When the Oakland police donned their gas masks and riot gear and shot protesters in the face, sending one Iraq War veteran to the hospital, Washington Post photo editor Carol McKay opted to run with a photograph of a police officer petting a kitten to illustrate the story. This decision was so widely criticized that McKay felt compelled to defend it in print:
“The photograph was chosen because it was a visual 'moment; in time showing a police officer doing something interesting – not just walking through tents and trash. The wire service images that moved overnight and this morning offer a much different look at last night's protest.”
Of all the responses to this choice by the Post, the one that made the most waves, and the one that Daily Kos described as “inevitable,” was “Oakland Riot Cat,” a blog featuring the photo with new captions promoting the Occupy movement and criticizing McKay's choice in the same over-the-top style popularized on the humor blog Lolcats. Humor, in this case, is the engine for publicizing what many protesters view as the media's antiprotest attitude by way of whitewashing authoritarian violence. That this, and not, say, a boycott of The Washington Post, is the “inevitable” response reveals something about the Occupy movement that is not often mentioned: the centrality of humor to its perpetuation.
Comedy has long been a component in social revolt: the civil rights movement had Dick Gregory and the antiwar movement had the Smothers Brothers. But the Occupy movement is the first one being propelled by a generation which, it has often been overstated, looks to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and The Onion for its news. Parody, satire and ridicule are a crucial part of the political outlook of the Wall Street occupiers and their fellow protesters around the country, and it shows.
When Brookfield, the corporation that owns Liberty Plaza Park, first tried to evict the protesters, it sent as its liaison not a member of its board of directors, but the community affairs detective of the New York Police Department's (NYPD) First Precinct, Rick Lee, who, owing to his distinct fashion sense, has acquired some fame under his unauthorized moniker, Hipster Cop. So widely has the Hipster Cop meme spread that The Huffington Post suggested New Yorkers dress as him for Halloween.
But the meme serves a purpose beyond mockery: it highlights the unsavory relationship between the NYPD, ostensibly a body of the people, commissioned to serve and protect people like those in the park, and private wealth, like Brookfield, who sends Hipster Cop and Mayor Bloomberg (whose longtime live-in girlfriend, Diana Taylor, sits on the corporation's board) to bring word of its intentions and desires to the protesters, rather than agreeing to appear itself.
Occupy Wall Street's opponents, however, are not the only subjects of lampoon. The “We Are the 99 Percent” blog, which features photos of ordinary people holding up sheets of paper containing their stories of why they protest, has inspired some noteworthy parodies, which have been shared widely not only by the protest's critics, but by its proponents and participants. Zina Goodall, 22, of Oakland, who hosted a talent show for Wall Street occupiers, argues that the protest's ability to laugh at itself has been vital in making it palatable to a population which, polls show, largely agrees with its aim:
“Drum circle hippies and self-righteous anarchists are not the type of people mainstream Americans are automatically given to sympathize with. If we are not able to own their participation by laughing at it, we run the risk of being seen as marginal and unpleasant.”
The first big parody meme was Occupy Sesame Street, a blog which featured widely publicized images of Occupy Wall Street, from the cell phone pictures of the police brutality visited upon protesters on the first week of the protests, to movement-defining photos from the AP wire with Sesame Street characters Photoshopped in.
Henry Casey, 27, of New York, thinks that Occupy Sesame Street set the tone early on that Occupy Wall Street was funny, even in the face of violence. “George Carlin always said that one way he avoided getting beat up in school was by making the bullies laugh. Laughter is not only the best medicine in times of sickness, but also the best defense in times of danger.”
Even during the unseasonable wintry mix the skies thrust down upon the Wall Street occupation before Halloween, the protesters kept their spirits up with humor. “Anyone who doesn't want to get baptized, get out of the way,” said one man at the information table before poking the overhanging tarp up to rid it of the water weighing it down. As thunder struck, Liberty Plaza Park cheered defiantly, breaking out in chants of, “Eat the snow, eat the sleet, Occupy Wall Street.”
It's going to be a cold winter for the Wall Street occupiers, and it may take more than humor to sustain it, but without the jokes, Goodall thinks its survival is impossible.
“If we let the winter depress us, then the movement is doomed. But if we can laugh all the way until spring, there is no telling how far we can propel this moment.”