Media Associate Peaceful Protests With Terrorism – short

By David Swanson, Media Coordinator, International Labor Communications Association
Part of the Media Blackout series on underreported labor stories

In the nearly five years since the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, at which union members and other peaceful protesters were manhandled by police, the U.S. media have established a pattern of underreporting the militarization of police at protests, of portraying police actions as reactions to threats from violent protesters, and of focusing reporting heavily on any citizen violence, however small.

Following the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami last November, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney wrote in a letter to Florida Governor Jeb Bush: “The AFL-CIO trained hundreds of union volunteers to serve as peacekeepers for our rally and march on November 20, and provided the resources to meet all of the security needs of the venues for our events. Despite these good faith efforts, union members and other peaceful protestors were met with obstruction, intimidation, harassment, and violence at the hands of police in Miami.”

With police gearing up for protests in New York during the Republican National Convention – including a march and rally on August 29 and an early Labor Day rally on September 1 – there is reason to fear that abuses similar to those in Miami will occur and that the media will again fail to do their job. In fact, while the trade meetings in Miami were preceded by extensive media coverage of the possibility of violence, reporting on the Republican Convention, still two weeks away, has already set a new standard by closely associating public protests in New York with terrorism.

An August 5 article from UPI reads: “Senior Republicans are getting very nervous about their upcoming national convention in New York: Even if Islamic terrorists can be prevented from carrying out some outrage to embarrass or disrupt it, it faces huge threats both from without and within. The threats from without can be summed up in two words: popular protests.” An August 7 story in the New York Times describes in three successive sentences fear of being “injured by crowds,” fear of terrorist acts, and fear of violent protests – all reasons to flee the city during the convention. The Daily News on August 1 wrote: “Even with no terror threat, the GOP will attract more attention from activists than the Democrats.” NBC News on August 10 aired this comment from reporter Tom Costello: “The NYPD is determined to prevent a terrorist attack, or a repeat of the protest that rocked Seattle during the World Trade Organization’s meeting five years ago. Already police have a long list of planned protests and, they say, plenty of extra jail space.” The Boston Globe on August 9 warned of “gridlock, security checks, and the threat of a terror attack,” and quoted a New Yorker thus: “All the controversy around the president I believe just brings the chance for another attack. I just think it’s going to be crazy here with all the protest, and I’m getting concerned about terrorism.”

In the above sampling of quotes, “popular protests,” the sign of a healthy democracy, are labeled a “huge threat,” in the same category as terrorism. Crowds, terrorism, and violent protests are listed in one breath as reasons to be afraid, and the New York Police Department is assigned the duty of preventing international terrorist attacks as well as the duty of preventing what happened in Seattle. (Although police were responsible for much of the violence in Seattle and almost all of the violence in later attempts to “prevent another Seattle,” media reports on the duty of the police to prevent another Seattle refer to increased militarism, not increased restraint.) We also have “plenty of extra jail space” listed as a solution to the terrorism/protests problem, although no one has envisioned attacks by large numbers of terrorists. And we even have “controversy around the president” cited as a possible cause of a terrorist attack. The message seems to be: stifle the controversy or the terrorists win.

On August 12, to its credit, the New York Times printed a column by Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate, that sought to distinguish protest from terrorism and concluded: “If we don’t recognize the distinction between passionate political speech and terrorism now, it may be too late to protest later.” And on August 16, the Times ran an article on the FBI’s advance interrogating of likely protesters.

We need to demand that such reporting be vastly expanded upon between now and the nomination of George W. Bush.

David Swanson is Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association

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