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Occupy Chicago Tue Jan 31 2012

Eye On #OCHI: AdBusters and the Locals

by Joe Macaréeyeonochi.jpg

Adbusters jumped onboard the NATO/G8 protest bandwagon last week, and in the process pushed Occupy Chicago further into the national (and international) spotlight.

Unfortunately, they did this without contacting Occupy Chicago beforehand, and in a manner that invoked the police violence of the 1968 Democratic Convention protests.

That Adbusters were acting unilaterally is evident from reading their January 25 announcement with even a vague working knowledge of Occupy Chicago and the existing plans for protest around the NATO/G8 summits -- the kind of knowledge you could get easily from the mainstream media. Aside from the incendiary rhetoric and imagery, and the fact that it doesn't once mention the existing Occupy movement in Chicago or link to their site, "Tactical Briefing #25" also includes a list of demands that were neither drafted nor endorsed by any Occupy movement.

There's no doubt that the Adbusters announcement got a lot of people excited: Mostly those from outside of Chicago who relished the chance to grab a tent and head on down for May 1 (a date that itself is problematic, given how far ahead of the summits it is and the fact that Chicago activism's own May Day traditions tend to focus on labor and immigration). On local Twitter accounts and the forums, however, the excitement was tempered with confusion that rapidly turned into annoyance and even anger as it became clear that AdBusters had done this on their own.

Prior to a non-voting General Assembly that took place on Thursday, Jan. 26 to discuss this issue specifically, Occupy Chicago's only official comment stated:

We are publicizing this call as part of our #ChicagoSpring campaign, which includes a kickoff on April 7, a People's Summit on May 12 and protesting NATO and the G8 ... We are still in the planning stages for all of our spring actions. But we welcome all who want to speak out against the famine and war forced on the world by the G8 and NATO to join us in the streets of Chicago.

In other words: We welcome the assistance and the attention, but let's not forget who was Occupying Chicago first. Occupy Chicago members recognize the PR boost they've been given, the fruitful possibility of collaboration with Adbusters and the resources potentially on offer, and the fact that the genie cannot be put back into the proverbial bottle at this point.

But individual participants have been willing to express their concerns. These include Serena Himmelfarb, who was quoted in a piece that ran on In These Times' Uprising blog entitled "Adbusters' Call for Chicago Occupation Rankles Some in Movement" (the title and focus of this piece no doubt also rankled some in the movement).

"Speaking only for myself: I am excited that Adbusters continues to support OWS, but they acted irresponsibly," Himmelfarb told me.

They acted alone, without regard to what's already being planned here for the summer. We would have been so excited to collaborate with them in promoting the movement. Just as important is the tone of their call. They chose a violent image to accompany their call to flood our city with activists. In my opinion, there's NO WAY our GA would have approved Adbusters' message and image. We don't want to continue the tradition of '68, we're making our own.

The protests of '68 are an incredible charged and thorny issue for Chicago activists and progressives. Debate still rages as to whether what took place was a brutal crushing of peaceful dissent by a thuggish Democrat mayor, or an ill-advised, aggressive sideshow by radical leftists that provoked a conservative backlash that swept Richard Nixon to power.

Either way, many Chicagoans feel that the event and its iconography are not to be breezily invoked from Vancouver. An Egyptian-American anthropologist and law student who participates in Occupy Chicago and goes by the Twitter handle @ThatEgyGuy summarized objections to Adbusters' imagery on his blog: "You may as well be asking upfront for it ... If you want to pick a fight with CPD, you should consult those whose name you are using."

It's worth noting that the image Adbusters used does show a cop hitting a protester, and that's what happened across the country to Occupy movements too. The violence isn't started by the protesters. But as the weekend's events in Oakland showed, that doesn't stop mainstream media and liberal pundits alike from condemning the people on the receiving end.

You could argue that Occupy Chicago's dilemma boils down to which risk of distortion is greater: Making this a story about a split within a movement, or making this a story about activists inciting a "showdown" with the police. The mainstream media loves to do both when it comes to protests, after all.

Hopefully there isn't a split here, more a new alliance forming after getting off to a rocky start. "Communication is key," says Himmelfarb. "We all just want to be on the same page, and have been working towards that really successfully. Bottom line is, [Adbusters] made a mistake. Hopefully communication from here on in will be better."

But despite the fact that Adbusters and Occupy Chicago members have now been in communication, on Jan. 27 the Adbusters blog once again made reference to "[setting] the stage for #Occupy Chicago," as if Occupy Chicago was an event in May rather than a movement that is ongoing.

The extent to which Adbusters were responsible for the initial occupation of Wall Street is itself disputed. Journalist Jesse Myerson, who wrote the piece for In These Times, was involved with Occupy Wall Street from its early planning stages, and is writing a book about 2011 as a year of protest. He says about Adbusters' role:

Adbusters was good publicity [for OWS], as it will be for Chicago, but it did not generate the idea for what is really a global phenomenon. Cities in dozens of countries have been shut down by citizens fed up with being victimized by the institutions who claim to act on their behalf. The American component was inevitable.

The publicity -- and more importantly, the numbers it will generate -- is a key factor, and it's the most obvious reason why Occupy Chicago might refrain from rebuking Adbusters too harshly. I've been at numerous #OChi actions that, however creative and committed and effective, would have benefited from greater numbers. Most significantly, it had been hoped that enough supporters would show up at the second attempt to camp out at "the Horse" in Grant Park on October 22 in order to make arrests and a shutdown of the camp impossible -- which obviously didn't happen.

But Occupy Chicago had already begun plans for a mass action that would enable them to establish a new camp site: It's called Chicago Spring, the date set is April 7, and its timing a month before NATO/G8 was a deliberate attempt to have something in place on which to build before the summits.

At a press conference on Friday, Occupy Chicago emphasized their plan for spring and summer: One that involves not just protest actions, but connecting communities and neighborhoods in what is all too often a divided city.

These plans, and the April 7 event, could use publicity and numbers: It's hard to imagine that the NATO/G8 summits, on the other hand, need Adbusters' help to pull in more protesters. Rahm Emanuel and Gerry McCarthy certainly don't seem to think so.

Note: Adbusters did not respond to a request for comment before this post was published.

Joe Macaré is a writer and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. He is a contributor to the Occupied Chicago Tribune and has also written for TruthOut, In These Times and Global Comment. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss the Occupy Chicago movement.

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