A couple of weeks ago, during a weekend jaunt to New York City, a friend and I went downtown to experience firsthand the Occupy Wall Street protests. We knew that a march to Times Square was scheduled for that afternoon, and our curiosity and our politics beckoned us to go. After finding the protesters, the two of us stood with our cameras at the ready, as if we were watching a Thanksgiving Day parade. Sufficiently neurotic from our mothers’ insistence that we’d get arrested if we took part, we had planned only to watch from the curb. But within moments of arriving we were shouting chants and marching alongside two women carrying a United Auto Workers banner. The vitality of the protest had captivated us.
As we marched through lower Manhattan that afternoon, I looked at the protesters around me. The diversity of the crowd was readily apparent. I was expecting — from what I’d seen in the media — a set of undergraduate hipsters and burned out, homeless hippies. And surely those groups were present that day in the streets. But just beside us, the women carrying the union banner were middle-aged and likely middle class — as were so many of the others in our midst. There were nuclear families and cantankerous old ladies and clergymen and kids. Though many seemed “fringe,” as I had suspected, equally many did not. People wore suits and scrubs and yarmulkes too. And I noticed in the throngs of protesters a significant number of African Americans, Latinos and Asians.
This was not the image of OWS I’d seen portrayed in the news. While the media have pigeonholed the protesters as radical beatniks clashing with the American mainstream, the picture on the ground seemed a relatively representative array of U.S. demographics: racial, cultural and socioeconomic. When it comes to the media’s coverage of the Occupy movement, we have to take each account with more than a few grains of salt. Not only is the media prone to repeating classic clichés, but in many cases, their commentary is evidently guessing as much as anything else.
Particularly now, everyone’s speculating about the potential political and cultural effects (or lack thereof) of OWS. At just a couple of months in, no one can really say what these effects will be. In the media, pundits debate the movement’s successes or failures based on whatever is politically provocative or shrewd in that moment. There’s no single, obvious barometer for measuring the success of OWS, as much as the media would like there to be.
Though I realize I’m entering dangerous waters making the following historical comparison, I think there’s a worthwhile lesson in the history of the American Communist and Socialist parties. One can surely make the case that these two tiny parties were inconsequential in our grander political history, never having won any major elections and leaving no real legacy for our contemporary political dialogue. (Although you may be surprised to hear that the Socialists at one point did elect two U.S. congressmen).
From an electoral standpoint, these two parties were largely failures. But one could also contend that after these two parties first organized in the U.S., the Democratic Party became increasingly liberal in an attempt to appeal to would-be Socialists or Communists. And in so doing, the Democrats built our social safety net with the New Deal. In that case, arguably, these two third parties were great successes.
In much the same way, judging the legacy of the Occupy movement will depend primarily on one’s choice of yardstick. For now it’s still too early to speculate what about the movement will be successful, but its sustained momentum suggests that something lasting will come from it.
What is beyond speculation, however, is the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor in the U.S. Factual evidence of deepening inequality has been trickling in over the past few years. Those who accuse the OWS protesters of waging class warfare neglect to see the ways in which deregulation and a porous social safety net have already damaged American society. Class warfare? A rose by any other name, be it neoliberal or trickle-down, would smell as sweet.
I suspect that a great deal more Americans would get behind the Occupy movement if only the media did a fairer, more accurate job of covering the protests. A recent Gallup poll suggested that 63 percent of Americans aren’t aware that one of OWS’s primary objectives is to combat income inequality.
My hope is that this movement influences our political discourse even if it’s in ways that aren’t so easily definable or obvious. But in order to get there, we need to recognize that the media only offer us part of the story. Because another world is only possible once people hear the truth.
Matthew Green can be reached at email@example.com.