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Postage-Paid Protest Founder On How To Occupy Wall Street's Time

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, November 3 2011

As an open source movement, Occupy Wall Street keeps getting lucky with the ideas and creativity of its supporters. That's because there's no organization telling people what ideas are okay, no consultants conducting focus groups, and little of the soul-killing decisions by committee that prevent most traditional organizations from trying new ideas. Yes, each individual occupation has its own general assembly and working groups, and doing things through their modified-consensus decision-making process can be time-consuming. But the larger movement is wide open to all kinds of ideas and proposals; the good ones spread because they resonate with lots of people on their merits.

That's how to think of the latest tactic to bubble up from Occupy's grassroots, a campaign to "Keep Wall Street Occupied" that was dreamt up by Artie Moffa, a San Francisco-based part-time poet and SAT tutor who was frustrated that his day jobs kept him from participating directly in his local occupation. His idea, which he described in a short YouTube video that has had more than 400,000 views in just six days, steals a page from both Saul Alinsky and Abbie Hoffman. You know all those credit card solicitations banks send you all the time, he asks, sitting at his couch in a shirt and striped tie. Take the business reply envelope and stuff it with a message back to the bank, or if you're feeling like it, add a wood shim or something firm to add to the cost of the return mail. "Every hour banks spend responding to us is an hour banks don't spend lobbying Congress figuring out how to screw us," he notes. "If you can't occupy Wall Street, you can at least keep Wall Street occupied."

I got in touch with Hoffa online and asked him a couple of questions about how he came to do this.

Q: What's your background?

A: I live in San Francisco. I work two part-time jobs: I edit and market poetry books for Bicycle Comics, and I tutor students for the SAT and GRE. My hobbies are poetry slam and photography. If anything, I'm even more boring than I appear in the videos.

Q: Do you consider yourself a political activist?

A: No. Until OWS, I'd never marched or held up a sign for anything. I vote in every election. I write one or two letters to the editor per year. I write my Congressmen maybe three or four times per year. Poetry slams are famous, maybe infamous, for issue-based polemics, but I mostly tell jokes on stage.

Q: Had you done anything like this before?

A: Not really. About a month ago, I wrote a letter to the editors of The Economist, teasing them about a bad layout decision they made with the cover for their "Hunting the Rich" issue (Sep 24). I couldn't believe they printed my letter. I guess that experience itched the bugbite. I wanted to say a little more.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

A: It's not new. Andy Rooney was advocating this on CBS back in the 1980s. Abbie Hoffman in the 1970s advocated attaching the envelopes to bricks. That won't work, by the way.

Because my credit is decent, because I've had a mortgage, I'm on all the big bank mailing lists. It struck me as tone-deaf that the major banks would continue sending me credit-card offers while people were in the streets railing against bankers and financiers.

Q: Did you do much research before posting the video?

A: Back in 2001, I worked in the mailroom of an insurance company for all of four days. I saw wild stuff come back in the envelopes, although it went through a preliminary sifting before it got to us. For the video, I spent most of last week reading up on US Postal Service regulations to be sure I wasn't advocating anything illegal.

Q: How did you get the word out about the video? Are you surprised by how it's taken off?

A: I posted the video to my Facebook account. My friends probably thought it was another video of my poetry readings. I have 250 Facebook friends; I was hoping to get 500 or even 1,000 views. But my friends posted and re-posted it. Then the Electronic Frontier Foundation Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow put it out over Twitter, and soon I was on the phone with a blogger from ABC news. Even my second, follow-up video, which just has some extra tips, is getting 4,000 hits.

My next video in the series will be up Friday or Saturday. We'll see if anyone's watching.

Q: Lastly, have you heard back from any banks or credit card companies?

A: Not a word from them. I mean, it would take 50,000 or more envelopes at one of their big mail centers before they'd think to ask what was going on. The crazy thing is, I actually think that might happen. People have written me to say they're organizing junk-mail parties to send in hundreds of these things, heavy as the postal regulations will allow. Which is about 4oz, by the way. As I said, bricks won't work.

Q: Any other responses you want to share?

A: The early negative comments I got worried me. Comments along the lines of "You idiot! Banks process their mail in huge warehouses! The executives don't open those letters!" I struggled mightily with the temptation to wade in there and respond. But the amazing thing is: the Internet had my back. People jumped in with "But when the warehouse gets thousands of these heavy envelopes, accounting will notice the cost, and someone will call the executives!" For every naysayer, there are a dozen yaysayers. There are over 10,000 comments right now on YouTube. It's become a self-regulating community.

My favorite was the commenter who wrote a very crude message to the effect: "Why don't you grow up, stop whining, and get a job?!" And two different people wrote back "Did you watch the video? He's just getting home from WORK!" I loved that.

Also, when ran my video, the 15-second ad they most commonly showed before it was for Chase Sapphire Card. I still can't tell if that was brilliance, error, or serendipity. Maybe it was all three.