Origin Stories: Occupy Wall Street


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This paper is a media analysis of two articles which treat the origins of Occupy Wall Street and its implications.
Author: Anne Ginsberg

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Origin Stories: Occupy Wall Street

  1. 1. Origin StoriesOccupy Wall StreetAnne GinsbergMedia Advocacy in the Global Public SphereProfessor McEwanMarch 21, 2012
  2. 2. The past year has seen a wave of popular protests across international boundaries, politicalsystems, and social classes. In New York City, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest captured theattention of national and international mass media, documenting the mass occupation and days of protestfrom Zuccotti Park. OWS was broadcasting a live feed on the internet, using the technology to maximizethe potential of the voices on the ground for all the public—and media—to see. The media attention it hasattracted has sought to explain the uprisings and their place in today’s social and political landscape.“Unprecedented political legitimacy” is how Martin Shaw describes the 2003 anti-war protestsagainst the invasion of Iraq in cities all over the world in Global Activism, Global Media. (de Jong, 135)With the U.S. and U.K. leading the way to pre-emptive strike against the majority of the United Nations,many protestors around the world were on the same side as their governments. To some extent, this isalso true for the Occupy Wall Street and protests around the worldwhich emerged at time of a globalfinancial crisis resulting from the build-up of neoliberal policies and the collusion of public and privatefinance. Popular outrage at the government for allowing banks to deceive public institutions and citizensfor profit and then building them back with public money, while the general public faced the economicconsequences of foreclosure, unemployment and shrinking credit had legitimacy. In the same year, thedeposing of Western ally and dictator President Hosni Mubarak by protestors at Tahrir Square in Cairo inEgypt, had legitimacy. The widening gap in wealth and the unaccountability of corporations was coveredin the national media debate over bank bonuses, pyramid schemes, insider trading scandals, and thebankruptcy of cities with “toxic” assets in Wall Street.The devastating economic effects were felt aroundthe world and the feeling of disenfranchisement was uniting people as an undivided “99%.”Since Day 1 of the occupation of Wall Street on September 17, 2011, the media has attempted toframe and contextualize the ongoing event. In this paper I will examine two articles which attempt toexplain the origins story of Occupy Wall Street. The article, “How Occupy Wall Street Really GotStarted,” written in October of 2011 was published in Mother Jones, a San Francisco-based non-profitmagazine established in 1976 and named after an early twentieth century workers-rights activist, focuseson social justice issues. In November 2011, the article “Pre-Occupied: The origins and future of OccupyWall Street” came out in the intellectual and liberal eliteNew Yorker magazine, established in 1925 withcorporate backing and now owned by New York’s Condé Nast, publisher of several widely readmagazines. Given the fact that OWS is critical of corporate power, the nonprofit versus corporate fundingof the two magazines is relevant to the way they frame the movement. Both writers use reportingtechniques of domestication identified by the authors of Global Media Spectacle: News War Over HongKong to explain thecause, context, constituents and evolution of OWS. Globalization has sharpened thedisparity of the center and periphery while also highlighting the interdependence of nations. (Lee, 42)The simultaneous division within nations and solidarity without nations is key aspect of the movement.
  3. 3. The inherent paradox of this condition lies in the fact that globalization and capitalism is both the cause ofthe protestors’ grievances and at the same time provides the basis of their solidarity and facilitatesorganization across barriers. Equally prominent as the issue of globalization is the application ofhorizontal organization and direct democracy, known as the general assembly, which is a common featurein the global occupations. The two magazine articles weigh in on the effect and effectiveness of thismodel which shapes the story frame. In the New Yorker, the anti-capitalist sentiment of the generalassembly and OWS is a call for “the end of life as we know it,” while in Mother Jones it is about“changing the world.”The New YorkerBrought to you by Adbusters“If anyone could claim responsibility for the Zuccotti situation, it was [Kalle] Lasn,”(Schwartz)In “Pre-Occupied,” Mattathias Schwartz argues that the sensational poster created by Adbusters,an anti-capitalist magazine based in Vancouver, Canada,with two-thirds of its readership is based in theU.S., andcirculated as an internet memein July of 2011 via e-mail and social media, galvanized protestersto occupy Wall Street. (Revkin) The poster included a provocative image of a ballerina balancing on theback of the Charging Bull—the bronze statue located in Bowling Green Park since 1989 and the iconicmascot of the financial district—as well as the internet meme#OCCUPYWALLSTREET and start dateSeptember 17, 2011. Although Adbusters is a nonprofit, its founder, Kalle Lasn, is a successful veteranof the advertising world and its international reputation of “culture-jamming” campaigns and portfolio ofvisually captivating inversions of the advertising language, establish the magazine’s caché in theintellectual and avant-garde world of the New Yorker. Lasn’s career in the advertising business took placebefore the internet boom during the Creative Revolution. That experience is evident in the Adbustersstyle, which exploits the language of advertising while at the same time subverting its message. In thisway, Adbusters delivers its anti-capitalist message in a complex format, with layers of meaning—aproduct that the elites at the New Yorker can appreciate the way they appreciate the ironyof post-modernart. Schwartz’s argument that this poster which uses visual language of advertising was the starting pointof the movement only serves to reinforce the traditional function of advertisements and the sophisticatedskill behind them. Schwartz establishes Lasn’s credentials—stating his academic degree and “expertise”,his past career in advertising which rewarded him financially, and the devotion to his ideals that drovehim to foundAdbustersin 1989. The author approvingly describes it as “by far the best-looking” radicalmagazine with a “signature style”. In The Chaos Scenario, Bob Garfield contrasts the draw of hip,culturally-relevant advertisements from the Creative Revolution that started in the 1960s with the “post-advertising age” conditions of the content and user-driven media of today—the internet. (Garfield 43)Adbusters‟ internet meme combines the subverted print ad style with the demands of today, digitizing and
  4. 4. circulating it using social media channels Twitter and Reddit. Lasn’s counterpart in inventing the internetmeme is Micah White, senior editor of the magazine based in Berkeley, California. At twenty-nine yearsold, White is a part of the internet generation, and is described as translating the founder’s concepts intotoday’s internet media. Schwartz’s telling of the story emphasizes the endurance of what Garfield woulddescribe as an antiquatedbelief in the power of compelling ideas and artistry of advertising to inspirerecipients. By referencing advertising and social media and claiming them to be the genesis ofOWS,Schwartz suggests a corporate-consumer or leader-follower relationship and identifies its leaders—a contradiction in the principles of OWS—and thusly defines the movement as a timely trend.The New York City General AssemblyThe author notes that the two felt OWS needed a single demand, referencing the protestors inCairo who presented the ultimatum that they would occupy until President Mubarak resigned. When nodemands were forthcoming from New York City General Assembly (NYCGA), the collective voice of theprotestors who were now occupying Zuccotti Park, Adbusters suggested answers to their own questionasked on the poster: “What is our one demand?”They propose the demand be written in the form of aletter to President Obama. This tactic operates within and according to the vertical representationaldemocracy, appealing to the authority of the President to act with conscience, notbuilding thatconsciousness from the bottom up, the method of general assembly. Instead, the NYCGA came out withthe “Declaration of the Occupation,” which Schwartz argues includes no demands but presentstheir“worldview.” According to the author, Lasn and his staff in Vancouver, and White, in Berkeley, created anddirected OWS without ever travelling to the site and attending a general assembly meeting. Now that thecenter of gravity had shifted from West to East, and from concept to action, the goals they had at theoutset were now out of their hands.The OccupiersSchwartz uses reporting strategies of news domestication in describing this transition and thefuture of OWS. Throughout the story, the author quotes Lasn and White, the people behind well-knownmagazine Abusters which has a celebrity status in radical journals (“big names”); interviews individualshe has identified as the most active at OWS(“relevant people”); and quotes participants at a GeneralAssembly meeting (“street people”). (Lee, 37)Telling the story with these voices, Schwartz puts a humanface on OWS—a strategy for the audience to better understand the message in personal terms as well asstrategy for the author to convey an event still in progress without knowing the outcome. (40) WhileSchwartz relies on these voices to make sense of what is happening, he is selective in whose voices heincludes.The Mother Jones article reports that a fundamental component of the movement is that it isglobal—yet aside from Lasn, only one of the people mentioned in the story are identified as foreign-bornor based (London) and only two of the nine subjects connect their participation to international protests.
  5. 5. This isolates OWS as a national phenomenon with international protests mentioned only in the case ofEgypt, as a source of inspiration, and later in the story other international cities are mentioned asfollowers of OWS in the October 15thGlobal Day of Action.The “indignados” protest movement whichcommenced on May 15, 2011 before the Adbustersinternet meme came out and is noted as forimplementing the General Assembly model in cities all over Spain is excluded entirely.(takethesquare.net) In his choice of sources and order of events, the author’s depiction of OWS is U.S.-centric.Direct Democracy is AnarchyThree out of the ninesubjectsare labeled anarchists. The author references anarchy twelve timesthroughout the story, and democracy once—notably it is when quoting directly from the “Declaration ofOccupation”. There is no mention of anarchy in the “Declaration of Occupation”. (nycga.net) Theauthor’s usage ofanarchyis stereotypical, another reporting strategy of news domestication. (Lee, 37) Itis used to describe behavior that is “dangerous,” “rude,” “unsanitary,” vandalistic, and to describe theinefficacy of the open, horizontal system that is the general assembly. The author describes an NYCGAmeeting he observed in which a participant is disruptive, mumbling and shouting back at the facilitator.He concludes that the NYCGA is fundamentally flawed, true accessibility and equality allows the loudestand most unreasonable voices to dominate. The inclusion of anarchy is not entirely irrelevant, as iteschews all forms of authority which is also part of the foundation of the general assembly. However,Schwartz clearly employs it in its stereotypical usage which conveys that chaos ensues without thepowerof the enlightened to silence those who interfere with their business.The FrameThe author attempts to discredit the principles of the general assembly model by describing thechallenges of enacting it within the limited circumstances of the street as proof of its impracticality.Additionally, he identifies the people he sees as leaders as another example of contradiction. Schwartzexplains the OWS phenomenon as far from revolutionary but rathera trend sharing qualities ofa largertheme of the information age:“…horizontalism seems made for this moment. It relies on people formingloose connections quickly—something that modern technology excels at.” In criticizing the principles ofgeneral assembly and giving examples of vandalism and disorderliness of protestors and excluding acts ofviolence committed by city authorities—although thefootage had been widely reported in mass media,excluding thesocial causes motivating protestors suffering from the effects of the financial, and cutting itoff from concurrent global protests (save Egypt), the story is frames OWS as a marginal and questions itsintegrity.Mother Jones
  6. 6. The New York City General AssemblyWithout that worldly group that met at 16 Beaver and later created the New York City General Assembly,there might not have been an Occupy Wall Street as we know it today.(Kroll)Published ahead of the New Yorker article, the article in Mother Jones swiftly debunks the notionthat the Adbustersinternet meme was the beginning of OWS, and locates the original epicenter at anartist’s space at 16 Beaver Street, New York City. It was there, “months before” the Zuccotti Parkoccupation, that New Yorkers met with activists from around the world—including Egypt, Spain, Japanand Greece—to form the New York City General Assembly. Writer Andy Kroll claims that rather than adirect response to the Adbusters call, the group, which started with about 30 people, found motivation andresources in each other and formed ideas through many long discussions. The author explains theycoordinated with the Adbusters internet meme to ride the buzz it had created. Kroll’s version frames theorigins story as starting from the principles of the general assembly before it became one—and sharplycontrasts Schwartz’s depiction of a movement conceived and directed by two minds and one compellingidea from the other side of the country.International ExchangeThe international context of OWS—the common social causes and use of general assemblyprinciples—is a part of its origins story largely untold in the New Yorker article.Martin Shawdistinguishes the explanation of social movements from locating them within their “immediate politicalcontext” to “the larger contexts of contemporary world politics” (de Jong, 134) which isa necessary partof the picture in the era of globalization. Spanish couple Begonia S.C. and Luis M.C. participated in theMay 15—“15-M movement”—in Spain, and proposed the group use the general assembly model as theyhad done at 15-M. Schwartz, introduces the decision to organize a general assembly at OWS as chosenby a “group of anarchists” and refers to its past usein the civil rights movement. (Schwartz 5)Since theSpring of 2011, the Spanish had been cultivating their own style of general assembly, and had created a“how-to” guide translated into several languages and freely available on the internet called “How to cooka pacific #revolution.” (Kroll 2) Kroll points out that it is not only popular in Spanish cities but smallerneighborhoods had used it as an organizing tool for local issues such as stopping housing evictions andimmigrant raids.According to the 15-M website, general assembly actions in Spain have stopped 47 bankforeclosures. (European Revolution)If no other measure of success can prove the efficacy of the generalassembly, the scale of change achieved in Egypt through the same organizing principles of open access,direct democracy and nonviolence,is a prime example of its power.Wael Ghonim, the activist behind theprotest-organizing pages on Facebook in Egypt, writes in his memoir that through these pages the actionsat Tahrir Square were planned and debated in the same way that direct democracy functions.(Ghonim,84)The equality and solidarity it promoted motivated participants to protest together on the ground, an action
  7. 7. which under the authoritarian regime, which spied on, tortured and killed citizens who opposed it,endangered their lives. Their actions led President Mubarak, who held office for 30 years, to finally stepdown on February 11, 2011.Kroll remarks that the dialogue andknowledge-sharing of the internationalgroup that became the NYCGA rallied them into action and connected the OWS movement to the protestsin Egypt and Spain. In Kroll’s story, it can be concluded that rather than the Adbusters internet memebeing the heart of OWS, the general assembly is the meme it originated with and central to its identity.The significance of this difference is its elevation of offline social interaction and its dedication to makingthe commons a realityand keeping it relevant and accessible in the real-life public domain. The valueand need for it is felt so deeply that people are willing to face the endless challenges and complexities ofan inclusive and egalitarian movement within a political and economic system operating on precisely theopposite principles.The OccupiersLike Schwartz, Kroll uses the domestication strategy of relating the story through people toconvey the message of a movement in progress. However, he limits these sources to interviews withthose he identifies as relevant by virtue of their participation in the pre-NYCGA meetings. In total, Krollincludes five voices, and four-fifths are from countries with active protest movements—Spain, Greeceand Egypt. The author’s selection of interviewees supports his argument that OWS is a product ofinternational collaboration. Just as Schwartz’s U.S.-slanted (7 out of 9) selection of sources is supportsU.S.-centric story frame, the international-slant in Kroll’s selection supports his international-centric storyframe.Kroll writes that the 16 Beaver Street group included about 30 people, without knowing any detailsof the group demographics, selecting a handful of participants, the majority of whom are from othercountries and were active in protest movements that used the general assembly, suggests a level ofinternational collaboration that may or may not be accurate. The fact that it supports his framing the sameway that Schwartz’s selected sources support a contrary frame, suggests that both story frames are bias.Autonomy„The people are not here for the American economic crisis. They‟re here for the crisis of the world.‟– Begonia(Kroll)In his explanation of a general assembly, Kroll cites Greek artist and 16 Beaver Street participant,Georgia Sagri, who express frustration with an early general assembly in the financial district that haddevolved into a debate about choosing a demand for the protest. Kroll explains through Sagri that “labelsand affiliations don’t matter” in a general assembly. The author mentions no political ideologies,his onefocus on any political belief being the general assembly method of protest and its principles of equalpower, decision-making by consensus, and direct democracy.
  8. 8. ConclusionThe general assembly organization at Occupy Wall Street exemplifies a prefigurative movement,by “creating the future in their present social relationships.” (Sitrin, 4) In whatever time and place it isattempted in opposition, it is subject to the interpretation of present economic, political and social order.Wall Street is the polar opposite of the anti-capitalist and nonhierarchical principles of the NYCGA,which defies and disproves assumptions capitalism claims of human nature by refusing individual powerand fighting for equality. It is a participatory method, where knowledge is gained through activeparticipation, which is a challenge for traditional media reporting of inactive observation and selectiveinterviews.Works Citedde Jong, Wilma, Martin Shaw, and Neil Stammers, eds. Global Activism, Global Media. London: Pluto Press, 2005.European Revolution. “Three months of struggle: an overview of the #15M movement and the#SpanishRevolution,” Take the Square. Web. 10 Aug 2011. <http://takethesquare.net/2011/08/20/three-months-of-struggle-an-overview-of-the-15m movement-and-the-spanishrevolution/>Garfield, Bob. Chapter 2, The Post Advertising Age. Chaos Scenario. <http://thechaosscenario.net/>Ghonim, Wael. Revolution 2.0, The Power of the People is Greater Than the People in Power. New York:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.Kroll, Andy. “How Occupy Wall Street Really Got Started,” Mother Jones. 17 Oct 2011.<http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-international-origins>Lee, Chin-Chuan, Joseph Man Chan, Zhongdang Pan, and Clement Y.K. Global Media Spectacle, News War OverHong Kong. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.<www.nycga.net>Revkin, Andrew C. “A fresh Advertising Pitch: Buy Nothing,” Dot Earth Blog, The New York Times. 8 Nov 2007.<http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/22/a-fresh-advertising-pitch-buy nothing/>
  9. 9. Schwartz, Mattathias. “Pre-Occupied, The origins and future of Occupy Wall Street,” The New Yorker. 28 Nov2011. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/11/28/111128fa_fact_schwartz>Sitrin, Marina, ed. Horizontalism, Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.