Occupy, the Internet, Direct Democracy, and the lessons learnt

Introduction

The first formal Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest took place on September 17 2011 attracting around 1000 activists,[1] the march was instigated by an article from Adbusters magazine[2] which originally challenged citizens to start a popular uprising with a “million man march on Wall Street”[3] then later asked its readers to “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street”. [4] Prior to September 17 the protests also gained support from the internet activist network Anonymous,[5] and prominent activists such as David Graeber, Lisa Fithian, and Micah White among others helped organise the original protest.[6] Since its inception in 2011 the OWS protest has inspired over 1500 registered occupations[7] and countless protests across the world. The Occupy movement is a branch of the OWS movement which focuses on occupations outside of Wall Street.[8] This essay will focus on the Occupy movement, however, it will refer to OWS frequently as it was the inspiration and trigger for Occupy.

The main issues that the OWS movement were protesting were economic inequality, corporate greed, the Robin Hood Tax, US foreclosure crisis, and political corruption.[9] The movement was directly inspired by the Arab Spring movement especially that of the events which took place in Tahrir Square,[10] the movement also used many of the same tactics as the Arab Spring movement. Both the OWS and Arab Spring movements had deep roots in anarchist philosophy and focused on consensus-based decision making, using a horizontal structure, and taking direct democratic action rather than recognising the state and its current political systems.[11] These movement also relied heavily on the internet and social media.

Wall-Street-1

Poster calling for activists – © Adbusters

Internet and amateur media.

On 23rd August 2011 a new blog titled “We are the 99 percent” was launched, this blog encouraged citizens of the ‘99 percent’ to post a picture of them with a note holding up their circumstances so that people from the ‘1 percent’ can see their struggle.[12] The ‘1 percent’ in this context is referring to the wealthiest individuals in America whom owned around 40 percent of American capital in 2011.[13] ‘The title of the blog later went viral on the internet and became the main slogan for the OWS and the broader Occupy movement.[14]

Blogs and other websites played a huge role in the spread of information about the Occupy movement, the official and unofficial Twitter accounts related to the occupy movement were linked to blogs related to the movement where more information could be attained. These tweets were spreading information from six categories which were “Occupy Wall Street tactics, rationale for Occupy Wall Street, critique of Occupy Wall Street, critique of critique of Occupy Wall Street, connection to other social movement, and general educative”.[15] It’s suggested that blogs and the micro blogging site Twitter played a significant role in the education of the activists and general public observing the Occupy movement,[16] as well as generating funding for the movement.[17]

Even though twitter had a large impact on the occupy movement its suggested that most of the activists used Facebook more than twitter,[18] this may be the reason why Facebook also contributed in recruiting activists for protests and the spread of information across national borders.[19] It has been shown that ‘likes’ on Facebook pages of major occupations are not geographically divided. It is also interesting to note that most of the ‘posts’ that had the most interaction had images or videos in them,[21] some of the content included pictures or videos that was created by activists that were currently occupying a site.[22]

Occupy_UC_Davis_news_coverage_RT_1

Use of use of mobile phone footage for news coverage © RTAmerica

User created media from activists taking part in the movement serves a vital role in the Occupy movement, such content has been credited to information sharing, building solidarity across occupation sites[23], expose police violence and lift the media blackout of the OWS occupation.[24] When the OWS began most mainstream media outlets were ignored or attacked the movement,[25] makeshift media teams such as ‘globalrevolution tv’ and ‘timcast tv’ were formed so that the general population could find out more about the movement and what was going on. Some of these makeshift media teams were said to be more accurate and provided more footage then mainstream media,[26] the main reason for this would be because the people running these makeshift media teams are participants of the movement and are part of the occupation who stay at the occupation site.

Apart from the makeshift media teams, amateur footage from activist’s smart phones made sure that no action within the movement was un-recorded, this footage included incidents of violation of human rights and the freedom of press by the state.[27] The release of such footage is accredited to recruiting more supporters for the Occupy movement[28] and the successful protest which took place on November 17 2013[29] where over 30, 000 activists demonstrated in New York City.[30]

It is also worth noting that one of the original organisers of the OWS movement states that the use of social media and the internet, while overall a success, was considered to be one of the reasons why the Occupy movement lost momentum as activists showed support online rather than participating in occupations.[31] This goes against current research which show social media and the internet to be a positive influence on social movements and that, where encouraged to participate, slacktivists are twice as likely to participate in offline activism [32] It is likely that the occupation sites started to clear out due to sanitation issues,[33] funding issues,[34] lack of proper coverage by mainstream media[35], and police raids[36] among other factors.

Occupy_Wall_Street_March_2012_foreclosure_banner

Activist banners – © Mike Fleshman

General assembly and consensus

One of the reasons the OWS movement gained and kept its momentum were general assemblies.[37] On the night of September 17 2011 the first of many general assemblies, within OWS, was held and decided that the activists were staying at and occupying Zuccotti Park.[38] These assemblies allowed activists to part take in consensus (horizontal) decision making and was credited as one of the reasons that the movement picked up momentum so quickly;[39] general assemblies were the main decision making tool of the OWS movement and anyone could part take in them.[40] Although the general assemblies are leaderless, facilitators were used to ensure order and make sure everyone had their say;[41] anyone could become a facilitator after training. Participants of the general assembly uses hand signals to indicate agree, disagree, add critical information, ask clarifying question, indicate that the conversation is going off topic and to ask the speaker to make their statement quicker,[42] however many different variations of hand signals were used as demonstrated by Occupy Boston.[43] General assemblies, as well as other parts of the occupy movement, uses the “people’s microphone” to amplify the speaker as amplified sound in public is not legal in New York City without a permit.

The main criticism of general assemblies is that they needed a unanimous consensus to make decisions and the amount of time it takes to arrive at decisions.[45] As consensus was beginning to get more difficult to obtain in larger occupy encampments, such as the one at Zuccotti Park, a consensus threshold of 90% was agreed upon.[46] To make sure everyone still had their voices heard participants were encouraged to speak to members of ‘working groups’ outside of the general assembly so that members of the working group could address their concern in or out of the general assembly, this resulted in more concise general assemblies.

The use of general assemblies achieved several things apart from shaping the direction of the movement and making decisions. In general assemblies, activists were encouraged to participate in decision making and hold general assemblies in their own towns and cities; the usage of general assemblies as the means of decision making reflects the ends of the Occupy movement as the movement is trying to build a world where the people shape their own lives rather than relying to politicians, who can succumb to political corruption, to represent them.

Occupy_Wall_Street_Washington_Square_Park_2011_Shankbone_Small

General Assembly held at Washington Square Park – © David Shankbone

Maddison and Scalmer state that a unified movement identity is necessary to achieve a movement where there is “equality among socially and culturally differentiated groups, who mutually respect one another and affirm one another in their differences” however building such a movement is hard work[47], It would seem that general assemblies in the occupy movement assisted in the creation of such a movement. The occupy movement had attracted people from a diverse range of backgrounds so open dialogue in general assemblies was a crucial part of maintaining unity. Open dialog ensures that all members of the movement are aware of the needs and objections of others within the movement, even if someone disagrees with a decision they will be aware of why that decision was made; this is important as people are more likely to be tolerant and resist division within a community if they understand the needs of others.[48] This open dialog helps build solidarity among individuals and helps shape the collective identity of the movement.[49] As the goals and direction of the movement was also openly discussed in general assemblies it helped build further unity within the movement as the activists could focus on common goals rather than focusing on their differences which may have resulted in conflict and alienation of some activists. General assemblies therefore created strength, solidarity and resolve within the movement.

Closing thoughts and improvements

The Occupy movement triggered a change in the political discourse of America and across the world,[50] with some reports that economic inequality, corporate greed, and political corruption are now discussed more openly than before.[51] The Occupy movement has also shown a new generation of activists that they are not alone and created “communities of mutual support, cooperation, open spaces for discussion”, or solidarity, between its participants.[52] As a result of OWS the phrases “the 99 percent” and “the one percent” has entered into the common western English lexicon,[53] and the broader international branch of the Occupy movement still struggles for economic equality and corporate influence on politics among other issues.

Occupy_London.jpg

Occupy London – © Lee Hassl

However, while OWS and the Occupy movements have had some impact on social and political issues, by bringing them to the public’s attention, none of them are directly measurable, as Forbes describes “There are no real Occupy policy briefs, no legislation, no candidates. And therefore, it’s fair to observe that nothing has really changed in terms of the middle class, the under-represented, the ‘99 percent’ or however you’d define it”[54] and therefore it has been deemed a failure by critics.

Micah White, one of the original organisers of OWS, argues that the Occupy movement is a “constructive failure” and that “Occupy was a perfect example of a social movement that should have worked according to the dominant theories of protest and activism. And yet, it failed. White argues that activists need have a mental shift and think about how to make protests more successful in creating change.[56]

One of the defining characteristics and limiting factors was that the Occupy movement does not have a clear leader.[57] Police eventually cleared occupations across the country,[58] as the occupations or the Occupy movement did not have a leader it would have been extremely difficult to mobilize activists repeatedly to keep the momentum of the movement alive. A lack of a clear leader also meant organisations that supported the movement’s cause could not easily form a formal alliance or negotiate, this along with the stringent conditions that were expected of external entities wanting to support the movement[59] meant organisations could not easily support the movement. A working group should have been formed to acquire and negotiate with supporters of the movement and less stringent should conditions should have been expected of external organisations.

Finally one of the downfalls of the Occupy movement was that some activists became “spectators of our own protests”,[60] this means that some supporters of the Occupy movement only supported the movement via the social media. This had the result in lower numbers in occupation sites such that the occupations eventually cleared out due to a variety of factors as discussed earlier. However the owner of these social media sites should have encouraged supporters to physically go to the occupation sites, re-occupy cleared sites, and ask their followers to continually support the occupations in meaningful ways. This would have been hard or organise without any leadership as there were hundreds of social media pages and accounts in support of the Occupy movement and in most cases the owners of these pages were not associated with one another. [61] The social media working group could have contacted the owners of unofficial OWS social media pages such that the pages worked in unison to coordinate efforts when required.

Madrid_October15_small

October 15 demonstration in Madrid – © Rafael Tovar

The Occupy movement has shown other activists and organisations how to utilise modem technology and the internet to benefit the movement and the cause, the importance for activists to create their own media coverage has also been demonstrated. Direct democracy and a ‘horizontal’ structure to the movement has also allowed the movement to be inclusive and unified while allowing the activists to participate directly in the movement. The Occupy movement is not without its shortcomings however as the Occupy movement was one of the largest social movements in the early 21st century activists should examine and take on board the lessons learnt from it.

Footnotes

[1] Antonia. Zerbisias, “Protests dwindle in attempt to Occupy Wall Street” The Star. Published September 20 2011. http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2011/09/20/protests_dwindle_in_attempt_to_occupy_wall_street.html

[2] Sarah Van Gelder, This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011).

[3] Kono. Matsu, “A Million Man March on Wall Street” Adbusters. Published February 02 2011. http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2011/09/20/protests_dwindle_in_attempt_to_occupy_wall_street.html

[4] Adbusters, “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET” Adbusters, Published July 13 2011. https://www.adbusters.org/blogs/adbusters-blog/occupywallstreet.html

[5] “Anonymous – Occupy Wall Street, Sep 17” YouTube video. Anonymous. Posted by “Grupo LatinHacker Guerrilla Mediatica”, August 21, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4VLYGfGDZg

[6] “Fault Lines – History of an occupation” YouTube video. Al Jazeera. Posted by “Al Jazeera English”, March 21, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4VLYGfGDZg

[7] Occupy Directory. “Occupy Directory” Occupy Directory. Accessed October 19 2015. http://directory.occupy.net/

[8] Sarah Van Gelder, This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.

[9] Harry. Bradford, “Occupy Wall Street Put These 7 Issues In The Spotlight” The Huffington Post. Published September 18 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2012/09/17/occupy-wall-street-issues-spotlight_n_1891768.html?ir=Australia

[10] Adbusters, “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET”

[11] David. Graeber, “Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots” Al Jazeera. Published November 30 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/2011112872835904508.html

[12] We are the 99 Percent. “We are the 99 Percent” We are the 99 Percent. Published August 23 2011. http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/post/9289779051/we-are-the-99-percent

[13]Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” Vanity Fair. Published May 2011. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105

[14] Adam. Weinstein, “’We Are the 99 Percent’ Creators Revealed” Mother Jones. Published October 7 2011. www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/we-are-the-99-percent-creators

[15] Benjamin Gleason, “#Occupy Wall Street: Exploring Informal Learning About a Social Movement on Twitter” American Behavioral Scientist 57 no.7 (2013): 966 – 982.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Tim. Mak, “Occupy Wall St. copies Arab Spring” Politico. Published October 03 2011. http://www.politico.com/story/2011/10/occupy-wall-st-copies-arab-spring-064993

[18] Sarah Gaby and Neal Caren,“Occupy Online: How Cute Old Men and Malcolm X Recruited 400,000 US Users to OWS on Facebook” Social Movement Studies 11 no.3-4 (2012): 367 – 374.

[19] Michela D Vicario et al, “Structural Patterns of the Occupy Movement on Facebook” eprint arXiv:1501.07203 (2015).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Sarah Gaby and Neal Caren,“Occupy Online: How Cute Old Men and Malcolm X Recruited 400,000 US Users to OWS on Facebook”

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kjerstin Thorson et al, “YOUTUBE, TWITTER AND THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT” Information, Communication & Society 16 no.4 (2013): 421 – 451.

[24] “Fault Lines – History of an occupation” YouTube video. Al Jazeera.

[25] Mallary J. Tenore, “Gitlin: Media coverage of Occupy Wall Street is predictably lazy, but likely to improve” Poynter. Published October 11 2011. http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/149139/gitlin-media-coverage-of-occupy-wall-street-is-predictably-lazy-but-likely-to-improve/

[26] Sean. Captain, “Tim Pool And Henry Ferry: The Men Behind Occupy Wall Street’s Live Stream” Fast Company. Published November 21 2012. http://www.fastcompany.com/1796352/tim-pool-and-henry-ferry-men-behind-occupy-wall-streets-live-stream

[27] Sarah. Knuckey, Katherine Glenn, and Emi MacLean. “Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street” Protest and Assembly Rights Project. Published July 25 2013. http://hrp.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/suppressing-protest-2.pdf

[28] Sarah Van Gelder, This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.

[29] “Fault Lines – History of an occupation” YouTube video. Al Jazeera.

[30] OccupyWallSt. “November 17: Historic Day of Action for the 99%” Occupy Wall Street. Published November 18 2011. http://occupywallst.org/article/november-17-historic-day-action-99/

[31] Giuliana. Vallone, “’Protest Is Broken’: Co-Creator of Occupy Wall Street Calls for New Mental Shift” Occupy. Published July 2 2015. http://www.occupy.com/article/protest-broken-co-creator-occupy-wall-street-calls-new-mental-shift

[32] Ogilvy Public Relations and Georgetown University. “Dynamics of Cause Engagement” Published Nov 22, 2011. http://www.slideshare.net/georgetowncsic/dynamics-of-cause-engagement-final-report

[33] Vaesa, Janelle. “Sanitation Issues Faced By Occupy Wall Street Protesters” Decoded Science. Published October 15 2011. http://www.decodedscience.org/sanitation-issues-faced-by-occupy-wall-street-protesters/4005

[34] Chris Francescani, “Occupy Wall Street fizzles. Is the movement over? (+video)” The Christian Science Monitor. Published September 18, 2012. http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/Latest-News-Wires/2012/0918/Occupy-Wall-Street-fizzles.-Is-the-movement-over-video

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Fault Lines – History of an occupation” YouTube video. Al Jazeera.

[37] David. Graeber, “Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots”

[38] “Fault Lines – History of an occupation” YouTube video. Al Jazeera.

[39] David. Graeber, “Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots”

[40] Sarah Van Gelder, This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.

[41] Occupy Reno. “Roles and Responsibilities of Facilitators” Occupy Reno. Published February 02 2011. https://occupyreno.wordpress.com/facilitation-roles-mftgrs/

[42] “Occupy Portland – DownTwinkles” YouTube video, Occupy Portland. Posted by “Occupy Portland Video”, October 10, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaVvzTyMcls

[43] “Occupy Boston 2 of 5: General Assembly” YouTube video. Occupy Boston. Posted by “Enaa”, October 1, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC_Kq2BS8Mg

[44] Richard. Kim, “We Are All Human Microphones Now” The Nation. Published October 3 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/we-are-all-human-microphones-now/

[45] James. Miller, “Will Extremists Hijack Occupy Wall Street?” The New York Times. Published October 25 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/26/opinion/will-extremists-hijack-occupy-wall-street.html

[46] Andrew. Cornell, “Occupy Wall Street and Consensus Decision Making: Historicizing the Preoccupation With Process” Is This What Democracy Looks Like?. Published December 2012. http://what-democracy-looks-like.com/occupy-wall-street-and-consensus-decision-making-historicizing-the-preoccupation-with-process/

[47] Sarah Maddison and Sean Scalmer, Activist Wisdom. (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2006).

[48] Sarah Van Gelder, This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.

[49] Laura E Enriquez, “Undocumented and Citizen Students Unite: Building a Cross-Status Coalition through Shared Ideology” Social Problems 61 no.2 (2014): 155 – 174.

[50] Sarah Van Gelder, This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.

[51] Michael. Levitin, “The Triumph of Occupy Wall Street” The Atlantic. Published June 10 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/the-triumph-of-occupy-wall-street/395408/

[52] Amy. Goodman, “Chomsky: Occupy Wall Street “Has Created Something That Didn’t Really Exist” in U.S. — Solidarity” Democracy Now. Published May 14 2012. http://www.democracynow.org/2012/5/14/chomsky_occupy_wall_street_has_created

[53] Katherine C. Martin, “The lexical legacy of Occupy Wall Street” Adbusters. Published September 14 2012. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/09/occupy-wall-street/

[54] Tom. Watson, “Occupy Wall Street’s Year: Three Outcomes for the History Books” Forbes. Published September 17 2012. www.forbes.com/sites/tomwatson/2012/09/17/occupy-wall-streets-year/

[55] Giuliana. Vallone, “’Protest Is Broken’: Co-Creator of Occupy Wall Street Calls for New Mental Shift”.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Craig Calhoun, “Occupy Wall Street in perspective” The British Journal of Sociology #Vol 64 no.1 (2013): 26 – 38.

[58] “Fault Lines – History of an occupation” YouTube video. Al Jazeera.

[59] Nathan. Schneider, “Thank You, Anarchists” The Nation. Published December 19 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/thank-you-anarchists/

[60] Giuliana. Vallone, “’Protest Is Broken’: Co-Creator of Occupy Wall Street Calls for New Mental Shift”.

[61] Sarah Gaby and Neal Caren,“Occupy Online: How Cute Old Men and Malcolm X Recruited 400,000 US Users to OWS on Facebook”

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This is an altered version of an assignment submitted for human rights studies.

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