Not So Candid Camera

Why conservatives are having mixed luck getting video of angry, violent liberals.

A protestor looks over a railing while standing inside the Wisconsin State Capitol
A protestor in the Wisconsin state capitol

When I was in Wisconsin covering the protests of a budget bill that would slash union rights and powers, I stopped by a free “Non-Violence Training Session” that had been advertised on posters at the Capitol. The sessions had been going on for days, and were put on, for the most part, by activists from the Grassroots Leadership College in Madison.

The lesson was brief. I was actually the only person to show up on time, at 8 p.m. So I got my own rundown of the tips hundreds had received before me and hundreds have since. They started with a couple of questions.

“Why would you protest nonviolently?” asked my trainer.

I speculated that you might care for your fellow man. Or you might figure that protesting violently would tar your comrades by associations.

“That’s right,” she said.

On Friday, the three-week protest in Madison moved into a new phase, with activists peacefully leaving the Capitol, where they’d been sleeping, and planning more daily and weekend rallies. They got loud, and they shouted down legislators and Fox News, and they were photographed with signs comparing Scott Walker to Hitler. But they didn’t get violent.

There was a lot riding on that. The Wisconsin showdown has, mostly, avoided becoming another skirmish in a tedious culture war—the battle between liberals and conservatives, both armed with cameras, to prove that the other side is hopelessly crude, violent, vile, Nazi-obsessed, and responsible for America losing its way.

Oh, it could have become that. On Thursday, Politico’s Ken Vogel ticked off the many videos produced by Wisconsin Republicans and conservative activists who looked for video gold at the solidarity rallies held around the country. In Boston, Washington, and Atlanta, unidentified men shoved Tea Party activists who’d showed up to counterprotest union rallies. (The videographer in Atlanta responded to this with Hollywood timing: “Hey! He assaulted him! Right there! I want to file charges on that man!”)

In Wisconsin, videographers had to settle for video of impolite signs: “Walker Sucks Koch,” “Don’t Retreat, Reload,” Walker with the telltale Hitler mustache. The MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank, got a scoop when it captured doctors handing out sick notes to protesters who weren’t sick. But it didn’t film any violence. Christian Hartsock, a conservative videographer who’d filmed liberals at a California anti-Koch brothers rally and egged them on to describe the violent acts they wanted to commit on Justice Clarence Thomas, showed up in Madison to document the first big pro-union rally. He didn’t see violence, either.

“I was impressed with many of the folks I met in the crowd,” Hartsock told me. “While there were plenty of exceptions, as we’ve seen, many of the protesters I met were truly decent, kind-eyed, regular people. There was not the same pervasive, knee-jerk, pathological hatred that I encountered in Palm Springs.”

This wasn’t all due to training from professional nonviolent types. Something like 80,000 liberal protesters came to Madison for the rally Hartsock covered. They weren’t foul, but they were skeptical. And this is the pattern of protests-meeting-video cameras. At the first Tea Party protests, activists were happy to see media—any media—showing up to cover them. By the end of 2010, it was tough to talk to some protesters, because they’d gotten angry at mainstream reporting on the movement, and they’d heard, truthfully, that the NAACP and groups like New Left Media were showing up at rallies looking to score footage of people behaving with maximum levels of jackassery.

It took only weeks for liberal, pro-union protesters to reach this level of outrage at the media. There has been no violence in Madison, but there has been video of angry people chanting and prodding Mike Tobin, a reporter for Fox News. “These people hate,” Tobin groused in one broadcast. In another report, when a man covered up Tobin’s camera with a glove, Tobin stopped him: “He’s trying to shut down the communication!” Here was proof of union violence! Except it wasn’t. It was proof of plugged-in liberals, very aware of how the news cycle works, very aware of what kind of videos make it on Fox News, treating cameras as an enemy of solidarity.

The reporters who showed up in Madison without Fox News stickers on their cameras got treated differently. University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse and her husband have written and recorded video, respectively, of the protests and have come away more bemused by the circus than terrified by violence.

“Things have been really peaceful, by and large,” wrote Althouse last week, “to an amazing degree, considering the difficulty of keeping a large, diverse crowd energized enough to look like a good demonstration without tipping any individual over the edge into something ugly, even as the days wear on and on.”

There’s a reason for that. A lot of the Tea Party’s success came after its key leaders reverse-engineered the tactics of Saul Alinsky, the community organizer and author of Rules of Radicals. The left had been using this stuff for years, and political operatives on the right had copied some of it (compare Donald Segretti’s work with Alinsky’s). But it wasn’t really until 2009 that conservatives appreciated advice like “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” or “Ridicule is man’s most important weapon.”

Even the protesters outside Wisconsin have figured this out. FreedomWorks’ Tabitha Hale, who was shoved by an unidentified Communication Workers of America protester as she filmed him outside the organization’s Washington offices, recounted the scene at RedState.com. She had a new, key detail: “The concern from a bystander was that ‘You’ll get on the news, stop it!’ Unfortunately for him, he did not know who he was dealing with. I will ensure that this happens.”

The shove did make the news, and the video of it is lurching toward 300,000 views on YouTube. It confirmed, for conservatives, that union thugs were fighting back over Wisconsin. Every reasonably solid video of a shove or insult made it to Breitbart.tv. They just haven’t broken into the narrative about the protests the way that 2009 videos of rebellion at congressional town halls did, or even Hartsock’s Palm Springs video did. (This week, some congressional Republicans called for an investigation of Common Cause because the group had organized the event where those activists embarrassed themselves on camera.) There hasn’t been any dip in support for unions; there has been a dip in support for Scott Walker.

The videographers have not given up. FreedomWorks activists are on the ground in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, and Utah “this weekend through the next two weeks,” according to the group. They want to supplement the FlipCam videos they’ve already been getting. They want documentary evidence of union anger out there so powerful that the media can’t avoid it. But who doesn’t know that he’s venturing into the view of tiny cameras every time he attends a rally? Who trusts the media? Who wants to wind up as the face of Violence Breaking Out and wrecking his cause? The new age of protests is bringing on more self-consciousness and more détente.