Oct. 26, 2011 | Understandably, many Americans wonder what to make of the continuing protests and sprawling encampments in many large American cities. “What do they want?” many say, as if they weren’t actually part of the “they.” It’s a fair question for a society that wants quick results or, at least, a clear road map to an end. Occupy Wall Street and its imitators don’t have a single document to pass out. They don’t have clear plan and they don’t need one. What they need to keep their robust populist movement chugging forward is a bit of poetic serendipity and they got it last night in all places: Downtown Oakland.
Progressives and supporters of the 99 percent should be imbued with enormous pride after last night’s clash with police. A group of thousands miraculously navigated the waters of corporate media traps and in the process allowed the creation of dozens of shocking, poignant images and storylines. They did it without succumbing to the megamedia tropes generally highlighted when citizens rebel against the powers-that-be. No looting. No broken windows. No fights. It left the local news media with nothing to report but ominous police brutality against peaceful demonstrators.
“The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan many decades ago. The sage media theorist never imagined anything like Facebook, Twitter or even the World Wide Web, but he did see the medium in some ways was more important than the actually content.
Today, many Americans and millions more (formally) oppressed foreigners logged in to their favorite social media networks and saw photos and videos incongruent with the mythology of the American Dream. Images and symbolic acts can ignite revolutions. We saw it with the street cart owner in Tunisia whose act of self-immolation sparked an Arab Spring earlier this year.
What we saw last night was this: photos of a woman sitting helplessly in a wheel chair as tear gas engulfed her and those around her. We saw picture after picture of protesters flashing wounds from rubber bullets of which police denied ever firing (not to mention flash bang grenades popping on countless videos, police say never existed). We saw a defiant, shirtless young man beautifully framed in a cloud of white gas. He showed no fear and exhibited no urgency to flee the stinging burn of tear gas waiting to enter his lungs and eyes.
The medium is the message and in these instances as we view these unfiltered images our minds are sufficiently open. “Is this not America?” one woman tweeted last night as the event unfolded. Doubtless, the same notion crossed your own mind in between viewing your friend’s sonogram on Facebook while watching X-Factor on your flat screen.
This amazing array of media images, though, pales in comparison to what seven rounds of tear gas in Oakland gave birth to last night. The story of Scott Olsen is destined to be all that lives from the confrontation and it just may foment an avalanche of enough anger and hypocrisy to maintain this movement toward tangible (still unknown) change in America.
In fact, Madison Avenue could not have created a better character than Olsen, who reports say survived two tours of duty in Iraq only to be critically wounded by projectiles fired by the police last night. According to The Guardian, the 24-year-old Olsen was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by Oakland Police. He was taken to nearby Highland Hospital late last night. The British paper reports Olsen is suffering from brain swelling as a result of the accident. Video showed Olsen crumbling to the ground during the chaotic scene. Protester surrounded his limp body until another round of tear gas was tossed near the group.
The storyline of an American serviceman returning home to be victimized by local law enforcement is similar to a viral video two weeks ago of an Marine Sgt. Shamar Thomas in New York City who lambasted police officers for harming peace demonstrators bleeding out from the Occupy Wall Street movement in Lower Manhattan.
That Oakland has become the flashpoint for this populist movement should come as no surprise. While the originators huddled for over a month on Wall Street are the Founding Fathers in general terms of the palpable anger with the equities in our society, Oakland is where the effects are seen in full view. Ninety-nine, as in “We are the 99 percent” is not the most important percentage in Oakland. It is 16 percent, as in the city’s excruciatingly high unemployment rate. It’s no wonder the protesters last night were undaunted by countless barrages of tear gas. They have nothing to lose anymore. If unemployment is 16 percent, then surely underemployment is closer to 25-30 percent.
If people have nothing and therefore have nothing to lose, then what? Just remember the belittled one percent have everything to lose and they will defend it. These protesters are buoyed by a clear realization that there are way more of us than there are of them. It’s the reason billionaires live in mansion fortified by high walls and private security. They know this day would eventually come and with the bravery of those in Oakland, that time may be closer than we think.