An Occupation

What does Occupy Wall Street mean?

The Occupy Wall Street is going on its first month and is still growing. I’ve been reading about it, both on sites favorable and opposed to the movement, made a couple of trips to Zuccotti Park, where the protesters are headquartered and am still trying to make sense about it. Along the way, I think I’ve developed a better understanding of where they stand and where this could be heading.

The Demands

At its core, it seems the message of Occupy Wall Street is one grounded in change. Much has been made about the lack of demands and the second issue of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal” seems to answer some of the questions: one article highlighted that they would not make a list of demands because

We are speaking to each other, and listening.
This occupation is first about participation.

This is an interesting development in that the focus here is on the network more than the leadership and, in that sense, Occupy Wall Street (or #OWS) is probably one of the first protest movement for our era, based on a leadership model that relies on networks instead of top down infrastructures, on participation instead of inaction, on sharing instead of agreeing.

Because of that model, #OWS is a rejection of the current institutions, with Wall Street probably serving as a stand-in for a lot of the top down hierarchies that have been controlling much of the political dialogue for decades. I had initially thought of them as being the left-wing equivalent to the right-wing led Tea Party but #OWS is substantially more important as a movement because it redefines engagement.

The movement is increasingly based on a simple message: “we are the 99 percent,” which highlights the movement’s right to exist and its willingness to find a way to help most. It ties, to a large extent to the American ideal of a country where we can always do better and, in that sense, seems to be politically aligned with every movement that has helped the country move forward in the past.

The Network

#OWS also reminds me a lot of the Internet and while most people focus on how the movement is using Internet tools to spread its message, what’s been interesting to me is how internet philosophy seems to be at the center of a lot of the movement’s approach to spreading its message.

Whether it is by design or not, the movement has taken an approach that is steeped into some of the core beliefs of the internet founders. For example, in 1993, John Gilmore was quoted by Time magazine as follows:

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it

As the protest grows, it appears it has increasingly seen some of the laws as damaging and has managed to route around them.

For example, the protest was initially planning to set up camp near the JP Morgan Chase Tower but when it was turned back, it settled only a few blocks away, on a public/private park that happens to be open 24 hours a day (the status of public private open spaces has worked to the movement’s advantage as its usually hazy legal status, which is traditionally leveraged by corporations to justify locking things up is now one of the main reason for which the city cannot shut the protest down at this time).

Another example came earlier this week, when the owners of the park attempted to evict the protesters because it needed to clean the park, the protesters routed around the challenge by cleaning the park themselves.

And a third example is the practice of the human microphone, which allows the group to make announcements without the permits needed to operate amplifying equipment in a park. This ensures the group is able to make widespread announcements without breaking the law nor creating the possibility of having a permit denied, which may create a situation allowing the law to disband it.

Another way in which one can find similarities to the organizing principles of the internet, is the lack of leadership to define the movement. On the internet, no site has any precedence over any other, and no traffic is considered more important, thanks to a principle called net neutrality. This feature means that any point on the internet is as important as any other point on the internet in terms of moving traffic around. This has been dubbed the rise of stupid networks by David Isenberg, in comparison to the controlled environments of traditional telecommunication companies. Isenberg’s principles were derided by traditional network executives as simplistic and naive when they were first published but have come to become the way in which most telecommunication is happening today.

In the same way, the lack of leadership in the #OWS movement has been derided by the traditional powers that be, who have claimed that the group lacks organization because it fails to have the kind of command-control structure that has been the way things have been run over the last few centuries. The appropriate answer to that challenge is simply to ask about how a disorganized group could be accomplishing as much as this one is and extending as much as it has in as little an amount of time as it has.

Visiting Zucotti Park was a fascinating eye opener when it comes to self-organized systems. The park has communal planning with clearly delineated areas for living quarters, eating, communication, art, etc. There is also some level of organization around how the group manages its different activities, from direct actions to the internet. The leaderless feature seems to actually be an advantage for the environment as the chaos that exists consistently enables anyone to make logistical decisions quickly while matters of planning and speaking on behalf of the group require a substantial level of communication.

The lack of leaders seems to represent a substantial part of the clash between the police and the protesters. On one side, the police has a highly structured model and is trying to provoke the protesters into confrontation. A defining traits of the protests is how few people have taken the bait (it seems Gandhi’s principle of non-violent protest runs deep within the movement) and how many assaults and arrests the police seem to have pushed. It will be interesting to see if any charges will actually stick once they go through the legal system.

The protest

Where #OWS seems to have failed in leveraging internet technology is in the way it has spread its protests out. In the Tahir square confrontations earlier this year, the organizers decided to break their protests out in smaller protests all over the place. The goal there was to deal with the fact that each protest would get broken out and people would spread out from each of the small protests. What was not broadcast was that a smaller protest was designed completely offline to be fed by the breakout of all the other protests. The Tahir movement used Google Maps to then figure out the optimal path for that smaller protest so it could grow as each of the smaller ones was broken out, feeding into the main one.

#OWS has germinated into an occupy everywhere movement and continues to grow, with new protests arising daily. There appears to be some level of coordination globally, when it comes to dates and times but little is being done in terms of focused messaging for each effort.

The lack of central message has been the most frustrating part to traditional media. Media thrives on conflict and the lack of conflict has led most traditional outlets scratching their collective heads as to how to cover this. A few have focused on the police brutality but so far the protestors have done two things that are making it difficult for traditional media to cover them:

  • They have refused to engage the police and have attempted to follow the letter of the law
  • The have refused to take direct actions against any specific target other than “the system” as a whole.

Imagine what would happen if they decided to organize boycotts, as Bernie Sanders suggested. Imagine what would happen if, on a particular day, they were to announce that occupy wall street would “occupy” Wall Street by keeping them busy, due to a run on the banks, with hundreds or thousands of protesters pulling their money out of the largest banks and putting them into smaller community banks. Such a “run on the banks” would get wide coverage and probably provoke substantial confrontation, giving media a chance to deride the move as destabilizing. But the #OWS movement has been either smart enough or disorganized enough to avoid creating that kind of confrontation, which would probably lead it to either condemnation or failure.

If there seems to be a message behind the protest, it may that people still have the right to protest. A question I may have on this is how long this message can go on. It’s clear that people are unhappy (you don’t need to follow the antics of #OWS to understand that as poll numbers after poll numbers show discontent across the board) but what will come next?

To #OWS, it seems what is to come next is something better than what we have today. How one defines that is the secret to what this movement is about.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://twitter.com/JonGarfunkel Jon Garfunkel

    “The lack of cen­tral mes­sage has been the most frus­trat­ing part to tra­di­tional media.” — TNL, this is cliche by now for one reason: it’s frustrating to *me* as the average American. I understand that they’re unhappy about the system, and to some extant I can generally sympathize, but it’s difficult for me to make any concrete of action of support while it’s so vague.

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      I guess the only concrete action of support, when it comes to something like this, would be to actually join in the protest. To protest is to support, and anything else is ancillary, it seems. That may be the key to understanding the movement and potentially the key to its strength.

  • http://www.calcars.org Felix Kramer

    OWS refusing (or deferring) developing demands reminds me of many
    Internet startups that resisted impatient investors’ suggestions to
    monetize early. They recognized this would box them into a defined
    business model and lose the goodwill from being “free.”

    Meanwhile, what Occupy is about is pretty obvious to all who aren’t
    cynical or happy with the status quo. Greed: the 1% have ruined our
    world and our futures. Control: we challenge their power.  Leaving it to
    their interpreters to suggest demands enables Occupy to continue to
    represent the 99%.

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      Felix,

      Your comparison to internet startups and their model is spot on, Thanks for sharing it.