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#OWS: Tech-Savvy Occupiers Hope to Open-Source a Movement

BY Nick Judd | Monday, November 21 2011

For some of the more tech-savvy Occupy Wall Street protesters here in New York City, the busted laptops were the last straw.

Gathered last Friday evening in an auditorium midtown, members of the OWS protesters' spokes council — a gathering of representatives from its various working groups, with names like "Direct Action" and "Legal" but also "Occupy Dignity" and "Herbal Tea" — struggled to compile a list of their biggest priorities. "Justice for this week" made it on the board; after all, protesters believe police have destroyed thousands of dollars' worth of laptops and other equipment along with the tents and tarps protesters had used to camp out in Zuccotti Park overnight.

As protesters rebuild and begin to implement a new strategy, they are looking to the technologists among them to provide the infrastructure they'll need to connect what is, for now, a movement sprawled across the entire city, with office space in lower Manhattan and a running list of which churches are open for people who need a place to stay. They're being asked to do that even as they look to bounce back from arrests that left them with new bruises and fewer possessions.

One of the guys who's short some gear is Isaac Wilder, a 21-year-old open-source advocate and protester. Wilder says that in addition to being separated from his possessions — "they took a baseball bat to everything they could find," he alleged — he has police charges to deal with.

"I got what we call the triple play, which is trespass, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of governmental administration," Wilder told me.

When you add resisting arrest, he told me, that's the grand slam. A colleague now faces all of that plus inciting to riot, for which no vocabulary yet exists.

What Wilder no longer has is the Occupy Wall Street "FreedomTower," a $2,090 WiFi-hotspot-on-steroids that was designed to provide open Internet access to the entire park. (It was more than just a hotspot — Neil Ungerleider has more details in a story from early last month.)

"We'll have another one by Thanksgiving," he told me Friday, although it's unclear where it might go; one of the other immediate needs the occupiers listed was a space to actually occupy. Over the weekend, it seems protesters settled on Duarte Park, several blocks north of their old Zuccotti home.

The more tech-adept occupiers seem to be among the hardest hit by the sense of violation that came with seeing photos of rows of busted laptops. After all, it's hard to code without a keyboard — but the techies, some of whom typed away on netbooks during their Friday meeting, aren't the only ones who were using that equipment. In previous visits to occupied Zuccotti Park, I saw the occupiers' media team in the evenings — at least earlier in the occupation — encoding and cutting the video they had recorded during each day's events. Occupiers' info teams used General Assembly-provided laptops to stay connected at the park's information desk.

"They smashed our shit," said an occupier named Adam, from the Design working group, at the spokescouncil on Friday. But for him it wasn't just about the objects, it was about what techies did with them: Build websites, put out messages, manage the ebb and flow of information about the occupation on the Internet.

"Those computers are the apparatus through which our First Amendment rights exist," Adam said.

The raid, and the confiscation of occupiers' possessions, have wider-reaching consequences. The occupiers' kitchen is now trying to deliver meals to protesters scattered around the city. Another working group strives to keep occupiers updated with which churches have open beds for those who were sleeping at the park and now have no place else to go. The process of attempting to retrieve confiscated property is, occupiers said Friday, also difficult: Knowing where to go, a Department of Sanitation facility on the far West Side, and when, is not as easy as it should be, it seems.

And with the occupiers spending nights scattered in several locations, the onus is now on the tech team and others working with communications to keep everybody on the same page. While the assembly has a website to provide information about upcoming events and give people the means to communicate, many occupiers don't have Internet access. Information can also be unreliable; the spokes council meeting, for instance, was publicized on the site as starting an hour earlier than it actually did. On Friday, occupiers discussed setting up a 1-800 number to provide updated information. To connect working groups, the vehement open-source advocates at the spokes council meeting Friday offered to set up Google Apps for any group that wants it, although they practically had to hold their noses in the process. They also say they're ready to roll out an open-source constituent relationship management database — the type of software that powers email outreach for nonprofits and sales for corporations — for the occupation's outreach and movement-building working groups, filled with emails gathered here and there over the course of their two months in New York.

Many among this group of techies believe in open-source software as an alternative to proprietary solutions in much the same way other activists believe in community banks as an alternative to Chase or Wells Fargo: Code that is open and shared is inherently transparent and participatory, while to them, proprietary software — like a corporate bank, I think they would say — is designed in part to sell you out while making it difficult to figure out precisely how. The developers of a proprietary email system, Salsa Labs, have for weeks been offering their own platform — used by AFL-CIO and others — to occupations, for free, to little avail.

"The central hub in New York, they're kinda open source zealots," Jeanette Russell, Salsa's director of outreach, told me late last month. "And because we're not 'pure' enough, they're reluctant to share this offer, and they themselves are not interested."

One member of the tech team I spoke to said they didn't speak directly to people from Salsa and weren't necessarily opposed to having the occupation use Salsa, it's just they were focused on building an open-source alternative — using software called CiviCRM — because they wanted to be spending their time on something that would be freely available to all the other occupations.

"We probably could have gotten more outreach bang for our buck using these systems," the protester, Devin Balkind, told me. "But the purpose is to do it ourselves. The purpose is to compete with the mainstream approach."

Members of the occupation's tech team, a network of named teams with one called the Internet Working Group and another called the Free, Libre and Open-Source Group near the center, told me that they do have grand open-source designs — but they are also aware that they'll have to balance their ideological aims with Occupy Wall Street's immediate needs. There was another reason to put off launching their CRM, Balkind told me: There had to be a structure in place such that the occupation's email list wouldn't be used except as the General Assembly directed it be used.

"Now we're matured," Balkind, who is working on the CRM system, told me. "We're not going to be co-opted easily."

In other words, some technologists were worried that if they gave over the keys to a list management program earlier on, it would have too easily been co-opted.

"We could collect all those emails and start emailing Ron Paul shit," Balkind said. "That's what I would do, because I'm a Ron Paul guy."

But the way things will be set up, he couldn't do that without being held accountable, thanks to a permissions structure — and that's the point. (The occupiers are starting to train people on using their new CRM today.)

Protesters like Balkind and Wilder pursue their dream of an open-source society one line of code at a time in parallel with a larger movement focused on broader issues of inequality — with no shortage of reminders to that effect. In a follow-up interview, Wilder told me he personally thinks "the free network is an essential part of the global struggle for justice." Balkind told me that part of the point of doing work on CiviCRM, which has a reputation for being difficult to set up, maintain and use, is to build it up to the point that it can become a more viable alternative in the same way that the occupiers' horizontal organizational structure is supposed to become an example that others can pick up and use.

On Friday, as Wilder, Balkind and other Occupy Wall Street technologists sat at the meeting of occupiers' working groups, they were given one of those reminders that there are issues at stake other than open code. One group represented Friday was Occupy the Hood, an initiative to get more people of color involved in the Occupy movement.

"The park got fucked up, and that's terrible," said a man who gave his name as Sammy from Occupy the Hood. Sammy, who is black, was standing in front of a circle of largely twentysomething, largely scruffy, largely white, largely male, protesters.

"But this right here is Zion, if you've ever seen the Matrix." He went on to say that the protesters had prevailed — like characters in the Matrix, they had escaped to their refuge to plan their next move. He also said that being scattered was not so bad, because meetings of different groups within the #OWS crowd could be linked together with live-streaming. He suggested that rather than focus on the insult to their pride and possessions, the occupiers instead go out into the neighborhoods and build support there by building infrastructure for oppressed communities.

"A lot of you all are just now experiencing struggle" for the first time, he said. "There's something I have to comment on."

By this time, the more race-conscious in the room had caught on and were chuckling and smirking, perhaps in chagrin.

"Where is it. There it is. 'Justice from last week.'" The crowd erupted in cheers, applause and laughter.

"That's us," he said, gesturing to himself.

I'm glad, he said, with the occupation's technologists looking on, to see you all in this with us now, too.