J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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A Few Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

Posted by chanders on October 4, 2011

UPDATE: Apologies to Micah Sifry for my previous misspelling of his name. The perils of posts written in a hurry. The fact remains, however, that his previous post on Occupy Wall Street both gets the history totally wrong and bears little resemblance to any sort of on-the-ground reality.

Consider me now amongst the many protest-voyeurs who passed through Zuccotti Park for a few hours yesterday, looked around, and now feels inclined to wax speculative on What It All Means.

Yah. I’m That Guy now.

Some background: for about seven years, from 2001-2008, I devoted a substantial portion of my life to doing digital media work for various lefty causes, most of whom were affiliated with this weird intersection of anti-globalization movement / institutional NYC left / mass of anti-war-anti-Bush folks that existed between 2001 and 2005 or so. A lot of them are chronicled on this blog. Between 2001 and 2005, the energy was in the movement, the protests themselves; between 2005 and 2008 we worked mostly on digital media infrastructure building. One of the things we tried, just to name one example, was creating an “Indymedia blogwire” that would integrate local blogs into the NYC Indymedia website without totally eliminating the “post-to-the-site open newswire” concepts which we’d begun in 1999. There were a lot of things like this we tossed against the wall; some worked and some didn’t.

In 2008, for various reasons – graduating, finding a job, increasing “personality conflicts” with some of the Dudes who dominated the NYC Indymedia scene at the time (and still, it must be said, dominate a certain segment of that universe), and an increasing sense of my natural liberal-bourgeoisness– I largely left that kind of work behind. I wanted to focus more on taking what I’d learned in the previous seven years and using it to help journalists figure out how to reinvent their profession for the digital age. Rather than changing the world by building a “blog-wire,” I wanted to help my students figure out what the fuck was going on in this new world they’d been dropped into.

Still, the biggest reasons for moving onto other things was a general sense that whatever political stirrings had started in 1999 in Seattle were definitely dead. The movements that our media work was supposed to be supporting seemed to have shrunk down to the hardest of the hardcore; either process-obsessed anarchists or that type of New Yorker who, through a combination of rent-stabilized housing and family money manages to devote a life to “paid activism.”

Which all begs the question: why does what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street seem so exciting?

Not knowing, or not caring about, the history I just outlined can lead smart people to write all sorts of silly things in response to this question. One example of a particularly silly thing comes from Micah Sifry, who constructs and entire genealogy of the Occupy Wall Street movement that begins (of course) with the “netroots” in 2003. Writes Sifry:

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).

Anybody with half a sense of history knows this is pure and simple nonsense; the folks in Zuccotti Park have little to do with Howard Dean, or the movement he inspired. They are, if anything, the return of a “first wave” of digital-movement politics, one which flourished briefly between 1999 and 2001– but in general, it’s probably more honest to admit that dividing these things up into “waves” is just silly (the Indymedia folks, for instance, emerged in part out of the ‘zine / Punk Planet subculture, which had been around since at least the 1980s … and so on …)

Sifry’s genealogical purpose, it seems, is to find a way to wrap every social protest up into some sort of notion of a technological-political sublime:

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…

But still, we haven’t answered the question: why does what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street seem so exciting?

The reason that I’m most interested in has to do with the structure of the media ecosystem. Not the fact that suddenly “here comes everybody” (this was true in 1999, or at least true in 2005); rather, technological tools that used to be confined to the activist ghetto have now become mainstream. Something like Twitter, after all, existed in 2004. But then it was called TXTMob, and the traditional media didn’t use it the way they use Twitter now. The media silos have opened up to a variety of inputs that simply didn’t exist in 2004. This, in turn, changes the dynamics of movement legitimation in all sorts of interesting ways.

Yes, this is half a thought. Or more like a fifth of a thought. Blogging- land of unfinished thoughts.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with whether or not the Occupy Wall Streeters will be as successful as, say, the Tea Party. Sociologist Doug McAdam might tell us– probably not, and I tend to think he’s right.

Then again, the folks in  Zuccotti Park have already surprised me once. I’d love for them to surprise me again.

7 Responses to “A Few Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street”

  1. I didn’t say the folks in Liberty Park were a continuation of the netroots, or connected to Howard Dean. What I was trying to say is that we’re now seeing a new wave of bottom-up net-powered activism in the US. The first one was the netroots, which came out of the strong belief on the part of many Democratic progressives that their party leaders had failed them in 2000 and in the aftermath of 9-11. The second was the Tea Party, with a parallel source in the failure of Republican leaders in 2006-08. Now, it seems to me that the Occupy movement is a new wave, and this time I suspect it won’t be as easily digested into a major party was the first two. I wasn’t claiming grand historical omniscience, by the way, just expressing my opinion.

    I don’t know why this bothers you so much, but as we’ve never had a chance to sit down over a beer and get to know each other, I’m just going to let your odd tone of wanting to bait me into an argument just flow on by. Whatever, man. [A beer would help me understand what you mean by “Sifry’s genealogical purpose, it seems, is to find a way to wrap every social protest up into some sort of notion of a technological-political sublime.”]

    If you want to link today’s Occupy movement to Seattle, by all means, I don’t have a problem with that, though I don’t think the Seattle protests of 1999 were at all like today’s in that they a) didn’t have hyper-networked media like we do now (yes, indymedia was a start but mostly just for people who thought of themselves as independent journalists, as opposed to today’s ubiquitous self-expression online), and b) they were also rooted in the older tradition of affinity-group CD organizing, and punk as you point out, etc etc.

    But frankly this is a silly argument to be having and I wouldn’t even be bothering commenting except you really seem to want a reply, based on your tweets.

  2. Micah,

    I finally got a chance to read your post when I got back from the west coast and came across this. I am going to have to agree with Chris on this one.

    Some of the key organizers of OCW were for a fact, also part of the Seattle et, al protests and Direct Action Network and Indymedia (I am talking here from personal knowledge, not second hand either, notably people like David Graeber and many others although there were mostly new very young faces); there are connections to be made between ‘1999’ and OCW, although there are, to be sure massive differences, between the counter globalization protests of 2000 and the ones here today.

    There was inspiration from all the Middle East activity and the contingent call for action made by Ad Busters (which has affinities and connections to the counter globalization movement as well). Oh and Anonymous as well, which is super punk, as you know and they have been really involved, more so with each passing day.

    The first day of protests on September 17th we broke out in *affinity groups* to start discussing other agendas and goals aside from the one that to me seemed obvious from the start, and hence the symbolic choice of Wall Street (I am not sure why people did not think there was a clear message. The message was inscribed in the very location they chose). Wall Street has gone unscathed for an epic crisis they helped put into motion and hence protesting in that area.

    There have been *many* assembly gatherings, prior to the event (for instance in Tompkins square park), and during which also were common to the counter globalization protests.

    When I was at roflcon there had been a debate (over lunch) as to whether the protests were kind misguided and off at first and now are on the right track, which is similar to the point you make in you blog post. I have heard this a number of times and frankly I find it really really problematic.

    As someone who participated in the actions (though not as much as I wanted to due to the hell schedule that is teaching), I think this is kinda disparaging to all the hard work put in by the organizers the first few weeks who were reaching out to others, who stayed in the park when it was raining outside, who were arrested, and who would not give up when there was so many naysayers saying how lame it all was; if they had listened to them, it would not have flowered in the way it had. And thankfully there was a lot of support out there as well.

    Anyway, this is just my opinion based on what I experienced at these events and I am open to seeing the influence of the netroots type politics but I have not seen it much, although clearly new actors are now jumping in, which will change the the dynamics. And it is becoming more diverse, which is wonderful.

    I just don’t want the early history lost nor be distorted as something that was misguided to become guided. It is key to emphasize that assembiles and affinity groups have been central to organizing too.

    Those there put in the hard work of steering a ship that is now sailing strong. Kudos to them.

  3. Biella–

    Who or what am I disparaging? I start my post by admitting that *I was wrong to be skeptical at first* and then go on to link the rise of #OWS to the MENA wave. As far as I can tell, the only omission I made, that seems to be ruffling your and Chris’s feathers, is that I didn’t mention Seattle or anti-globalization or Indymedia. This really seems to be a tempest in a teapot (though if #OWS was solely based on the Indymedia crowd, they’d be spending a lot more time on fringe causes then I’ve seen so far).

    FWIW, here’s the editor of Adbusters explaining the origins of #OWS from his perspective:

    After Tunisia and Egypt, we were mightily inspired by the fact that a few smart people using Facebook and Twitter can put out calls and suddenly get huge numbers of people to get out into the streets and start giving vent to their anger. And then we keep on looking at the sorry state of the political left in the United States and how the Tea Party is passionately strutting their stuff while the left is sort of hiding somewhere. We felt that there was a real potential for a Tahrir moment in America because a) the political left needs it and b) because people are losing their jobs, people are losing their houses, and young people cannot find a job. We felt that the people who gave us this mess — the financial fraudsters on Wall Street — haven’t even been brought to justice yet. We felt this was the right moment to instigate something.

    Talking about #OWS without embedding it in new environment of ubiquitous connectivity and social networking, as well as its sophisticated use of social media to seem (and get to be) bigger in the social imagination than they are, would be a mistake. That’s all I was doing with my original post.

    On a smaller point, I think you and I may be having a slight semantic confusion about the meaning of an “affinity group.” Back in the late 1970s and 1980s, when I was involved in several different political movements (anti-Wall Street in 1979; anti-nuclear in 1982; anti-intervention in Latin America in the mid-80s) an affinity group was a circle of people who hung together, literally, with deliberate advance planning, at demos, doing civil disobedience at times, or support work, etc. My impression of Seattle, which I did not participate in, was that tradition was still strong then. The “affinity” group of #OWS looks a lot looser, more ad-hoc, more like a “bar-camp” or unconference style, not nearly as tight-knit. Perhaps that’s a wrong impression, or we’re both seeing different parts of the same beast?


  4. Micah,

    Thanks for clearing this up ;=) Sorry I had read too much into your change of heart, I think, because of the IRL conversation I was having which colored my interpretation. Folks were really dogging the early stage, which really struck as disingenuous.

    I completely agree that we need to emplot this both in terms of historical events (ie what is called the Arab spring though it is as much about Africa) and ubiquitous computing. In fact some of the old time organizers were upset at how little time they had to organize, saying there is no way they could get a lot of folks out for the first protest (and they were right) but the co-witnessing and prompting and conversation online certainly helps to move this along in a way that was not quite happening before. There is something in the air, so to speak and the world wide protests again strike more similar to all the protest activity of 1999-2004 that sort of died post RNC and given that the anti-war actions never seemed to yield anything, sadly (the gov and media just ignored them).

    I think the ows affinity groups are pretty strong and loose as were the ones in Seattle. But it is an interesting question. The form has persisted but changed so it would be great to track this question in more details and compare notes across these different periods.

    I think the part I was highlighting was using the assembly and the affinity group as the mode of debate and decision making as was done in Tomkins square park and the first day (and I was able to do both). The counter globalization ones and the ones on OCW strike me from personal experience as similar and some of the folks spearheading them were personal bridges between the two. Many participants don’t ever join in (and did not either in 1999 +) but that is where many decisions are made as well.

    But this is very rich arena with a lot going on and two different perspectives can be reflecting this on the ground multiplicity as well.

    Look forward to thinking through these events and maybe I will see you later today down there?

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  7. Careful using the NY Times as a reference, Neo. The funny thing about the paper of record is that they apparently don’t fact check their own articles.

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