Fred Hampton, Occupy and Us: Media Silence and Media Complicity Then and Now
In the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, the FBI and the Chicago Police Department stormed Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton’s apartment, spraying Hampton’s bedroom with machine gun fire, concluding their visit with a bullet to his head to ensure that he was “good and dead now.”
My purpose in relating this history is to remind those of us in Occupy Wall Street who are now encountering serious police violence that we are by no means the first. Many in OWS are young and unlikely to be familiar with Fred Hampton, or Allison Krause, George Jackson, or James Rector, names (and graves) which are tangible reminders of the war against dissent. These serve to remind us that police violence could get a lot worse and that it probably will as the movement becomes increasingly organized and effective.
The execution of Fred Hampton is worth mentioning for another reason: we might have thought that an extrajudicial execution on U.S. soil would be at least noticed and presumably met with some degree of disapproval from the liberal press of its day. But most media outlets unproblematically accepted the Chicago Police Department version of events that the raid was legally conducted and that the use of force was justified.
It was not until the mid seventies that the grisly facts would become known. Even then, few on the liberal left were interested, being more concerned with the Nixon administration’s involvement in the Watergate scandal than in what were by then regarded as excesses of the sixties. Noam Chomsky would be among the few to bring the matter to the public’s attention in articles which were publishable only in relative obscure outlets-the print equivalent of low traffic left blogs. These were, according to him, “greeted with the usual silence and hysteria” from the liberal agenda setting media of the day.
The lesson we should draw from this is to take as par for the course the media’s response to OWS. For, as should be apparent, its basic outlines constitutes a minor recapitulation of the “silence and hysteria” Prof. Chomsky noted back then. Silence is evident in the almost complete absence of news coverage of OWS sponsored Mayday rally, which brought over 30,000 to the streets for the first domestic celebration of International Workers’ Day in many decades. A more sinister media silence has been the failure to report numerous, well documented instances of seemingly unprovoked police violence directed at non-violent OWS demonstrators with increasingly serious injuries hospitalizations now becoming the routine price which demonstrators are expected to pay for exercising their supposed constitutionally protected rights. As for hysteria, that is the category into which should be consigned the numerous smears of OWS widely circulated by the establishment media, one instance of which I’ll return to below.
The conclusion to draw from both from the Hampton execution and our experience now is that despite the awareness of many outstanding, honest and decent journalists working within it, we are required to the media as an institution with great skepticism at best and as a simple enemy at worst.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we should ignore it as some have suggested, resigning ourselves to developing and ultimately relying entirely on our own internal resources for the dissemination of information relevant to us. Rather, while we are building our own communication networks, we should be actively looking for ways to undermine the establishment media’s credibility and authority taking advantage of whatever opportunities which present themselves for us to do so.
As most reading this know, the smear referred to above occurred last week when the New York Times ran on its front page a story claiming the existence of a DNA link connecting OWS to the 1994 murder of a Julliard student. This was likely concocted by the NYPD, dutifully circulated by the Times and then retracted by them the next day. While the Times’ reporting as fact a brazen and transparent lie might make us angry and defensive, we should cool down long enough to recognize it as an opportunity to go on the offense.
The way to do that is to pressure the Times to issue an apology, the objective of the letter here. While this might seem a modest objective, it is more ambitious than appears at first sight. That’s because the Times, as do all elite institutions hates to apologize doing so only very rarely and grudgingly. Their resistance is based on their recognizing that they must be perceived by their readers as above reproach for them to maintain their journalistic authority and for this to be convertible into into major political influence. Each apology demonstrates, in one instance, they are little better than the vulgar propagandists which they routinely deride, the 21st Century domestic variant of Soviet organs Pravda or Isvestia. Once this perception is becomes widespread and their bias is seen as systemic their effectiveness in their institutional function is seriously degraded.
Insofar as there is a potential for a complete collapse of their credibility exists, they will need to think seriously when the NYPD (or for that matter, the State or Defense Department) requests their service in circulating lies and/or smears which have the potential, if and when they are exposed, of subjecting them to shame and ridicule.
Recent years have shown that they have little compunction about obliging these requests. We need to show them that there are consequences for doing so. The letter is a small but potentially signficant step in beginning to impose on them the appropriate cost.