July 25, 2000
Early coverage of the upcoming protests at the Republican and Democratic
national conventions has followed a familiar pattern: Mainstream media are
stoking fears about the potential for violence in Philadelphia and Los
Angeles by rewriting the actual history of police brutality at last year's
anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. In its place, media are developing a
mythology of dangerous protesters who, for unspecified reasons, violently
"It is widely agreed that the Seattle police got out-foxed by better
organized protestors trying to shut down the World Trade Organization
meeting last year," reported NBC's Fred Francis in a story about the
conventions (Nightly News, 7/14/00). Francis went on to describe activists
who attended the "violent" Seattle demonstrations as a "battle-tested" force
"better trained than the LAPD for street violence."
Widely agreed? Francis must have either missed or discounted the American
Civil Liberties Union's recent report on the Seattle protests.
"Demonstrators [in Seattle] were overwhelmingly peaceful," wrote the ACLU.
"Not so the police."
According to the ACLU's 87-page report, "Out of Control: Seattle's Flawed
Response to Protests Against the World Trade Organization," the City of
Seattle's response to the WTO protests was characterized by "unwarranted
restrictions and outright assaults on citizens and on their basic American
rights." The "draconian" violations of civil liberties committed by Seattle
police and officials included widespread use of "chemical weapons, rubber
bullets and clubs against peaceful protesters and bystanders alike";
numerous "individual acts of [police] brutality"; the suppression of free
speech rights; hundreds of improper arrests; and intimidation and "brutal"
abuse of arrestees. (See
NBC, ABC and CBS all ignored the release of the ACLU report, as did CNN. The
Seattle Times is the only major American newspaper to have covered the
ACLU's findings (7/5/00).
Yet the media haven't forgotten Seattle-- mainstream reports on the upcoming
convention protests consistently refer to them as follow-ups to Seattle, and
frequently ask whether authorities in Philadelphia and Los Angeles will be
able to avoid a similar scenario. But which scenario?
One ABC World News Tonight report (7/23/00) asked what lessons Philadelphia
police have learned from Seattle, and how they will be applied to the
convention. According to reporter Jim Sciutto, Philadelphia police observers
in Seattle saw protesters "at times playing to the television cameras" by
feigning injury. Sciutto's report features, without rebuttal, a Philadelphia
police lieutenant claiming that at the sight of a camera, activists are
trained to "fall down and start screaming and yelling whether you hit them
or not." ABC's report made no mention of any substantive allegations of
police brutality in Seattle.
When riots erupted in Los Angeles on June 19 after the Lakers won the NBA
Finals, several news outlets discussed the random acts of vandalism as
though they were comparable to the protests planned for the Democratic
convention. "Los Angeles officials hope that the convention crowd will
exercise more self-restraint than the Lakers crowd," reported the NBC
Nightly News (6/20/00). The CBS Evening News (6/20/00) made the same
comparison, reporting that officials promised "much less access for
potential troublemakers" at the convention than there had been at the Lakers
game. CBS voiced skepticism however, adding, "but that's what they said in
Seattle.... And some of those [protest] groups have already announced
they're coming here."
What emerges from this coverage is an image of activists as a paramilitary
mob preparing to take to the streets to frustrate and discredit the police.
This distorted view has been helped along by the three major networks'
failure to discuss in any depth protesters' critiques of the conventions.
CBS mentioned that Los Angeles anarchists would protest in order to "shine
the spotlight on economic injustice" (7/10/00); NBC (7/20/00) noted that the
protesters' message is "simply that the political parties have been taken
over by big money interests." Neither network featured any further
examination of the activists' political positions.
Demonizing activists and ignoring police brutality may imbue police
departments with a sense that they can operate with impunity-- or at least
without fear of serious scrutiny from the press. This media whitewashing may
heighten the risk that citizens assembling to speak out at the conventions
will face police violence.
ACTION: Please contact the media and urge them to provide more balanced
coverage of the protests at the Republican and Democratic conventions than
they did of last year's protests in Seattle. Acknowledging the ACLU's
findings about the growing problem of anti-protest police brutality would be
one way to improve coverage. Taking activists' politics seriously would be
For more information on the protests planned for the Republican Convention
(7/31/00-8/4/00), visit http://r2kphilly.org/ . For info on actions at the
Democratic Convention (8/14-17/00), visit http://www.d2kla.org/ .
NBC Nightly News
Phone: 212-664-4971 or 202-885-4259
ABC World News Tonight
Phone: (212) 456-4040
Fax: (212) 456-4297
CBS Evening News
Phone: (212) 975-3691, (202) 457-4385
Fax: (212) 975-1893
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