Flash to an image of a shaggy-haired 20-something with his lips puckered against Brooklyn Bridge asphalt, arms crossed behind his back, wrists being zip-tied by a burly member of the NYPD, and it almost looks like a real revolution.
Log on to livestream.com/globalrevolution — the official Internet video stream of the Occupy Wall Street movement — and it looks and sounds like a few teens regurgitating anarchist literature on a webcam in some suburban basement.
Click through countless slideshows, Twitpics, mobile uploads and blurry videos, and you start to see the same cast of characters. The boy with the dollar bill taped over his mouth. The girl in a flowing sundress smiling politely. The man waving a dirty American flag in some sort of ironic, triumphant gesture. The dark- rimmed glasses, plaid shirts, flat-brim caps and other hipster accessories on full display alongside the picket signs.
This is what protests look like in the post-TV age. In the era of DIY media, on the Web, on your smartphone. Mainstream news operations are missing — as are the notions of context, oversight and gatekeeping.
It’s informative, captivating even, but for news consumers it’s a tricky one. Without Anderson Cooper telling us what to make of it, we have to bring our own conclusions to these self-generated images.
It’s both savvy and natural to a generation who grew up on new media and knows how to use blogging platforms like WordPress or Tumblr.
Make no mistake — the occupiers know that they’re being captured through cameras of varying sophistication. Because, in a sense, that’s why they’re occupying.
These days, you can simply take a train, bus or taxi to Fulton Street for your 15 minutes of fame. No need to sing for a table of judges, or spend months on a deserted island (or in a posh house with seven strangers). No, just a willingness for a possible pepper spraying, or if you really want to get on camera, a billy-club beating. Millions will see you, if not entirely understand you. But it’s popular right now, and that’s what matters.
Occupying has become a job for the jobless. Better than spending the day crawling Craigslist classifieds, better than checking Facebook in the usual corner of the usual coffee shop — occupying is the chance for otherwise unaffiliated post-grads to connect with something. Anything. To claim allegiance and membership and “occupation” to a cause with no clear purpose. It’s not the purpose that matters right now. That will come later.
The mostly Generation Y occupiers want multimillion-dollar companies to be less greedy. This much is clear. They want a fair chance at jobs — good jobs — the kind with benefits and 401ks and paid vacations. The kind of job, salary and perks that only a large corporation can provide.
And, yes, they do want mainstream media — the multimillion-dollar kind — to give them adequate coverage. But they want the “real” story shown, the mace-in-face, excessive violence and violated Bill of Rights story. Not the story of a leaderless movement with no clear agenda or expectations brewing behind the scenes. They want the on-demand, 30-second clip and 140-character version of daily events, the version in which debate has no sphere to exist. A front-page photo or NBC nightly news segment would be nice, sure. But a viral YouTube video with like-minded comments is considered just as valuable.
Minor celebrities and traditional activists like Michael Moore, Cornel West, Susan Sarandon and indie-rocker Jeff Mangum have validated the movement with appearances. Radiohead was rumored to play a free concert, but that turned out to be a hoax. Bummer. Occupiers couldn’t afford to get to the band’s sold-out shows at the Roseland Ballroom in Hell’s Kitchen last week because tickets were going for more than $500 online. Too much greed there, too.
In comparison to the uprising in Egypt last February, or the London riots this past summer, Occupy Wall Street is more about the spectacle than the message. It seems nearly every occupier has a device in hand to record his or her surroundings — even if those surroundings are just a bunch of people chanting “The whole world is watching!”
And while Egyptians had the singular goal of overthrowing Hosni Mubarak, the occupiers face intangible adversaries in the form of “greed” and “corruption.” There are no clear milestones that occupiers are chasing, no benchmarks of success before proper funding or representation may come into play. The website occupywallst.org showcases a calendar of daily events that runs well into 2012.
Just as the “peace” symbol became as ubiquitous with ’70s fashion as it had been with ’60s radicalism, the “99%” logo will inevitably start popping up on the rear fenders of Subaru Outbacks and bike messenger bags. The phrase “One percent of the population has more wealth than the rest of the 99 percent combined” is one you hear time and again in college classrooms. Rightfully so, it’s become the unofficial mantra of the occupiers — the ones who are fresh out of school and saddled with student loans because big companies won’t hire them.
Is this youth in revolt, or merely youth in tantrum? Is it the organic formation of a real, authentic movement? Or is occupying just an opportunity to formally act out a popular Twitter hash tag of recent weeks?
And will kids still opt to sleep on the street in protest once the weather turns and the days get shorter?