How The First Battle Of The Brooklyn Bridge Changed The Media Narrative

Blog ››› ››› WILL BUNCH

Today marks the two-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protest -- a number of major actions are planned, including a march on Wall Street itself as I write this, and eventually a march on the Brooklyn Bridge. That is quite fitting, since it was the group's first march on the iconic East River crossing that truly altered the political narrative in this country. Do you remember this passage?

The hodgepodge Lower Manhattan encampment known as Occupy Wall Street has no appointed leaders, no expiration date for its rabble-rousing stay and still-evolving goals and demands. Yet its two weeks of noisy occupation has lured a sturdily faithful and fervent constituency willing to express discontentment with what they feel is an inequitable financial system until, well, whenever.

That's what The New York Times told its readers on the fateful morning of October. 1, 2011, the day that would change everything. Outside of the paper's locally focused City Room blog, in a short dispatches that with a couple of exceptions were not published in the regular newspaper, this was the sixth article (two of them opinion columns) that the so-called "paper of record" had printed about the two weeks of non-stop protest in Lower Manhattan -- maybe a decent amount, arguably a little light given what was brewing just a cab ride from its newsroom. But the October 1 article perfectly captured the initial tone of those early pieces in the mainstream press: Utter bewilderment at why these people had taken their protest to the streets, despite the drumbeat of other too-often underplayed news about joblessness, mortgage foreclosures and student debt.

It's hard to believe that within 24 hours, much of America would be talking about Occupy Wall Street, to the point where there were plans to replicate it in all 50 states. It took two things to make that difference. The first was a ragtag army of about 1,000 everyday Americans who took their fight to reclaim their rights of free speech and free assembly to one of the most iconic public spaces in all of America, the 128-year-old Brooklyn Bridge. The second was a gross miscalculation by the New York Police Department, which apparently thought it could break the back of Occupy Wall Street by surrounding the marchers in a so-called "kettle" on a miserably wet evening and then by arresting more than 700 people.

I decided to make this one day -- the turning point of the protest movement -- the focus of my Amazon Kindle (longer than a magazine article but shorter than a conventional book, priced at 99 cents for the 99 Percent) e-book, the first book of any kind about Occupy Wall Street. It's called October 1, 2011: The Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge, and what I tried to do is describe the events through the eyes of the regular people who were caught up in them. They were not -- as the New York Times' Gina Bellafante had dismissed them in a notorious article back on Sept. 24 -- misguided souls with an "apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably." They were everyday folks who showed remarkable courage and perseverance -- people like Jack Smith, a retired 69-year-old lawyer who'd decided that October 1, 2011, was going to be the day he finally did something about social justice, and Eric Hart, the 32-year-old assistant props manager at the Public Theater, who wanted to march across the bridge because he was too shy to make conversation at Zuccotti Park, and Nicole Copobianco, a free-spirited 19-year-old art student and idealistic anti-capitalst.

It is the notion that people like this were willing to risk going to jail - and in more than 700 cases, actually did get handcuffed and booked -- and were willing to go right back to Zuccotti Park to continue the fight is what, in my opinion, both finally got the attention of newsroom editors. It resulted in coverage that -- along with frequent updates about the arrests in social media, especially Twitter -- electrified new followers of the Occupy movement from coast to coast. Members of the middle class instinctively "got" the import of Occupy Wall Street movement even as it befuddled elite journalists -- that millions of Americans simply were not being heard in the political discussions, and that political discourse was trapped by two political parties both beholden to moneyed interests. And the only way to regain the conversation was to get in people's face - by occupying the public square for months at a time, and to retake landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge.

There's two ways to look at the remarkable impact of The Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge on the media coverage of Occupy Wall Street. In terms of raw coverage of the movement, it exploded -- as documented on Nate Silver's Fivethirtyeight blog at the New York Times. He found there was an average of just 16 major mainstream media hits per day in the first eight days of the protests, but while the number spiked to an average of 96 a day after a high-ranking NYPD officer pepper-sprayed marchers, the real explosion came after the Brooklyn Bridge arrests. There were 115 hits on the day of the October 1 march, Silver found, shooting up to 258 major media reports on the day after the mass arrests, and upward again to 391 on the day after that. To this date, the Occupy movement has remained front and center in the national media.

But while the rise in articles about the Occupy movement itself is significant, the other real contribution in the days that came after October 1, 2011, was much more meaningful. Suddenly, the issues that inspired the movement itself -- the remarkable flow of wealth and political influence to the wealthiest 1 percent, the lack of any prosecution for Wall Street crimes, the lack of opportunity amid crushing student loans debt for the nation's youth -- were suddenly on the radar screen. One analyst found that major news articles mentioned "inequality" doubled in the month of October, while stories mentioning the "richest one percent" increased a whopping five-fold.

Meanwhile, the so-called "adult conversation" among the Beltway elite, about an over-hyped far-in-the-future debt problem -- when real America cared about the immediate loss of jobs and homes -- largely evaporated. Something else evaporated, at least from responsible mainstream writers -- the kind of snide put-downs of the movement that appeared in The New York Times just hours before the eventful march. And make no mistake, the willingness of 700 people to face arrest on a damp and chilly Brooklyn Bridge is what helped change that conversation.

In the six weeks or that have followed 10/1/11, we've seen increasing conflict around the country between police and Occupy protesters, from the port of Oakland to the sidewalks of New York. We've seen tear gas fired, rubber bullets fired, batons swung, public thoroughfares swept clear. It's all part of a broader struggle in this country -- who controls the public square.

Re-taking the public dialogue in the streets will help retake the airwaves for the people as well, and that's a story that began atop the Brooklyn Bridge, a powerful symbol of American enterprise, a mortar-and-brick metaphor for freedom. For me as a writer, it was an amazing privilege to interview the American citizens who took part in this march, and to re-tell their story. I consider them heroes.

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Occupy Wall Street
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