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April 2, 2009, 1:40 pm

Did Costumes and Props Undercut the Seriousness of the G-20 Protests?

Updated | April 5 The following blog post about the tactics of the protesters at the G-20 summit in London last week has been modified in response to some confusion among readers of the original version. The post’s original headline, intended to parody news reports that focused mainly on the outlandish costumes worn by some protesters — “Protesters Fail to Bring Down Global Capitalism With Costumes, Puppets” — led some readers to take it as a serious attack on the protesters, rather than as an Onionesque joke about the media’s reporting on the protesters. The headline was revised to clarify that the author was trying to ask if the tactics of the demonstrators, who used costumes and acts of street theater to attract cameras, might have had the unintended effect of distracting the media from the substance of their objections to the economic policies of the world leaders gathered for the summit. Thanks to readers for their feedback on the first version of the post.

A look through the photographs in the slide show above, all shot during the protests in London against the G-20 summit — showing protesters who carried an effigy of a giant dead canary, and others who dressed like The Joker from “Batman,” a Storm Trooper from “Star Wars,” Jesus in a police helmet, a nightmare version of Mickey Mouse, a horse with a flower in his nose, a gorilla in a bathing suit — raises this question: Is it possible that by going to such great lengths to draw the attention of the world’s photographers and camera crews, these protesters managed to get photographed but also undermined the seriousness of their protest against the world’s current economic system?

Whatever the lasting economic impact of the $1.1 trillion deal among world leaders at the Group of 20 summit, the fact that the world’s news media and a diverse array of anti-globalization protesters converged in England did lead to thousands of new images of outlandishly dressed demonstrators, many of whom would not have seemed out of place at a rave, on news Web sites around the world. But did these images of the protesters — with their costumes and puppets and burning effigies — help or hurt the cause of antiglobalization?

From a distance, trying to make sense of what the protests were all about was difficult, and it seems fair to ask if the protesters made a tactical error by playing so much to the cameras that they failed to use the media to communicate a coherent message. Looking at those images above, most of which moved across the world’s new wires, you get the sense that the protesters seized the word’s attention but communicated little more than if they had decided to stage an Ionesco play in, say, Old English.

Given the well-known propensity for the visual media to be drawn to visual spectacle, it might of course be that some of the protesters were trying to use these costumes and acts of street theater to find their way on to television, and hence get a few minutes, or seconds, to explain their unhappiness with the globalized financial system. But the silliness of many of these displays made it easy for many observers to dismiss the protests entirely. That can’t be a good tactic.

The Guardian in London provided near-saturation coverage of the G-20 summit — including a live blog and text, Twitter and video reports on Wednesday’s protests (during which one man died of what was suspected to have been a heart attack).

The newspaper’s green-technology correspondent, Alok Jha, filed an audio report on Thursday morning in which he tried to get to the bottom of what the protesters were thinking. Mr. Jha’s report included interviews with two protesters — one dressed as the grim reaper, and another who helped carry a huge puppet of a dead canary through the streets — and he asked them what their acts of street theater were all about.

A man named Harry explained that he was dressed as Death to represent “the death of the economy” and “the death of the English pound.” He was also concerned with the micro-economic problem that he was in danger of losing the deposit he’d left on the grim reaper costume he’d rented, since the police had confiscated the mask that went with it, arguing that people with covered faces were trouble.

One of the people carrying the canary (see the slide show above) said that he had brought the huge bird effigy to the demonstration “to symbolize the death of Canary Wharf,” a former dockyard area that was redeveloped to become a center of London’s financial industry, and also the death of “the current financial system.”

After giving an articulate analysis of the problems with the current global economic system, the canary-bearer told Mr. Jha that the demonstrators were all gathered “in the service of finding a new system that puts people before profit.” While he had thus succeeded in getting his message out by way of The Guardian — and perhaps validated the strategy of using an outlandish visual as catnip for the media — he then acknowledged that the rest of his day would consist largely of carrying the bird around, getting it photographed, and then storing it away until another economic summit meeting later this year.

The singer and political activist Billy Bragg — who made an appearance at the protest outside the Bank of England yesterday, as he tweeted he would — once sang that just pinning on peace buttons was not going to get the job done. As Mr. Bragg noted, “wearing badges is not enough” to effect political change. After this latest round of anti-globalization protests, it seems fair to ask if marches that draw attention mainly to men bearing symbolic canaries, or dressed like pink storm troopers, are really helping to advance the cause of those who want to fundamentally change the world’s economic system.

What do readers think, is the media to blame for focusing so much on what is most visually arresting, or are the protesters at fault for spending too much energy attracting attention and not enough articulating practical steps that might actually change the system?

Update | April 3 | 11:33 a.m. A friend who is a photographer in London writes in to share some observations on shooting the protests, and has something very interesting to say about the violence that broke out on Wednesday night.

Since he needs to maintain a good working relationship with the police, he asked not to be named, but I’d like to share some of what he, and another photographer he was with for part of Wednesday observed while working.

He writes that it appeared to at least these two photographers that most of the much-photographed violence on Wednesday evening was caused by people who looked like “agent provocateurs,” who “were going from police line to police line baiting the police — and they were the ones who instigated the push against police lines that kicked off the evening violence.” This photographer adds that “There was another guy baiting the police and whipping up the crowd to rush the police, he got a hundred or so protesters to follow him and then sneaked off as they reached police lines.” He also writes that the second photographer, who is a reliable reporter, “saw a bunch of protesters trying to stop a guy in black throwing bottles at the police, the protesters had an argument him and then accused him of being a policeman, whereupon he ran to the police cordon, showed some I.D. and was let through!”

Finally, my friend says: “I should point out that the only reason that we were able to spot these guys so easily was because the protest at that point was so peaceful, they really stuck out, so we followed them from one police line to another as they tried to start trouble.”


From 1 to 25 of 141 Comments

1 2 3 ... 6
  1. 1. April 2, 2009 2:31 pm Link

    Are these protesters really any more absurd than the system they oppose or than the G-20 circus itself?
    OR
    Propaganda is just satire without the irony, so what better way to pull back the curtain on the oligarchy?
    OR
    Sometimes when you are powerless, all that is left is resistance.

    — Tony in NOLA
  2. 2. April 2, 2009 2:42 pm Link

    To be honest, you can’t blame the media from focusing on the visually outlandish costumes. If anyone else was walking down a street full of protestors, would they not also look at the giant dead bird or the pink stormtrooper over a normally dressed person? Despite how meaningful or thought out a message is, people will be attracted to loud and vibrant displays, not ordinary protestors or signs.

    — John, Wayne
  3. 3. April 2, 2009 2:44 pm Link

    The question seems not to understand the dilemma facing protesters who are on the left –that is, critical of capitalism, advocating an alternative, democratic future grounded on the spread of a participatory, civic culture world-wide. Quite simply, as scholars like Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, Doug Kellner, Daniel Hallin and others have documented repeatedly, the mainstream mass-market media provide their readers with interpretations of the world that fit within the boundaries of legitimate belief –that is the capitalism is the only imaginable economic system, the United States has “good intentions” in the world, etc. Plenty of controversy and conflict within those boundaries: liberals-conservatives, Democratic-Republicans, hawks-doves, etc. But the texts of the media provide no way for more fundamentally critical argumentation to enter into public discourse. The only vehicle left for these “outsiders” is visually provocative imagery, large numbers, and confrontational protest –that become “newsworthy.” And, typically –this time, too– a small outburst of violence or provocatively colorful attire are what captures most of the media attention, thereby facilitating the efforts of insiders to dismiss and scapegoat the protest movement. That’s the dilemma you in the mainstream media create for these critics. I wonder if it will ever occur to the mainstream media that there are other ways of looking at the direction the world and US foreign policy are going.

    — Ted Morgan
  4. 4. April 2, 2009 2:44 pm Link

    If I asked an average person who liked capitalism to explain Adam Smith’s economic theory, I’d probably get incoherent, superficial, banal answers. The media is once again looking for soundbites instead of analysis from people who do not claim to have the analysis to begin with. What these demonstrators do know is that they don’t like the economic system as it is, they see the unnecessary violence and suffering it causes, and if the variety of concerns at an anti-capitalist protest has anything to demonstrate, it’s the variety of ills associated with capitalism. It’s to draw attention to the fact that many people find many problems with our current economic system. Do you really want some answers and suggestions for solutions? Do you really want to do the work of a journalist? Interview Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein or other prominent relevant critic, not some random Joe in a Death costume. It is possible for “the media” to both take pictures of the protesters *and* interview someone like Naomi Klein, you know. The fact that I even have to point this out is discouraging. In the NYT? Really?

    [R, You seem to be overlooking that fact that The Times has written about both of the people you mention and anti-globalization protests on many occasions, including today. This blog post is not a substitute but a supplement to what you call "real journalism." You don't think its valid to question whether the protests are doing a good job at communicating a message? -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — Really?!?
  5. 5. April 2, 2009 2:45 pm Link

    I turn off the protesters once they turn violent or break the law., at which point I assume that they have very little to add to the public discourse. The costumes of some participants just confirm that their efforts are as meaningless as their message. Mardi Gras ended a few weeks ago.

    — Peter
  6. 6. April 2, 2009 2:47 pm Link

    Globalization & the financial industry are dehumanizing processes. Clear messages are important. Let’s not forget the value of action that incorporates humanity and a good sense of humor. Isn’t that part of what it’s about?

    — hannah
  7. 7. April 2, 2009 2:48 pm Link

    One only has to listen to the protestors — check out the BBC news web site with a map on which you can playback recorded video comments — to realise that the media do a disservice to democracy by falling for canaries on stretchers and the like.

    Most of the comments I’ve heard from the mob have been pig ignorant beyond belief.

    Their concern for social justice and the planet I have no argument with, nobody does. However, for my money Barack Obama has shown the way. If you want change, organize. Smashing things up loses support.

    — Londoner
  8. 8. April 2, 2009 2:50 pm Link

    Why can’t protesters articulate a message that caring and understanding journalists (such as those at the NYTimes) can hear?

    One reason may be that Times journalists do not go to where the protesters are. This together with the fact that protesters (anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-authoritarian or other) do not have access to wonderful platform such as the Times to get their messages out.

    They dress such as they do not for lack of message, but with the understanding that mainstream outlets would rather click a photo of something visually arresting than go to Indymedia.org and really try to understand what they are angry about, and some of the definite, concrete alternatives to hierarchy and domination that are being put forward.

    [M, You seem to be overlooking the fact that there are several Times journalists in London covering the protests as well as the summit. Their articles are linked in the blog post above, which is a supplement to them. While we just raised the question of whether the media is in fact to blame in the blog post above, surely the purpose of a protest these days is to communicate something to people besides those who are actually, physically present at it. -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — michael
  9. 9. April 2, 2009 2:51 pm Link

    Have you been to a demonstration lately? If you don’t do outrageous things, you might as well have stayed home. The police funnel you into big wire cages, far enough away from anyone to keep you off the news and out of earshot of anyone in politics, and you can make speeches to each other all day long if you want to.

    Your other choice is to ignore permits and cages and go where you might have a chance of being heard, but then you have to spend all your time defending your position from police attacks and you don’t have time to make speeches. The big puppets and costumes are to attract enough photographers to keep an eye on the police as they beat you up.

    How about letting people carry out protests without hitting them or caging them?

    — portland oregon
  10. 10. April 2, 2009 2:52 pm Link

    Typical protesters- a bunch of 20-something children that think they understand the world, parading around so that all can see how wonderfully liberal they are. What we need are answers and solutions, not drama.

    — David S.
  11. 11. April 2, 2009 2:53 pm Link

    Often during convergences of world leaders, activists and organizers hold counter-conventions. One widely-known and participated event is the World Social Forum.

    How many corporate press actually attend these conferences and conventions?

    Having spent years both on the streets in marches & protests as well as in union halls, farms and universities for dialogue, I can tell you cameras and reporters flock to the protests - hoping to catch a glimpse of “riotous” protesters, often those who look weird….and if not weird, just dirty.

    I don’t see nearly as much corporate media - sometimes none - at these events like the World Social Forum or other such conferences & convergences of “articulating practical steps that might actually change the system.”

    Maybe the media should get out of the streets then, eh?

    [M, Well it is easy to blame the media for not covering other events, but isn't it still fair to at least ask how protesters going to events where they know the media will be use that spotlight? -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — marc.
  12. 12. April 2, 2009 2:54 pm Link

    You should report on the World Social Forum if you want to report on coherent alternative systems. Protests usually don’t work as an alternative forum in themselves, but as a push-back to the ideas being forwarded, in this case by the G20. That said, the coherent message is a rejection of the current system and those that are ruining the global environment/economy/social well-being. It’s also a social event, which is also important and valid. Protests affirm community to those who are present and those who know about them, weakening the sense of oppression.

    [C, There have been several articles in The Times about the World Social Forum -- as you can see here. But the question I meant to raise, but perhaps failed to do clearly enough is: are the protests at the global economic meetings communicating a clear message, beyond dissent? -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — C
  13. 13. April 2, 2009 2:55 pm Link

    This piece fails to pose any interesting questions. Who says graphic protest tactics are the only way these people are expressing their opposition to an unethical brand of capitalism? Perhaps they’re also making measured choices about what they buy and where they shop, writing letters-to-the-editor, and working for progressive NGOs. Protests just happen to be more visible.

    Also, what the hell are “practical steps that might actually change the system”? What’s the system?

    [Ben, As mentioned by one of the protesters in the post above, the system is the current world economic system. -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — Ben
  14. 14. April 2, 2009 2:56 pm Link

    Our elected leaders are at fault for allowing 30 years of rampage and excess in terms of executive compensation and unchecked lending designed for no purpose other than the enrichment of a few executives. Ditto for health insurance in the U.S.—the purpose is not to provide health insurance, but to enrich a few executives at the top of the insurance industry, which is why they are fighting single-payer tooth and nail. The sole reason health costs are skyrocketing is because of the greed of health insurance and pharmaceutical executives, and technological record-keeping is not going to mitigate the exorbitant costs of toxic greed.

    It does not matter whether the media covers or ignors the protests, or whether or not anyone protests–the economic tsunami has already effected its damage, against which all protest is moot.
    The outrage is in years of the press blithely printing and accepting that executives of all types were making 240 times the average worker, and that real wages have been flat for 95% of us for the last 30 years. That no legislation was suggested in those years, and we allowed these Robber Barons to rob the entire world blind is an outrage too large to protest.

    The protest is a feeble mockery after the execs long ago laughed themselves all the way to the bank, and can’t even hear us in their inebriated indifference.

    — Dreams Amelia
  15. 15. April 2, 2009 3:01 pm Link

    The message is that the media is filled with a bunch of naive boobs. The BBC footage shown here exhibited more newspeople with cameras and police than the so-called protestors. It’s a sad commentary on what passes for news.

    [Bill, There is no BBC footage shown, linked to or mentioned in this blog post. — RM, Lede Blog

    NOTE: Bill writes back to explain that by “here,” he meant here in the United States, not here on this blog — and the footage he saw from the BBC was selected by the O’Reilly Factor. Sorry for the misunderstanding. — RM

    — bill, Andover, MA
  16. 16. April 2, 2009 3:05 pm Link

    Climate change.

    A huge, peaceful all afternoon sit in / demonstration in London. False lawn laid out, Blue tents, food, toilets, music for adults and children.
    The police moved in at 7 pm and “kettled” them, as they had done the otther demonstrators earlier, with one poor man aged 49 just passing by being coshed and having a heart attack and ignored by the police for too long.
    The poor people who said that the global warming catastrophe that the world is dying of were penned in. Squashed in until 11.30 pm, when the riot squad attacked so they had to run without their bicycles, rucksacs, tents etc.
    The European Human Rights court will be inundated. Not only is there no longer any freedom of expression in England, but the Government, via the Police, who only follow orders, just like Hitler’s soldiers, is guilty of mass torture. Amnesty international, please help. There was a complete news blackout of the pacifist demonstration in Trafalgar Square. All is censored now.
    Result of the G20
    Money thrown at the rich
    A list of tax havens
    Nothing for the hungry in Europe, China, Russia, and how much real help for the poorer countries.
    Nothing at all to stop the climate catastrophy from destroying the planet. I think it’s already too late. I beleive the Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore does too. Do the rich think they won’t die with the rest of us little people? Drought, heatwaves (53°C in Melbourne yesterday) diluvien rainfall, tsunamis, earthquaques, hurricanes, tornadoes, diseases, the list is endless.
    But so is the list of solutions. The USA have started: wind power, solar power, wave power, all virtually free. Trains and trams, not cars. Insulation of all buildings. Big reductions in air travel and spaceships, Gradual closing down of coal fired power stations. Banning everything nuclear: bombs, power stations - all radiation causes cancer, now the number one killer.
    Food, shelter and warmth for every terrian. Then they won’t steal, commit crimes, take drugs. If they’re happy and comfortable there’s no reason to, so the prisons will gradually empty, oh, and burn all the opium fields. Perhaps not super ecological, but apparently in England now a snort of cocaine is cheaper than a cup of tea! The poor Africans who all die in the sea trying to get to Europe will want to stay at home if home is a nice place to be. Ban all guns and arms. Everywhere.
    To end my diatribe; start youth clubs everywhere with unemployed and retired people to run them: table tennis, talking, music, dancing, smiling, doing small projects, pottery.
    But I have some hope, because Barack Obama and his government are highly intelligent, kind, have common sense, love children and even have an organic garden.
    But the English, the French, maybe all the countries of the world are suffering very much. Like the old song goes: it’s the rich wot gets the pleasure, it’s the poor wot gets the blame, it’s the same the whole world over. Aint it all a rotten shame. Please help the world’s hungry first.

    — Caroline
  17. 17. April 2, 2009 3:05 pm Link

    RM, I have been in protests such as these, and I have seen the mainstream journalists in the protests trying to get a story that matches their own perceptions of what they are seeing, or maybe they are embedded with the police lest they get too close to the protest. The ideology of the journalists that I’ve met and talked with at these protests really prevent them from understanding, of course I’m sure they’re much better in London than in the states. You seem to be overlooking the fact that journalists operating within a capitalist structure can’t possibly be able to report on the message of anti-capitalist protesters AND keep their job for very long.

    [M, That's making the kind of broad generalization about journalists that activists would be very unhappy to hear made about them. Some journalists do impose stories on what they see, but not all of them. No doubt demonstrations serve to reassure people who have common beliefs even if they do not communicate a clear message to people watching, hearing or reading about them from afar. There are plenty of smart people who are critical of globalization whose voices seem to not dominate these increasingly ritualized protests. Couldn't it be that, knowing how the media operates and what it privileges -- like visual spectacles, conflict and obvious drama -- the people parading dead canaries are sort cluttering at best trivializing at worst the message coming out of these gatherings? -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — michael
  18. 18. April 2, 2009 3:07 pm Link

    This crisis has confounded and divided economics nobel laureates and you expect articulate wisdom from the common man?

    What people know is that the overleveraging of real assets is what caused this crisis. And now, with the government making these humongous loans and gurantees, the average person’s future is overleveraged and taken hostage. There is little the common man can do about it and the frustration shows.

    These protests are a backlash at the current form of capitalism which has put a lot of wealth in too few hands and allowed these foolhardy, shortsighted, and selfish people to deal a devastating blow to people, careers, and lives.

    Democrats and especially Barney Frank have been harping about this for along time. It is not that democrats oppose capitalism - they have been looking to establish regulation and trust in the marketplace that protects all players.

    What is that new form of capitalism? I would go interview a hundred people on that.

    — Sameer
  19. 19. April 2, 2009 3:08 pm Link

    So the protesters wore outlandish costumes, big deal. Would you rather that they had appeared in Lenin hats and blue jackets in order to visually articulate their political position more effectively? Not everyone has the benefit of a newspaper column in which to express themselves. For centuries, street performance, incl. nonsensical costuming has been used by the underdog to mock those in power. Ever been to carnival in a major European city? Same idea.

    — cbm
  20. 20. April 2, 2009 3:13 pm Link

    If the protester’s aim is to get the attention of the media with ridiculous costumes and effigies, then isn’t it the media’s job to find out why they are protesting? The point that are making is that the system in which we are living is just as absurd as the masks they are wearing. Shouldn’t this be an article about why the protesters are protesting - the failure of capitalism - and what the anarchists stand for? This is the failure of journalism giving too much attention to something arbitrary (what they are wearing) where they should be discovering the truth as to why the protesters are there.

    [J, To be clear, this is not an article, it is a blog post. We conduct a conversation off the news here -- the main news articles on this subject are both linked to from the top of the post. There have been, and will be, many news articles in The Times on the concerns of the protesters. What we wanted to raise here was the side question of how effective they are. -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — Jonathan
  21. 21. April 2, 2009 3:18 pm Link

    [Ben, As mentioned by one of the protesters in the post above, the system is the current world economic system. -- RM, Lede Blog]

    Bob, thank you for your quick and hands-on responses. And thank you for clarifying that as well.

    In this case I guess the headline might be rephrased “Reporters Focusing on Costumes, Puppets Fail to Help Bring Down Global Capitalism by Glossing Over Demonstrators’ ‘Articulate Analyses’”

    Sorry that isn’t pithy. But a couple of serious, non-rhetorical questions: could you have written this piece mainly about his articulate analysis? If not, why not? And if so, why didn’t you?

    [Ben, I am the one who raised the question of whether or not the media was to blame for this, but I still think there are problems on both sides. As to your specific question about that one part of the interview I mentioned: I didn't do the interview, a journalist at another news organization did, so I can't transcribe it all and publish it here -- but I did bring it up, describe it and provide a link so that any reader could listen to it on The Guardian's Web site. Frankly, there wasn't much to write about in that one person's description of the fact that the economic system has failed. That's pretty obvious. And while he said that another system was needed, he didn't describe any steps he was taking towards bringing that into being besides carrying the canary around. -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — Ben
  22. 22. April 2, 2009 3:21 pm Link

    Although the props and costumes do make those in attendance look as though they are attending a party and not a protest, the problems with these demonstrations are more than mask deep. The theatrics, and the attention they get, are a symptom of the fact that the protests are not news in and of themselves. It’s taken for granted now that if there is a gathering of world economic leaders there will be globalization protesters.

    Mass protests can be effective if they demonstrate strong support for movement that had previously been underground. They can serve as a warning to political leaders that public opinion may not be behind them, and they can serve as a rallying call to like-minded individuals who thought they were alone in their opinions. But when the protests become habitual, they no longer serve these purposes. The one message that repeated demonstrations can communicate is that the protesters will not be intimidated into silence. However, that message is pointless when the powers that be are not trying to intimidate them. There have been no crack downs for the protesters to resist.

    At this point the only thing these demonstration are saying is that they can be safely ignored. Not enough people agree with the demonstrators for them to be a viable political movement, and the demonstrators have no ambitions beyond dressing up and getting their picture taken for the newspaper.

    — Kenneth
  23. 23. April 2, 2009 3:23 pm Link

    Dear Robert

    I believe that the people with the eye-catching media-friendly effigies are reaching the widest possible audience in a peaceful and memorable way, and therefore benefit their cause. Unlike the thugs who just turn up for violence.

    There has been debate, over many years now, about whether the media presence at such demonstrations actually encourages acts of violence and destruction.

    Certainly the BBC TV News film that I saw last night seemed to show more photographers present at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s London office than the violent protesters who were smashing the plate-glass windows.

    mikeshadow, UK

    — mikeshadow
  24. 24. April 2, 2009 3:32 pm Link

    The awkward way in which RM is trying to conduct a conversation with the commenters on this post illustrates why the Times really needs an upgrade in your technology infrastructure!

    [A, Why awkward? And what technology do you suggest? -- RM, Lede Blog]

    — Mr. Anderkoo
  25. 25. April 2, 2009 3:33 pm Link

    But the question I meant to raise, but perhaps failed to do clearly enough is: are the protests at the global economic meetings communicating a clear message, beyond dissent? — RM, Lede Blog]

    Perhaps not, but does there need to be a message beyond the physical presence of dissenting bodies? As suggested by others in this thread the more concrete formulations, proposals and plans are being hashed out elsewhere, without necessarily having to ask the G-20 elites to do anything but STOP.

    — peter cooper
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