A video documenting alleged police brutality during Saturday’s Occupy Wall Street protest went viral over the weekend, receiving millions of views and attention from major media outlets.
But even at the protest’s highest level of attention, media coverage and reactions online show a failure to take the legitimate concerns of the protesters seriously -- and seem to reveal a disturbing thread of sexism and bias against the largely youthful demonstrators.
The video features a group of young women standing on the sidewalk, some filming, none of them shouting or being disruptive. The women are quickly corralled together with orange mesh nets by a much larger group of predominantly male policemen.
Some of the young women begin to cry “Why are you doing this?” Then a passing New York City police officer pepper sprays them in the face. It appears in the video that he was unprovoked.
While others have uploaded footage of more violent police brutality, those videos have received no where near as much attention as the video of the women, which more than a million people have viewed. In comparison, other videos, which show police beating men with batons, smashing their heads into cars, or pressing their knees into protesters necks barely top 100,000 views.
On Monday, footage of the pepper-sprayed women was the most-viewed video in the News and Politics section on YouTube, with one version alone approaching one million views (total viewership is difficult to determine, as the video has been duplicated numerous times).
So why did this video trend when others didn’t? Commenters focused on the brutality of the police attacks -- but also center around the outfits and attractiveness of the young women, as well as their emotional reactions to being pepper-sprayed.
Viewers have insulted the women’s choice of clothing, their age, and even how one woman screamed after being pepper-sprayed.
Deciphering anonymous Internet cruelty is tricky. It’s often just an attempt to troll -- provoke a reaction.
On a copy of the video on YouTube, Ironzealot7531 writes “those girls just wanted to make a scene out of it” and “these bitches are acting like they had acid thrown in their faces. Fucking pussies.”
SouthernBella24 calls the protesters “clowns” and “dope smoking hippies” that “act like a bunch of animals” in a YouTube comment on a protest video. “Get a job & get a life” she adds.
JonOSevens writes on a Reddit thread about the video that the young women are “stereotypical hippy chick(s) acting in an overly dramatic manner. ”
On a Boston Globe article titled “Why I was Maced at the Wall Street Protests” and written by a female participant, user Scullman wrote a comment titled “A pack of crybabies:”
“Ask your Mommy's and Daddy's how they liked being charged by the NYPD Mounted Unit in that 1970 demonstration. Your the biggest bunch of panty waist demonstrators if I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen them all. It's embarrassing. Maybe you need a course in Protest 101 up there in Boston. Or watch some footage from the 68' demonstration in D.C. or the Chicago Democratic Convention. Do something besides whining.”
But many others came to the women’s defense. Hacking and protest group Anonymous even went on the offense, releasing the personal details of the officer who allegedly pepper-sprayed the women, Anthony Bologna.
Bologna previously received complaints of civil rights abuse in 2004. Occupy Wall Street is calling for Officer Bologna be charged again. The NYPD said the officers’ acted “appropriately” when they used pepper spray on protesters and said the videos did not show the protesters “confronting” officers, according to the New York Times.
In the reddit comment thread on the video, Drstrangenorm defended the young women, writing: “More often than not it is the young [women] who take these approaches. They fight our wars, they oppose our tyranny, they still have a future to fight for.”
On a copy of the video on YouTube, freegadgets wrote that he or she is disturbed by the amount of comments “cheering on the criminal cops as they violate the basic human rights of Americans.”
“Some people want to see the protesters harmed because they are ‘hippies’” freegadgets added in another YouTube comment.
“The police were treating these women like animals” wrote MeganSpeaks in the description of her response video on YouTube. Her video was quickly ridiculed in the comments.
According to numerous news outlets, the group of women were among the very few pepper-sprayed at the protests. Police arrested over 80 people, but many were released the next day and immediately returned to the protest.
The weekend also saw the highest volume of media coverage for Occupy Wall Street, and subsequently a spike in people googling “Occupy Wall Street”- despite hundreds of people camping out in Lower Manhattan for 10 days, as of now. (On Keith Olbermann’s show last Thursday, Michael Moore points out if just a handful of Tea Partiers were protesting Wall Street, it would be the top story.)
The spike in media coverage, however, is centered on the police brutality, and not on what protesters are demanding, as often happens with protest coverage. Many news articles referenced the pepper-sprayed women and featured a dramatic picture of one young woman in a tank top, kneeling on the ground and crying out in pain.
Just days ago, even the liberal-leaning Internet publication Huffington Post described the protesters as “20-somethings in flannel pajama pants and tie-dyed T-shirts... playing snare drums and openly smoking marijuana on benches.”
Occupy Wall Street is a conglomerate of various groups -- Adbusters magazine members, businessmen , a handful of Tea Partiers, Raging Grannies -- all protesting the influence of corporations on American politics and the economy. It’s also one of the few prolonged protests in which Generation Y (also known as Millennials) -- the generation of the largely over-educated and under-employed American youth born in the late 80’s and 90’s -- have participated.
Protests have ranged from a couple thousand participants to a couple hundred on any given day. Just as the name implies, Occupy Wall Street protesters are literally occupying lower Manhattan with tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses and generators for their electronics.