Anarchists are some of the most interesting people out there—we wreak havoc in the streets, we innovate new social phenomena like Occupy and Twitter, and we participate in some downright bizarre subcultures. So, it should be no surprise that anarchists, and our projects, continually make the news.
But just as often as we get in the news, the news gets us wrong. Our stories get told with boring old narratives, personalities are emphasized over collectivity or spirit, and some of the sensationalism just gets weird, like how local police departments constantly threaten that anarchists are planning on bringing “supersoaker” water guns full of urine to mass mobilizations, even though that has never actually happened.
Part of Agency is to study how anarchist movements get covered by the news so that we can make better informed choices for how to relate or not relate to the media. Some of the common narratives we have already noticed are:
1) Your local, quaint anarchists!
Most often found in the lifestyle section of newspapers or in independent urban weeklies, this meme usually goes something like this: “Anarchists are scary right? Well think again, these anarchists could be living in your neighborhood, and they’re not cooking up Molotov cocktails, they’re cooking food for the homeless!”
A story from the Toledo City Paper last year, “Atypical anarchist,” is a typical story in this genre. The story covers one anarchist’s involvement in a guerrilla gardening project, a radical community center, and a little bit about his personal history and political development. A less typical version of this story comes from the Boston Phoenix in 2012. “Anarchistic and self-trained, are street medics the future of first aid?” covers 40 years of street medic history, plus some interviews with contemporary, anarchist street medics during the occupy period.
One reason this genre comes up so often in free weeklies is that anarchists often have friends or share subcultural circles with the journalists who work for independent, free weeklies. The current popularity of this genre affords anarchists an opportunity: if you can get an upcoming event listed in the story too, it can be direct stepping stone from getting people curious about anarchism to getting them involved in an event, space, or project.
2) “These anarchists are dumb, but not the dangerous terrorists the FBI says they are.”
This kind of narrative is found in magazines like Rolling Stone, Elle, and Vice that do in-depth stories on sensationalized terror cases. Like your “local, quaint anarchists,” these stories focus on personalities and personal histories. Politically, these stories toe a liberal line, and focus on some sensational aspects of anarchist subcultures, while at the same time describing those in the terror cases as victims of a paranoid or extreme government reaction.
A classic in this genre is Elle Magazine’s 2008 story on Eric McDavid. The story includes plenty of information that calls into question Eric McDavid’s “terrorist” credentials: the jurors’ unease with their decision and proceedings of the case; some rhetoric about how the Earth Liberation Front is being compared to Al Qaeda by the FBI despite having never killed anybody; and other details about how the FBI informant’s behavior could constitute entrapment. At the same time, the author continuously labels McDavid and his codefendants as “dillydallying” and “extremists,” making constant reference to their marijuana use.
Rolling Stone ran a similar story about the Cleveland 4 after the 2012 May Day sting, going so far as to describe their case as entrapment. But the story also painted them as incompetent kids unable to hold a job or place to live, drunkenly coming up with plans for destruction.
A 2010 article in Vice, “Vive Le Tarnac Nine!” used this same kind of story about the French communards allegedly behind The Coming Insurrection. It gives plenty of voice to opinions about how ridiculous the terrorism charges against the Tarnac Nine are, but ultimately paints their idealism as futile. The second to last paragraph of the article concludes, “A romanticized, simple life of agrarian communism seemed extraordinarily depressing.”
A common thread in all of these “dumb, but not terrorists” stories is the emphasis on drug and alcohol consumption. Most recently, this narrative popped up in an article about the NATO 3 case in Chicago, titled “Were NATO 3 terrorists or drunken ‘goofs’?”
While being depicted as a drunken goof may seem favorable against the alternative of being deemed a terrorist, these characterizations are ultimately not doing much to prevent anarchists from being sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Eric McDavid was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the Cleveland 4 are doing 8-12 years each, and the NATO 3 were sentenced to 5-8 years each.
Whereas “your local, quaint anarchist” stories are a current opportunity for anarchists in the media, the “dumb, but not terrorists” narrative presents an opportunity for improvement. How can we point out the obvious entrapment nature of these cases while upholding the dignity of the political ideals that the defendants hold? How do we respond when our comrades are characterized as incapable of thinking intelligently, as if that has to do with their radicalism in the first place? How can we change supposedly “favorable” media coverage from using a narrative of victimisation to a more politicized one?
3) Outside Agitators
This narrative can be found in local corporate newspapers and television, usually right before or right after a demonstration with some kind of militant or anarchist nature. Unlike the first 2 genres, this one rarely focuses on personalities or anarchist political arguments, and never on the personal histories of anarchists. Instead, these stories function to dehumanize anarchists and pave the way for repression against a certain segment of the protest. This one used to be “violent anarchists are coming to town,” but as convergence style protests happen less often it has shifted to “outside agitators, who don’t care about the protest, took advantage of it to wreak havoc!”
In the last few years we have seen this narrative especially deployed when there are militant protests against police murders. This San Francisco Chronicle article about the Oscar Grant riots in 2010 pits anarchist agitators against “community leaders,” describing the former as a “determined knot of renegades.” Last year when a 17-year-old Latino man, Jesus Huerta, died in custody of the Durham, NC police, the police chief blamed the smashing of police headquarters windows during a protest on “agitators in the crowd.” Just a couple of months ago CNN tried to use this narrative during the riots in Ferguson, MO after the police murder of unarmed Mike Brown.
In most cases, the police feed this narrative to the press. Unchallenged, the media will print almost anything the police say. After all, the news relies on police for plenty of other information related to their reporting. Luckily, at the end of the day the media likes a good story, and if you can come up with a line of thought that calls into question the police’ demonizations and conduct, you can start a snowball of media scrutiny that will hinder just how much the police can get away with. Here are a few quick things you can do as soon as the news echoes police claims that “anarchists from out of town” caused all the trouble or are about to bring supersoakers full of urine to a protest:
- Hold a counter press conference and send out press releases rebuking the police’ claims. Anything that makes apparent the falsehood or inconsistency in the police’ claims helps. It is also important to demonstrate that anarchist or not, those on the wrong side of a police line are stronger together than if we focus on “bad elements in the crowd” or other bugaboos.
- Take it to their front door. When police officers hold a press conference to spread lies and distrust, crash the press conference and challenge them to their faces.
- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the organizing leading up to a protest or convergence, do yourself a favor and develop a media policy and outreach strategy. Get in touch with other groups and establish agreements of solidarity, non-denunciation in the media, and solidarity against state repression. The St. Paul Principles from the anarchist RNC Welcoming Committee of 2008 is a great example of this kind of solidarity.
As anarchists, we’re not interested in proposing a unified strategy for our movements to engage with these kinds of depictions of anarchists in the media. As stated above, Agency exists for the purpose of reflecting more purposefully on how the media covers anarchists and what we can do about it.