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To Repress or Co-opt? OWS Media Coverage Mirrors Splits Within the 1 Percent

Kevin Young Nov 1, 2011

(Illustration by GB Martin) Gandhi is often credited with saying, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” In just the past month, it’s possible to discern the first three responses in the attitudes of U.S. elites toward the Occupy Wall Street movement. This should be a source of great encouragement to everyone involved.

The Right-Wing Response

Many corporate elites and Republican leaders have skipped straight to the “fighting,” or at least “worrying,” stage. In late September, one “clearly concerned” bank CEO telephoned New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin to ask, “Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” A few weeks later, a London banker quoted in the Financial Times noted with alarm that the protests “aren’t just about banks. … They’re talking about the number of millionaires in the cabinet and all kinds of things.” In mid-October, a Wall Street money manager interviewed in The New York Times lashed out against Democratic politicians for failing to defend Wall Street vehemently enough, saying “They need to understand who their constituency is.”

If a few Democrats occasionally get confused, Republicans have no doubts about who their constituency is. House  Majority Leader Eric Cantor has denounced “the growing mobs occupying Wall Street.” Mitt Romney has characterized the movement as a “dangerous” expression of “class warfare.” Congressman Peter King was even more candid when speaking on a radio show Oct. 7:

“It’s really important for us not to be giving any legitimacy to these people in the streets. … I’m taking this seriously in that I’m old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s when the left wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Such responses are one indicator of the movement’s power and mass appeal.

The Liberal End of the Corporate Media

Not all elites have the same way, however. The progression of New York Times coverage provides a different but no less impressive measure of the movement’s impact. The first stage, “ignoring” stage lasted a little over a week, during which the Times printed just one short piece (buried on page 22) about the Wall Street occupation. “Laughing” came next. A Sept. 25 story in the newspaper by Ginia Bellafante, entitled “Gunning for Wall Street, with Faulty Aim,” reproduced all the imagery once used by elite commentators to try to discredit 1960s social movements, arguing that OWS protesters were “clamoring for nothing in particular” and portraying them as psychological deviants.

But Times coverage has become somewhat more honest in recent weeks. One Oct. 8 blog post by Al Baker quoted a black college professor who noted that “the movement was gaining in diversity” and who compared OWS to the U.S. anti-slavery movement. Most surprising was an Oct. 9 editorial that derided “the chattering classes” who “keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions,” saying that “the message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.” The editorial went on to condemn the country’s historic levels of inequality and noted that government “policy almost invariably reflects the views of upper-income Americans.”

Much press coverage continues to be dismissive and inaccurate. But there has been a substantial shift, and that shift is another testament to the movement’s growing power.

They Channel You

Shifting Times coverage reflects a broader trend among the more liberal sectors of the U.S. elite. President Barack Obama has said publicly that OWS “expresses the frustration the American people feel,” and many congressional Democrats have made similar statements. As a number of commentators have observed, Obama has tried to “channel” OWS grievances. Doing so may be politically risky, however, given Democrats’ allegiance to and dependence on the banks and corporations now under attack. And many OWS participants are very wary of the Democratic Party. One working-class Latina organizer in Detroit cautions that “while some elites have tried to discredit OWS, we must also be mindful of co-optation.”

The classic aphorism seems simplistic: some elites will directly fight you, but others will try to co-opt your movement. Doug McAdam, a leading scholar of the civil rights movement, observes in his classic book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 that while many elites view grassroots movements as threatening and thus try “to neutralize or destroy” them, others see them as “an opportunity to advance their interests and thus extend cautious support to insurgents.” The Democrats are testing out the latter strategy. Although opportunistic, their responses are yet another sign of the movement’s influence.

You Win?

There are many additional indications of the movement’s power. Solidarity occupations have now spread to more than 400 cities nationwide. And a TIME magazine poll in early October found that 54 percent of the public had a “favorable” view of the movement; only 23 percent had an “unfavorable” view. This sympathy toward OWS reflects widespread outrage over inequality, corporate power and the lack of a functioning democracy in the United States. In the same poll, 86 percent thought that “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington,” 79 percent said that “the gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large,” and 68 percent said that “the rich should pay more taxes.”

There are also countless personal stories attesting to the movement’s impact. New York organizer Amanda Vodola spent 30 hours in jail along with others who were trying to close their accounts with Citibank during an Oct. 15 action. Later, she described unsanitary prison conditions and police officers who treated the prisoners more like cattle than human beings. Yet Vodola says that the experience “made me stronger and hasn’t stopped me from wanting to continue. Being in there with a group of powerful people definitely kept me going. It’s what keeps me going on a daily basis.”

The Occupy movement is still young. The deep structural injustices associated with corporate power won’t be rectified quickly; in this context, the practical meaning of “winning” is still unclear. Occupy Wall Street organizers will continue struggling to build a long-term movement that can achieve concrete policy changes while avoiding factionalism, reformism and absorption into institutionalized politics. Many organizers also cite the need to continue diversifying the movement’s demographics and to “confront the hierarchies within the 99 percent” while still maintaining movement unity. But despite the challenges ahead, the range of elite reactions, combined with the enthusiastic public response, provide some measure of the movement’s early effectiveness and are encouraging indicators of its potential.

Kevin Young is a member of the Organization for a Free Society, afreesociety.org, one of the groups helping to organize the OWS movement.