On September 17th I responded to a Twitter notice from Molly Crabapple’s call for independent reviewers to read and review Discordia, her collaboration with British journalist Laurie Penny about the year following Occupy Wall Street and the continued protests in Greece. In the few minutes it took me to respond to her tweet and convey the necessary details, news broke that Molly Crabapple had just been arrested as part of the crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street anniversary. The irony does not get much thicker than that.
Discordia is an attempt at a new form of journalism – something independent, unique and a response to both the corporate monopoly of traditional news outlets as well as the unfiltered and chaotic mass of tweets, Facebook posts, and blogger accounts which beam “news” non-stop around the world without any editorial interference. Penny and Crabapple are attempting to capture the immediacy and personality of the ongoing conflict in Greece, but do so in a slightly more controlled and unbiased manner than either traditional media or the undisciplined blogger is often able to provide.
In the summer of 2012 Penny and Crabapple travelled to Greece, the home of some of the most intense and prolonged protests about unsustainable economic disparity. It was a trip that set out to understand not only what was happening in Greece, but also to find out what had happened to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Laurie Penny’s writing is engaging and personal. It is gonzo-journalism at its finest as Penny tries to get as close to the people, places, and activities as she can. She does so without an official “press pass”, noting that a badge like that more often than not separates a writer from the people to whom she most wants to talk. A press pass is a sign that you work for the corporations, not the people. Along the way she meets anarchists, journalists, students, social workers, and a myriad of people who all have one thing in common: they are tired of the situation, but are unsure exactly how to proceed to cause a real and lasting change.
More or less the thesis of the book can be summed up by the following passage: “I’m sick of the intimidation and the bullying. It’s more than just the impotent anger you feel when you see people you like who’ve done nothing wrong frightened and hit and hurt. It’s the sense that the police can do this to you whenever they feel like it, and what’s more, they want you to know they have that power: step out of line and we will fuck you up. Question austerity and we will fuck you up, lock you away, beat you bloody, hell, take a picture and we’ll take you down.”
Penny recognizes that it is the police, the corporations, and the media which are crushing the protests and the ability for anyone to foment real change. People are angry, frustrated, and impotent. Penny herself feels that way. but she is going to write this book to show people that there is a way to move beyond the corporate controlled media to create a narrative which is controlled by the protestors – a narrative which can not only report, but move people to action.
Discordia is full of her call for a different type of media such as:
“Right now, if you care about a media culture that actually informs, you have to make it yourself.”
“To my mind, the best one can ever do as a writer is be honest about your background and partialities and try to understand how they affect your outlook, to practise compassion over caricature while negotiating the demands of bosses, editors and libel laws designed to protect the business interests of the rich.”
The book really is separated into two parallel narratives. The first is the aforementioned thoughts on the changing role of journalism (and particularly journalists) in a world where technology reigns and anyone with a smartphone and internet access can report on events in real-time. Much of this narrative, while interesting, is repetitive, revisiting the same four or five points again and again, just with slightly different people engaged in the conversation.
Where the book shines is in the reports she gives about the people they meet and the things they see. This is compelling and powerful. It takes the impersonal stories we all hear about protests and riots and brings them down to a personal level with real people, real faces, and real stories. Stories about fifteen year olds shot by police (while the journalist who took a picture of the incident is fired). Stories about people on strike because they cannot afford to work for the wages they are being offered. People who kill themselves rather than be forced to root through garbage cans for a meal. It is painful to read. Heartbreaking. And all the more frustrating when you read that none of these are isolated incidents.
Penny’s narrative is punctuated by poignant illustrations by Crabapple. Fans of her work will see the same line work they are used to, but the subject matter is drastically different. Gone are the fantasies and whimsical caricatures of symbolism. In their place are scenes of sun-soaked and dusty plazas, tired faces, and ubiquitous graffiti. The effect is startling. Somehow the situation all becomes a bit more real because Crabapple has taken the time to capture not just the reality of the situation, but the personality as well, something a photograph or YouTube clip could never do. “With Discordia, I wanted to help prove that, in a world where a thousand iPhone photos mark each time a cop smashes a protester’s skull, illustration still has something to say.”
Discordia is a quick read, but not an easy read. At 70 pages, the book can easily be read in just one sitting. However I found that the situations described were so intense and so disconcerting that I had to put down the book and walk away for a bit. As a middle-class guy living far away from it all, I have that luxury. For the hundreds of thousands of people living Discordia on a daily basis, they do not have that luxury.
Discordia is a new kind of journalism. It is local, personal, and immediate. Because it is digital-only, additions can, and have, been made all the way up until release. The final section of the book takes place in the days after Crabapple’s arrest on the September 17th, a reminder that the struggle is ongoing.