This is not just a question for admen, media execs, the entertainment industry, artists, politicians, activists, or bloggers — it’s a question for everyone, and it always has been. It’s only that now, with the unprecedented proliferation of unprecedentedly powerful communications technology, the ‘methods’ for gaining a useful level and kind of attention have changed, and remain obscure.
Which has been dramatically demonstrated by the two big national events of the past few weeks: Jena 6, starring 6 black teens at the center of America’s Racial Divide, and Don’t Tase Me Bro, starring a state college student and linking together a more diffuse set of issues, like Police Brutality, Public Dissent, Politics and The University, and Public Apathy. Communicable through the soundbite, omnipresent (for 15 minutes) in all major media outlets, in instant ‘dialogue’ with the canned history of controversial topics that every pundit has tucked away in a folder on their desktop, superficially they appear the same as any other media-managed water-cooler event: everywhere one second and the next delegated to the ticker.
But there are differences, mostly coming from their shared mode of dissemination and popularization — unofficial Internet sources. The eventual hyper-exposure was the result of activism and reporting without heroes and without a central unifying agency to bring them out of the gate pre-spun. The role of the MSM, though still key in both cases, was to amplify, not stage-manage. Rather than (initially) being presented in the familiar language of TV news, an amalgam of Hollywood trailers and advertising (if one can really say the two are different enough to be blended), both events were and are married to the Internet, and thus to a manner of presentation that hasn’t fully been mapped out yet.
Speed, perhaps surprisingly, was not a given. Jena 6 it took almost a year to reach evental proportions, while its counterpart took hours. Via chabert, this post at AfroSpear, dated May ’07, has a good list of links one can use to piece together the process by which the initial incident reached increasing levels of attention. From that post, this one from a local blog put up the previous month has an especially good rundown of the case’s development before it ‘blew up.’ And via lenin, here is an account of the Sept. 20th protests, attended by tens of thousands of people from hundreds of different activist groups.
The time lag of course has nothing to do with blogs, and everything to do with race and class: the difference between a Southern small town high school and a college political forum starring John Kerry is that the first America prefers to ignore by not looking at it, and the second America prefers to ignore by expecting their kids will look at it for them. The first is a hotbed of horrific, old-fashioned racism (‘whaaaat? in 2007? I believe is the appropriate response), the second is a decoration. But simply because the site of a speech by a prominent Democratic politician is not only closer to the mediated public and thus closer to the cameras (the tasing was recorded from four different angles), but the incident — the act of disruption and overcompensation for it by law enforcement — was itself more media-friendly (a nice middle-class college liberal getting assaulted by the police for exercising his right to free speech), its catchphrase ready made, than the more ambiguous story of a beating whose excessive punishment and suspected cause lie much too close to the kind of open racism, supposed to be long ago overcome, that has so recently been brought to the surface by Katrina and the Duke lacrosse fiasco.
In other words, one was readily accessible to the MSM (even to the point of being intentionally pitched to such an audience) and one was not. Aside from the obvious facts that video gets more attention than print, and a population of media-savvy videographers is more sensitive to exposure than one that is not, an attempt to aggressively ask a celebrity politician questions about uncomfortable subjects is more legibly a political act to MSM reporters than a retaliatory six-on-one assault with racial ‘overtones.’ College is more political than high school. And as we know, what is political and not political to MSM producers affects what is political to its biggest consumers — those closest in race, class, and ‘bias.’ It becomes easier to split up into separate talking points and is less susceptible to domination by a single divisive issue like race, where there are just whites and blacks, racists and non-racists. Even if such a consumer believes that Andrew Meyer ‘irresponsibly’ provoked a police response for ‘publicity reasons,’ the visible facts of the cops ‘playing along’ by tasing him, and the crowd ‘playing along’ by doing nothing, makes the incident hard to write off. And even if one adopts the standard apolitical conservative view that everything’s fine because the cops were just doing their job, given the recent precedent and the running catalog of similar actions (YouTube archive here, via Gerry), that job increasingly appears, and as one that just might need some reappraisal.
So Jena 6 demanded much more activism to get attention, depressing perhaps but not exactly a surprise. It did however have some real success, not only in drawing cameras, but in connecting itself to other struggles and forging links between activists, bloggers, and blacks and anti-racists in general. In this at least the divisive racialization of the event worked in its favor; all it needed from the MSM was its attention; the strengthening of a black political consciousness and black activism did not require the agreement of its audience and so did not depend on managing spin. The inevitable copycats and follow-up threats from racist groups only cements their ties and spreads awareness that this problem is far from local. This is from the DemocracyNow! interview that was one of the important early signals:
MARCUS JONES: One of the best lessons that my son could learn that’s one of the best lessons: to know what it is to be black now. You know, if this don’t teach him what it is to be black now, I don’t know what will. But he’s seventeen now. You know, he’s got a lot of life left ahead of him. And the day he set foot out of jail, I’m going to tell him, I’m going to tell him again, “You know what it is to be black now. Here it is.”
Once the word was out, the response was quick and overwhelming. Why this situation generated such a response and other, similar ones did not seems to have been because of the groundwork that had already been done before big media ‘discovered’ it. Despite serious challenges, such as the fact that Mychal Bell is still being held and the rest of the court battle will likely require sustained effort (petition and donate here) to ensure any semblance of justice — that and money, which cameras alone are not yet able to produce — the ongoing story of Jena 6 is helpful in showing to what extent grassroots/’netroots’ politics can operate in a more or less parasitic relation to the mainstream without the dependence that phrase implies, by intensifying the already existing antagonisms between a people and its institutions.
Don’t Tase Me Bro had similar effects, though due to the way its target audience is (dis)organized — multicultural, aggressively depoliticized, middle-class American college students and their parents — these were much more restricted. Agitation is ongoing for a change in policy for campus police, but this is a nationwide problem and really should be dealt with as such. A side effect (known in the jargon as ‘mission creep’) of unregulated and widespread Taser use is increasing the capacity of police to exert violence on disobedient citizens under the pretext of reducing it, by separating pain from injury — a kind of ‘no harm no foul’ approach. As no less than Amnesty International has noted, this is not only a bad ethical argument but often false to begin with. This is a concern that needs to be addressed now, considering that pain technology for military and law enforcement is accelerating — they’re targeting crowds now with a device capable of inflicting “limitless, unbearable pain.”
Our two events certainly connect on this point, if nowhere else. If any government gets carte blanche to use these weapons whenever they see fit, current worries about whether or not a mass protest matters if there are no cameras to record it will seem quite beside the point. What I see as the determining difference between ‘netroots’ (though I suspect this term for its liberal bias) and mainstream mediated politics is that the former can be effective as a shortcut to generating action and group political consciousness, while the latter is better at generating ‘debate,’ by making ongoing political struggles appear in terms of alienated ‘events.’ Following the logic of show business, it is often unpredictable what situations will ‘blow up.’ It is also possible for them to ‘blow up’ too fast. This level of attention can certainly be useful, even essential, but what would be the consequences of a political environment that consists only of hyped-up, singular events, only as debate? What is free speech without the capacity to organize? Such a question already demonstrates the importance of the protest, of the movement, and of the potential in severing its dependence on the institutions of the spectacle.