Media unfazed by erosion of right to assemble
From September 25 to September 29, activists rallied in Washington, D.C. for the first large-scale U.S. protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. On Friday, September 27, several hundred people–including activists, bystanders and journalists–were arrested en masse in what appears to have been an illegal and politically motivated detention.
For many mainstream media outlets, the arrests were barely worthy of comment.
‘We want to leave peacefully’
The arrests occurred during the first of the weekend’s two most prominent actions, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence’s “People’s Strike.” The ACC (abolishthebank.org) called on activists to “shut down” Washington for a day through decentralized acts of “non-compliance” with the economic system, such as refusing to go to work or closing off streets. The Mobilization for Global Justice (globalizethis.org) organized a separate and much larger event the next day, a rally and march that were presented as a “giant festival for global justice” meant to “quarantine corporate greed” rather than shut down the city or the World Bank/IMF meeting.
Two of the people arrested during the ACC event were reporters for the Diamondback, the University of Maryland’s newspaper. Reporters Jason Flanagan and Debra Kahn were there as journalists, not protesters, but they were gathered up and arrested when police penned in a crowd of roughly 600 people at D.C.’s Freedom Plaza, a public park a few blocks from the White House.
According to Flanagan and Kahn (Diamondback, 9/30/02), “the vast majority” of people in the Plaza “were not blocking a street, vandalizing a storefront or provoking the police. They were arrested for singing, dancing and having let the police force them into a trap.” Along with hundreds of others–including at least one National Lawyers Guild legal observer–the journalists were detained for 23 hours; they spent the first ten of those handcuffed on board a bus, the next ten lying on the floor of a gymnasium with their right wrists shackled to their left ankles.
An essay by Shawna Bader (AlterNet.org, 10/4/02), a community activist from D.C. who was also arrested in Freedom Plaza, corroborates the Diamondback‘s account. Bader went downtown before heading to work on Friday because she was curious about the ACC. She listened to demonstrators “speaking articulately about the connection between consumerism in America, the World Bank, globalization and global poverty” until she saw “hundreds of cops in riot gear surrounding the park.”
“It seemed absurdly disproportionate,” wrote Bader, “because the vast majority of the people in the park were clearly not trying to do anything illegal.” According to Bader, after the crowd started to chant, “we want to leave peacefully,” police started “pulling out their batons and whacking people” and “it got really ugly and scary.”
Bader was arrested along with everyone else and subjected to the same shackling that the Diamondback described; she also reported that “many of us were denied food and access to lawyers.” Most demonstrators were eventually charged with failure to obey a police officer, although, Bader says, they “had never been given an order to obey in the first place.”
Also arrested in the sweep was John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace, who was not there as a demonstrator, but had simply been passing through. Passacantando said that police that day were employing “the tactics that a totalitarian regime would use” (Agence France Presse, 10/1/02).
Contrast these troubling accounts to a Washington Post Style section story by Post Metro reporter David Montgomery (9/28/02), which presented the arrests as a game. Montgomery–whose reporting on the April 2000 World Bank/IMF protests focused on protesters’ “body odor” and dismissed their activism as a “fad” (Extra!, 7-8/00)–followed an ACC contingent of 75 bicyclists as they rode through the city to protest reliance on automobiles.
The cyclists would eventually be herded by police into Pershing Square, a park adjacent to Freedom Plaza, and included in the day’s mass arrests. In Montgomery’s story, it was all in good fun, as he portrayed the events leading up to the arrests as a game between “Team Police” and “Team Anti-Capitalist.”
With apparent amusement, he noted the bike riders “never saw it coming,” even after being directed into Pershing Square. “Cool,” he suggested they must have thought at the sight of fellow activists, and then, as it became clear they would all be arrested, “Uh-oh. Team Anti-Capitalist had been duped!”
Fortunately, this was not the Washington Post‘s only look at the event. The paper ran a story headlined “Did D.C. Police Go Too Far?” (10/1/02), which noted that “Washington Post reporters in Pershing Park did not hear any police commands to disperse or warnings that arrests would be made.” In addition, the Post‘s op-ed page (10/6/02) featured a piece by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who called the police actions unconstitutional and illegal.
All in all, the Post devoted far more serious attention to the question of the arrests’ legality (and to the larger issues raised by activists) than did most other major U.S. news outlets.
None of the country’s three major newsweeklies, Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report, ran any stories at all about the demonstrations or the World Bank/IMF meetings they protested. U.S. News (10/7/02), however, ran a lone photo of bandanna-wearing demonstrators surrounded by riot police under the headline “Unmasked,” with a caption noting that “at least 500 demonstrators were hauled away by cops.” Apparently, that image–of protesters being “unmasked” and “hauled away”–said all U.S. News felt needed to be said.
‘Part of the ritual’
National broadcast television coverage was also sparse. ABC World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News each devoted three sentences to the protests on September 27. Both mentioned that there had been arrests, but only ABC noted that “many of the demonstrators said the police response was excessive.”
CBS Evening News did not mention Friday’s mass arrests, but did report (9/28/02) on the larger demonstrations that took place on Saturday. CBS correspondent Joie Chen described the protests as “mostly peaceful” and said that “they voiced loud and often colorful opinions on everything from corporate greed [and] environmental issues to plans for a war against Iraq.” Chen also broke ranks with her colleagues by reporting (briefly) on the substance of the WB/IMF meetings.
On cable news, the demonstrations got somewhat more coverage, perhaps because in the world of 24/7 coverage, images of protester/police “clashes” are too dramatic to pass up.
On CNN‘s Lou Dobbs Moneyline (9/27/02), Bob Franken seemed blasé, saying that mass arrests have simply “become part of the ritual” at international finance meetings. Franken referred to police-protester “skirmishes” and the presence of law enforcement officers from across the country who “considered it something as a training day” to be “part of the force which is trying to overwhelm the demonstrators.” He noted that organizers feared a harsher police response in the post-9/11 climate, and wrapped up by saying that, indeed, protesters “were treated in a more intense way today.”
Franken’s failure to pick up on the civil liberties questions suggested by his own report is characteristic of how mainstream media covers law enforcement’s hostility to the globalization movement. His report was vague on the details of the “intense” police actions, but he was clearly aware that mass arrests had been carried out by a huge law enforcement contingent bent on “overwhelming” demonstrators. It’s worrying that mainstream attitudes towards political protest allow such news to pass on CNN as just “part of the ritual.”
Fox News Channel featured a misleading story by reporter Brian Wilson on Special Report With Brit Hume (9/27/02). Prefacing his report by explaining that “in a post-9/11 world,” police “were in no mood to be challenged,” Wilson reported that 500 protesters “took a wrong turn” on their march and were surrounded by police. According to Wilson, protesters then “threw smoke bombs and broke a bank window,” upon which police started to arrest people.
Fox‘s version of events, in which protesters provoked arrest by wandering into a group of police and throwing smoke bombs, is, to say the least, at odds with most other reports and accounts.
‘Are they just hooligans?’
But it’s a report by David Shuster on MSNBC‘s Hardball (9/27/02) that takes the cake. Introduced as a look at “another round of violent demonstrations,” the segment skipped over the legitimacy of the police actions, focusing instead on the question, “Do the protesters have a legitimate gripe or are they just hooligans?”
As support for the “just hooligans” side of the argument, Shuster suggested that this was “the same crowd” that had been in Genoa, Italy last year (where police killed a protester), and, of course, in Seattle, “their most notorious gathering…where they broke windows, looted stores and generally incited lawless mayhem.” Shuster was not alone in portraying Seattle’s November 1999 WTO protests this way, but he’s absolutely wrong. The violence in Seattle was overwhelmingly committed by police, not demonstrators, no matter how many times mainstream media rewrite history (Extra!, 1-2/00).
Shuster did concede that “violence was not on the agenda” at the current protests, but he was not deterred from his thesis, insisting: “Still, anti-Americanism is in the air…. Critics of the protesters argue they are motivated not by smart policy, but by misguided hate for much of what America and the West stand for.”
Shuster ended his report by reiterating that “the question is, do the demonstrators have some legitimate gripes or are they just a bunch of opportunistic hooligans?” That is, indeed, all too often the framing of mainstream media coverage–while pressing questions about government suppression of the right to peaceably assemble go unasked.
Host Chris Matthews: “Let’s get back to the TV pictures. Those people out in the streets, do they hate America?”
Conservative pundit Cliff May: “Yes, I’m afraid a lot of them do. They hate America. They align themselves with Saddam Hussein. They align themselves with terrorists all over the world.”
—MSNBC‘s Hardball, discussing the World Bank/IMF protests (9/27/02)