Behind the Media Curtain: A Nonviolent Movement for Change

Last Wednesday, several members of CEH’s Oakland-based staff took place in parts of the day-long Occupy Oakland General Strike events. Word-of-mouth reports of the day noted the wide variety of peaceful and committed actions throughout the day: meditation groups, workshops and teach-ins, a prayer tent, children’s activities and much more.

The crowd included city workers upset about recent pay cuts; parents with children at public schools marked for closure; teachers desperate about their already crumbling schools that face additional budget cuts; union workers providing free food to thousands; dancers, musicians and artists using their art for social change. As many as 100,000 people spent the day together in peaceful assembly.

But with nightfall came violence: after midnight, a small group broke windows, scrawled graffiti and otherwise marred a beautiful, peaceful day.  Sadly, much of the mainstream media coverage focused on these violent acts, marginalizing the larger message of the day.

To us, the underwhelming media coverage of the Occupy Oakland General Strike recall events of the 1880’s. On May 1, 1886, 80,000 people marched on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, in what is regarded as the first modern May Day Parade. In the next few days the Chicago protest sparked nationwide events, including strikes by 350,000 workers at more than 1,000 factories. Their key demand: an eight-hour workday.

Three days later, the Chicago group called for a follow-up rally at Haymarket Square. The May 4 peaceful protest drew a large crowd, but as evening fell the numbers dwindled. When police moved on the remaining crowd at nightfall, a bomb was thrown, leading to injuries and deaths, arrests and denunciations from both sides. Police blamed anarchists among the protesters for the bombing; protesters blamed outside provocateurs and charged police corruption.

While the origin of the Haymarket bomb remains a mystery to this day, one outcome from the Haymarket Riot is clear. The national media’s focus on “violent anarchists” shifted attention from the demands of millions of workers to a backlash against the ongoing mass protests. The idea of an eight-hour work day became marginalized as a notion of radical anarchists. Prior to Haymarket, 100,000 workers in New York City won the right to an eight-hour day following a 3-month general strike. After Haymarket, it would be fifty years before American workers would gain this basic human right.

At CEH, we believe the current movement to reform the economy and remake our democracy cannot be marginalized. With millions of Americans suffering from unprecedented hardships (including poor health outcomes from economic inequality and accompanying environmental stressors), we remain committed to ending abuses of corporate power that create environmental health threats. Our work to create healthy environments for all cannot succeed if we do not address the 16 million American children who live in poverty; the 17 million Americans suffering from hunger; the more than fifty million without health care.

It is these Americans who were in our thoughts as we marched with our fellow Oaklanders last Wednesday. We will not let a few unfortunate acts distract us from our work for the health of all Americans.

Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street…. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. . .. We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped out. . . . We will stand by our homes and stay by our firesides by force if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the Government pays its debts to us.

Kansas Populist Mary Ellen Lease, Populist Party Convention 1890