dividing line between the Occupy movement and those who stand accused of triggering the collapse of the global financial system way back in 2008. The Occupy movement’s main menu reads as follows: End Corporate Personhood, Wall Street Bailouts is Socialism for the Wealthy, Regulate the Banks, Wall Street Greed Trashed the World Economy, The Banks Stole my Home, End Corporate Welfare, and the list continues.
In other words, the bad actions of the few cannot be the burden of the wider majority; but if that has to be, the widest majority, who have to bear the cost of fixing the problem as tax payers, must be accorded a fair hearing. Moreover, protesting or occupying a premises is not a crime; after all, if one remains civil, the state is also expected to behave in a civil manner. Simply put, the immense structural inequalities of the global political economy can no longer be contained through consensual mechanisms of social control, and what we are witnessing is a breakdown of ruling-class hegemony on a world scale (Robinson, 2011).
Is a Mistake a Mistake When Repeated?
It’s one thing to make a mistake, but it’s another thing altogether to repeat the same mistake. In late 2010 and early 2011, the same Western media, and even more so the American media, had to play catch-up during the Arab Awakening after several mishaps. By then and until today, instead of investigating the protestors’ demands or anger, they depicted the Arabic youth movements as out to reverse the many years of ‘democratic gains’ across the Arabic world and as threats to ‘stability’ in the region. We now know what has happened since then across the Arabic world, and above all, who was right or wrong. With the Occupy protestors, the American mainstream media seem not to have reflected on their failures during the Arabic Uprising, something that could have helped them to better understand the Occupy movement. Notably, the very same media that is very quick to talk about journalists being arrested or mistreated in the rest of the world, where protest and uprising are supposed to happen, have turned a blind eye to the same trends back at home.
Time Magazine has not only reflected on this, but has gone further to name the ‘Protestor’ the person of the year for 2011. In its justification, Time writes, “No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square, it would incite protests that would topple dictators and start a global wave of dissent. In 2011, protesters didn’t just voice their complaints; they changed the world” (Andersen, December 2012). The world in question does not exclude the Western world, which has been so sensitive to having any sign of protest within its own population. Some in the Western world hold the view that the failures of or discontent with the Western liberal economics cannot be expressed through protest, but rather through ‘civilised’ means like elections, even if such a system no longer holds meaning or, again and again, has failed to represent or articulate the discontent among the same populations. In their view, protests are ‘civilised’ actions only when they happen in the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Jakata and Moscow.
According to William Robinson, in his article “The Global Rebellion: The Coming of Chaos”, in order to understand what is happening in this second decade of the new century, we need to see the big picture in an historic and structural context. Robinson, professor of sociology at the University of California, argues that state-sponsored bailouts and stimulus packages have failed to fix the problems that became so visible back in 2008 when the global financial system collapsed, and that it’s clear now that what the world faces is a structural crisis.
If you have been listening to the protestors without prejudice, you would have gathered that theirs is a belief that present Western political systems are dysfunctional, if not corrupt. It’s possible that when one digs deeper into this debate, one is able to draw the connection between the Occupy protesters and President Obama’s 2008 campaign, even though he has opted to see or hear nothing associated with the Occupy protestors. Journalist Kurt Andersen reminds us that Obama’s campaign for the White House was in part a feel-good protest movement that galvanized young people, and then its shocking electoral success followed by the Wall Street bailout produced an angry and shockingly successful populist protest movement.
In the view of Robinson (2011), structural crises are deeper; their resolution requires a fundamental restructuring of the system. Robinson notes that earlier world structural crises of the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1970s were resolved through a reorganisation of the system that produced new models of capitalism. They may not have resolved all the challenges, but the creativity employed then is lacking when it comes to the crisis at hand today.
Professor Anne Roberts of the University for Peace argues that the Western governments are locked in a circle in their attempts to tackle the global financial crisis. Roberts observes that the governments are just going around in a circle, if not back and forth, on the same points and options in their attempts to fix the crisis. In this sort of action, she says that the governments have run out of ideas and that neither the austerity measures nor the bailout will offer the magic solution. Instead, what is being done is like administering pain killers to a patient in the hope that when the pain is gone, the patient will be ‘back to life’. But what happens when the pain killer’s effectiveness ends? And this begs the question: What do we call the act of doing the same thing again and again well aware that the result will be the same?
One of the great selling points of Western civilisation has been its construction of the path of life for all in their time on this planet. The path in question gives the illusion that if one obverses it chronologically, then one will end up being ‘free’ as one nears the sunset years. The chronology in question kicks off with: “Get a job. Go to work. Get married. Have children. Follow fashion. Act normal. Walk on the pavement. Watch TV. Obey the law. Save for your old age.” After one has observed these stages in life, then one is expected to say or believe that they are ‘free’.
Ironically, this cartoon reveals a harsh reality about our lives; that life has become mechanical to the extent that it’s possible to predict how a child born today will live her entire life on earth. Worse still, those who deviate from this curve of life are perceived as deviant or ungrateful. The observation we can make in the present case is that the Occupy protesters have refused to obey this life pattern trajectory, choosing instead to question the same system that has created this sort of condition that so many people seem to adhere to.
In the view of Kurt Andersen of Time Magazine, it is remarkable how much the protest vanguards share, all the way from the Arabic world to the streets of London or Spain, to those in America; all are disproportionately young, middle class and educated. And those who have been calling on the Occupy Wall Street protesters to name their leaders have missed the point that the ongoing protest cannot have a central leadership, as that would work against the intrinsic nature of such protest. It is important for people to understand that for the Occupy Protest to succeed, maintaining a degree of independence from manipulation and endorsement by existing political parties is critical (Andersen, December 2012).
In the West, from mainstream media to the political arena, the Occupy protesters have been portrayed as hooligans, to say the least. The notion that they are exposing Western societies’ ‘open secrets’ is not something that is palatable in London, Washington, Paris or Madrid. Further, they fear that should these grievances be allowed to grow, they might become ‘public truths’. The lessons one can draw from the Tunisian story are simple: that popular uprisings are created over time. Clay Shirky (2008) observes that protest foments and takes shape when a closed society’s open secrets become “public truths.” Examples in Tunisia of what Shirky terms “shared awareness” show not that Tunisia was in a state of grinding poverty, but rather that education resulted in a lack of professional fulfilment. This explains why 26-year old Mohamed Bouzazi from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, despite being a university graduate, wasn’t professionally satisfied and had to contend with the realities of being a street vendor in effort to provide for his family, only to be harassed by the omnipresent police over his lack of trade license.
This begs the question, when we talk about the Occupy movement in America, who are we talking about? A majority of the protestors are the homeless, many times after being dispossessed of their homes as a result of the 2008 housing crisis; others have been pushed into the unemployed bracket or have been locked in that state for a while; and others still are the politically disenfranchised; and the list continues. Among those who have been calling on the protestors to get out of the street and to stop obstructing business activities are the corporate banks, some of them bailed out by tax payers.
This article is an attempt to take this debate backward in the hope that you will indeed try to take it forward. For one to be able to understand the Occupy protesters’ movement, one needs to first reflect backwards, and afterwards move forward to examine if one might accord the protestors a more positive outlook.
Patrick Mugo Mugo is a Multimedia Senior Researcher from Kenya and a masters student in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica. firstname.lastname@example.org