Notes from outside the fence: Challenging corporate media messaging

If I can dance with crossdressing Harper I want no part of your  revolution
If I can’t dance with crossdressing Harper I want no part of your revolution.

If there’s one thing the corporate mainstream media love, it’s a good story. And by good story I mean sensational. And by sensational, I mean fear mongering.

We have seen this as a baseline for the vast majority of mainstream reporting on the actions, events and demonstrations planned for the week of resistance to the G8/G20 in Toronto. Thousands of people will gather on the streets of Hogtown this week to demonstrate against the undemocratic nature of these unaccountable world bodies, as well as their role in proliferating war and deepening poverty. Standard fare coverage seems to include a mandatory reference to “violence” “anarchists” and “protesters”, which are apparently considered equivalent. I have found the confusion over the goals and purpose of those challenging the legitimacy of the G8/20, those thousands of regular folks lumped in to the uninformative category of “protester,” to be widespread.

Since when did exercising our democratic rights to free speech, including political dissent, to freedom of association and freedom of assembly automatically translate into a threat, a radical anarchist? The threat, of course is real. But it is not a threat to the safety of the general public, as is constantly intoned by the corporate media. The threat presented by political agitation is to the status quo, to “business as usual,” to the governing elite who are, arguably, out of touch with the average citizen.

Why is exercising citizenship and practicing democracy (participating in the political process) now automatically associated with violent, dangerous, *gasp* anarchist behaviour? The idea of democracy being limited to voting day is ludicrous and reflects the sorry state of things, even in prosperous, “first world” countries like Canada.

And what is a radical anarchist anyway? The Hamilton Spectator offered a refreshing take on this hackneyed story, providing this portrait of the typical anarchist opposed to the G8/G20: a doctoral student at McMaster University, a husband and father of one young child.

Yesterday in my Facebook newsfeed I saw an exchange on the wall of a well known Detroit deejay, an old friend from my Windsor days. Ignoring the racist and misogynist overtones, the exchange perpetuated the tired, ill-informed stereotypes of global justice activists, including that protesters are dirty, long-haired, patchouli-wearing, unemployed drains on society. More offensive and more disturbing are the incorrect assumptions, perpetuated by the corporate media, that “protesters” are ill-informed of the issues they “purport” to be challenging, and that they attend actions because they are “bored”, spoiled, randomly “anti-American,” or “for kicks.” This is closely related to the common (and by common I mean base) sentiment that if people weren’t “threatening violence” there wouldn’t be a need for the militarization of Canada’s biggest city.

In fact the inverse is true. The fence is a symbol of violence and an invitation to members of democratic societies everywhere to tear down. The fence encapsulates all that is wrong with the G8/20: unaccountable (because self-appointed), unrepresentative and therefore illegitimate supranational bodies that decree and enforce economic policies that harm communities and the environment that sustains us all while increasing profits for corporations that are by and large self-regulating and unaccountable.

There is a need to justify the outrageous $1 billion security budget. There is a need to deflect all the attention away from the highly problematic (and by problematic I mean impoverishing, life threatening) economic policies of the G8/G20. There is a need to demonize protesters and criminalize dissent. This is achieved by parading the bogeyman of the “dangerous radical anarchist protester” across every corporate media outlet, repeatedly referring to the corporate property damage by an extremely small minority of demonstrators (fringe elements who in any case cannot being positively associated with the global justice movement/s) at major street demos. It is done by police making preemptive arrests of known movement “leaders”—even better if its in a dramatic raid, and laying inflammatory and bogus charges. These are usually dropped, well after the frightening story has spread like wildfire through the public imaginary via the only too obliging corporate media.

Another uncritical assumption around diversity of tactics needs to be challenged. The refusal of groups like the Toronto Community Mobilization Network to condemn property damage (often confused with “violence”). There is rarely an examination or understanding of the daily violence that millions of people around the world live under, violence in the form of poverty and starvation, displacement and environmental devastation.

There is a further need to question what is meant by violence. Typically, the corporate media are referring to “property damage” when they discuss the behaviour of activists in massive street demonstrations, at least in the North American context. The tens of thousands who demonstrated against Free Trade Area of the Americas Summit in Quebec City in 2001 were “non-violent.” A small handful of participants in the action – maybe Black Bloc anarchists, maybe fringe elements with no affiliation with global justice activism, vandalized corporate property, and engaged in a street fight with police, responding to their aggressive advances by creating barricades with street “furniture,” returning tear gas canisters and throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at police lines. This is in *no way* characteristic of the global justice movement, nor of its core values or tactics… That some in the movement won’t condemn property does not negate the movement’s legitimacy.

Let’s examine this notion of “violence” further. What or who is harmed? A Starbucks window? Some concrete sidewalk? Maybe some other property owned by corporations that wreak havoc in lesser “developed” nations…? Who feels the physical effects of violence? Protesters being mocked, beaten, tear gassed, and pepper sprayed by police during actions certainly do. Activists present during the raid of the convergence centre at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001 certainly did. That vicious event resulted in the severe beating of 60 people, three of whom, including British journalist Mark Covell, were put into comas. The walls of the centre were literally covered in blood and one officer officer described police as “beating youths like wild beasts.” The 27th G8 Summit in Genoa is perhaps worst remembered for the death of activist Carlo Guiliani, who was shot at point blank range by police and run over.

What about in Europe, where the memory of fascism is fresh, or in still-developing countries, where oppressive, undemocratic governments are a reality? Or in nations darkened by the long shadow of colonialism, still under the thumb of first-world resource extraction? In this context, where democracy fails, violence remains a legitimate recourse—perhaps the only one. Day 3 of Submedia’s Rebellion Reporting has a nice bit about this.

I wonder what those who condemn violence as an academic or rhetorical exercise, or to justify the increasing militarization of democratic society, would do if they did not live in the highly privileged society that we do, one that enjoys the fruits of earlier violence, such as genocide against first nations, and civil war against colonial rule and slavery…?

Finally I need to address the misguided notion that some in the corporate press and elsewhere have about community organizers and activists opposed to the G8/G20 as: “demonstrating for the media” (as one CBC journo put it to me). Marcus Gee was more blunt, if completely incorrect:

The fact is that activists find the violent fringe useful. Violence draws television cameras – if it bleeds, it leads – and cameras draw attention to the struggle. Activist leaders may not throw bricks themselves, but many will be quite content if others do. And when it happens, you can be sure they will blame the violence entirely on the police. To sock the copper and cry police brutality when he hits back is the oldest trick in the book.

First of all, I’d seriously question how Gee know this “fact.” Sounds completely like opinion to me. But then, the corporate media don’t have much problem parading personal opinion as “fact.” Secondly, it’s the corporate journos who are the ambulance chasers – demonstrators don’t have to anything to get their attention. “If it bleeds it leads” is the mantra of the press, not activists! Gee is a bit confused. Finally, I don’t know any “activist leaders” (c’mon corporate press, how many times do we need to remind you there are no leaders in the global justice movement…?). I also don’t know any dedicated community organizers who are “quite content” when others throw bricks or engage in more extreme tactics. Activists tend to respect a diversity of tactics because we don’t tell people what to do. That’s the job of law enforcement, and pseudo-democratic states. Activists don’t need the press. And certainly, not the press that misrepresents their objectives and intentions, and ignores the issues that motivate their activism. So as far as courting the corporate media, all I can say is: you wish.



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