The Optics Of A Protest Is Its Lifeblood


Sally Kohn wrote: “In Praise Of #OccupyWallStreet — An Apology.”

I haven’t read the piece Sally references in this apology and more sensitive appraisal of the Occupy Wall Street protests, but I find it important to recognize her self-critique and revision.

Yesterday, two things happened that made me realize my initial analysis of Occupy Wall Street had been both unfair and too harsh.

First, I received an email from a friend challenging my critique of Occupy Wall Street. She wrote, “I just want to support a possibility. I don’t want to critique a green shoot as it is bursting from the dirt.” She’s right. I hope to use my voice and analysis to catalyze movements for justice, not quash them — no matter what form they take. My initial response to Occupy Wall Street, while intended to be far more positive than critical, was nonetheless too snarky and too cynical and for that I apologize.

Second, yesterday I finally witnessed how this movement has grown not just to occupying Wall Street but occupying the consciousness of millions of Americans who are fed up with Wall Street-fueled greed and inequality. To the credit of the leadership of those at the loose core of Occupy Wall Street, they willingly transformed themselves and enabled themselves to be transformed to represent a much broader swath of America.

And yesterday, peacefully marching across the Brooklyn Bridge, the mobilization went from a picture of a few ragtag protesters occupying the financial sector to a portrait of humanity being occupied by the most powerful police force in the nation defending the interests of capital.

Even the New York Times coverage reflects the shift in optics.

I applaud Sally for coming to this realization, but the reason I post this is because of the issue of optics. Sally wrote:

I stand by my original points that optics matter and that movements leadership should prioritize those who are most often harmed by the status quo and locked out of the process of creating solutions.

I agree with this completely. However, all movements must make sure to open their eyes, ears and hearts to those who are on the margins. Without those people, movements cannot grow and become galvanized with a broader message that will be more easily accepted in the minds of the many. Rigid structures in political and social movements limit thought and make them inflexible and unattractive.

My larger point, however, is that the more important optic is that which movements have very little power to control: the medium to get that message across. I’m talking about the news media, the medium through which movements must get their message.

So far, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been branded as know-nothings, ignorant youths, hippies and rascals who have no structure and no purpose. Whomever makes those suggestions could not be any more wrong. This movement is not like a typical movement where one political leader or one political regime needs to be ousted in order to satisfy the demands of the protesters.

This is a movement about change to an entire society and feudal culture that is quickly devolving into an aristocracy and plutocracy. This kind of movement requires more than what the Tea Party protesters, ridiculous in their costumes and ignorant and corrupted rhetoric, were able to muster. They began as a protest against the collusion between Wall Street and government and now have become the strongest defenders of that collusion! That is absolute failure of the movement, because they were too rigid and inflexible in their message and their demands. They didn’t reach out to those on the margin, those who would sympathize and join their movement as long as their own objections were heard and co-opted. Instead, the movement was co-opted by old wealth lobbyists who would corrupt the movement into its greatest champion.

But it doesn’t have to be this way for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. What they need is optics – wide-ranging optics that go beyond the limited social media that they have relied on. A mere day ago, NPR changed its mind after being criticized by Jay Rosen and others for not even saying or writing a peep about the protests. NPR’s reason? “Yesterday, NPR’s Executive Editor, Dick Meyer, said NPR wasn’t covering the Occupy Wall Street protests because they did not ‘involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.'”

It’s more like NPR is being attacked from the right and being branded as a liberal, partisan organization and is afraid of galvanizing any further backlash.

That’s an reason, albeit a bad excuse (Where’s that journalistic integrity NPR is so proud of?), that other news media would love to be able to give. These protests are huge and growing faster than Fox News can hide the facts.

The most important optic is the optic the world has yet to see from enough news sources. The world is watching, but news media’s cameras are fixed away, hoping the protesters will go away and the movement will dissipate.

It’s not going anywhere. This is just the beginning, and the Wall must be torn down. Each silent voice and each sedentary camera and microphone is just another brick in the wall – and the people who have been left to suffer by apathy and ignorance will become the bricks and their future, hopes and dreams the mortar.


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