Reporting on the Occupy movement is a frustrating task, one that has been especially difficult for Susie Cagle. As a graphic journalist, Cagle covers Occupy Oakland with her signature blend of writing and cartooning. While her cartoons make her reporting stand out, they've also led to questions about her credibility. Since the movement began, she's been arrested, teargassed, and struggled to obtain a press pass from the Oakland Police Department. Despite that, she has continued to draw and write about Occupy. Cagle chatted with us about the future of the movement, the definition of journalism, and her work.
When did you start covering Occupy Oakland?
Since the beginning. The first rally was October 10.
And you've become embedded there?
I guess so. When there was a camp, I wasn't camping. That was the line I drew on how embedded I wanted to be. I'm certainly more embedded than most reporters.
What drew you to become so involved?
I've been down there more frequently since Oct. 25, the date of the first raid. Since then, it's become a much bigger story. Occupy Oakland was one of the few camps that was really welcoming the homeless population and really serving that population in a lot of ways. In other places, there seemed to be mixed feelings about homeless people being welcomed into the camp. The amount and quality of the infrastructure in the camp was interesting, especially from a visual perspective. Things like the kitchen and the library, I thought I could write about those things, but seeing them was a different experience. It seemed like not only a story worth covering, but a story worth covering with words and images together.
Now there is no camp, no infrastructure, so it's become a different story. It's pretty telling that we haven't seen a lot of long-form stuff about Occupy yet. Things are still changing so much that the only coverage you can do is day-to-day. Probably I will end up doing a graphic novel, but not strictly graphic novel with panels and everything. Probably more of a mix of words and images, like my work usually is.
You mention that the best way to portray this is through words and images. The cool thing about your work to me is that it has a personal interpretation, because you're drawing it, not photographing it.
Drawing is just as subjective as writing and just as subjective as photography. Photography to me is not pure documentation because the photographer chose and angle and chose a subject and chose the timing. I try to be intellectually honest with the way I draw things. I very rarely do caricatures. I also don't exaggerate what people say and do, which is what people think of when they hear "cartoons" and "cartoonists." I get what you're saying. It is a personal filter. I just see that personal filter in all different sorts of media. It's just really obvious in drawing because you see the drawing style before anything else.
Would call your work "documentation" rather than "artistic expression?"
Definitely. Absolutely, yes. I'm kind of troubled when people say that I'm an artist. I think people think it's nicer to call someone an artist than an illustrator or a cartoonist. I get that, but to my mind, it's not quite as accurate, because I think "artist" implies that I'm taking liberties with what I'm doing. I really don't think that I am. People really do think that anything that's drawn or looks stylized is so subjective as to possibly be false. I find that disturbing.
People are saying over and over that I'm an editorial cartoonist, and I think that's kind of the same thing. I usually don't call myself a cartoonist at all. I usually say graphic journalist. I do journalism, but it's in the form of drawings. I'm really pushing for that phrase to catch on. There are a lot of other people who do this stuff too. They're legitimate. They have scruples and ethics, and it's really important to all of us that what we draw be true. Oftentimes, when people call us an artist, it's a little patronizing and not quite true. It belies a full understanding of what we're trying to accomplish with our work.
What has Occupy Oakland accomplished?
It has certainly had some victories. In terms of lasting accomplishments, the greatest lasting accomplishment of the whole Occupy movement is just changing the national conversation. Not changing it to talking about Occupy, but changing it to talking about money and accountability for corporations and government. Political movements rely on media. I am always calling Occupy a PR war. I think a lot of times, everyone is losing.
Is the Occupy side of that PR war just to get their message out there and to have people paying attention on a national level?
More emphasis has been put on the message than needs to be. Actions are more telling in terms of the movement than just talking about the message. I was never troubled by the fact that there weren't specifically delineated demands. Seeing what was happening was much more interesting. That's how all this started. I didn't really care what the demands were, I thought the camp was interesting. To me, the camp was the demand. It was, "We don't need the city to get all this accomplished. Look at what we're doing without you, parallel to municipal government and city government." And that is the best way to win the PR war, more than doing interviews about demands and messages. It's certainly how Occupy got my attention.
What's next for Occupy?
A little less of the day-to-day camping and maintenance of spaces and more focused actions. Probably smaller ones. As it continues to change and grow, a lot of these things change from day to day. I would have said two weeks ago, "I don't know where this is going. They can't keep quorum at the general assembly at Oakland. I'm just not seeing the interest." But then you talk to someone who's making something happen. That's one aspect of it that I find really difficult to cover but really rewarding. Things aren't happening all out in the open. People are saying it's going underground; I don't know about that. But it is splitting apart in a constructive way. So much of this is all very young. It's hard to make predictions about where things will be in a month.