Monday, October 10, 2011

Concocted Outrage

A tempest was erupting over the weekend after FOXNews started running a story claiming that Rep. John Lewis was denied the opportunity to address a gathering of Occupy Atlanta.
A lengthy video posted online over the weekend showed what happened when the Democratic congressman tried to address an "assembly" of protesters in his home state. Instead of giving the floor to a man who is not just a longtime U.S. representative but a revered civil rights icon, the protesters employed a tangle of parliamentary procedures to ultimately prevent him from speaking.

A stunned Lewis could be seen watching the whole thing unfold before ambling away.
Asked about the incident Monday, a Lewis spokeswoman told "the only comment that we're going to give is the comments already made." In a prior interview about the matter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Lewis said, "It's okay," and that "they didn't really deny me."
The end result, though, was that Lewis did not get to speak to the protesters.
The procedures they used -- rather, invented -- would make the Senate blush. Imagine some combination of Model U.N., Lord of the Flies and a Phish concert.
If all one did was read the FOXNews account, I can understand some outrage.

Things are not always as FOXNews would have us believe they appear to be.

A story in Atlanta's Creative Loafing on-line draws a slightly different picture of the events.
Congressman John Lewis visited the Occupy Atlanta rally at Woodruff Park last night approximately 45 minutes after its planning session, or General Assembly, started. Despite saying he did not want to speak, the civil rights icon was invited to address to the crowd. When the topic of allowing Lewis to speak was presented to the group, "Joe" (pictured in red) held up his arms to "block" Lewis from speaking.

"Joe" said he was against Lewis speaking because the movement is "not about one individual" and that it has been built on the idea of "no hierarchy." The crowd decided the congressman could speak after the General Assembly, but Lewis had to leave for a previous engagement.
No Phish concert references here.

I was led to this site from Joan Walsh's Salon piece on this same incident.
A YouTube video made its way around Twitter Saturday, showing the Atlanta offshoot of Occupy Wall Street in the middle of a General Assembly meeting, debating whether to ask Rep. John Lewis speak to the group. The answer was no, and the reaction on Twitter was almost unanimously negative: How could these people insult a civil rights hero that way?

I had the same reaction – until I understood what exactly occurred. It turns out Lewis came by, on his own, during a General Assembly meeting, to observe the group, and didn’t ask to speak. One of the activists suggested that he be invited to say a few words, and most of the assembly seemed fine with that – until one of them, a guy identified as Joe, stood up and disagreed. While expressing respect for Lewis’s work, he said the movement was “not about one individual” and it supported “no hierarchy.” Because the group was in a planning session, someone suggested that Lewis speak at the end of their agenda, but the congressman had another event and couldn’t stay.

I watched the video with growing frustration at what I perceived to be an insult to Lewis. But if you watched the whole thing, Occupy Atlanta has a process, like it or not, and the activists stayed true to their process. Everyone who spoke expressed respect for Lewis and a desire to hear him speak, but not in the middle of their planning meeting. By the time I finished the video, I could understand that.

Most important, John Lewis himself understood that. He noted he hadn’t asked to speak, and he was happy to observe. “I support the protesters in New York and here,” Lewis told Atlanta’s Creative Loafing before leaving the park. “It is the right time and the right place to be… It is the will of the people. When I was young we did similar actions. It is grassroots democracy at its best. I think something good will come of the moment.”

As he was leaving the area where the protest was occurring, Lewis stopped for a quick interview. This is after the events that everyone is all in a huff about.

A friend of mine sent me the link to the original FOXNews story, and even reading that I came to the same general conclusion Walsh did - the group had a process, and Lewis, respecting it, went on with his day. Even so, the framing of this whole event, and the way FOXNews and the various channels that funnel information like this, set off my bullshit detector. It didn't take any time at all to discover a host of sources on the event in question that, in sum, clearly show a fundamental truth when dealing with FOXNews stories: It didn't happen that way.

There has been just a bit too much offense taken by African-Americans and others at a series of movements, grass-roots and going viral, that are working to draw attention to various injustices. Nothing wrong with that. We all need our consciences pricked, our perspectives expanded. All the same, it's just a little too neat, a little too interesting that all this outrage at the alleged insensitivity of these movements is occurring. I do not doubt the very real concerns some folks have, say, of the SlutWalk movement. I do not doubt the worries that a movement concerned with increasing disparities in wealth would ignore very real concerns of race and gender inequality, as has too often happened in the past. What I do doubt is that the expressed concerns are somehow as spontaneous as they appear.

When an incident occurs that doesn't smell right, it is always best to check it out. I have done so, and see no reason, as my FB friend insists, to "defend" John L. Lewis from something that didn't happen. Lewis needs no help defending himself. His demonstrated courage is a matter of the historical record. Furthermore, he needs no defense in the face of things that, simply put, didn't happen.

There may be no story here, but at the same time, there is. The story, however, is FOXNews reporting an event in a way that clearly intends to smear as racist a movement that considers itself both (small "d") democratic and inclusive. Maybe, just maybe, if some of the outrage at the folks in Atlanta were directed at the real racists here, we might be getting somewhere.

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