It’s that TIME of the year again—ha!—when TIME magazine announces the Person of the Year, a tradition generally meant to remind us which depressing white men in suits happen to rule the world. (U.S. presidents tend to receive it when elected. George W. Bush, for instance, won the distinction in both 2000 and 2004.) TIME’s editors made a slightly more whimsical choice this year, following in the pattern of non-election years like 2006 (“You”), 2003 (“The American Soldier”), 1998 (“The Endangered Earth”). While those might seem pretty depressing too, this year’s choice represents something that, for millions of people around the world, is a source of enormous hope. That’s because it is them—though not so much in the narcissistic style of 2006. It’s official, at least according to this particular dinosaur-like, mega-corporate newsmagazine: the 2011 Person of the Year is “The Protester.”
As I first saw this announcement percolating on Twitter, being spread around proudly every which way by Occupy Wall Street-allied accounts, all I could think was: what took you so long? Where were you?
Where, I mean to say, was the American press when Tunisia—or Egypt—first started lighting up, when we at Waging Nonviolence were glued to Al Jazeera and our Twitter feeds, wishing we had the means to be there ourselves? In the American news, the start of those revolutions was hardly a blip—that is, until Anderson Cooper got beaten up in Cairo.
While the Madison, Wisconsin, Capitol was under occupation by thousands upon thousands of protesters, I remember sitting in a dental office waiting room while, for the better part of an hour, CNN reported how and why Charlie Sheen was demanding a multi-million-dollar raise. I couldn’t believe it. Fortunately, at the same time, I was getting constant text-message dispatches from inside the Capitol thanks to Waging Nonviolence correspondent Quince Mountain. Our readers were getting them too.
Finally, in late summer, I remember sending story pitches left and right to editors I work with about how an American Autumn was coming—with almost no response—and making lists here on the site of all the ambitious uprisings that were then in the works. I remember being told by an editor in Washington, D.C., in fact, that practically no protests are worth covering; I then had the pleasure a few days later of sending him a handful of articles from his own publication revealing the effectiveness of the first Tar Sands Action, which my colleagues at Waging Nonviolence had been reporting on for weeks.
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, I remember being woken up in a tent in occupied Liberty Plaza by an NYPD detective, then watching protesters get thrown to the ground, dragged, beaten, and hauled away to a mental hospital; that was the first day it rained, when not even the local TV news trucks could brave the weather to keep an eye on the police. That week, Waging Nonviolence had to remind those at The New York Times not to ridicule their fellow Americans who were taking a courageous stand for justice. When the national news finally started showing up at the plaza the following week, after an unprovoked police attack on protesters, most reporters didn’t even bother to figure out how the protesters got there. They just wanted interviews with “the pepper-spray girls.”
Now, at last, the news industry is starting to get it: real power is people power. This revolutionary year it’s especially obvious, but actually this is true all the time. (Just follow our Experiments with Truth column to see how.) The world needs a new kind of reporting—a kind that we’re trying to help foster on this site, a kind that takes the power of well-organized, ordinary people more seriously than the power of those who just dress like they have power, or sit in offices that say they have power, or buy their power with money swindled from the labor of others, or act like they have a lot of power because they’re wielding a gun. Or a personal army.
As we move into 2012, maybe those of us in the media can make a resolution to ourselves that we’ll try and take the politics of regular people seriously again. To that end, I’m grateful that TIME chose rightly, finally; we so, so much needed the reminder. Good thing it wasn’t an election year.
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Such a pleasure to read your articles Nathan. Thanks
Nathan is right when he says that this Time magazine article shows that the “news industry is starting to get it: real power is people power.” Unfortunately, while the prominence of Time’s “Person of the Year” article may encourage other news outlets to give more coverage to this subject, it’s nevertheless a perfect example of the fact that the mainstream media have only a very superficial understanding of what people power actually is. There are three major problems with this article:
1. The article makes no distinction between protests — only one of hundreds of kinds of nonviolent tactics — and the real engines of “people power,” which are resistance movements and campaigns that plan, strategize and sequence action to diminish the power of oppressive governments or unjust authorities. It doesn’t even notice in the midst of the conflicts it purports to describe the broad activity of such movements and their frequent equivalent, the networks of civil society organizations, which do the organizing and mobilizing. This oversight is fatal to the truth of the article’s account of 2011’s events, because without understanding this central reality, there can be no reliable explanatory narrative.
2. Similarly, by focusing primarily on the outward tableau of mass physical demonstrations, the article fails to notice that public protests don’t “suddenly” happen, as it refers to the protests of 2011. They are usually preceded by long periods of dissidence marked at first by simple forms of dissent, some of which is cultural, as well as by citizens who simply stop supporting or participating in what governments expect or demand that they do — which can develop the courage to engage in further, more overt resistance. In this context, the article’s claim that “protesters were prime makers of history” in 2011 fails to recognize that unless resistance takes many forms and comes from many directions, unless it represents the full diversity of the society it wants to change, until it reduces a regime’s legitimacy and raises its costs of operation, power won’t begin to shift. Shouting in the streets isn’t enough. Even the article’s language, which describes protests mainly in visual and anecdotal terms, fails to convey the social and political dynamism of these events. It celebrates trees but misses the forest.
3. This failure to understand the deeper dynamic of nonviolent struggles shows up glaringly in the article’s horrendous misstatements of history:
(a) It dismisses the nonviolent revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe as consisting of “regime disintegration” because “one big switch” was pulled in Moscow. That would be news to veterans of Solidarity, the nine-year long movement that forced the communist party to accept democratic elections in Poland. It would be news to Vaclev Havel and the millions who participated in the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia — as well as members of the environmental groups that led protests in Romania, and the church leaders and dissidents of Leipzig who started the marches that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany.
(b) The article’s idea that the last 20 years have had no meaningful protests is equally ridiculous. It overlooked the nonviolent demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes that led to Mongolia’s first free elections in 1990, the nonviolent resistance in 1991 in Russia that prevented a hard-line communist coup, the nonviolent democratic revolution in Mali in 1991, the protests against the annulling of municipal elections in Serbia in the late 1990s that led to the nonviolent movement that forced out Milosevic in 2000 — which it also forgot. As for the past decade or so, Time sees only ephemera — the band “Rage Against the Machine” and the “beloved brave rebels” in the movie, “The Matrix,” leaving out the massive resistance struggles in Georgia and Ukraine which brought free democratic elections to those countries.
Even more infuriating is its dismissal of the Green Movement in Iran and the nation-shaking protests in 2009 which effectively destroyed the majority of Iranians’ faith in that country’s elections and rulers. It called those convulsions “one-offs” rather than “prefaces to an epochal turn of history’s wheel,” thereby effectively predicting — on the basis of no thesis — that there won’t be political change in Iran. Would Time have said that about Gandhi’s Salt March, which didn’t immediately produce independence for India? No, because in those years, Time actually followed Gandhi’s movement, as it reported on Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa in the 1980s (both of them were on Time’s cover). But that was when Time actually reported contemporary history instead of engaging in drive-by picture-taking reduced to a flimsy, faulty narrative.
(c) Time also doesn’t have a clue about how protests – in reality, movements – are mobilized. It makes two anecdotal suggestions about what may have spurred mass participation in the Arab Spring. The first is based on talking with a single protester in Tahrir Square who apparently said she had no idea what she was for, only what she didn’t want. From this, Time decided that protesters didn’t need to know what sort of society they envisioned, there only needed to be enough people who hated something about the status quo. Fury at what isn’t working is part of what motivates resistance, but to suggest implicitly that people are not motivated by wanting the right to speak freely, the right to have elections that actually reflect their choices, the right to voice simple grievances about public problems without being arrested and beaten – that suggestion shears from protests their political motivation and reduces them to tantrums.
The second anecdote is about Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who burned himself alive, the act that was the final straw in igniting popular action against Tunisia’s corrupt rulers. His father and sister told Time that he did this for his dignity, after being slapped by a woman police officer. “In Tunisia,” his sister said, “dignity is more important than bread.” So we have at least one substantive idea from Time about what caused the Arab Spring: insistence on dignity. But Time doesn’t attribute the cause of what happened to Bouazizi’s motivation, it suggests that the police officer’s “single act of brutality” triggered the following events. Similarly, it says that Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. was “set in motion” by “a couple of magazine editors” (occupational self-congratulation on Time’s part?).
After having struck out in trying to find the cause of the Arab Spring, Time runs completely off the rails in trying to describe some overall causal pattern behind all the protests of 2011: “For a critical mass of people from Cairo to Madrid to Oakland, prospects of personal success – for the good life at the End of History that they’d been promised – suddenly looked very grim.” In other words, it wasn’t even about dignity, much less rights or justice, it was really about bread – or, in America, perhaps BMW’s and beachfront condos.
I’m glad that Time magazine is taking an interest in protest. I am not glad that this article may become the basis of understanding protest for the tens of thousands who actually read it, because they won’t get from it an accurate account of the recent history of civil resistance and they will not get a credible account of how resistance arises and is organized.
We might as well face this reality: mainstream commercial media in their present form will never produce a satisfactory account of political change, even when that change takes the form of historic nonviolent movements that such media are forced, finally, to cover. For such accounts, journalism will have to learn from the nonviolent resisters they wish to cover: Only independent writers, videographers and journalists who bring to the front lines some basic knowledge of the phenomenon they want to explain are likely to produce work that will stand the test of time. In the case of people power, that requires understanding the difference between the shouting of slogans and the kind of language that fires the minds of everyone, and between momentary acts of frustration and marshalling political force.
One final comment on Time’s failure of understanding: The cover picture shows a protester wearing a scarf across the face, the kind of scarf that is typically worn that way in protests for only one reason: To remain unidentifiable to police, because the protester intends to throw rocks or do other acts of violence. Moreover, its shape (though not its color) is most reminiscent of the scarves worn by Black Bloc anarchists who disrupted anti-globalization and Occupy protests: http://www.vice.com/read/new-kids-on-the-black-bloc. 2011 wasn’t about violent protest, it was about nonviolent protest – a word altogether missing from Time’s cover story. Not only its words, but even Time’s imagery is badly off the mark.
Outstanding and comprehensive, Jack. And thank you, Waging Nonviolence and Nathan. The good thing about the Time coverage is that most who read Time understand that they are getting the barest beginning of the stories covered and the main bit of good news about it is that Occupy is favored and flattered by Arab Spring parentage. The cover is truly dumb, as the masks always diminish a movement, but that Time covered it is a belated but welcome baby step. Movement persistence and a bit more strategy than we’ve seen in some of the Occupy cases will help Time and the rest get up to speed. Scooped by Waging Nonviolence? What else is new?
I second you, Tom—thank you, Jack. This is an extraordinary response.
In regards to the Time’s cover:
“I took the photo at a protest at the Bank of America building in downtown LA. There was a small group of protesters linking arms and making a human chain around several tents near the front of the building. I made a few wide angle photos, then realized a tight shot was going to be way better. There was only one photo where eye contact was made, and that’s the shot.
The woman in the photo camped out at LA City Hall and was arrested during the LAPD raid and spent time in jail.”
To be honest, I feel the nonviolent community is continually spewing sour grapes about whether nonviolent is covered/not covered/misunderstood by mainstream media. On one hand, we all complain “it’s not covered.” On the other,”it’s not covered accurately.” At what point do we all engage?
We can keep to our different camps — you are evil, we are right — or we can begin to find ways to engage. The fact is that a lot of the information the Time magazine author and other main street journalists got for the facts on movements this year is through social media and citizen journalism. We will never be recognized for that. So what? Are Time magazine readers the audience major movements are trying to reach? Do we want them to start preaching about the difference between “protest” and “organizing? to that audience” It seems to me sometimes that we are all our own worst enemies.
Like nonviolent movements, let’s embrace the small victories and explore how we can perfect and improve them, grow them, expand, and educate on truth, rather than criticize and expect everything at once without embracing flaws and embracing human errors and slow and steady progress. My nonviolent colleagues can learn a lesson or two from Gandhi and King on recognizing slow and steady progress.
We should celebrate this small victory, regroup, and explore how we all can reach out and see how we can become better educators, not critics.
Misinformation is never a victory of any size. The Time magazine article’s mistakes about the history of nonviolence were enormous, but they shouldn’t be pointed out?
I think there’s some truth to what you’re saying, to be sure, Vanessa. We at Waging Nonviolence certainly don’t see our work as having a wholly confrontational stance with respect to the mainstream media. In fact, we make much more of an effort than many independent media to be helpful to the mainstream when possible. That’s why, for instance, I not only wrote on OWS for WNV, but also for The Nation, The New York Times, and Harper’s. In the early days, I spent a lot of time helping reporters from places like CNN and Reuters and PBS make sure they were getting the stories they needed and were talking to the right people. Until the major outlets create their own People Power Desk, we’ll try to play that role for them to the extent we’re able.
Jack has a good point that it may be that big media are functionally incapable of really having an ear to the ground of these movements. They’re too big, too tied up in the powers that be. In that case, it seems that there needs to be more of a landscape of media. I relied, for instance, on the reporting of outlets like the Times and New York magazine to understand better some of the inner workings of the police side of the OWS story. Those institutions have invested time and resources and editorial compromises in order to have that kind of access. People from those same places came to me to help understand the movement.
In the 1960s, “the protester” (especially that which TIME today fawns is “educated” and “middle class,” because, after all, they’re the ones with the expendable cash that the media’s advertisers seek) became a commodified object, fawned over by the commercial media. The news media even convinced a generation of college-educated white Americans that it had somehow ended the Vietnam war (when, in fact, the war was won by the Vietnamese). And now the cycle is starting all over again! Whee! Let’s all jump on the bandwagon.
“Dear Mommy and Daddy: I know you didn’t approve when I pitched a tent on a city square two months ago. But look! I was just named person of the year! Please send more money. Love, your kid.”
The harm to authentic social movements done by this media maneuver by TIME will be paid over and over again, as a new generation grows convinced that it, too, can change history by protesting, only by protesting, only by taking the streets and marching around in circles and getting in scuffles with the cops.
There is nothing to celebrate in this piece of manipulation by TIME. I’ve been a “protester” for 35 years. But it’s only a small percentage of all the work I and other organizers have done to plan and build campaigns, to knock on doors and recruit people who don’t look or talk like us, to train ourselves and others in how to protest (and do all the other tasks effectively) and, ladies and gentlemen of the TIME corporate boardroom: I refuse this “prize.” It’s an insult. I never asked for big media coverage. And I have had to work around the ambitious self-centered counter-productive actions of people who joined protests in search of it all this time. I do not want big media coverage. I never asked for it. I have in fact done plenty to avoid and impede it.
Getting such an award from TIME magazine is like getting an award in civil resistance from Mubarak. Until people come to grips with the fact that this “person of the year” nonsense harms movements deeply and helps foster a new generation of college-educated morons who think protesting, alone, makes history, we’re going to go down in history as the most gullible generations that ever lived.
It would not have been possible for Time magazine to choose a generic “Protester” as its “Person of the Year” had there not been nonviolent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and several other Arab countries. Without the Arab Spring, the rest of the various protests this year would not have compelled such an article. In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, the protests of 2011 were preceded by many years and varying levels of growing dissent, political dissidence, organizing, large campaigns targeted at specific issues such as corruption and judicial independence, and an expansion of civic space driven by these efforts (as indeed in the other Arab countries, unprecedented protests were preceded by somewhat lower levels of organizing and action in civil society). In Egypt, which had the protests that ignited the highest level of global mainstream media coverage, all this organizing and mobilizing was equivalent to a coalitional movement against the Mubarak regime.
Virtually none of this history was mentioned in the Time cover story, which declared that the protests were largely spontaneous. The latter is not really true, except perhaps in Libya. It is neither tiresome nor mere complaining to point out this mistake and others in the article. It’s simply defending the truth of the real history. If those who understand, monitor and teach about nonviolent struggle were unwilling to explain and defend its real history and dynamics, then misleading narratives would go mostly unchallenged and the misconceptions about civil resistance and how it is developed would continue to perpetuate themselves.
In my view, the mainstream media haven’t substantially improved the quality of their coverage of nonviolent struggles over the past ten to fifteen years, and they persist in making egregious mistakes of basic fact-finding. That’s due not only to the shrinkage of their institutional capacity to do substantive reporting over the last 20 years or so. It is also attributable to the fact that until recently, there have not been many alternative outlets of news and information interested in carrying narratives and commentary that are more reliable, as well as reviews and corrections of what isn’t accurate — so that the fuller truth can be put on the public record, which good journalists would be able to notice and harvest.
But now, with web sites like Waging Nonviolence and Global Voices, public commentators like Stephen Zunes and Cynthia Boaz, scholar-bloggers like Mary King and Tom Hastings, and, notably, increased coverage of civil resistance through independent online news services like Narco News and Interpress, there is a widening river of news and analysis that conveys accurate, robust alternative accounts and explanations of nonviolent struggle. Through these channels, and similar platforms in the future, there will be space and occasional opportunities, as now, to call to account the news reports and commentaries that are misleading.
There’s an old saying that “a lie gets half way around the world before the truth is out of bed.” The Time cover story contained no direct lies, but it offered a deficient picture of what powered the Arab Spring and other protests this year. It stipulated the obvious: the protests of 2011 indicate that people have the power to change their societies and governments — but failed to explain how they have done it and are continuing to do it. That task remains to us.