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News :: Globalization : Media : Organizing
Demonization 101: Why There's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity
13 Aug 2010
Whatever our disagreements about priorities, strategy, organization and more, the one thing all anarchists can agree on is that hierarchies suck. Any organizational structure that privileges a handful of unaccountable leaders to make unilateral decisions for an entire group will be unhesitatingly condemned by virtually anybody who calls herself an antiauthoritarian. Yet fewer of us realize that in addition to being inherently oppressive, hierarchies don't work very well. In spite of the enormous amount of evidence of the inefficiency of bureaucracies, many anarchists seem to believe that corporate and governmental organizations are nearly invulnerable.
The discussion of summit demos provides us with numerous examples of this tendency. At every mobilization, some anarchists claim that we shouldn't bother to even show up because we can never replicate the tactical success of Seattle. Others allow that it might be all right to protest, but that we should restrict ourselves to the tactics of the liberals, forgoing property destruction and the black bloc lest we "turn people off" and "be demonized in the media." In other words, the stay-at-homers believe that the cops are unbeatable and the demonizationophobes believe the corporate media is unbeatable. Neither is the case. Police departments and media outlets are subject to the same fundamental organizational problems as other large bureaucracies, and all the money and equipment in the world can't change that. The events of recent summit demos have made this abundantly clear.

The recently concluded G20 meetings in Toronto are a case in point. Despite a budget of $1.2 billion, over $900 million of which was spent on security, the Toronto cops failed to prevent a black bloc from breaking away from the main permitted march and torching four cop cars, as well as shattering dozens of store windows. This failure was due to the communication and decision-making inefficiencies that inevitably result from the top-down management structure employed by the cops. One anonymous officer, quoted in the Toronto Sun, described the situation like this: "The orders went from engage to, no, don't engage to engage to, no, don't engage, It was an absolute shambles. Everyone was talking over each other on the radio. Nobody seemed to know what to do. It was just a mess." Toronto was hardly a fluke in this regard. The police had similar breakdowns in command and communications at the Pittsburgh G20 and the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN, which were widely noted at the time. Less immediately obvious were the mistakes made by the corporate media, but they existed nonetheless. This will be the focus of the remainder of this article.

Here it's important to note the similarities between the cops' and the media's respective problems. During a demo, the cops are charged with repressing the protest using violence, but not so much violence that they discredit the local government, and by extension the institution being protested. The media's job is to both justify and obscure the violent repression while still keeping their middle class constituency informed of ongoing developments. Both institutions are therefore walking a narrow tightrope. Neither of them is very good at it. Media outlets are also share a top-down management style with the cops. While newspapers and TV stations don't have military ranks or uniforms, decisions about what events to cover and how that coverage will be slanted are made not by reporters (let alone readers), but by publishers and editorial boards, i.e., small groups of like-minded people who are resistant to outside influences. Thus, decisions go unreviewed and mistakes are corrected slowly, if at all.

Many of those mistakes were evident in the coverage of the last two G20 demos, Toronto in June 2010 and Pittsburgh in September 2009. In Pittsburgh the media generated pre-summit fear mongering was so extreme that downtown businesses announced plans to close down for the entire week of the meetings, and were unmoved by subsequent clumsy attempts at retraction. Considering that the meetings were being sold to Pittsburghers as an economic windfall, this was a major faux pas. It was not to be their last. During a presidential press conference one local reporter asked Obama what he thought about the protesters. Those protesters had spent most of the day tearing up a shopping district and rolling dumpsters downhill at cops, something that a well-run state propaganda operation would have known enough to downplay. Not Pittsburgh's, though. Obama didn't help matters with his answer, either. He went out of his way to point out that the the protests were anticapitalist in nature, at a time when capitalism is ruining more lives than ever before.

To cap everything off, The Daily Show featured anarchist protesters, favorably no less, in two separate segments. One was a Jon Oliver "interview" with some teabaggers that highlighted the difference in the typical police response to tea party protests versus anarchist protests. The other was a classic Jon Stewart rant that ended with a classic riff on Pittsburgh's sonic cannon: "Oh my God! Those anarchists are going to have to go like this!" (covers ears with hands). They're anarchists! ... Do you know what kind of music these people listen to? That cannon is probably their ring tone by now." While there's nothing the local Pittsburgh media could have done about Jon Stewart, the fact that he's still allowed on the airwaves is further proof that the corporate media in general is nowhere near as invincible as many assume.

Even without Stewart, the Toronto media managed to do an even worse job than their Pittsburgh counterparts. Granted, they didn't have a lot to work with. With a billion dollar budget to justify, there was no hope of selling the summit as a money maker. Their only chance was to rhetorically elevate the threat to match the expense. "Be afraid. Be very afraid." was the unwavering message from the Toronto government, and the media dutifully passed it along to their readers. Downtown businesses were stampeded into closing by a media establishment desperate to peddle artificial paranoia. Few were buying. A Harris poll taken a few days before the meetings found that only 32 percent of respondents thought the summit was worth the expense.

In the event, the damage done by the black bloc was less than at least one recent Canadian hockey riot, let alone the carnage at the Quebec City Free Trade Area of the Americas demo in April 2001. But after all that build-up, it was too late for the media to do what they probably should have done in the first place, which was to focus on the meetings themselves and bury the protests in the local human interest section. Instead, hockey riots, Quebec City and any concept of proportion were ignored as Toronto's fourth estate proclaimed with one voice how shocked, shocked, they were that such a thing could happen in their fair city. Following the usual line in these situations, commentators loudly denounced the "outside agitators" of the black bloc as "violent" hooligans who had besmirched Toronto's sterling reputation and didn't even know what they were protesting. In their indignation they made more mistakes.

For one, the police came in for nearly as much criticism as the anarchists, although this was probably unavoidable. Some things are unspinnable, and a billion dollar, 19,000 strong security operation that gets beaten by a few hundred broke anarchists is one of them. The Toronto media couldn't have let the cops off the hook without looking completely out of touch with reality. But they also excoriated Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his decision to site the meetings in Toronto, in many cases even suggesting that future summits be held on remote islands or other protest-proof locations. This is the last idea the G20 leaders want to see gain any traction. They're planning a lot of meetings in the next few years, and a "G20 go home" movement in the North American middle class would damage their carefully nurtured image of benevolence even further.

In addition to having to deal with police incompetence, the media was also faced with liberal conspiracy theorists pushing their own agenda. While Canada's liberal establishment, like all liberal establishments, is committed to preserving capitalism and the state, their strategy tends to be one of cooptation, of luring potential activists into harmless reformism. Thus their immediate political needs are different from those of the media. Where the media needs to paint anarchists as dangerously competent in order to frighten their middle class readers, liberal groups need to minimize the perceived effectiveness of anarchists to make them less appealing to the coveted youth demographic. At the G20, Toronto liberals tried to accomplish that goal by claiming that the black bloc had help from the police. One strain of this theory held that the four torched cruisers had been pre-positioned by the cops for the purpose of being set alight by provocateurs. Other liberals, notably Naomi Klein, took the position that the police had gone on a temporary "cop strike" that allowed the black bloc to do its work. In both cases the purported goal was to justify the enormous security budget and ensuing repression. In both cases the theory was directly contradicted by the facts, as the above quote along with numerous videos and personal accounts of the black bloc action attest.

More importantly, both versions of the theory are equally damaging to the cops. Store owners angry that police incompetence allowed their businesses to be smashed will be even angrier if they come to believe that police actually helped in the smashing. While the Canadian media didn't wholly subscribe to the conspiracy theory, they gave it enough play to ensure that many people heard about it who wouldn't have otherwise. It's not known what they were thinking.

But the media blunder with the most significant long term ramifications concerns the reporting on the black bloc itself. Before the meetings the Toronto media went to great lengths to point out - for the first time in the decade since Seattle - that the black bloc is a tactic, not an organization. It was as if having finally gotten something right, they were so proud of themselves that they couldn't help announcing it over and over again. This would have been bad enough by itself. Most non-anarchists who have heard of the black bloc have a vague idea that it's some kind of secret society. Now, thanks to the corporate media, they know it is something they can potentially do, not something they have to join.

And then for good measure, the media explained how to do it.

Following the riot, dozens of stories appeared detailing how the bloc had managed to escape arrest - by taking off the masks and black clothes that they wore over ordinary clothes and mingling with the crowd of spectators. Toronto police trumpeted the discovery of a pile of black clothes in the park where the breakaway march ended as evidence of the desperate criminality of the bloc, oblivious to the damaging information they were releasing. It's hard to overstate the importance of this admission. The entire nation of Canada now knows how to burn cop cars and get away with it, something that will prove useful as the Harper regime continues its assault on the Canadian welfare state.

All of the above raises the question of what the media could have done differently. After all, many of their problems were caused by police and government missteps beyond the control of any news outlet. In both Pittsburgh and Toronto police repression was virtually impossible to defend, especially since videos and eyewitness reports of police brutality were distributed widely on the internet. Yet even given this handicap, it's evident that their basic strategy was flawed and that they have no solution to the problem of how to demonize militant protests without simultaneously publicizing them. One wonders why they continue to try. The media's best weapon against social movements is the ability to freeze them out of public discourse by simply not covering them. This is a trick they have used with great success against the anti-war movement, among others, and it might have well have worked against G20 protesters. Pointing the spotlight away from the black bloc would have at least alleviated many of the media's problems, and might even have solved a few of them. The Daily Show, for instance, might never have come to Pittsburgh in the first place if the Pittsburgh media hadn't spent months hyping the anarchist threat. Even if it isn't feasible to completely ignore the black bloc, why not pass it off as a mostly harmless novelty, a bunch of wacky kids who eat out of dumpsters and (ha ha) actually think the G20 is a bad thing? That would also free up front page room for positive stories about the G20.

The short answer is they can't. Local news outlets face relentless pressure to keep ratings and readership up in competition with Youtube, Facebook, video games and a thousand other distractions. Rampant sensationalism is their tool of choice. "If it bleeds it leads" is their holy writ - and if it's on fire, that's just as good. In this environment anarchists have built-in advantages that no amount of money and cops can overcome. We have a cool alliterative name - "the Black Bloc." They're the "G20," the sort of name Maytag might bestow on a mid-price refrigerator. We dress in black, smash and burn things, and disappear into the crowd. They dress in suits, hold three-day meetings, and issue 500-page reports. We're always going to get more coverage in the host city, and nationally as well if we make enough noise. The media would have to completely reverse their usual MO to successfully ignore us, and that's not something bureaucracies are good at.

This is good news for summit hoppers, because demonization isn't working. An Angus Reid poll taken a day or two after the Toronto summit found that about 70 percent of the respondents thought the police were justified in their actions against protesters. Schooled in the logic of electoral politics, where a 40 point deficit in the polls is fatal, Toronto commentators presented these findings as a victory. Looked at another way though, a months-long fear mongering campaign in which no dissenting voices were permitted failed to convince 30 percent of adult Canadians that the anarchists were worse than the cops. It should also be kept in mind that the poll was taken before information about the appallingly inhumane jail conditions was widely available, and before Toronto police chief Bill Blair admitted to essentially making up a law allowing the arrest of anybody who refused to show ID near the perimeter fence. The same poll taken a week later would have revealed considerably less support for the cops.

At this point in the argument a third class of summit-hopping critics, the anti-symbolicists, are jumping up and down shouting "But it's all just symbolic! It doesn't mean anything! Who cares if we can get away with breaking a few windows, that doesn't do any good!" These folks are conveniently overlooking a few things. First, the $1.2 billion price tag in Toronto is starting to get into real money, money that can't be spent on sending more soldiers to Afghanistan or destroying the arctic environment by mining tar sands. If we can do that kind of financial damage just by showing up, then we obviously should.

More importantly though, we should recognize that summit meetings themselves are mostly symbolic. They tend not to produce much in the way of concrete accomplishments. As David Graeber, among other analysts, has pointed out, summit participants spend most of their time bickering. All their meetings couldn't save the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or resuscitate the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks. As for the G20, it is not a treaty organization, so the "decisions" it does make aren't binding on its members, even on paper. The real utility of summit meetings to the ruling class is as public relations vehicles. Their strategy is to foster an image of Wise Men conducting Careful Deliberations on the Best Course to Follow. That image takes a severe beating when the wise men have to protected by razor wire, sound cannons and riot cops, and it only gets worse when the dominant narrative in the state's own propaganda organs is one of riots and police repression. The last three G20 meetings were public relations nightmares for their host cities and the G20 itself - Toronto and Pittsburgh for all the reasons discussed above, and London in April 2009 because the cops killed a man, Ian Tomlinson, who wasn't even protesting.

Their ordeal won't be ending anytime soon, either. The G20 has meetings scheduled twice a year into 2012, and they can't absorb PR disasters at that rate indefinitely. Eventually they will be forced to stop having meetings, or at least hold them in locations inaccessible to protesters. Either recourse would damage their credibility enormously. Without the protective cover of carefully scripted conferences in major city centers the G20 would look a lot more like what it really is - a bunch of gangsters scheming to squeeze more money out of their victims while squabbling over the spoils. All anarchists have to do to make that happen is to show up and make the cops look stupid - and few things are easier than making cops look stupid.

We'll have another chance soon. The first G20 summit of 2012 will be held somewhere in the US. Let's try to make it the last one they ever have.

Further reading:

http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/sites/mediacoop.ca/files2/mc/Fire%20and%20!.pdf

http://www.torontosun.com/news/columnists/joe_warmington/2010/06/30/1456

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/torontog20summit/article/830832--most-th

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/28/naomi_klein_the_real_crime_scene

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/torontog20summit/article/829587--the-fir

This work is in the public domain.
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Anarcho-Fail
14 Aug 2010
This is a relentlessly stupid article. If other anarchists really think like this one doesn't, their faction of the left is well and truly doomed.