Manufacturing Dissension: What the Atlantic Gets Wrong About Occupy

“Where outspokenly right-wing papers like the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune tarred the anti-war movement with the reputation of its most pro-Communist elements, the New York Times and CBS News tended to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of protest, then to show that the latter was penetrating and contaminating the former. This approach at once preserved the image of a rational, sober antiwar protest and discredited it. It was, in short, a formula for ambivalence.”
~Todd Gitlin on the media portrayals of anti-Vietnam War activists, The Whole World is Watching

Terrifying, unreasonable radical Daniel Murphy getting arrested. Pic from the Atlantic.

Last week, a friend sent me a link to Andrew Katz’s article in the Atlantic about dissension within the ranks of the Occupy Movement. Under the Manichean title “The Occupiers: A Liberal and a Radical Struggle for the Soul of a Movement,” Katz introduces us to two activists that allegedly represent warring wings of OWS. From the liberal contingent, we meet the “wide-eyed and beaming” Ben Zucker, “a fresh graduate of Tulane University” who “once spent a semester running a health program in Senegal.” On the side of the radicals is Daniel Murphy, a sometime UPS-employee who spent two years in a youth detention center for stabbing three people, and who Katz describes as “like a live grenade with the trigger half-pulled, waiting to be set off.”

Have you decided which character deserves your sympathies?

As both an activist in and a student of OWS, its more than a little grating to see a vast and varied movement boiled down into two wooden stereotypes, the Idealistic Youngster and the Dangerous Deviant. It’s not a novel framing, of course, and I apologize in advance to Katz for assailing an interpretive weakness that’s more systemic than individual. As longtime activist (and professor of mine) Todd Gitlin explains in The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, news outlets have emphasized internal dissension within social movements for at least half a century now. (Ironically, Gitlin is also quoted in Katz’s article, though not about news distortion.) Conflict makes for better copy than cooperation, after all.

This is not say that differences of opinion and bitter arguments don’t exist within Occupy; as with any project that people care passionately about, nerves get frayed and hackles raised. But, to borrow again from Gitlin, the media operates as a funhouse mirror, “lengthening and shortening, distorting and neglecting what is already there–somewhere.” While arguments within corporate boardrooms or cabinet meetings are most often held outside of the earshot of reporters, the openness of social movements mean that our differences are aired in public meetings and, now, the Twittersphere, out where enterprising reporters like Katz can find them.

Divisions within Occupy are potentially newsworthy, but this article and others like it give the impression that there is an especially contentious climate within the movement. More notable than the observation that human beings often disagree is the fact that people of such different ideological stripes are currently collaborating so fruitfully under the Occupy aegis. Hell, Zucker and Murphy–Katz’s poles of the OWS spectrum–presented a joint proposal at a New York City General Assembly. The article can’t resist the temptation of suggesting Murphy was acting in bad faith, though, noting the ragtag revolutionary’s smirk when the proposal fails, a detail that I guess is supposed to be more telling than the collaboration and relationship that led the pair to join forces to begin with. Then again “People Working through Their Differences” will probably garner fewer clicks than “Struggle for the Soul of a Movement.”

Even more troubling than Katz’s distorting focus on conflict is the implied use of Murphy as a metonym for Occupy radicals. OWS pitches a big tent, but the movement was initially organized by radicals and radical circles remain a major–perhaps the major–source of organizational talent. Yet I have never met an OWS radical with a stabbing on his or her rap sheet, and calls to revolutionary violence, while not completely absent (you see them among the Tea Party set, too), are outnumbered many times over by chants of “this is a peaceful protest.” Many of the most characteristic features of the Occupy Movement, from its slogans to its consensus-based structure, are attributable to its radical roots, yet these contributions go unmentioned in the article. Instead we’re left with Murphy–who Katz himself calls a “fringe member of Occupy Wall Street”–as the spotlighted radical.

Crazed anarchist Daniel Murphy, angry to see his bomb plot foiled by Porky Pig. Pic from the 1936 Looney Tunes cartoon “The Blow Out.”

I can’t speak to Katz’s motivations, but the selection and portrayal of Murphy resurrects and affirms the age old trope of the bomb-throwing anarchist, an unreasonable person whose opinions can therefore be discarded as crazy at best, dangerous at worst. (For the record, I’m not saying Murphy is or is not unreasonable–I’ve never met him–but that is certainly how the article paints him.) The lived experience of Occupy is not the dichotomous “struggle” of Katz’s article. It’s one where different people play different roles, sometimes acrimoniously, but often in relative harmony. At an OWS panel last month hosted by the New School, radical organizer and Occupy mainstay Yotam Marom said (I’m paraphrasing here), “I hate electoral politics. I don’t want to be anywhere near them. But I’m glad that there are progressive people who do electoral politics.” Marom doesn’t speak from a stark dualism, but from a sprit of cooperation that not only tolerates but embraces ideological and tactical diversity.

If Katz thinks that Occupy should abandon its dedication to horizontality, pursue a corporatized model of reform, and fashion itself as a leftist mirror image of the Tea Party, he should say so. But before he characterized Occupy as the girl from your hometown who failed to make good on her potential (which he does explicitly) and saddled radicals with the blame for falling short, he might have devoted more than a half-sentence to Gitlin’s observation that “Occupy Wall Street is still nascent.” Nine years passed between the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Martin Luther King was still fighting for justice when he was murdered in 1968. OWS just celebrated its six-month anniversary. Will we fade? Maybe. But Katz is jumping the gun on this one. (The proverbial gun. Like practically every Occupy radical I’ve met, I’m a non-violent guy.) Social movements don’t often fit snugly into the news cycle, just as their members don’t often fit into the stock roles you write for them.

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