On the night of October 25th, police officers fired teargas and flash grenades into a crowd of “Occupy Wall Street” protesters in Oakland, CA. The event was a significant escalation of force following weeks of arrests and threats of mandatory dispersal issued by police and local officials in American cities. The morning after the Oakland confrontation, news outlets were awash with chaotic images of police in riot gear and protesters scattering from smoke-filled streets, their hands clutched to their mouths and eyes. It was later revealed that a young war veteran named Scott Olsen was left in critical condition after one of the teargas canisters ricocheted off his head.
Much of the news coverage of the violence in Oakland stemmed from videos and twitter pictures posted online by the protestors themselves. The New York Times published demonstrator’s twitpics with their original hashtags (The aftermath of the Oakland Police’s continued assault on occupiers and demonstrators. #StandWithOakland #OccupyO http://twitpic.com/75xhe3) insisting on the savagery of the police. Cinéma vérité clips of young people rushing to Olsen’s aid in front of a wall of riot police quickly became available and were broadcast alongside film captured by news crews. Indeed the OWS protests, like the right-wing Tea Party protests before them, are ready-made events for the 24-hour news spectacle.
The amplified spectacle of the skirmish in Oakland tells a horrifying story of disproportionate police action, a brutal crackdown. Wisely, the protestors did not publish pictures of the bottles, rocks, kitchen utensils, or M-80 explosives O.P.D. officers allege were hurled their way. Nor did their hashtags mention any taunting or instigation, particularly the types of provocations that would prompt standard practice crowd dispersal tactics commonly used by police in urban areas, atrocious as those tactics are known to be. Media savvy demonstrators understand that the populist rhetoric of the movement – their broad message of discontent over institutionalized disparity ingrained within the economic system – is easily distorted by boisterous detractors, and that the messaging battle will be won with resonant images and symbols capable of stirring public sympathies. To that effect, the grievous events in Oakland were remarkably useful.
Coincidentally, it was on the morning of October 25th that I visited the “Vision and Communism” exposition at the Smart Museum on the University of Chicago campus. While the future luminaries of Classical Economic theory toiled just a few buildings away, and only a few hours before the first images were broadcast from Oakland, I was perusing Communist propaganda posters by mid-Century Soviet illustrator Viktor Koretsky. Like the twitpics and videos that would come later in the day, the images I saw at the Smart Museum were grim, emotional, and easily digestible.
The original maquette for a poster titled “American Policy” (1970’s) features two vignettes of uniformed men abusing their respective captives. The image on the left shows cops beating a defenseless black man, while the image on the right shows soldiers standing over a half-naked body in a burning village. These parallel images of suffering are reflected in the lenses of the sunglasses on the tightly cropped face of a scowling “big boss man” character – a symbol of bureaucratic authority. Koretsky was referencing the struggle for civil rights in America and the war in Vietnam in order to vilify America’s ideal of freedom and justice as rhetorical hypocrisy. Outside of their respective contexts, Koretsky’s poster and the images from Oakland bear a striking resemblance.
One of the valuable things about seeing Koretsky’s original maquettes is that they reveal the importance of collage in the process of creating one of the illustrator’s posters. While the rendering of the boss man character in “American Policy” is similar to a cartoon, the vignettes of the police and the soldiers have a certain photographic quality that suggests they may have been sourced from newspaper images. Incorporating photo-journalism into his images allowed Koretsky to manipulate the aura of authenticity contained within the photographs for the purpose of denouncing his country’s ideological enemy. The maquettes reveal how a persuasive partisan argument can be framed around a relatively disinterested document.
The exhibtion contains a handful of more classic examples of what might be expected from a show about Soviet propaganda (also quite a few unexpectedly powerful posters expressing solidarity with black South Africans during apartheid), though a surprising number of posters speak knowingly of the conflicts that challenged mid-century America, i.e. foreign war, social and economic justice, and the growth of the military industrial complex. Koretsky’s posters rouse an emotional reaction not only because he was a master propagandist, but also because there are elements of truth behind what he produced. That is what makes these posters more difficult to ignore than the rote images of hypernationalistic sacrifice, happy-faced factory workers, or benevolently smiling political leaders that were typical of the Socialist Realism canon.
But even the truthfulness of the posters does not make them true. They are still works of propaganda and propaganda always manipulates facts for political ends. As I watched the images from Oakland flood the airwaves on October 25, I saw a movement documenting an ugly episode in its brief history, and simultaneously intensifying the construction of an argument.