This week we have witnessed a phenomenal act of social movement-making in an era when many, myself included, have wondered if meaningful change in the U.S. still possible.
Some of that worry is about aging, I’m sure. As you get older and the people around you get older you are inclined to wonder if the kids can ever be as alright as the kids you were.
We overstate our youthful courageousness. Then, because we are wily from age, we defend that overstatement by understating the courage of the youth who displace us. That may be natural. But when a cross-campus coalition of student-athletes and student-citizens at the University of Missouri organized to force the retirement of the college president (and future “transition” of the university system chancellor) they did something remarkable.
These young people took on the growing, well-paid, powerful administrative class in corporate higher education and actually won a concession.
We can debate whether the concessions these students won are material enough for the hard-core Marxists, too symbolic for the crusty pragmatists, or replicable enough for the devout organizers. But we who believe in democracy as verb instead of noun should relish the moment.
We should also defend the moment against the inevitable media contortions.
Almost immediately the Mizzou student actions became a battleground over the first amendment, media and fascism when at a rally some protestors formed a human shield to block a photographer from campus media from recording the protestors.
Granted, my social media feed is heavily weighted towards media folks but you would have thought this moment was Tienneman Square for the media caterwauling. More than a handful of editors, reporters, and mainstream media organizations condemned the Mizzou students as spoiled, anti-democratic, ridiculous, and enemies to their own cause.
David Simon, a writer who was once a journalist, went further.
He told me (and Roxane Gay, a brilliant writer who can speak for herself) over an hours-long diatribe on Twitter that the Mizzou students were fascists in “intent”, the photographer was the real hero of recent events, and that these were the moments on the slippery slope to the decline of American democracy.
He also intimated that I lack intellectual rigor to engage with him about fascism or anything really.
I’ll respect his right to be protected from my undisciplined intellectual inquiry.
I want David Simon to have a safe space.
The rest of you aren’t so lucky.
First, let me put as fine a point on my position as possible.
The press is not a rational objective actor.
The press shapes as much as it documents.
All press benefits as much from social change as it benefits from the status quo. That means the press, especially corporate media, is always serving two masters.
The press has rights but so do persons and sometimes we define those rights by working through the moments when they clash.
This is a heavy moment for those clashes. The moment’s heaviness deserves attention because context matters to intellectual rigor, if not hyperbolic hand-waving.
The Moment For Movement-Making
The Mizzou student-activists are organizing in a moment of public, private and State surveillance unlike any ever before seen in modern history in a wealthy imperialist nation where a huge part of our conspicuous consumption is surveilling ourselves as a status symbol.
They are organizing within the most corporate driven era of higher education in the history of the United States with all that entails for curtailing citizen-building at the expense of making markets and more consumers.
These students were organizing against the major capital interests that can now purchase unprecedented access to politicians in a massive police apparatus that has virtually unchecked privilege to target, surveill, detain and murder in a media culture controlled by many of the same capital interests.
This moment requires a level of sophistication that I doubt even my elder cohort can quite grasp. This is not the 1960s. It isn’t even the 1980s.
Social media allowed Mizzou students to attract the requisite public attention for successful social action. But, media both social and traditional (and increasingly that’s a false distinction but it still means something discursively so roll with it) can bring as much harm as it can good given the political economy in which we all live.
The first amendment protects the press against censure but it does not delimit the democratic action of those the press covers.
All due respect to the man who gave the world Stringer Bell but what we saw at that student rally was democracy in action, not fascism.
Fascism means something more than a thing one does not like.
Fascism means a system of social organization that concentrates power and doesn’t just discourage dissent but organizes the State against it.
I don’t like to literalize metaphors for the most part. I like creative license. I use it from time to time with various degrees of success. Denying writers metaphors is cheap way to become a demagogue.
But sometimes the material reality subsumes creative licence and the moment at Missouri is one such moment.
It’s not just that the moment is important. It’s not just that the students are still very much in danger for doing something important. It is that hand-waving about a fascist state can confuse us about what making democracy looks like.
Democracy Is Messy
Historical narratives about Great Men can be a trap.
These narratives are important but they also have the benefit of hindsight. They can make events seem pre-determined. The actors in them appear uniquely gifted to bring about social change. Resistors always seem weak because we know from the outset that they lose.
These stories, which we love, can lull us into thinking that social change is polite when historically and presently it is anything but. Still, we clamor for polite protests that follow imaginary rulebooks for Democracy 101.
The complaints from well-meaning people around Ferguson were about the same as those around the March on Washington as those around Reconstruction.
Very few people want to be actual fascists or actual racists but they don’t want to be late for work or awakened by sirens either. So, people say in various ways, could protestors stay off of residential streets after 7 PM and during rush hour traffic and also not make the buses in Birmingham late or unprofitable because people rely on those jobs and maybe too if the students at Mizzou could just write a nice letter and be grateful for their scholarships.
Mizzou students may have seen that historical narrative because they resisted its traps. It’s the trap that leads the media to cover those well-meaning people in Ferguson like they covered them in Birmingham like they covered them throughout Reconstruction – as well-meaning harmless folks who just believe in rules.
The Media Is Complicit And Mizzou Students Knew It
The media rarely calls people racists.
Even when people’s fetish for rules over justice makes them complicit in extra-judicial murder of black men, women and children.
Even when these well-meaning harmless folks only want the “rules” of biological superiority of whiteness to prevail in policy-making and bell curves about the scientific inferiority of brown people to justify resource provisions for everything from schools to prisons the media rarely calls this racism.
Sociologist Bonilla-Silva talks about a U.S. culture where there is miraculously racism but no racists. He interviews people, across race and class, and finds that they can talk about aspects of racism but have a multitude of narratives that makes no one complicit really.
And the media – at least the mainstream media – by and large follows suit.
I’ve asked some of those same people on my media-heavy social media before if their outlets have style guides about when they will or will not use “racism” or “racist” in reporting.
The gist seems to be that the media relies on the “objective” rationality of its reporters to make that call. Perhaps in a diverse media industry this would lead to sparkling debates about what constitutes racism when publishing. In that alternate universe one might expect to see “racism” show-up as much as it’s many euphemisms (“racial issues” etc.).
The “No-Racists” Feedback Loop
Of course, media outlets don’t reflect the U.S. population as much as they reflect the demographic make-up of the nation’s power elite.
Just thirteen percent of newsroom employers are “minorities” defined here as broadly as possible to include anyone non-white basically. The figures are smaller when you break that category up by race. The numbers are slightly higher in television news at 22 percent but again that’s for every non-white category.
One way to look at an important axis of power in how news is shaped by the taken-for-granted editorial norms is to consider the diversity among media shot-callers. The Pew Research Center finds that with news directors you approach racial parity in a handful of large media markets but only 13 percent for the rest of the many newsrooms across the country. Again, newspapers are worse than television with just ten percent of those supervisors being a “minority”.
Digital media was supposed to blow this wide open. Greater access might fix that pipeline problem of minority journalism grads not finding that all-important first media job. So far, the National Association of Black Journalists are unimpressed with the reality: digital newsrooms do not seem to be building better pipelines than traditional media.
This only matters, of course, if you think diverse persons is in any way related to diversity of ideas. I’ll concede that’s debatable even as I admit that I think, with some margin of error, it’s the most efficient first step.
As it stands, most media people come from the same socio-economic background. They share a racial identity (white). And, they are often produced by closed of social networks and elite institutions. It is no wonder that they tend to share ideas about when something does or does not earn the label “racism”.
As one reporter told me, they rely on other people – their subjects – to call something racist. Given the research that shows that people also rarely call anything racist, even when acknowledging racism, we end up in a divine feedback loop: people see racism but no racists and media will only report on what people say is racist.
The feedback loop can feel like a noose when you are organizing against the very racism people might agree exists but that no one will name.
How do you describe why someone would draw a swastika in feces on a college wall if we preclude the discussion of racism as an act with actors?
How can you organize around acts of racism to do the work that well-meaning folk don’t do when we can call something fascist but can’t call anything racist?
That’s the media climate the Missouri students were navigating. They chose to do what social movement organizations almost always do: They tried to control their message.
Mizzou student organizers used social media because it allows some of that control, granting access to media organizations on their terms and sometimes denying it altogether.
They did this knowing that sensationalist headlines are used to generate revenue and sometimes the algorithmically driven choices can malign as much as they can report.
They did this knowing that the media may not have a great record with labeling racism as such but it does have a record of using the mugshots of black criminal defendants at higher rates than do those of white criminal defendants.
They did this in a media culture that can be the disinfectant but that has also historically been the infection. Given this, the rhetoric got heated.
But, we saw the video of the student photographer at the Missouri rally. Somehow ideas circulated. They may not have circulated for profit, but they circulated. And the police weren’t marshaled to remove the photographer, as would happen in a fascist state.
As a result of all of this, many of us now know a bit more about the machinery of modern organizing in our culture.
That’s how the democratic sausage is made and this week it was made by a group of young people whose safety, well-being and accomplishments trump creative license and metaphor.