Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Charlie Haden and the role of media sharing in occupy

First of all, I rarely put up posts with no album, but I just checked amazon and this one seems pretty easy to find on CD. (NB: if you want to buy it from amazon, please support a private vendor. Although amazon struck a deal with California to avoid a proposition battle over the California sales tax issue, they are still not bound by the law that they agreed to until September.) This might be the wrong time to start observing intellectual property laws given this post's sympathetic stance towards protesters who have been labelled anti-capitalist, but whatever. The album is Duets, recorded in 1976. Each of the four tracks features a different guest: Keith Jarrett, Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Paul Motian. I found Alice Coltrane's track the most musically inspiring along with Ornette's, but the album is definitely for committed jazz fans only. The song I want to talk about today is "For a Free Portugal," which features Haden on bass and Motian on percussion accompanied by two prerecorded tapes. The first captures Charlie dedicating a song to the Africans struggling for liberation from Portugal during a concert in Lisbon. The crowd roars in response. The second is a tape made in Angola by the Liberation Support Movement, included on the album with the group's permission. The tape features the group's anthem and field recorded war sounds. Hearing Haden incorporate this raw media into his album reminded me of the way that today's protesters share and borrow media like protest videos and add their own voices through commentary, editing choices, and other techniques.

The internet has unquestionably become a major tool for social and political change. It has featured prominently in the many Arab Spring movements and is playing a similar role in the occupy movement in the United States. Today more than any day so far I've noticed the viral spread of youtube videos featuring raw footage less than 24 hours old from occupy sites across the country. There is something very democratizing about high levels of access to technology, especially when this technology enables us to share media expressing and concerning the public's grievances. The images and recordings now circulating depict specific people and events, and yet like the public spaces that American protesters are occupying, they are both ownerless and at the service of the people. I think that this kind of media sharing demonstrates solidarity and support because it allows people to identify with the exact same sounds and images and to make these media their own. These sounds and images become points where people's aspirations and frustrations intersect and grow. The translocal connection that they engender can transform the act of occupying one city block into the act of occupying a bureaucracy or an ideology. The world is going to keep getting smaller, and as it does, I think that expressions of solidarity through media sharing will become more widespread, meaningful, and effective.

Some general thoughts on occupy: Fortunately, it seems like modern protesters recognize the limits of the purely internet-based activism that overloaded our inboxes throughout the late 90's and most of the 2000's before Facebook became the main venue for that sort of thing. People today understand that the internet can enhance real world movements but that the act of being there is still important. In fact, being there can be even more effective when "there" is a translocal, even transnational space.

Of course, no movement has the support of all the people. Occupy has taken a lot of heat for its lack of clarity on a concrete agenda and for the presence of participants who many Americans do not consider serious political actors. To me, the movement looks more like a group of people who have indisputably liberal tendencies but who became fed up for their own reasons. These protesters essentially share one thing: the suspicion that if the people with the most power are becoming richer than ever and most others are becoming poorer than they have been in a long time, there are probably better solutions to the problems facing our nation than the ones we are using at the moment. Unlike the Tea Party, which has sought change by entrenching itself in the bureaucracy, the occupy protesters seem to believe that a more immediate strategy is both necessary and more likely to work.

As a final note on the power of grassroots-mediated images, I want to acknowledge the sympathetic skeptics of the internet who try to prevent us from getting carried away with our own rhetoric, like the people who brought us this picture:

I struggle with the Western tendency to flatten representations of Africa into representations of poverty and "underdevelopment", but images like this also help keep things in perspective.


  1. i do understand your point! however, being an American, and knowing that the people in my country are suffering from poverty (poverty, meaning we're unable to keep our bodys well-nourished with enough food), its a sad case! i do understand that the "99%" stands nothing close compared to those living in Africa. but we're not complaining that we're not being fed enough! we're complaining about the injustice in our society! we're complaining about the 1% in America that stole our moneys, when they clearly belonged to us! we're complaining about America not being fair to the middle class and asking more of our taxes! we're complaining about why America (the land of injustice) has not punished those in power that have stolen our money! that's our problem! if we don't stand up for our own rights NOW--- then we're probably going to become like those children in Africa, under the rule of the Portugese (but in our case, under the rule of the rich)!!!

  2. What do you mean by "under the rule of the Portuguese"?Portugal gave freedom to those territories 37 years ago!

  3. I should clarify the dates: as I say in the post, the studio recordings on the album were recorded in 1976. The war for independence ended the year before. The tape of Haden's speech was originally recorded in 1971, and it's not clear exactly what year the other tape is from, but it was released by a group formed in 1967 and contains the voice of a rebel killed in 1968. The song pertains to then-relevant issues just like the images depicting discontent speak to the present moment.