If a protester shouts in a city and no one’s there to hear, does she make a sound?
Police corral protesters into so-called “free speech” zones, far from their intended political targets and on streets emptied of passersby. Corporate mass media barely cover the protesters’ message. The voices of protest are heard almost exclusively by fellow protesters on the streets and readers of independent media, and corporate journalists declare it a triumph of free speech.
This is the reality of American protest today, on display in Chicago during the NATO summit protests in May. The news story that emerged was not about criticisms of NATO or the Afghan War, but how well-behaved the Chicago police were in the face of a mighty challenge to law and order.
On television, the protests were framed as a challenge to police officers, rather than as an expression of dissent against war and militarism. “Violence in the street,” announced NBC’s Ann Curry (5/21/12). “Police brace for new clashes with protesters at the NATO summit in Chicago today.”
Curry’s colleague Lester Holt (NBC, 5/20/12) likewise took the police point of view: “For police trying to keep the peace, it’s made for some high anxiety against a backdrop of high-stakes diplomacy.” On NBC Today (5/21/12), Chuck Todd reported: “While the NATO summit itself has been fairly low-key, even agreeable, it’s the protests outside the summit that have created the drama that can often be associated with events like these. At the NATO summit Sunday, Chicago police experienced their toughest day yet dealing with protesters.”
CBS’s Susan McGinnis (5/21/12) painted a picture of protester aggression and police defense: “Protestors charged police and police fought back. Four officers were injured in the clashes and more than 40 demonstrators were arrested.” (How many protesters were injured? McGinnis didn’t say.) Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy provided the only soundbite for the story: “If that’s what they wanted, to get arrested, then so be it; they could go and say, ‘Look, I’m proud, I beat up a cop,’ or ‘I assaulted a cop.’”
McCarthy was also given a platform to sing his department’s praises on NBC (5/21/12): “Asking people to put themselves in harm’s way, knowing that they’re going to get assaulted and be able to stand there and take it? Those guys were amazing.”
Police announcements about supposed terror plots—with no evidence provided—were largely accepted at face value. “Police on the ground made more arrests in the scramble to stop tragedy before it occurs,” reported ABC’s Alex Perez (5/20/12). “At least three possible violent plots have been foiled.”
Such references relied heavily on officials; ABC, for example, provided three quotes from officials and only one from the defendants’ lawyer.
In the papers, protest coverage was mostly a play-by-play with little analysis of message. “Protesters began to press the crowd east, in the direction of McCormick Place, and the police lines began to press west, away from the meetings”—such lines substituted for informative analysis at the New York Times (5/21/12), in a piece that included only one vague nod at protester messages (“opposed to war and to NATO or motivated by other issues”).
And in the end, the entire exercise was deemed a smashing success—thanks to Chicago’s finest. “Chicago Police Get High Marks for NATO Protests,” announced an AP headline (5/22/12). The wire service reported that protest leaders
offered a harsh assessment of police tactics. But most others praised the police for their restraint, and in public, they performed mostly as Superintendent Garry McCarthy vowed they would, from their crowd-control tactics to their interactions with protesters.
McCarthy provided several quotes for the piece (the CPD demonstrated how to “be patient and
tolerant”), which also cited a former University of Chicago law professor who praised the department’s decision not to use pepper spray and sound cannons. Reporter Don Babwin pointed to one “key component” of the police strategy: “using what is widely considered the most extensive surveillance system in the United States.”
Few other reporters noted details of the police strategy, which included an 8-foot-tall security fence around downtown that blocked out cars, bikes and pedestrians; prohibiting rail riders from carrying “boxes, luggage, backpacks, pocket knives, bikes, food or liquid”; $1 million of “riot control equipment”; and coordination with the Secret Service, National Guard and FBI. Permits were difficult to get, and sometimes were given and then rescinded, making planning time-consuming and difficult for protesters (Indypendent, 5/17/12; Guardian, 5/20/12).
In the face of these overwhelming obstacles to meaningful, effective protest, the Chicago Tribune (5/22/12) saw nothing to reprove besides protester attitudes:
If free speech is what the crowds came to town for, they ought to be grateful. Taxpayers spent a lot of money on the protesters’ party. All that police overtime. All those port-a-potties. And who do you think cleaned up behind the protesters? Did it occur to them, as they were dancing in the rain in the Loop on Sunday night, that maybe they ought to be picking up the litter at Grant Park instead?
The anarchists and their wannabes might be disappointed, but if you came to town to plead your case responsibly in front of a worldwide audience, then it looks to us like you had a pretty good weekend. For that, you can thank Chicago police.
Free speech, U.S. corporate media style: Be grateful we even let you shout into a hole.
Was That Message Again?
by Julie Hollar
In a rare bit of coverage that actually interviewed multiple protesters, the Washington Post’s Annie Gowen (5/21/12) gave readers a glimpse of the issues protesters had hoped to bring to the forefront.
“We’re demanding a full withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, and we’re advocating bringing the incredible amount of money spent in Afghanistan back home to our communities,” said Matt Howard, 29, a former Marine corporal who is an organizer with the veterans group [Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War].
Mark Stach, 40, a veteran from Dixon, Ill., filled his canteen as he readied for the march to return the NATO medal he received while serving in Iraq in the Army National Guard in 2004 and 2005.
“I’m willing to give it back, because I don’t think the War on Terror did any good,” he said.
He added that he was enjoying the sense of community felt with other veterans.
“I feel pretty alone in this most of the time. I’m looking to be around people who feel the same way I do. I’m disgusted [the war] has gone on so long.”
These messages scarcely penetrated the media bubble, though. When it came to coverage of the summit, coverage was elite journalism as usual. CBS’s Bill Plante (5/21/12) reported that, though polls show that “Americans want out of the 10-year sacrifice of blood and treasure in Afghanistan,” and Obama “also wants to move more quickly to get nearly 100,000 troops home,” the president “admitted” that “getting out won’t be easy.” This position was affirmed by Plante’s guest—former Army Ranger and current Sen. Jack Reed.
On CBS’s Face the Nation (5/20/12), the three guests invited to discuss NATO and Afghanistan took positions ranging from Tom Friedman’s pessimism that the war could end well—with no mention of early withdrawal—to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s hope that the U.S. can keep 20,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014.
Even PBS NewsHour (5/21/12), the outlet meant to inject more diversity of perspective into big media, had a retired colonel and a former ambassador to Afghanistan to discuss the NATO meeting; the ambassador seemed to agree that combat troops should pull out by the end of 2014 as planned, while the colonel expressed skepticism that combat troops wouldn’t be needed beyond that point.
Suggestions that withdrawal should be faster, should include the 20,000 support troops currently scheduled to be left behind for many more years, or that NATO itself should be disbanded—all in the air at the Chicago protests—were not be found outside independent media. On NBC Nightly News (5/20/12), Chuck Todd noted that “even the most hawkish of Republican senators are optimistic about where Afghanistan is headed,” while the Washington Post (5/22/12) pushed for more war—NATO intervention in Syria—chastising Obama and NATO for “shirk[ing] this issue.”