OccupyWallStreet as Media Criticism Classroom, Part 2

4 Oct

In the last post I shared the assignment I gave my Introduction to Media Criticism students, the first part of which was to record their first-hand observations of the Occupy Wall Street protest. I wanted them to actually hear unmediated (through tv news) accounts of why people are participating in the occupation, and to actually witness what the protest looked like on a “normal” day, as opposed to during the moments that have become higher profile due to news sensationalism (i.e. moments at which police clashed violently with protesters). They are then going to compare their own observations with mainstream media coverage.

In this post I want to offer my own observations of the occupation, as gathered during two field trips I made with my students to Liberty Plaza (I teach two sections of Intro to Media Crit, both meet on the same days). I gave all of my students the option to visit the occupation on their own time – some of them have other classes that would make it hard for them to get from campus to Liberty Plaza and back in time. The class day I had set aside for the field trip was also during Rosh Hashana, so I knew that several of my students were planning (excused) absences from class that day. About half my 48 students ended up  choosing to go with me during the scheduled class periods.

The first group of students and I took a bus from campus to Liberty Plaza, in light rain. When we arrived, we went over to the welcome table set up on the Broadway entrance to the park. The student who volunteered to take video asked questions and the person staffing the welcome table answered:

The welcomer informed us that a General Assembly meeting was about to begin, so we went to where a crowd was gathered for that. My student videographer spotted a friend in the crowd, and she asked him to explain why he was there. (I’m not posting the video here because he said he did not want to be filmed!) Here’s what he said:

Protester: My reasons? I just found out about it a couple days ago when I was watching videos of what the police were doing to the marchers and it kind of infuriated me that people had a legitimate complaint and they couldn’t voice it in public space without being brutalized by the police that are supposed to protect them. And it just raises questions about who the police are actually protecting. And I didn’t really know what it was and now that I’ve gotten here, and all the public forums and discussions, it’s like a big experiment in direct democracy.

Student: Do you think it’s more of an experiment than a stance?

Protester: Um… I think it’s both. Does it have to be one or the other?

Student: Touche.

Once the GA meeting got underway, we were able to observe the “human microphone.” It works by participants all repeating what is said by the facilitator at the front, so everyone in the crowd can hear. The ostensible purpose of this is to circumvent the need for voice amplification, which the police have told the protesters they are not allowed to have. One of the occupation participants we spoke with also said he saw the human microphone as beneficial because it gives everyone the opportunity to speak with one voice. It thus serves as a performance of discursive unity. A side effect of this is that meetings can sound like participants are repeating a rote pledge – the content of the meeting starts to sound not unlike a group of students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I overheard one of my students say “it sounds like church.” To me this makes all the more clear the ritualistic aspect of protest actions. Even seemingly mundane logistical meetings become opportunities to perform solidarity, both through literal vocal repetition of the words said by facilitators, but also through the conventions of meeting process such as the hand gestures used to introduce a “point of order” or to indicate agreement with what is being said. These conventions were taught to all meeting participants at the start of the General Assembly meeting, thus bringing newcomers into the fold and giving them the chance to actively participate in the established meeting rituals. The facilitators explained (and the human microphone repeated) that the reason behind the established meeting process was “to try and create (try and create) the most democratic (most democratic), open (open), horizontal (horizontal) space (space) possible (possible).”

As the General Assembly continued , people milled around the rest of the park as well. It had been raining for a while, so most of the beds and other belongings were covered with tarps. I noticed a hand-drawn poster with diagrams instructing how to use the tarps to protect belongings from the rain. A lot of the tarps had occupiers sleeping under them!

Due to the rain and tarps, I wasn’t able to see much of the media center, which I had been looking forward to. The kitchen was up and running though, along with a children’s play area where I did indeed see several children and parents gathered.

Participants seemed very willing to converse with students and explain their reasons for joining the occupation. My student videographer captured one such conversation:

The police presence was notable, with uniformed officers  standing lined up on the sidewalk on Broadway, and the entire street to the north of the plaza blocked off for police vehicles. One protester stood on the Broadway sidewalk holding a sign ostensibly aimed at passers-by, but his position directly across from the line of officers added another layer of meaning to the invitation on the sign:

The general assembly meeting wrapped up with announcements of break-out sessions to be held later in the afternoon, and I made my way back to campus for my office hours.

My second group of students had much worse weather to contend with – we were caught in thunder and pouring rain when we got off the train with a mile still to walk – but they trooped through it with cheerful attitudes. When we finally arrived at Liberty Plaza, I was a bit disappointed but not entirely surprised to see the crowd had depleted from earlier. One of the welcome tables (at the east entrance) was shut down entirely to keep it from getting drenched. There were fewer people milling about the park and thus fewer people for students to approach and converse with, as my earlier group had been doing. After walking around for a few minutes, one cluster of students asked me if they could talk to one of the police officers standing on the perimeter of the park. I encouraged them to, and caught what I could on video:

Toward the end of this video you can hear that a march is returning to the plaza. I realized that the crowd hadn’t been depleted due to the rain but due to the scheduled afternoon march past the stock exchange. The return of the marchers enlarged the crowd in the park once again and gave the students many more opportunities to converse with participants.

There was a tense moment when several police officers (including one with a bullhorn) gathered near the camp library. It appeared that they were asking organizers to remove the tarps protecting the books from the rain, which provoked objection from the protesters standing nearby (though it was actually impossible for me to tell what was going on and what words were being exchanged between the officers and people standing directly next to the books). After a few minutes the tarps were replaced and the officers filed away from the area through the crowd that had gathered (to chants and applause from some protesters).

A breakout media group meeting began, in which a facilitator asked everyone in attendance to explain what kind of media production they were working on at the occupation and whether they were willing to share what they had recorded with the collective. She began by explaining that she was a filmmaker working on a documentary about the economy, inspired by her own father’s economic struggles and eventual suicide. Others explained that they were journalists, writers, filmmakers, and emisaries from movements in other regions of the country, such as Wisconsin. Everyone I heard expressed their willingness to share with the collective. A notebook was passed around for everyone to list contact information and personal skill-sets, so that media production efforts could be coordinated among the participants. Upon seeing the notebook get passed around, one of my students standing near me remarked, “It’s like… a network!” (I imagine that wherever in the world Jeff Juris was at that moment, he got the chills!)

I saw no one expressing overt hostility at other individuals or treating passers-by (ostensibly people who are employed in the financial district and who Mayor Bloomberg represented the protesters as being “against”) with disrespect. The crowd, based on appearances, seems diverse in terms of age, race, and occupation. A fitting embodiment of the “we are the 99%” sentiment that thematically unifies the protest. Overall, the aspect of the occupation I found most striking was the sheer number of personal conversations going on, in which people were discussing their concerns in a serious, open, thoughtful manner.

These weren’t just insular conversations among people who had been with the occupation for days–everywhere I saw newcomers, visitors, tourists, and media personnel asking questions and being treated with welcoming enthusiasm. To me, this was a poignant metaphor for what (I think) is the central goal of the occupation–to incubate and spread a national conversation about issues that matter to people who neither finance powerful political lobbies nor control powerful media corporations. If political and economic speech are largely  unavailable to everyday citizens, they will go the old-fashioned route and just speak.

In Part 3, I will summarize my students reflections and reactions, as written in their assignments and as shared in class discussion. I will hopefully get permission from some of them to post their written reflections here.

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