The Violence That Never Happened: Occupy Wall Street and the Selective Outrage of the New York Times
By Kevin Young at Nov 18, 2011
In a middle-of-the-night raid involving hundreds of heavily-armed police officers, the New York Police Department on November 15 forcibly evicted the nonviolent protesters who had been occupying Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan for nearly two months. New York’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg had ordered the raid, citing a number of dubious health, safety, and legal justifications. Independent analyst Justin Elliott aptly characterized it as “a military-style raid on peaceful protesters camped out in the shadow of Wall Street, ordered by a cold ruthless billionaire who bought his way into the mayor’s office.” The powerful symbolism of the repression was hard to miss. That is, unless one relied on the various New York Times accounts of what happened.
Gentle Violence and Restrained Destruction
The day after the raid, the Times’ Andrew Rosenthal praised Mayor Bloomberg’s sensitivity. “Mayor Bloomberg has shown restraint in dealing with the protests, more than other mayors have.” He also quoted Bloomberg’s promise that protesters can return to the park, although “they will not be allowed to lie down. If they do, the police will ask them to leave. Those who refuse will be carried out of the park. ‘Gently,’ [Bloomberg] said, ‘unless they take a swing at a cop, in which case they will be arrested.’” Rosenthal predicted that Bloomberg and the NYPD would continue to act “with restraint” and respect for protesters’ rights.
Reporters Al Baker and Joseph Goldstein, meanwhile, admired the “minutely-planned raid” and the professional conduct of the police. The “clearing operation,” they sympathetically note, “was fraught with challenges for the Police Department. There could be no repeat of episodes in recent weeks, like the pepper-spraying of protesters.” To avoid such a “misstep,” officers underwent two weeks of special training in “counterterrorism measures.” Goldstein, for one, is used to writing from the perspective of the NYPD; on September 27, after one of the police “missteps,” he described police training operations with similar admiration and, rather than mentioning the unprovoked use of violence against protesters, said simply that “efforts to maintain crowd control suddenly escalated.” Baker has done some honest reporting in the past, though apparently it’s just a part-time hobby.
James Barron and Colin Moynihan showed similar appreciation for authorities’ difficult position and restrained response. They noted that an anguished Bloomberg “has struggled with how to respond” to the occupation, and sympathetically quoted Bloomberg’s claim that “health and safety conditions” in the park had become “intolerable,” forcing him to act. After the raid, the park “was cleaner than it had been in some time.” The report also implies that the absence of the protesters drew widespread praise from New Yorkers. Barron and Moynihan referred to four “passers-by,” all of whom cheered the raid. One wealthy Zuccotti Park-area resident said she was “very thankful that the mayor acted, but we remain completely outraged for having to endure this for nine weeks.” One has to marvel at the hardships endured by the 1 percent—and at the Times’ ability to ignore evidence of massive public support for the movement, both among the general public and among New Yorkers.
Eyewitness accounts of the raid tell a slightly different story than the NYT reports did. “I was grabbed by the throat and thrown to the ground by an officer,” says OWS participant Amanda Vodola. “They kept shoving me and yelling at me to stop resisting, but I was only trying to get to my feet. We are peaceful protestors, but they definitely didn’t treat us like it.” Tom Keough of Brooklyn says that the NYPD began “beating and arresting anyone they could.” Alex Hall recounts that “they basically started pushing people. They started tearing down tents. They started to break them down, and without even checking if anybody was in the tents.” An unnamed witness says that the police “started really beating up on this girl pretty badly with their riot shields. And while people tried to pull her out, they sprayed pepper spray like directly into this little clump of people.” As the raid was happening, protester Matt Baldwin told Democracy Now! that “they’re hitting women. They’re hitting children. They’re hitting everyone.”
John Cronan was also there during the raid. “I received a text that Zuccotti was being evicted, so I hurried down there. I arrived just north of the park on Broadway—the cops wouldn’t let us any closer—it looked more like a war zone than an area occupied by peaceful protesters. Within five minutes of being there, the police were aggressively trying to clear the sidewalks of people, and they were hitting people, including myself, with their shields and batons. The police also sprayed us with mace or pepper spray, not sure. It was pretty brutal. My face and ears were burning. The same for dozens of others.”
Wanton destruction of protesters’ property accompanied the physical violence. “Tents, medical equipment, everything was thrown in garbage trucks,” says Keough. Thousands of books in the OWS “people’s library” were confiscated and thrown out by the police, in another powerful if perhaps unintentional act of symbolism. The following day the violence and destruction of property continued, including against journalists trying to document police actions. “Several journalists today were arrested, some beaten and at least one had all his equipment broken and taken,” Keough reported on Tuesday evening. Josh Stearns counted at least ten journalists who were arrested in the raid itself.
None of these trivial details merited mention in the New York Times, however. The reports cited above made no reference to the use of pepper spray or physical aggression by the police. Such violence is thus consigned to the “memory hole” that George Orwell once described—it never happened.
Cronan adds that the experience “made me sad to be an American because of the way the city reacted, but I was also proud that the people of America are standing up and struggling for a free society.” If only the American people could count on a modicum of journalistic integrity from the country’s leading liberal news outlet.
“Fair Enough”: NYT’s Love Affair with Michael Bloomberg and the 1 Percent
The Times' coverage of the November 15 raid is unfortunately quite consistent with its past performance. One indication of the paper’s leanings is its consistently-fawning portrayals of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that perfect symbol of the 1 percent. (Actually, with his $18.1 billion net worth, Bloomberg is the thirtieth-richest person in the world. In a world of seven billion, he is in the 0.000000004 percent.)
The NYT editors, along with reporter Andrew Rosenthal, met with Bloomberg the day after the raid. The resulting editorial on November 16 described Bloomberg’s “legitimate worries” about safety and again praised the mayor’s “restraint” (if there’s one recurring buzzword in NYT coverage of the raid, it’s restraint). The editors’ only real criticism was that “Mr. Bloomberg hasn’t done as good a job as he might have in managing the appearance of this last move.” Rosenthal’s report-back on that meeting was that Bloomberg “seemed sincere in saying that he chose to clear the park in the middle of the night because that was the least disruptive time,” and “he said the city would meet its legal obligation to provide shelter for anyone who needs it.” Sincerity and compassion—what a guy. He just lacks PR savvy, that’s all.
In more praise for Bloomberg’s fairness and restraint, David Halbfinger and Michael Barbaro called Bloomberg “a champion of the First Amendment” and claimed that he “tried but failed to negotiate with members of Occupy Wall Street,” forcing him to order the raid. Rosenthal argued that “Mayor Bloomberg has set a high bar for himself. He said that protesters may stay in the park 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They just won’t be permitted to bring in tents or sleeping bags or set up camps. Fair enough.” How generous of the mayor to bestow this basic right of free speech on the protesters, and how astute of Rosenthal to recognize the fairness of this compromise position.
Rosenthal’s notion of fairness is rather peculiar. To understand it, imagine an armed robber. One night he enters an apartment intending to sack all of its belongings and murder the tenant. Upon encountering the tenant and meeting with resistance, however, the robber strikes a “compromise” wherein he gets to take only 90 percent of the belongings, rather than 100 percent, and merely cut off one of the tenant’s arms rather than follow through with the murder. Fair enough. Such is the logic of elite justice (at least when the armed robber happens to be a powerful millionaire), and it also exemplifies the Times’ idea of journalistic and editorial balance.
NYT reverence for Bloomberg is indicative of a broader trend in the paper’s coverage. Those (including myself) who have previously argued that NYT coverage of the Occupy movement had improved since the first two weeks may have been overly optimistic. The argument at least seems to require qualification. There was a modest improvement in the tone and honesty of some coverage, but the shift has not been consistent or irreversible. More specifically, the recent pattern has been that NYT reporters and editors have continued claiming to support OWS grievances, yet hold the protesters themselves in contempt (much like many leading Democrats do). This pattern is part of a miraculous phenomenon whereby mainstream commentators who have never participated in or seriously studied any social movement have suddenly become experts equipped to issue confident criticisms of the protesters’ behavior, message, and tactics. The protesters are judged guilty of any number of sins: they lack a clear message and knowledge of what they’re protesting; they’re disorganized; they’re dirty; they’re young and naïve; they’re targeting the wrong people; they don’t realize that the electoral system, rather than protesting and civil disobedience and other “radical” tactics, is the proper way to effect change.
This last sin is particularly vexing for mainstream commentators: Rosenthal wonders if the childish protesters will come to their senses and “rally around certain political candidates.” Of course, as many independent analysts have noted, much of the power of the Occupy movement comes from its rejection of politics-as-usual. The protesters are united, with each other and with the general public, by the basic sense that our formal political system is so fundamentally corrupted that little meaningful change can be achieved without a massive and sustained popular movement that remains independent of the two parties. That independence is an essential part of the movement’s message, and one reason why it’s such a threat. It’s also a big reason why liberal politicians are so desperate to channel the movement into the electoral realm and why liberal pundits view the protesters with scorn.
A logical corollary of that scorn is that any government violence against those protesters is either justified (i.e., provoked by the actions of the protesters themselves) or is simply a non-event unworthy of reporting. Vodola, Cronan, and the other protesters who have suffered police violence are what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky call “unworthy victims”: when they are assaulted or otherwise denied their human rights, the press doesn’t care. Conversely, the suffering of “worthy” victims of official enemies (e.g., Iranian protesters) receives universal condemnation and even calls for military attack. The pattern of worthy and unworthy victims is pervasive in US press coverage of social movements and repression around the world; other unworthy victims include Palestinians, Afghan and Pakistani civilians killed by US air attacks, and all the civilians murdered in recent years by US-backed forces in Honduras, Colombia, and Mexico. Though the level of physical violence in these latter cases is much greater than what most US protesters have suffered, the principle is consistent.
Acceptable and Unacceptable Crimes
A friend of mine, Vietnam-era vet and New York resident Richard Greve, made the following observation about Mayor Bloomberg’s legal justification for the raid and his “no tents” dictum:
The rule of no tents is enforced, but not the regulations on Wall Street that harmed so many but richly profited the few. International law is broken regularly by the US and Israel regarding wars and occupation, but there are no consequences for either government. But tents in a park, well that’s serious stuff and can’t be tolerated.
The comment raises a number of issues. First is the legality of the raid itself. As the National Lawyers Guild argues, the entire action may have been illegal, and was certainly designed to further constrict the meaning of “public” space and the range of peaceful activities that are permissible in that space. Bloomberg’s flimsy legal justifications for the raid (that OWS prevented other people from accessing the park, that the right to free speech doesn’t include the right to tents, etc.) made little sense, even if a New York Supreme Court judge loyal to the 1 percent ruled that they did. The fact that Bloomberg felt compelled to offer additional justifications for the raid—e.g., the nonsense about health and cleanliness hazards—suggests that he knew he was on shaky legal ground. According to the NYT editors and columnists, however, the restriction on the protesters’ free-speech rights was obviously “justifiable legally”; the legality of the raid was presumably self-evident and required little further explanation in the paper.
Second, even if the raid itself was legally justified, police violence and destruction of personal property certainly was not. Rather than justifying the violence and destruction, the Times chose to ignore these facets entirely. None of the paper’s news reports the day after or the November 16 editorial even mentioned the violence, and indeed almost unanimously praised the “restraint” of Bloomberg and the NYPD. (To my knowledge, the closest that any NYT reports have come to reporting police violence was a brief mention deep in one article [two days later] that city council member Ydanis Rodriguez “alleged that he was assaulted by a police officer.”)
The third and most urgent question that Greve’s comment raises is the highly selective nature of US elites’ respect for the law. Even if we assume that the Zuccotti Park occupation was technically illegal, the zeal with which Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the NYPD attacked it stands in sharp contrast to their position on infinitely more destructive instances of illegality. The same newspaper that never once considered the illegality under international law of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and which continues to ignore the legal implications of US foreign policy actions—from Iraq to Palestine to ongoing illegal threats of invasion against Iran—suddenly became a crusader for the law when it was invoked against the Occupy protesters, who were harming no one and guilty of illegal activities only in the sense that Martin Luther King and Gandhi were. Yet the protesters’ “crimes” were the ones that couldn’t be tolerated. Any invocation of the law by the New York Times holds very little credibility, to say the least. (On the Times’ disdain for international law, see the two authoritative studies by Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy  and Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East .)
The November 15 raid and the selective NYT reverence for the law are properly understood within the larger political and intellectual context of the United States, where elite crusading on behalf of legality is almost always selective. Laws and the decision to enforce or disregard them, as well as related intellectual commentary, are largely a reflection of the balance of power in a society. When the most powerful government in the world commits “the supreme international crime” (according to the Nuremberg Tribunal) of initiating a war of aggression, is it prosecuted and condemned, or does it continue to garner fawning praise from the same media outlets that helped justify that war of aggression? When it assists another government in maintaining an illegal and very violent 44-year-old occupation of foreign territory, are there any legal ramifications, or do the perpetrators ride in limousines and drink martinis? When banks and corporations rob the public of hundreds of billions of dollars and send millions of people around the world into poverty and starvation, are the executives punished and the institutions restructured, or are they rewarded and further insulated from democratic accountability? When two New York police officers rape a poor black woman, do they go to jail or merely get punished by the NYPD for “misconduct”? Or when Oakland cops shoot an unarmed black man in the back while he’s lying face-down, do they get life sentences or just a few years—or receive praise and sympathy for the “stress” they endure and the split-second decisions they’re forced to make? The list of examples goes on.
The impunity of the rich and powerful, and the profoundly hypocritical intellectual commentary that accompanies it, are to be expected when the balance of power in society is so unequal. But the Occupy movement is threatening to shift that balance of power, and may well continue to gain strength in spite of official repression and hostile media.
Kevin Young is a member of the Organization for a Free Society, one of the groups helping to organize occupations in New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, and elsewhere (www.afreesociety.org).