Joining the Occupy Wall Street protests has its dangers. You could get pepper-sprayed or end up in handcuffs. Or, as Brooklyn-based journalist Caitlin Curran explains, your boss could see a photo of you holding up a sign at a protest and fire you the next day.
It all started with an article on The Atlantic's web site. Conor Friedersdorf's piece "Occupy Wall Street's Greatest Strength Is Neutering It," echoed what many people are wondering about the movement: what are they fighting for?
Friedersdorf criticized the Occupy movement for rallying against a symbolic, abstract Wall Street—"the average American's idea of Wall Street," rather than against specific people, regulations, or the board at Goldman Sachs, for example. The case against symbolic Wall Street is much weaker than the one against actual Wall Street, Friedersdorf wrote. Occupy supporters shouldn't focus on the impossible debate about whether or not Wall Street is good or evil, but instead should ask concrete questions, like whether regulations should exist for derivatives of mortgaged-backed securities. The Occupy movement has attracted many supporters who blame "Wall Street" for the present state of our economy. But for many people that's a confusing argument. Friedersdorf summed it up:
Figuring out precisely how to feel about Occupy Wall Street or ‘We are the 53 Percent' is difficult for many. Much easier to decide that it's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon.
My boyfriend, Will, and I decided to take Friedersdorf's words and use them, perhaps more literally than he intended. We printed them out, taped them to poster board, and headed to the Occupy Wall Street march in Times Square, on October 15. The plan was for Will to hold the sign, and for me to observe what happened and post reports to my personal Twitter account. (Video of Will attracting attention with the sign before I did is on your right, or click here to watch it.) But, inevitably, Will developed sign-holding fatigue, and I took over momentarily. I was standing beneath a news ticker near West 43rd Street and Broadway, and people began cheering as a headline about the movement scrolled across the ticker. I looked up, and at that moment a photographer took a photo of me holding the sign, and posted it to Twitter shortly thereafter.
The next day, Boing Boing co-editor Xeni Jardin posted the photo as the site's Occupy Wall Street sign of the day, the post circulated around Tumblr, Friedersdorf himself saw it and wrote about it, as did Felix Salmon at Reuters, who called me "one of those protestors that photographers dream of" and the sign "true, and accurate, and touching, and grammatical, and far too long to be a slogan, and gloriously bereft of punctuation, and ending even more gloriously in a mildly archaic preposition."
Beyond that, Salmon noted, the sign's internet notoriety showed that there was something about it that resonated with people. Which was really the whole point of why we made the sign, and of Friedersdorf's piece.
I thought all of this could be fodder for an interesting segment on The Takeaway—a morning news program co-produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International—for which I had been working as a freelance web producer roughly 20 hours per week for the past seven months. I pitched the idea to producers on the show, in an e-mail.
The next day, The Takeaway's general manager fired me over the phone, effective immediately. He was inconsolably angry, and said that I had violated every ethic of journalism, and that this should be a "teaching moment" for me in my career as a journalist. The segment I had pitched, of course, would not happen. Ironically, the following day Marketplace did pretty much the exact segment I thought would have been great on The Takeaway, with Kai Ryssdal discussing the sign and the Goldman Sachs deal it alluded to in terms that were far from neutral.
That same week Lisa Simeone was in a similar situation. Simeone is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist, former host of the public radio program "Soundprint," and current host of "The World of Opera," which NPR announced last week it will no longer distribute. She was fired from "Soundprint," after conservative site The Daily Caller criticized her (and NPR) for supporting Occupy D.C. Simeone and I don't know each other, though we do have some similarities: we're both journalists, both of us were at one time affiliated with NPR in some way, and I grew up in Baltimore, where Simeone lives now.
When last week's events first came to light, she told the Baltimore Sun: "I find it puzzling that NPR objects to my exercising my rights as an American citizen - the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assembly—on my own time in my own life… I've never brought a whiff of my political activities into the work I've done for NPR World of Opera. What is NPR afraid I'll do—insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of Madame Butterfly?"
I attempted to find others, besides myself and Simeone, who have been fired for their involvement with the Occupy movement, but wasn't able to find anyone who wanted to go on the record about it—though I did get a prompt response from Occupy Wall Street's media desk, and an e-mail from someone in Mobile, Alabama saying "Occupy Wall Street folks don't have jobs, if they did they would not be there in the middle of the work week," further proof of the national confusion over who Occupiers are.
These are issues that will become ingrained in the movement as it evolves, and that potential protesters and their employers will need to face as Occupy becomes "mainstreamed," as Katha Pollitt called it in the Nation last week. Pollitt pointed out that, just a few weeks ago the few media outlets acknowledging Occupy mostly saw it as a rag-tag collection of hippies. Now, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is saying he "can't blame" protesters for being angry, and Suze Orman is challenging its detractors, saying "to deride the movement because it has yet to formulate a well-delineated platform says plenty more about the critics than the protestors."
My thinking ran along the same lines as Simeone's. It's unclear to me how our participation, on our personal time, in a non-partisan movement warrants termination from our jobs. If the protest is so lacking, in terms of message and focus, then how can my involvement with it go against The Takeaway's ethical policies? In other words, if I'm associated with a party-less movement (and barely associated, since that was only the second time I've attended an Occupy Wall Street event), and have never exercised bias in editing The Takeaway's website, what's the harm?
On one hand, isn't it great that, as Friedersdorf wrote, our "decentralized networked-era culture" makes a movement like this possible, and as Salmon wrote, "the sentiment behind Occupy Wall Street has resonated worldwide," as a result. But on the other hand, we live in an age where I can carry a sign expressing a non-partisan, seemingly inarguable message at a peaceful protest, unknowingly have my photo taken and disseminated around the world, and subsequently be fired as a result, all within a matter of days. What are the implications of this for a democracy founded on free speech ideals? Are these "teaching moments" like mine going to dissuade people who have jobs they want to keep from expressing their opinions, however benign?
Caitlin E. Curran is a Brooklyn-based journalist and web producer. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Spin, and Boston Phoenix. You can find her on Twitter at @cecurran.