The Media's Dirty War on Occupy

— Jacob Greene

ON SEPTEMBER 17, 2011 nearly one thousand people marched through the streets of New York City and set up camp in Zuccotti Park as a way of protesting the inequitable distribution of income in the American “free market” economy. In media portrayals of a protest movement widely criticized for its broad message and vague demands, one picture of the Occupy movement remained consistent across various outlets: the protestors are filthy.

In researching news media coverage of the Occupy movement, I noticed that many reports were redolent with discussions of the protestors’ waste, including everything from their trash and camping debris to their actual urine and feces.

Particularly interesting in this respect was how portrayals of the protestors’ waste were presented in different media outlets, and what these differences in representation can tell us about perceptions not just of the Occupy movement but of waste in general. When the protestors intentionally voiced their disdain for unbridled capitalism they unintentionally, but necessarily, also called attention to the waste that such a system produces.

In his book Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman discusses how modern society “designs” (or represents) waste in an attempt to keep it “silenced” (or repressed) so as not to draw attention to the massive amount of waste that comes as a result of a productivity-driven, consumer culture. As seen in each of the following video segments from CNN, Comedy Central and Fox News, the fundamental desire to repress and ignore waste play a large role in the media’s representations of the Occupy movement.

Peter King’s Waste Fixation

Consider for example this eerily one-sided interview on Anderson Cooper360, which originally aired on November 17th, 2011:

On first watch of this video, one is struck by the antagonism and brevity that evinces itself in Representative Peter King’s opinion of the Occupy movement. In response to Cooper’s first question — “You have been quoted as saying that the Occupy protestors are basically anti-American in tone. Do you stand by that?” — Representative King discusses his opinions about the illegitimacy of the movement as a political body but seems unable to communicate his argument against the protestors outside a discussion of their waste.

At the end of a stream of general and derisive comments about the protestors and the ideology of the movement, King says “the entire tone of the demonstrations at Zuccotti Park…living in their own feces and urine.” And then again, skirting Anderson Cooper’s question which is delivered in reaction to the representative’s derisive comments, King reverts to a discussion about the protestors living in their own filth and even attempts to dismiss the Occupy movement in comparison to what he presumably regards as “clean” protestors, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

There is a certain irony in the way that Rep. King lauds Martin Luther King Jr. as a more appropriate protesting figure, given that MLK was assassinated while supporting the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, which resulted in over 10,000 tons of garbage amassing over a three-day span. Similarly, King’s mention of Gandhi does not take into account the fact that India still lacks an adequate sanitation and clean water system, two things that Gandhi sought to rectify in his campaigns.

Finally, Rep. King also fails to take into account the massive cleanup efforts of the Zuccotti Park encampment that had occurred only a month prior to this interview. In mid-October, the Occupy Wall Street protestors spent almost two days cleaning up the park to prevent their eviction, even going so far as planting new flowers and renting a garbage truck in order to haul the debris away themselves.

In Wasted Lives, Zygmunt Bauman details how waste can sometimes create in its subjects a paradoxical sense of awe and fear. He writes “Waste is sublime: a unique blend of attraction and repulsion arousing an equally unique mixture of awe and fear.” (Bauman, 22) In light of Bauman’s analysis of waste in modern society, it seems that Peter King’s inability to effectively articulate his disdain for the Occupy movement may be due to a sense of “awe and fear” of waste itself.

Culminating in the kind of response that Bauman simply defines as “sublime,” King is left nearly speechless in his discussion of the Occupy movement which, for him, seems to have become defined by its association with human and material waste.

The two other people in this video (Anderson Cooper and Occupy supporter Van Jones whom Cooper interviews afterwards) do not seem to be struck with a similar sense of “awe and fear” brought about by the protestors’ waste. On the contrary, they seem articulate and capable of forming cogent thoughts and opinions about the protesters outside a discussion of their waste and the unsanitary conditions of the park.

Further insight into this disparity may once again come from Bauman and his idea of “human waste,” which here refers to actual humans and not just the waste that they produce. In Wasted Lives, Bauman creates a link between the repression of physical waste and the repression of “wasted humans” or, the “redundant” humans, resulting from an increasingly productivity and efficiency-driven modern society.

The protestors in the Occupy movement are often times characterized by the media as a manifestation of public angst spurred by a weak job market, or, unemployed people expressing their frustration at a weak, inequitable economy. This stigma of “the unemployed” creates what Bauman refers to here as the system’s treatment of “excessive and redundant” human, or “human waste.” (Bauman, 66)

While Peter King, then, is certainly disgusted in a more primal or “awe”-struck sense by physical human excrement, the link that he is creating between “feces/urine” and the protestors may be influenced in some degree by his relegation of the protestors themselves to waste.

They are assigned as waste due to their joblessness or “redundancy,” and their unfortunate position as “an inescapable side effect of order building” brought about by an “orderly” free market economy that is forced to reject them in its weakened state.

The Daily Show and Fox

Still considering this idea of humans as waste, it will be interesting to examine how this segment of the Daily Show might augment representations of the Occupy movement’s waste:

In this segment, originally aired October 6, 2011 on Comedy Central, cast member Samantha Bee interviews various business owners around the Zuccotti park encampment. The owners explain that their antagonistic reaction to the presence of the Occupy protestors is due to the filthy conditions of their bathrooms and, as evidenced by one owner’s comment, that “they [the protestors] buy nothing.”

In this Daily Show segment the waste of the protestors is unwanted and hazardous not because of where it is being placed (after all it is being put into bathrooms), but because of the people who are placing it there. What this reveals about perceptions of waste in our society is that a person’s right to produce waste, even in a context where it is appropriate such as a bathroom, is contingent upon a certain amount of consumption. In other words, one has to purchase their right to be a producer of waste; waste can only be covered up, ignored, or “silenced” by the production of more waste.

Finally, a discussion of the waste of the Occupy movement would not be complete without a segment from Fox News:

This video from “The Five,” aired December 1, 2011, showcases the multitude of ways in which waste is repressed in modern society. In his introduction to the waste of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment, the show host Greg Gutfeld immediately creates an association between the Occupy protestors and waste in his joke about the Los Angeles Sanitation Department hauling away “thirty tons of debris, and that’s not including the protestors.”

Then, in a very revealing portion of the show, Gutfeld goes on to discuss the enormity of thirty tons of trash, and the continuously skyrocketing amount of tax dollars that are being spent trying to dispose of it, by using several confusing mathematical formulas to convey to his audience the impossibility of attempting to conceive of this much trash.

A Society of Silent Waste

Inherent in Gutfeld’s rant is Bauman’s idea of waste as a “shameful secret of all production,” as can be seen in how Gutfeld derides the protestors for producing “thirty tons of trash” but never mentions how our entire society is just as complicit in waste production and spends much more tax money dealing with the waste of modern consumerism than it ever could cleaning up after the Occupy protestors.

It seems that Gutfeld’s real problem is not that the Occupy protesters produced trash, but that they produced trash that speaks. This makes Gutfeld’s next joke all the more revealing of how our societal conception of waste is to a large extent contingent upon our proximity to it: He says, “Which is why you would never poop in your driveway but a protestor would.”

By leaving all their waste (or “poop”) in the “clean, trash-free” world of the city (or “driveway”) as opposed to disposing of it where it belongs, in landfills, waste is no longer “silenced out of existence” but rather given a megaphone from which all can hear. If the Occupy protestors are giving a voice to the enormity of waste production in society, it would then seem that this segment is an attempt to silence it.

Looking at how this silencing of waste is at work within this segment, it appears that the main method is through denial that the rest of society are themselves producers of waste. In the first few minutes of the video, the commentators flow back and forth with awestruck discussions about “thirty tons of waste” as if it is an entity that has never before been encountered. Then, in an exchange which exemplifies societal ignorance of waste production, one of the commentators mentions how the cleanup crews at the Los Angeles encampment had to wear HAZMAT suits, to which Gutfeld concurs “well, it’s hazardous material.”

By placing emphasis on the anomaly and “hazardousness” of waste coming out of the Occupy movement, Fox News is able to silence a discussion of what Bauman refers to as the “inescapable side effect of order building” or, in other words, the waste of modern production.

Also interesting in regard to this idea of “silencing” waste is the humor in this segment. One of the commentators in particular is barely able to constrain himself and can be heard giggling off camera at the word “poop” and cracking jokes in between the comments of the others. Working in tandem with this denial of waste production, humor allows for a similar rejection in the way it portrays waste or “poop” as something not to be considered seriously.

This can be seen in the way that all the humor in the segment is directed at the abstract idea of “poop” (society’s waste), while the serious conversation is reserved for the waste that is no longer abstracted but rather “hazardously” close (the protestors’ waste). Waste is apparently much funnier when it’s in a landfill than when it’s in the park across the street.

Ultimately, it’s not that modern society denies the existence of waste — consider recent marketing trends towards “green” products — but rather that it rejects, and represses, the consequences of unmitigated production. Bauman argues in Wasted Lives that objects (and humans) do not become waste through any type of intrinsic quality but are rather “assigned to waste by humans” for various political, social, and economic purposes. (22)

Even as they exhibit their frustrations at an economic system that allows one percent of the population to control a majority of the wealth — and to produce massive waste — the Occupy protesters, in the eyes of the consumer-fueled media, relinquish their rights as producers or “silencers” of waste and subsequently become vulnerable to that media’s revulsion and ridicule.

Works Cited

AFSCME Local 1733, “Timeline of Events Surrounding the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike,” in HERB by ASHP, Item #1287, Accessed March 29, 2012.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted Lives. Malden, MA. Polity Press, 2004.

Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya. “Gandhi’s Views on Environment: Sanitation and Hygiene.” Accessed March 29th, 2012.

July/August 2012, ATC 159)

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