Political protest has always been an outsider’s game, a struggle for attention from what tends to be a small group that believes it can win over more people with more visibility. Sometimes it’s a quixotic attempt, a determination simply to be heard, to register dissent on some official level even if largely ignored by the mainstream media and fenced off from the events being protested. Other times, as recently seen in Iran, it becomes a mass movement, drawing hundreds of thousands out into clogged streets despite the best attempts of the government to clamp down resistance.
Protests are fundamentally unruly things, cobbled together as they are from myriad groups who often have only the wispiest of connections aside from the object of protest. This week’s G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, will see protests from many different groups with many different agendas, from fighting climate change to opposition to global capitalism.
The two things they have in common, for the most part, are that they are from the political left, and that they will be largely ignored or even ridiculed by the major media outlets in the area.
Among the groups protesting at the G-20 will be the 3 Rivers Climate Convergence, Bail Out The People, the anti-war women’s group CodePink, and the interfaith group G-6 Billion. Yet aside from a few news articles noting the legal battles already being waged for permits to protest, there has been little to no coverage of the thousands who have converged on Pittsburgh to have their voices heard.
Contrast that with the reaction from media outlets left and right to the protests less than two weeks ago in Washington, D.C. spearheaded by FOX News’s Glenn Beck and well-funded conservative groups around the country. FOX heavily promoted these protests, as well as the “tax day tea parties” that hit in April and again this summer. Other cable news outlets, whether trying to keep up with FOX or in an attempt to mock the astroturf (fake grassroots) nature of the protests, also gave ample airtime to the crowds, as well as the protesters at this summer’s health care town hall meetings.
Independent programs GRITtv and Democracy Now! and left-leaning print and online publications have covered the G-20 protests but don’t have the budgets to put multiple reporters on the ground showing the size of the gathering, let alone have producers riling up the crowd to get better footage, as a FOX News producer was caught doing at the “9/12” protests.
The arrests and police harassment of protest groups even before the protests begin serve to remind people that the anti-G20 protesters are “violent,” while in some twisted way, the gun-toting protesters outside the President’s rallies are just expressing their 2nd Amendment rights. How pro-peace activists have become the dangerous ones in this equation can only be explained by years and years of media portrayals slanted a certain way.
Many media theorists have noted that media coverage of political protest tends to be negative and to turn viewers against the protesters. Stephen Cushion wrote:
I suggested that when the anti-war demonstrations involved citizens described as being from ‘Middle England’ relatively balanced media coverage ensued. By contrast, when youth became the dominant actors in the anti-war narrative, coverage was framed in a far more negative and undermining way.
Anti-war and anti-globalization activists are portrayed as young wild troublemakers, while the teabaggers are old, staid, and white. (If they were younger, after all, they might’ve known the vernacular use of “tea bag” and chosen a less unintentionally hilarious name.) The famed “Battle in Seattle,” the anti-World Trade Organization protests of 1999, brought together demonstrators from all over the world, and successfully disrupted the WTO’s meeting, but got very little mainstream media coverage other than of the most disruptive moments. It did, however, provide a guide to the way most large leftist protests are handled by the police.
At the WTO, the large political conventions of the Bush years and many other events that drew a protest crowd, “Free Speech Zones” were enacted that kept the protesters far away from the events, restricting their access. It came, therefore, as quite a shock to those who had been protesting for years that suddenly protests against Obama were front-page and prime-time news. While people were dragged out of Bush events for wearing offensive T-shirts, men stood outside of Obama’s functions with loaded guns—and got on the nightly news for it.
The inchoate demands of the teabaggers range from general race-based hatred of Obama to fanatic libertarian opposition to all taxes, from anger about health care dollars going to undocumented migrants to fear that Obama will take away those loaded guns. They are less a coherent movement than the protesters outside of the G-20, yet as Glenn Greenwald notes:
“But crucially, it is the Republican Party and its various appendages — the same people who presided over massive expansions of debt and federal government power — that are exploiting this citizen activism, and they’re harnessing it for their own petty, partisan ends. . . . Add to that the Democratic Party’s general distaste for citizen activism (especially street protests) as well as its servitude to Wall Street and corporate interests, and Democrats are straitjacketed into ceding this protest movement to GOP operatives, who are cynically exploiting it to promote goals that have nothing to do with — are even at odds with — the goals of many of the protesters themselves.”
Democrats flee their base, Republicans embrace all the strange parts of theirs. Granted, Republican embrace of this lunatic fringe is what has made them marginal in the first place, but there ARE legitimate complaints within the mess that is the teabag movement. People are angry over bailouts—so are Bail Out The People, protesting at the G-20. Libertarians are angry at what they consider expansion of government powers—so are those on the left, protesting the PATRIOT Act.
As Cushion noted in his study of youth activism and reaction to the Iraq war protests, those who are willing to get out in the street for their cause are engaged citizens. Sure, some of them might be engaged for all the wrong reasons, but we do them and ourselves a disservice when we write them off. Republicans and their corporate media allies have been able to co-opt the popular anger for now, while marginalizing other movements that might provide an alternative explanation, and it’s partly because the Democrats, even when they were the outsiders, were afraid to embrace the anger of the left.
Now the Democrats are on the inside, and are the easy target. But it’s the ultimate insiders—massive corporations accepting government bailouts, subsidies, and contracts—who are benefitting from the system as it is, and it is at them that the anger should be directed. They are the targets of the G-20 protests, the anti-globalization protests, and all the other actions that have been shoved aside, ignored, or denigrated in the mainstream media, and we should rightly be suspicious that the media is now promoting public protest of any kind.