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Retaking the Offensive in the Battle of the Story

For the Occupy movement, as in battlefield of the narrative, whose story is being told, whose perspective is the dominant frame, who are perceived to be the heroes and villains, the criminals and victims, is crucial.

Remember when the stock market crashed in late 2008, how it was talked about around the office printer, in newspapers and on talk shows? Remember when Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff were household names spoken with disdain? When there were outraged cries for justice, televised Congressional hearings, and calls for accountability and restitution?

The mainstream media, spurred on by its journalistic tendencies, actually covered the real story of what happened—for a while. Then the right-wing spin machine fought back.  Somehow the crisis was now all the fault of the greedy public sector unions, with their outrageous salaries and pensions that were bankrupting local and state governments everywhere, causing cuts in services, lowering living standards and expectations, putting popular programs like Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block again.  No more mention that most all those pension funds were doing fine until Wall Street speculators and the big banksters lost so much of the money in them.

That version had some success for almost a couple of years. Then a handful of brave souls in New York City did something bold, sort of silly in its symbolism really, certainly unrealistic as a tactic. They pitched some tents, created an urban campsite and said there’s something dreadfully wrong here.  So they were going to “occupy” Wall Street and refocus attention on the real culprits of the crisis.

The call to hold the masters of the economy responsible for the mess they created made a comeback, this time with a deeper understanding born of the bitter experience of the last three years.  And that shared experience brought a new consciousness of the sharp class divide in modern American society, simply but effectively expressed in the “99%” slogan.

The clumsy repression of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD broadcast the occupiers’ voices throughout the national and global media, inspiring and provoking echo demonstrations in cities everywhere, just as the Madison, Wisconsin Capitol occupiers had called forth spontaneous actions supporting public employees and services earlier this year.

The message of the “99%” resonated with working people everywhere and “normal” folks started occupations in their hometowns.  Mainstream media began doing stories about heartland white people losing their jobs through no fault of their own, having their homes foreclosed on and their dreams crushed. On national TV news and in daily newspapers around the country phrases like “income inequality” and “corporate greed”—code for class society—were being constantly repeated.

Natural allies like unions saw their concerns being voiced by workers outside of the official labor movement, and joined in. Liberals and leftist clamored to be part of the new dynamic movement.

We defined the terms of debate so thoroughly that even the Oakland police, after violently trying to evict the occupation there, are now claiming to be part of the “99%.”

The right-wing spin machine was caught off guard again, but, reworking their mainstream media sources, began a new offensive.  They painted the encampments as public health and safety problems, and the participants as an unruly, leaderless and unfocused mob.

The mainstream media keeps trying to say the Occupy movement has no message. What part of 99% don’t they get? The message is that America, and the world, has a highly stratified class structure and is becoming more so all the time.

But class consciousness is precisely the message the right needs to suppress most. While camping laws are minor infractions, and health and safety issues have been addressed by the occupiers organizing themselves, the fear of violence is the right’s greatest message-diversion weapon.

In Oakland the police were all too willing to oblige with that. Like the NYPD, the Oakland police attacked the campers with an unprovoked and over-the-top violent response. Nearly killing an Iraq War veteran set them back enough for the General Strike to gain momentum and the movement to claim the moral high ground.

But the mainstream media reported a few broken windows as the violence of the movement they had predicted. Somehow smashing windows was equated with bashing heads. Then the shooting death of one young African American man on the perimeter of the encampment, related or not to the occupation, seemed to confirm the right’s narrative and gave Mayor Jean Quan her excuse to evict the occupation again, as if the city had ever cared about the other more than 100 deaths in Oakland this year.

So now we are no longer talking about the 99% or the crimes of the 1%. The talk is all about violence and evicting an encampment that is both dangerous and a drain on city resources. Now the movement is all taken up with defending a batch of tents.

This has become a political liability, distracting from our real message and real work. Occupation as a tactic has outlived its usefulness. It was meant to get attention, and Occupy has certainly done that. It’s time to move on.

The vast majority of people who have participated in Occupy events, who have been moved by and echoed its core messages, have never slept over in an encampment. More than 10,000 people joined in on the General Strike activities in Oakland Nov. 2, but the encampment has never even had 200 tents there.

Which is not to say we give up on holding public space, especially Oakland’s significantly symbolic Oscar Grant Plaza. But if everyone went home at night and returned the next day to plan and carry out the continuing actions of the movement, the enemy would be disarmed—no more camping law infractions, no more health and safety issues, and hopefully the violence can be corralled. We eliminate the distractions from our core messages and focus on the real work ahead of us.

The only ones among us who would lose out are the truly homeless, who have found a relatively safe place to crash and eat. Perhaps one demand the Oakland Occupiers could make in talks with Mayor Jean Quan and the city should be for sufficient housing and services for them. It would both be practical, especially with winter weather moving in, and in line with the movement’s goals.  We could claim a victory, and indeed it would be one for the poorest of our 99%.

If the Occupy movement and its resonating messages of class division and corporate accountability are to regain the offensive in these PR wars, we have to recognize when the enemy has won a battle, and readjust to the changed field of engagement. We need to rethink our tactics and perhaps reinvent them.

STEVE STALLONE was the editor of the ILWU’s newspaper The Dispatcher from 1997-2007 and worked with Jack Heyman on the Neptune Jade, Mumia and Charleston 5 campaigns. The union’s International Officers fired him for his politics in violation of his union contract. He won his arbitration against the officers and continues working as a labor journalist for Northern California’s largest public employee union, SEIU 1021, as President of the AFL-CIO affiliate the International Labor Communications Association and as Secretary of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, TNG-CWA 39521.

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