The Wednesday Weigh-In: “Protester of the Year” Edition

Times cover in red and gold hues of female Arab protester with face obscuredTime magazine has named the “collective protester around the world” as its person of the year. The magazine goes on the newsstands Friday, and interestingly, amazingly, beautifully, the  cover photo is of a female Arab protester.

I’m thrilled to see the Arab Spring, and to a lesser extent, related protests around the world including Occupy Wall Street, honored and acknowledged in this way. It’s so rare for the grassroots origins of social change to be celebrated in large, powerful media spaces like this. And the street protesters of today deserve it!! They are working so hard, and sacrificing so much, in the name of social change.

Time managing editor Richard Stengel seemed to agree in an interview he gave to NBC on the selection.

There’s this contagion of protest,” he said. “These are folks who are changing history already and they will change history in the future.

I’m also sort of fascinated with and maybe a little curious about the decision to honor the anonymous protester, rather than naming a specific, tangible one, who has done something concrete. I get that it’s hard to single out just one protester out of the hundreds of thousands that have emerged as local leaders and grassroots change-makers. And I’m not saying I disagree with what they’ve done.

But it still feels like a slight copout to make the protester nameless, generic, when there are so many real-life, highly identifiable protesters out there doing real work. Maybe copout is too strong of a word. I still feel like the overall effect of the choice positive.

People who work on social change are pretty consistently portrayed as selfless, or pressured to remain anonymous to keep the spotlight off them and on their work. But the truth is that what they’re doing is work, and they deserve as much credit as someone who is choosing to do their work in another sphere, like social media. Why should Mark Zuckerburg get true, high-profile glory, while protesters get a generic, symbolic nod?

I haven’t seen the story to accompany the piece, and maybe it names some specific protesters. At the end of the day, I know that this is more of a creative editorial idea than some deeply symbolic gesture towards systematic invalidation of the work behind social change.

Which brings me to this week’s Wednesday Weigh-In.

What do you think of Time Magazine’s selection for Person of the Year? If it were up to you, who would your singular, real-life pick for “protester of the year” be?

For more reactions to the decision, check out Time’s “6 Basic Twitter Reactions”.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted December 14, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to inform all that the woman who is pictured on the Time magazine cover is not Arab. Her name is Sarah Mason and she is a protester at Occupy LA. Here’s the link to the article that reveals her name: http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2011/12/times_protester_cover_an.php
    And here is a picture of Sarah at the protest wearing a bandana over her mouth to protect her from pepper spray: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-IkIarKF8Kgk/TsXR-g7j6DI/AAAAAAAADk8/PmCFzBAJfYo/s1600/dd1.jpg

  2. Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Check out the LA Weekly article calling Sarah Mason “the closest thing the Occupy Wall Street movement has to a princess.” I think it’s great that TIME chose a woman as the face “The Protester,” but this LA Weekly article seems to be hugging the line between merely identifying this nameless young woman and objectifying her. http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2011/12/shepard_fairey_time_person_of_the_year_occupy_la_protester.php

  3. Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    I like that they made it anonymous. To me it feels very much in line with the “leaderless movement” philosophy of the anti-globalization movements. There’s a reason so many protestors wear masks: not just to protect against chemical weapons but to perpetrate the view that we are any person, from your next door neighbor to your mother to a complete stranger, but the values and visions we share are more important than any one individual’s story.

    Time does have some profiles of individual protestors, and not just the biggest names out of their individual movements. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102138,00.html
    And my favorite is the profile of everyone’s favorite anarchist mascot, the Athens protest dog! http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2102191,00.html

    This article, coupled with the Nobel Peace Prize’s recognition of some kick ass female protestors who are vastly unknown outside of those familiar with the issues, and I’d say that the mainstream media might finally be figuring out that there’s something to all of this.

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