Category Archives: Activism

The Occupy Movement’s Mobilization Dilemma


If a fight breaks out, watch the crowd…Private conflicts are taken into the public arena precisely because someone wants to make certain that the power ratio among the private interests shall not prevail.

— E.E. Schattschneider

In The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider makes two key points about contentious politics: first, that the salience of an issue or problem has less to do with its objective properties than with a political process; and second, that individuals who stand on the sidelines of conflicts—the bystanders—play an important role, through their action or inaction, in determining its shape and outcomes.

Schattschneider’s insights about the importance of conflict expansion are valuable and help inform our understanding about the characteristics and mobilization dilemmas of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., as well as Canada where it has expanded to numerous cities. Not only can bystanders who become engaged in political conflicts increase or reduce the likelihood of ameliorative action; supporters and participants can also become disengaged if they aren’t sufficiently motivated.

This mobilization dilemma is, at its root, a problem of communication and is one the Occupy movement now faces both as it matures and develops a sense of its own identity, but also as it begins to fade from news headlines, as media coverage focuses more on themes of inconvenience and violence and less on the protest issues itself, and as the reality of an approaching winter challenges the protesters’ resilience. Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, which set the Occupy movement into motion, puts it this way: “The original magic of some of those general assemblies is wearing a little thin in some — though not all — places. And winter is coming. People are wondering whether they want to hang around for three hours talking about protocol.” If the Occupy protesters intend to make inroads toward achieving a restructuring of political and economic life, it will need to confront this mobilization dilemma head on. This is particularly important in Canada where the levels of movement participation is lower overall.

Structural Strain and the “Problem Load” of Social Issues

There are many reasons people become involved in social movements. A traditional view sees social movements as arising as an adaptive response to problems of political, economic or moral order: the material conditions in a society may become so problematic and dysfunctional that people feel compelled to organize and commit energy, time, emotions, money, and other resources to voicing their discontent and demanding that something be done.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reports that since the late 1970s the income share of Canada’s wealthiest 1% has doubled, while the share of income for the bottom 80% of Canadian families with children is smaller today than a generation ago. Consumer debt continues to rise in Canada placing individual and family security at risk; and levels of child poverty (particularly among Aboriginal children) remains intolerably high. For the Occupy movement, these and related material indicators are evidence of a deeply rooted problem of structural inequality, caused, in their view, by a general adherence across all levels of government to an ideology and policy framework associated with neo-liberalism.

Andrew Coyne, CBC commentator and national editor of Maclean’s magazine, takes issue with these claims. He notes how the collapse of the housing market in the U.S., which left millions with homes worth less than their mortgages, the actions of a morally questionable financial sector, high rates of unemployment and poverty, and declining or stagnant levels of social mobility and income growth, simply don’t reflect the Canadian experience. In contrast, Coyne argues, Canadians have not witnessed an “epidemic of mortgage failures,” unemployment has been falling, not rising, and official measures of poverty show signs of encouragement. He accuses Canada’s Occupy movement of engaging in a “phony class war” that, in his words, has more to do with “envy” than structural strain.

Are the material conditions sufficient in themselves to motivate or sustain collective action? For Canadians, the answer depends in part on whether you believe the CCPA or Coyne’s argument. But I want to argue here that this may be the wrong question to ask. Starting with Schattschneider, a whole tradition of research in political communication has shown that the “objective problem load” of any given issue (global warming, homelessness, the risk of infectious disease, poverty, illiteracy, etc.) is insufficient in itself for explaining why some problems achieve widespread recognition when others do not, or why governments respond to some issues but ignore others. What matters, this research argues, is the existence of a plausible definition of a problem, the development of a clear and distinctive policy image, and the ability to mobilize support for an agenda of change.

Framing and Mobilization

To be successful, social movements have to package or frame their grievances in ways that resonate with the values, identities and ideological interests of all kinds of bystanders: individuals, groups with shared concerns, journalists, academics and other observers. What sociologists call “framing contests” are essentially battles between competing interests over how to establish and anchor meaning about complex or uncertain problems or events—often, framing battles occur between social movements and their opponents in the corporate sector. The case of the global anti-sweatshop movement and its campaign against Nike is a good example. But framing battles also occur between activist groups who occupy competing positions within a social movement. Robert Benford’s study of the nuclear disarmament movement illustrates how movements can experience schismatic ideological struggles over the identification of a problem and the promotion of best solutions.

In either case, the objective in framing contests is to ensure that your group’s definition of the situation not only prevails in terms of influencing how others talk; it’s to also ensure that your frame prevails to the extent that others will begin to organize their activities and/or carry out their activities and work in ways that are congruent with that frame (this is a double-process Martaan Hajer refers to as discourse structuration and discourse institutionalization).

Social scientists normally talk about framing in relation to how media cover issues and events, how activists attempt to influence the media, policy and public agendas, and of the interactions between them. Journalists frame our understanding of social and political life by emphasizing the importance of certain events, of privileging the voices of some sources and downplaying the perspectives of others, and of spotlighting certain causes and consequences for why something has become worthy of attention. Social activists attempt to influence media coverage, and thus public opinion, by framing the problem in ways that establish clear definitions about what’s wrong, who’s to blame and what should be done. There’s no guarantee, of course, that media or activist frames will ever determine how readers, listeners or viewers comprehend or understand the issue.

The Occupy Movement’s Mobilization Dilemma

Through a commitment to deliberative discourse, the Occupy movement has established the importance of dialogue and consensus-based decision-making. It is not an established movement with clear roots or a clear identity; rather, it emerged more spontaneously out of a shared sense of grievance and frustration about the undue and dangerous influence of corporate interests over politics and policymaking. The movement is best described as emergent—every day it assumes a new form and expresses new grievances and claims. The general refusal of movement participants to identify (or identify with) clear leaders or even express focused demands is refreshing when considered against the highly professionalized and packaged presence of many contemporary activist groups.

Furthermore, this unclear sense of what the movement is and what it wants to see done has been a source of frustration for establishment media, which operates according to a set of normative practices in which stories contain clear beginnings, middles and ends, and where movement objectives and goals are often attached to charismatic figures. A U.S. activist quoted in the New York Times explains how “demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond.” The Occupy movement’s commitment to a slow and intentionally deliberative process of decision-making in each of its local contexts is designed to expand movement participation by bringing disparate interests and groups into the fold. This form of movement activism speaks not just to the diffused interests and priorities of its multiple participants but also to the ways in which they are stitched together (increasingly) by fragmented and decentralized social networks.

The Occupy movement’s commitment to deliberation and general unwillingness or inability to express a core set of demands has consequences, however. The movement may have an asymmetrical and ambivalent relationship with establishment media, but it’s a relationship it must continue to nurture because the volume and tone of news attention remains fundamental to perceptions of movement success. We may have moved into a new period of media-movement relations in which social platforms like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook provide new opportunities for advocates and activists to build and maintain communities of support and to bypass the traditional media filter. But activists ignore the establishment media, with its broader reach and impact not only on traditional policymaking, but also on the very substance of social media chatter, at their peril.

As the Occupy movement develops, activists will face the challenge of refreshing their grievances and messages: not only to show that they remain relevant and worthy of continuing media attention, but that they can also attract new participants and sustain membership and commitment over the long term. Commitment fatigue is a problem all movements face—in the case of the Occupy movement, this fatigue may settle in when supporters fail to see evidence of potential or actual progress, and either drop out of the movement altogether or move on to other issues and campaigns. This will be a true test of its resilience in a society that is so thoroughly saturated by competing issues and problems, dilemmas and distractions.

The State of Public Opinion: What Next for the Occupy Movement?

In the U.S., a convincing majority of Americans are angry and resentful toward Wall Street. A TIME/Abt SRBI poll of “likely voters” conducted on October 9 and 10 showed:

  • 54% of respondents have a positive view of the protest movement, well above the 23% who view the Occupy movement negatively
  • 80% of respondents agree that wealth disparity in the U.S. is too large while 68% agree that the rich should pay more taxes
  • 56% of all respondents predict the Occupy movement will have little impact on public policy

This should be a sign of good news for the movement. There’s lots of public anger about the central “problem” established by the movement (corporate greed, structural inequality, etc.) and a majority of respondents view the movement favourably.

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted on October 14-16 shows similar levels of public outrage and condemnation with Wall Street.

  • 80% of respondents agree that bankers are greedy
  • 77% say bankers are overpaid
  • Roughly 60% agree they’re dishonest

Yet, despite these high levels of distrust, support for the Occupy movement appears to be waning, or at the very least levelling off. Where 54% of TIME poll respondents held favourable views of the movement, only 32% of respondents to the CNN poll a week later said the same. And negative views were 6 points higher, from 23% to 29%. Although these are different polls conducted by different organizations, the significant change in favourability figures offer a snapshot of possible shifts in public opinion.

There have not been similar polls conducted in Canada to identify the existence of any trends. However, a just released Abacus survey (conducted between October 19 and 21) offers valuable insight into the current state of Canadian public opinion its implications for the Occupy movement here.

The data are rich and I draw attention to just a few national highlights:

  • 81% agree that “large corporations and the rich have too much influence on public policy and government in Canada” and the same number agree that the “gap between the rich and poor in Canada has grown too large”
  • 64% agree with the statement that Canadian financial institutions have been reckless and greedy, compared to only 14% who disagree
  • 41% of respondents hold a positive view of the Occupy protests, while 22% view the movement negatively

Perhaps the most significant, if disheartening, finding:

  • Despite strong support for the Occupy movement’s raison d’être, 60% believe the movement will have no impact on Canadian politics, while only 18% believe it will spur positive political change

The Abacus data do not tell us why so many Canadians (like Americans) express support for the  Occupy protests yet conclude they are unlikely to produce meaningful results. Some critics will argue that media mistreatment of the Occupy movement may be to blame, citing patterns of misrepresentation and the maligning of movement goals. They point to high profile examples where establishment media have mocked or otherwise dismissed the arguments and objectives of the movement as the reasons for why more people might not be getting involved, or why respondents are likely to dismiss the movement’s efficacy (meanwhile, in the U.S., in a campaign to delegitimize the protests, conservative critics are taking aim at establishment journalists—questioning their objectivity and branding them “professional cheerleaders). Others will conclude that this general sense of ambivalence about the potential of the movement to achieve success reflects a wider-held sense of political apathy and malaise.

The [Occupy] movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences.

George Lakoff

Regardless of the cause, these numbers should be a source of concern for the Occupy movement and its supporters. If there is to be a more fair distribution of wealth and opportunity, and meaningful efforts by governments everywhere to tackle structural inequality (in its multiple forms), this is going to require tangible changes to public policy. Yet, such changes do not happen on their own, on the basis of hopeful thinking, in light of claims to a superior moral vision, or simply because problems are real and can be measured objectively. Such change will require a commitment to translating widely shared grievances that something is fundamentally wrong into concrete demands and practical solutions that can be framed in ways that appeal not only to a committed core of movement adherents (who need to remain energized and motivated), but to policymakers who are in a position to act, and, crucially, to those individuals and groups who may yet become mobilized into action.

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Filed under Activism, Occupy Canada, Occupy Wall Street, Politics, Public Relations, Social Movements

YouTube’s Nonprofit Program now Available in Canada

February 22, 2010 may go down as a game-changing date for media savvy nonprofits in Canada. Today the popular video-sharing platform YouTube announced that its Nonprofit Program is now available to organizations operating north of the 49th parallel.

This is really huge news. YouTube is the industry leader in online video, and the premier destination for watching and sharing videos with family, friends, and co-workers. In 2005, its first year of operation, YouTube had approximately 2.8 million viewers; a year later it had 72 million viewers. Today, there are a more than 100 million viewers around the world. There are other very good video sharing platforms (Vimeo, DailyMotion, etc.), but none of them match YouTube’s reach.

What is the value of YouTube for Nonprofits?

Nonprofit organizations work very hard to get people to join their emails lists, to attend events, to volunteer their time, to sign petitions, and to become donors. Video can be a great way of engaging people, but organizations need to think carefully about the plan and purpose of their video, and then develop a distribution strategy from there. I have seen so many compelling videos by nonprofit organizations that go nowhere – and it’s not because the videos are no good; it’s just that the strategy is either wrong or non-existent.

In 2007 YouTube launched its Nonprofit Program to assist charities and other voluntary organizations with outreach and fundraising. The international development NGO Charity:Water reports that it raised $10,000 in the first day of its campaign. That’s a remarkable achievement.

The major benefits of participating in the YouTube Nonprofit Program include:

1. A “Donate Now” button allows organizations to solicit donations directly from its YouTube video link

2. Enhanced uploading capacity

3. An ability to network with media professionals who may be able to help your organization through the YouTube Video Volunteers Program

4. The ability to overlay your video with a call-to-action and other annotations that will drive traffic to your website and help amplify your broader advocacy, fundraising and capacity building activities

See3 Communications is a Chicago-based communication consultancy that specializes in the nonprofit sector. It is recognized as one of the world’s top video strategy agencies for nonprofits and NGOs, with an impressive client list, including Amnesty International, The Center for American Progress, The Sierra Club and the American Cancer Society. Its CEO, Michael Hoffman, is a passionate and engaged advocate of video in service of social change. Listen to him explain the real value of this program for nonprofit organizations.

Until today the YouTube Nonprofit Program was available only to organizations in the U.S. and Britain. Kudos to Google Inc. and the folks at YouTube, particularly those involved in its Nonprofit Program, for expanding the benefits to the nonprofit sector in Canada.

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A Nation of Shopkeepers?

With the climate talks now monopolized by senior political officials, and NGOs essentially excluded from the process of consultation, we decided to hit the streets of Copenhagen to gauge the reactions of ordinary Danes to the do or die event happening in their midst. But on a bitterly cold and damp winter day, the prospect of staying outside for more than a few minutes was simply too unappealing. The result? Talk to people working in the various stores lining the main route from our flat to the central train station about their thoughts on climate change, COP15 and the violent reactions of police to recent protests, particularly yesterday’s melee at the Bella Centre where the official meetings are taking place.

Reactions were mixed on some of these items but less so on others. And some of the responses came to us as a surprise, while others were probably expected. It is certainly the case that the climate change conference “is all anyone is talking about right now,” said a manager of a women’s clothing shop, a women in her mid-50s.”It’s entirely unavoidable,” said another, the owner of a local groceria, “unless you choose to shut off the TV.”

The biggest point of agreement was that although the police’s rough tactics have been discomforting, they have been mostly justified in using heavy force. Video footage from various protests and police raids of activists over the course of the last two weeks leave little doubt about the willingness or ability of the Danish police to use strong-arm tactics against (mainly youthful) activists. Check out the clips from my previous post, and here are two new ones:

Source: EUX TV

Source: CYDCopenhagen

If the local retail sector is anything to go by, the heavy-handed police tactics seem to be accepted as both inevitable and unavoidable, particularly against those who are seen as “trouble-making outsiders,” as one merchant put it. As for the conference, those we spoke to saw it chiefly as an inconvenience at best, and disruptive at worst. Business has been bad because of the global recession, but at this time of year there should at least be a faint hope of an uptick in sales as people warmed to the season of gift giving.

“Why not hold it in January, after the Christmas season when we hope to do significant business,” said the owner of a local flower shop, a man in his late-30s.

“My customers are scared and not spending any money. This conference has been a nightmare for my sales,” exclaimed another.

“All I care about is paying for my electricity, paying my staff their salary, and providing for my kids. I have no time to think of anything else,” stated a third.

And the issue of climate change itself? Danes have an international reputation for being easy-going, compassionate, tolerant, and (most environmentally telling of all) bicycle loving. Even in sub zero temperatures with a generous coating of snow on the ground, Copenhagen is full of cyclists riding to work, to shop, and to school.

If nothing else, this should be a nation of people keenly interested in climate change and its mitigation. Although the issue did spark some interest, for the most part the general view from the petite bourgeois class is that people have enough on their hands worrying about getting by and making a living on a daily basis. “Honestly, I don’t give it very much thought,” said the clerk of a high end furniture store, a man in his late-20s. “Of course, it’s important to be worried about the climate, but we have other problems.”

As for concern about the impacts of climate change on the developing world (a dominant theme of the talks)? It barely registered on the radar. For us this was both surprising and disquieting, but it was a consistent thread in the discussions nevertheless.

When Napoleon Bonaparte dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers, he meant to suggest that because they were fixated on short term financial gain, they would not offer much resistance when push came to shove. But as he learned to his regret, shopkeepers can be highly resistant.

Although we are careful to avoid generalizing from these discussions to the broader population, there’s a potential lesson to be learned for the climate change movement and their supporters in the political class: it is important to continue making the case that climate change is fundamentally a moral and social justice issue that has far-reaching and dangerous consequences, particularly for vulnerable people in the developing world. However, it is also crucial to pay attention to the concerns, economic or otherwise, of ordinary citizens in those countries that will bear the lion’s share of the financial cost of fixing a problem that they may well only be partially responsible for creating. The longer climate change is treated as an either/or issue, the longer it will take to mobilize the domestic support in those countries that have the power and ability to make a difference.

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Welcome to the new Denmark

Frustrated by our lack of access to the formal meetings at Bella Center we took to the streets this morning as participant observers at the Reclaim Power! protest. This was a demonstration organized by Climate Justice Action, a Danish umbrella group that has been responsible for many of the spontaneous acts of civil disobedience during the past week.

According to the activists, the demonstration was designed to draw attention to what many here are describing as the “systematic exclusion” of civil society groups from the discussions. We’ve met with numerous people who have expressed  frustration over what they call an “unjust and undemocratic UN process.” They feel  passionately that developed countries, working in consort with the UN and under corporate pressure, have intentionally sidelined discussion of their top issues and denied them an opportunity to be heard.

The march began downtown early in the morning and gathered momentum over the course of a few hours. By the time we linked up with the protesters around 10:30AM they were an estimated 4,000 strong and were making their way to the Bella Center. The stated objective, very well publicized in advance, was to “reclaim the climate talks” from those with no interest in meaningful action but whose only motivation was the protection of corporate and political power.

The mood was forceful but peaceful. There was a massive media turnout and the police appeared to be cooperating.

This all changed very quickly.

By the time the demonstration reached its destination, a suburban corridor approximately 1 kilometre from the Bella Center, protest leaders began directing the crowd to push against the police line and to join their “brothers and sisters” at the main event.

Don’t be afraid, we are strong in our numbers, demand your voices be heard!

The whole world is watching, demand justice now!

And our personal favourite:

You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit!

Equipped with billy clubs, helmets, pepper spray, and tear gas, police responded with brute force. After surrounding the protesters they declared the demonstration “illegal.” Next, they informed the crowd they would be moved forcefully if they did not leave on their own. As the police vans advanced, the protesters linked arms. Skirmishes ensued, pepper spray was shot indiscriminately, organizers were targeted and captured. Within minutes the demonstration had been transformed from a peaceful march into a violent and ugly mess.

We were fortunate enough to evade the worst of the melee. Observing from approximately 50 metres behind the police line, we struck up conversation with a very friendly local Dane who had also come to observe the demonstration. He was clearly distraught by what he had been watching.

“Welcome to the new Denmark,” he said.

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Blame Canada

Today was my second day of research and it met with mostly the same outcome as Day 1. My collaborator and I decided to split duty — I went off to the Bella Center with the hope that an early departure would mean admission to the mainstage, and he went in search of grassroots excitement, joining our research assistant at Klimaforum for some activist action. Apparently about 3,000 other hopeful delegates and observers had precisely the same plan as me — after 2.5 hours in the cold, I pulled the chute early and joined the others across town.

The big buzz among the people whom I spoke to in line was the public relations bashing that Canada has been suffering during the past few days. Our home and native land has not had a good week.

1. First, there was the daring Greenpeace banner stunt on parliament, and then reports today about a noisy protest at the Canadian Embassy in London, where environmental activists removed the Canadian flag and soaked it in oil to express their displeasure with the government’s promotion of the Alberta oil sands.

2. Canada also found itself on the butt end of a very clever and brilliantly conceived hoax yesterday by the Yes Men, those merry pranksters from the U.S. who have made a big name for themselves by impersonating high profile corporate executives and government officials. I’ve blogged about the Yes Men in the past. The only thing that could have made this most recent situation even worse was over-reaction and hyperbole from the PMO. Here’s a link to last night’s piece on The National:

3. Canada has been a high achiever in the Climate Action Network’s “Fossil of the Day” awards, a daily ceremony that celebrates the “climate failures” of the worst behaving nations. And we’ve been running neck and neck with Australia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran. Don’t want to jinx our chances, but it’s looking good for a strong overall placement. Maybe this will take some of the pressure off of our Olympians.

4. Also yesterday came news about a leaked Cabinet document that provides compelling evidence about a government scheme to abandon some of the greenhouse gas reduction goals set out in its own 2007 green plan and allowing weaker targets, specifically for the oil and gas sector. The document reportedly states that the oil barons of Alberta would “appreciate” the government’s softer approach to emissions regulation.

5. Guardian columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot has had Canada in his cross-hairs for weeks. Whether it’s in his writing or in public commentary (live and on television), Monbiot has not held back his criticism of the Harper government and the oil sands project. In a recent column he described Canada as an “urgent threat to world peace” and a “thuggish petrol-state” that was placing global survival in peril. In a talk I heard him give today at Klimaforum, Monbiot urged Canadians in the audience to “go do the only responsible thing–get yourselves to Alberta and occupy the oil sands machinery.” Not surprisingly, this generated a roar of applause.

In isolation, these problems likely wouldn’t amount to very much. The Copenhagen conference is full of environmentally naughty nations and there are countless NGOs and activist groups working hard to bring their ecological transgressions to light. Yet combined these events (or more appropriately the actions and agendas they spotlight) invest activist criticism with empirical credibility. And let there be no mistake: the focus of these stunts and announcements is not our government and its delegation, but the media and, in particular, Canadians back at home.

In the end this may prove to be a bigger PR problem for the Canadian government than they may be willing to admit. I say this for a couple of reasons:

First, they illustrate that our government not only possesses an embarrassing record for dealing with GHG emissions. It also possesses an embarrassing capacity for dealing with criticism. Aside from the obvious intelligence and security gaps they reveal, these events show a government that appears wholly inadequate at the art of public diplomacy. Instead of providing a carefully considered response to what are evidently principled criticisms, they’ve taken the bully’s path by calling into question the patriotism of their own citizens. I suspect most Canadians will find the strategy distasteful and unnecessarily defensive. Loyalty is a cherished Canadian value; but so is honest and impassioned dissent.

Second, they reveal what is likely a concerted effort on the part of international activists and NGOs to focus on Canada as a country that may be vulnerable to domestic pressure if enough outside political pressure can be applied. It’s the blitzkrieg model: hit them hard, hit them fast and hit them often.

In the short term, I expect this isn’t going to amount to very much because the last thing any government will do is fold its hand in the face of such pressure. A well-oiled machine (yes, pun intended) such as the Conservative government is almost guaranteed to become even more entrenched while making very minor concessions (although whatever it chooses to do will almost certainly depend on the U.S. strategy). Yet, not even this government will be able to dismiss the impact these events are having on its image at home and abroad.

Tomorrow is a big day: Reclaim Power! Push for Climate Justice! is a morning long demonstration that is expected to turn out protesters in the thousands. There are rumours of a major police presence and it’s expected there will be a virtual lockdown of the public transit system to disrupt population flow. This could get very interesting, very quickly. We also have a few more interviews to do and some others to schedule for later in the week.

Dispatch #3 tomorrow.

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Freezer Burn

My collaborator and I arrived to our rental flat in Copenhagen late last night after 14 hours of red eye transit. It was exhausting – little to no sleep, runway delays, lousy food and the in-flight drama of a fainter (the poor fellow turned out just fine after a little rest and some water). I also happened to run late for a dinner meeting with a Carleton colleague who generously offered to spend his last night in Denmark briefing me on his observations from week #1. Fortunately my very trusty research assistant was already here and able to keep him in good company until I arrived.

The plan for today was to get ourselves grounded and focused: pick up our access badges, meet up with some of our NGO contacts, arrange meetings for later in the week, get a feel for the ‘scene’ and context.

You know what they say about the best laid plans…

In a classic paper on the practical challenges of qualitative research, Clint Sanders described the fears and anxieties that ethnographers feel when they set out to conduct fieldwork. Sanders conceptualizes the process of experiencing fieldwork discomfort using the metaphor of “rope burns”.

Inspired by Sanders’ article the theme for the day’s frigid fieldwork is “freezer burn.”

The locus of all the major political activity at COP15 is the Bella Centre, a 122,000 m2 conference and convention space that is hosting the high profile diplomatic talks. The website boasts the capacity to hold up to 20,000 participants — unofficial reports from today suggest that as many as 40,000 delegates and observers had been through the Centre by 4pm local time.

Unfortunately I was not among them.

My collaborator and I arrived to the Bella Centre around 11am where the local temperature hovered slightly above zero degrees celsius. I expected we would wait one, two, maybe even three hours before getting inside. As a veteran of sleep-outs for Grateful Dead concert tickets, this  did not seem like a very big deal. The lineup snaked approximately 800 metres and contained an estimated 1,500 people from all parts of the world: Australia, Canada, the U.S., Britain, Israel, Brazil and Mexico, to name just a few. We were researchers, scientists, NGOs and  citizens without any institutional affiliation.

After 2 hours we progressed about 200 metres; another hour and another 200 metres. By 4:30pm local time we were within 10 metres of the entrance threshold but now part of a massive swarm of people all huddling together to stay warm.  It was then that we finally received word that there would be no more delegate passes handed out today. A collective groan and then off we went in search of warmth and some food.

While this experience left me feeling numb from both the cold and frustration the day wasn’t a total bust. Thanks to intermittent WiFi access, I was able to periodically check my Twitter feed and had the good fortune of sharing news about how Canada’s Environment Minister got Punk’d (very clever stunt, indeed) the protest by African delegates inside the meetings, and other side-shows. Of particular interest was a team of anthropologists from the University of Copenhagen who were interviewing people in line about their use of mobile media. Apparently they had been hired by the technology firm that designed this website to see whether people were using it and how.

We also made some very useful research connections. We spent a great deal of time talking with Julia Olmstead, a senior associate with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. ITAP is a Minnesota-based NGO that is doing some great work on agriculture and climate change policy in the U.S., and Julia is a graduate of the highly esteemed J-School at the U-C Berkeley where she had the good fortune of working closely with Michael Pollan, author of the critically acclaimed books Food Rules, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. We had a stimulating conversation about the strategic dilemmas involved in establishing and maintaining campaign partnerships and the importance of evidence-based research for sound public policy.

The focus of my trip is to examine activist and NGO communication strategies, so I was particularly interested in the demonstrations taking place. One demonstration caught and sustained my attention. It was led by a small contingent of youth climate justice activists and took place approximately 10 metres from where the photo above was taken.

I was especially fascinated by the ‘production work’ of the camera crew, whom I assumed to be members of the organization. After a very quick chat, I learned that they were not in fact activists but Australian journalists who had come to Copenhagen to shoot a documentary. The audio is a little low so what you are unable to hear is the coaching by the journalists, advising the activists to “walk slowly” and “chant with more passion.” The segment runs 1:48 minutes long — it was the third take.

(Ed. note: you’ll have accept your humble blogger’s apologies for the shaky camera work — I was freezing by this point — and for the inverted viewing, apparently caused by something wonky with the Daily Motion upload — I’ll try to correct tomorrow).

We are hopeful for a more fruitful second day of research. An NGO contact has reportedly secured a badge for Bella Centre access, although it’s unclear whether I’ll have to stand in line again to pick it up. All the political galacticos start arriving tomorrow and security will only get tighter, and the lineups longer.

We also have other options. There is the parallel event at Klimaforum, ground control for most of the international NGOs that has already hosted talks by Naomi Klein and Elizabeth May, and will tomorrow feature George Monbiot. And there is Fresh Air Centre, where the world’s “top bloggers” spend their nights filing the day’s stories. Wednesday we are attending a full-day of direct action called Reclaim Power! Push for Climate Justice!

There is lots for us to see and plenty to do – stay tuned for more news, pics and properly uploaded video. And please share your comments and feedback!

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The Yes Men Strike Again!

There is a tendency among scholars interested in media and social activism to focus on how social movements make instrumental use of mass media to enhance organization profile, to change public policy, to foster a sense of collective identity, or a combination of some or all of these things. Yet, before today’s media savvy activists were holding news conferences, the most accessible and fundamental mode of radical expression was public speech, and oftentimes ironic and satirical speech.  

Few activists are as effective in blending the spirit and practice of satire and radical rhetoric as the Yes Men, a group of pranksters who have successfully impersonated and thus “corrected” the identities of the rich and powerful. Posing as ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council (NPC) representatives, Yes Men activists delivered an outrageous keynote speech to 300 oil barons at GO-EXPO, Canada’s largest oil conference, held at Stampede Park in Calgary, in June 2007. In November 2004, taking on the persona of a Dow Chemical executive, Yes Men pranksters conducted a live video interview with BBC News announcing that at long last the company was admitting its negligence in the 1984 Bhopal disaster that immediately claimed the lives of 3,000 people and contributed to the deaths of at least 15,000 more.

After a year of quiet, the Yes Men have struck again, and this time at the heart of the American media machine. New Yorkers awoke this morning to news that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq war had ended, that the U.S. government had established national public health care and education, abolished corporate lobbying and placed a cap on CEO salaries. The Yes Men arranged to have 1.6 million fake copies of The New York Times printed and delivered to several key locations across the Big Apple, where volunteers recruited through the prankster’s website were on hand to distribute the news.

The Yes Men’s pranks are a prime example of culture jamming, a form of radical speech which involves efforts to disrupt existing transmissions of information. Using a combination of hoax and banditry, the Yes Men endeavour to trip up, jam or block what they see as the overwhelming power structures that govern and control what we think and how we feel. In contrast to other media activists who wish to deny and denounce with a view of negating the cultural influence of mainstream media, pranksters like the Yes Men prefer to play with and subvert the hegemonic power of conventional thought. As Christine Harold puts it in her excellent paper on culture jamming, pranking is more about the “artful proliferation of messages, a rhetorical process of intervention and invention, which challenges the ability of corporate discourses to make meaning in predictable ways.”

While culture jamming is often celebrated as a postmodern phenomenon rooted in the Situationist Movement of the late 1960s, there is something quite medieval about the Yes Men’s use of irreverent laughter. In his notoriously grotesque novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in the 16th century, Francois Rabelais reproduced and valorized the speech of the village marketplace, a language quite remote from the purities of the literary intelligentsia, clergy and courts of the time. With mockery and humour, Rabelais celebrated those moments when the solemnities of religion and authority were ritually inverted by the common folk. Writing about Rabelais and his world, Mikhail Bakhtin said of laughter that it “clarified man’s consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life. This truth was ephemeral; it was followed by the fears and oppressions of everyday life, but from these brief moments another unofficial truth emerged, truth about the world.” 

 


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Filed under Activism, Everyday Life, Popular Culture