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#OccupyWallStreet: There's Something Happening Here, Mr. Jones

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, October 1 2011

"During movement times, the people involved have the same problems and can go from one communication to the next, start a conversation in one place and finish it in another. Now we're in what I call an organizational period, which has limited objectives, doesn't spread very rapidly and has a lot of paid people and bureaucracy. It's completely different from what takes place when there is a social movement."
--Myles Horton, from his book "The Long Haul", talking about his work with two American social movements, the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s

America is about to experience the same youth-driven, hyper-networked wave of grassroots protests against economic inequality and political oligarchy that have been rocking countries as disparate as Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Spain. The occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature last winter was a harbinger, but now all kinds of previously disconnected individuals, loosely centered on a core of beautiful-style troublemakers and inspired by events and methods honed overseas, are linking up and showing up to occupy symbolically important centers in their cities, from near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan 15 days ago, next to Chicago a week ago, to an explosion of events all over major cities across America this weekend, including at the Federal Reserve building in Boston, MacPherson Square in Washington, DC, to city hall in Los Angeles, plus more than 100 others. This thing is growing in Internet time and no wonder, for it is built on networked culture.

Like many observers, I started out sympathetic but skeptical when I heard about the "Occupy Wall Street" protest several weeks ago. Sympathetic because I agree that the hyper-financialization of the American economy is at the root of many of our current problems (see Kevin Phillips' 2007 book "Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism" if you want the whole story), and because I think broad moral demands like the ones implied by protests against the symbol of "Wall Street" can change the political climate, which with rare exceptions is vociferously against anything that challenges the two-party "Washington Consensus" in favor of unchecked individual greed, neoliberal aftermeasures, low taxes on the wealthy and overextended empire overseas. But I was skeptical for all kinds of reasons.

The notion of "taking" Wall Street didn't make physical sense: as a longtime New Yorker who has been down there at protests, I knew that the police would never let protesters get anywhere close to shutting down the Stock Exchange. Nor did it seem likely that you could get enough people to mass in the area to effectively stop business as usual. There are obviously lots of people who are hurting in today's economy, but the larger immediate environment of Manhattan is hardly representative of the rest of America; we're floating on a bubble of rich people who makes their homes here, plus tons of tourists, and many of the ordinary people who live or work near downtown make their money from Wall Street's trickle down. Sure, we have many struggling folks in New York, but many of them choose to be here because they're seeking their fortune in one of the city's many glittering industries. Without real roots in the outer borough (and outer suburb) working communities--where the cops, firefighters, teachers, construction workers, health service workers and small business operators mostly live--and with a seeming surplus of misfits and the usual Hollywood liberals showing up to send their off-putting signals to the rest of the country, Occupy Wall Street seemed ill-suited to strike the chord of American discontent with the economy and see its message resonate.

Well, something is happening here, Mr. Jones. The protest, or occupation, is now in its third week, and in addition to a steadily increasing level of media coverage, this coming Wednesday a range of local unions and progressive groups are planning to rally their members to join in. Stubborn resilience plus some outraged media attention to police brutality seems to have been enough to light the spark, but beneath that, credit must go to the horizontal adhocracy running the occupation downtown, which has developed its own infrastructure for internal and external communication and social support. And it's doing this without obvious leaders (who could be arrested and held to suppress the movement) or institutional backers (who could be pressured), and with a wide array of networked support that is being marshaled via Internet Relay Chat, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, livestreaming, online video and street theatre. Some highlights:

  • The original call to action from Adbusters;
  • The "Global Revolution" Livestream feed, which has several thousand watching at any given time, even when it isn't bringing live video from downtown, showing short clips from Anonymous, George Carlin and other troublemakers (132,000 likes as of October 1);
  • The OccupyWallStreet IRC channel run by Anonops;
  • The "We are the 99 Percent" Tumblr collection of autobiographical photos from people facing all kinds of economic hardship, which seems to have a lot of stories from the families of American war veterans;
  • The "Carpool to #Occupy Wallstreet" Facebook page, which people are using to self-organize trips from all over the country and Canada (4,100 likes, rising by about 500 a day);
  • The Occupy Wall Street subreddit on Reddit.com, which is a very efficient news aggregator for the movement;
  • The Kickstarter page raising money to create an Occupy Wall Street Journal broadsheet aimed at the general public (now at double its $12,000 initial funding goal)
  • The "Nobody Can Predict The Moment of Revolution" video, which evokes the scene in all its youthful and not-so-youthful enthusiasms (now more than 100,000 views);
  • The Occupy Together news hub, which is curating links to Occupy efforts in more than 100 cities across the US, plus two dozen overseas, as of this writing.

This movement is messy and its decision-making process is participatory in the extreme, which some people adore (because it makes room for all to have a say, compared to our elite- and money-driven political system) and others abhor (because ordinary working people typically can't devote the time to long meetings and "structure-less" decision-making usually empowers a few people in unaccountable ways). And while we know how to use networks to develop and support "stop" energy, it's much harder to develop and enact "do" energy around specific demands. See Nathan Schneider's detailed and sympathetic blog posts "#OccupyWallStreet is more than a hashtag" and "Wall Street occupiers inch toward a demand--by living it" for a nuanced discussion of the scene as it has been unfolding, check out this first-person description of the dynamics of trying to change one phrase in a collectively written and as-yet-unfinished "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City" to make it more sensitive to race and racism, and if you want to dig in deeper, go to Kevin Gosztola's daily liveblogging on Firedoglake.

But I think it's time to recognize that we're no longer in a what veteran activist Myles Horton would have called an organizational phase of political activity, where meetings have walls around them, messages have managers, advocacy is centrally paid for and done by professional lobbyists, marches have beginnings and endings, and the story line goes neatly gives from petition to legislation to reform.

Instead, in America we're now entering into a third wave of movement politics (the first being the rise of the "netroots" within the Democratic party after its leadership collapse between 2000-2003; and the second being the rise of the Tea Party after the conservative losses of 2006 and 2008). I don't pretend to know where the "Occupy" movement is going to go, though its main purpose appears to be to show first of all that it is here to stay, and to force a different perspective into a national discourse that up until now has marginalized and ignored grassroots anti-corporate social justice advocacy. By putting their bodies down at the figurative center of power in America and refusing to leave, the Occupy Wall Street protestors are inventing a new way to gain voice in the national political process. In the coming days, we will see whether this rising new movement is listened to, or if the same people who gave us the Washington Consensus will, despite their failings and their need for an American spring, choose to close their ears and call in the cops in force.