A Visit to #OccupyBoston

A Visit to #OccupyBoston

I'm going to try and make this quick, because I'm writing on borrowed time.

We've been reading a lot of long, dry media theory lately, so today Sasha rewarded our Intro to Civic Media class with a field trip to visit the Occupy Boston (#OccupyBoston) tent encampment (the trip was immediately relevant, because our final research projects in the class may focus on media functions within protest movements like this one).

So we hopped on the T and rode to South Station, where we found a tent city in a small strip of median parkway known as the Rose Kennedy Greenway. This is the lovely strip of park that replaced the Central Artery that ran through downtown Boston, at the cost of $15 billion. But that's the Big Dig's fault. The Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy has actually been great to the protesters, as seen in their homepage link to Occupy Boston. The median that Occupy Boston has set up on is controlled in one way or another by about five state and city agencies, and their continued presence is a delicate negotiation with these powers.

Dr. Cornell WEST is up in #occupyboston!Many of the occupants were elsewhere, marching on the banks with Dr. Cornel West. Still, a strong sense of community pervaded the encampment. Individual tents were set up for food (disbursed freely, including a large seasonal donation of apples), medical needs (professionals were training volunteers in the basics of protest ethics and protest care), and spirituality (Reiki services were being provided free of charge).

We got to witness the open mic time, which was neither as chaotic nor as cliche as I initially feared it might be. Common sentiments included relief that the sun had returned after several trying days of heavy rain, and a palpable boost in morale knowing that several of the nation's largest labor unions (not to mention more local Boston unions, like the Massachusetts Nurses Association) had joined the cause.

My colleague Nathan and I had the chance to sit down over some grilled cheese in the South Station food court to get a sense of the group's needs and desires. We're trying to learn and practice co-design, where you build things with the community of potential users from day one, rather than deliver a nearly-finished product from on-high. We were fortunate enough to get time with two of the men in charge of the camp's media and technical functions, and they were incredibly helpful and specific in describing what is needed. Basics like showers, electricity and internet are barely available, if at all.

We discussed how some of the existing Center for Civic Media projects could be of use, like Grassroots Mapping and VoIP Drupal. The organizers are interested in capturing everyone's stories and profiles, to show its true diversity as the 99% of Americans.

Reaching Out to Neighbors

Many of the immediate logistical needs could be solved by the other citizens in immediate proximity to the #OccupyBoston camp. Wifi, for example, could be secured if they could point their routers at a wired connection in one of the many office buildings nearby. They have experimented with geo-tagged tweets, but in this case I'd like to try more traditional methods of reaching out to the people around them. South Station is a major transportation and commuter hub - why not hand out flyers there for a few days?

I was raised in a lovely but completely apolitical family, which makes me think of the sympathetic but less hardcore audiences in any mass movement. I believe there's massive latent potential in empowering this larger, lazier demographic to help the cause with lower-bar activities. This campaign will be driven by those with the dedication to camp out in the rain for days on end, but given an opportunity, the rest of us could work to make things easier for them. Sharing wifi, electrical outlets, extra sandwiches, and the occasional shower are exactly the sort of things I'd be willing to do as an employee in an adjacent office building. But people need to be asked.

Interestingly, and in contrast to what I've heard from other encamped protest groups, the group preferred in-kind donations over money. With money comes liability, fighting, a much higher need for transparency, and other problems. Better to solve the actual needs and use services like WePay to let people chip in to acquire critical infrastructure. I'm really interested in building tools that can help groups like this bring to bear the skills and resources of their far-flung allies. There are many across New England who can't be in Boston on a weekday, and many across the country who can't make it to Wall Street this month, but could contribute in other ways. This group's interest in pro bono and in-kind donations restored my hope that help delivering aid (other than currency) from afar would be valued.

Inspiration

In addition to more ideas than we have time to execute, the afternoon triggered all sorts of loosely connected thoughts and feelings.

For not the first time, I was reminded of the critical logistical and emotional roles labor unions play in populist movements like this one. Everyone on the ground at #OccupyBoston knew how important it was to have the AFL-CIO and other unions' support behind them. It's really sad that their numbers and strength have been depleted in recent decades, because once mobilized, they are an incredible asset to the other 99% of Americans. They are the keepers of the torch of in-the-streets protests in the United States: they show up in force, they know how to sustain prolonged and uncomfortable campaigns, and frankly, they do it with style. Unions have rich experience forming the social structures needed to sustain and win in the face of powerful opposition. This is probably why they've been targeted relentlessly by their political enemies.

It was also inspiring to hear the organizers talk about the #Occupy movement spreading across New England, because they talked about the region and its individual places in a deeply human way. Their news from #OccupyWallStreet came not just from Twitter, but from an emotionally exhausted friend who had returned by bus the day prior. Their sense of excitement over a budding #Occupy movement in New Hampshire was informed their own residencies and networks. It felt like a nation mobilizing for (nonviolent) battle.

I'm excited about this movement, despite its shortcomings, for a few reasons. For the last several years since our self-inflicted economic collapse, commentators and organizers alike have asked themselves, "Where's the anger?" It was clear in polls that Americans despised Congress and Wall Street for what they did (or didn't do, in Congress's case). But no one was out in the streets. The Tea Party came out in reaction to the wildly irresponsible bank bailouts, but somehow landed on the same side of policy debates as the banks. Progressives had a hard time getting people to rally in the streets in support of a (then undefined) healthcare bill, because who protests in support of an undefined healthcare bill?

I worked on the decidedly un-sexy issue of federal campaign finance reform for two years because I realized it was the systemic root problem of almost every other problem I cared about, from consumer protections, to prison reform, to our food system, to climate change, and on, and on. What anyone who's tried to rally grassroots energy for campaign or financial reform can tell you is that getting people focused on the actual root causes of our problems, rather than the admittedly aggravated symptoms, is incredibly difficult (or, in my own experience, impossible).

And yet that's what's happening this week. Maybe a combination of terrible conditions for the middle class and rage-worthy abuses by the upper class (SERIOUSLY you guys?) have finally created the potent blend necessary.

Occupy Wall Street may have started with the regular characters, but it's nice to see them get things started and build momentum, and maybe even hit a tipping point of relevance in New York today. At the very least, it's heartening to know that people DO still react once sufficiently trodden upon, and at most, it's beautiful to see injustice confronted head-on by a wide range of citizens in a society that's had to stomach all too much injustice lately.

Comments

Update: Just came across this in a review of Lawrence Lessig's new book, Republic Lost:

Republic, Lost proposes bold actions against boring things. This is often the curse of truly radical proposals, and both Professor Lessig's view of corruption and his proposed solutions are radical in the truest sense. They deal with the roots. We can pretend that radical ideas easily inspire. The truth is, it is so much simpler to direct energy and attention towards the superficial. The bad men in back rooms, even when they really exist, are just leaves on the tree of government corruption. Dealing with the roots is so much more difficult.

via @trustocracy

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the post. The part of co-design caught my attention because I felt it was directly related to the Occupy Movement (basically, every decision they make is a co-design?). So, in this sense, it would mean that there would need to be more in-depth discussion on what is needed, or follow some of the initial suggestions they gave us (like the ones they gave us in the conversations we recorded). However, do you have an initial suggestion on what this co-design might look like from what you already have heard?

I also like the idea of getting as many diverse voices from the Occupy movement as possible, so they themselves give their testimonies. I interviewed some people from Occupy Boston before class as a personal project for the magazine I work in (see 2nd project proposal idea): http://revista-amauta.org/2011/10/some-voices-from-occupy-boston-algunas..., but this could be a possibility for a project that could also be of use for the movement.

An in relation to the movement in general,I am also very excited (and participating in some degree in Occupy Providence) because people have started to try to empower themselves, and others, and so provide an alternate power structure from the one we are used to (and opening up spaces for counterpublics). Money has much say in politics, and it is inspirational and hopeful to see people resisting this, and to attempt to provide a way out.

A question, that could also be a project proposal, how would a similar organizational structure translate from the camps into the internet (decision-making, rotating facilitators, etc)?

Some pages of interest:
http://15october.net/ (there's some sort of grassroots mapping here where people post events related to the October 15 global manifestations).
http://www.occupytogether.org/ (another page that is trying to be the general hub for the whole movement)

Interviews that we did about needs from Occupy Boston media group:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21546594/Occupy%20Boston/Occupy%20Boston%20Media...

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21546594/Occupy%20Boston/Occupy%20Boston%20Media...

should I include the third audio interview (since Ariel was not sure about publishing it or not?)

I'm going to keep this comment very, very brief, because by 10:25 pm last night I had already written a complete blog post for my project proposal and was ready to post it...

Occupy Boston was interesting excursion and an inspirational display of our nation's [presumed to be] long-lost social capital. Though, I do wonder about the movement's prospects for longevity. How long before we see the fragmentation of interests within the camp? Even under the "99%" umbrella, it seems to me that there are multiple disenfranchised groups with their own agendas to push. I'm skeptical.

Like you, Matt, our visit to #occupyboston gave me much food for thought. The next morning, I wrote about it on my flickr page.

The info desk as technology marks the growth and evolution of a movement in a simple and beautiful way. It's open to new information along a flexible variety of media, performs an essential function to the camp, and carries symbolic value for newcomers and occupiers alike. It's so effective we might be tempted to ignore it altogether.

read more

I found the visit to Occupy Boston helpful after our class has gone through many theory arguments surrounding radical media techniques. It helped me to see a movement in which there were successes and failures, and the ongoing processes to make the movement more effective. Through our readings surrounding efficient involvement in the public sphere and in social movement effectiveness, I have identified three markers of a good movement, mostly stemming from our discussions surrounding the Black Public Sphere:

1) Organization. I think Matt’s post, as well as the interview transcripts with the Media Tent organizers address the problems Occupy Boston has had in presenting cohesive messages and advocating their needs. I’m not sure the Occupy Movement is a well organized one, but it seems like they are on their way to improvement.
2) Uniform Message. I agree with ashapiro in thinking the arguments will become easily disjointed.
3) Presentation. I have heard many people (those I know and those I do not, but have overheard) say they do not take protestors seriously because of how many are dressed or presented. This image was floated around in the website Imgur.

I visited Occupy Wall Street in NYC over Columbus Day weekend, although it was at night. There were not many protestors there because it is illegal to block sidewalks by sleeping there. I did see many people in groups in Battery Park huddled around makeshift campfires, as well as in subway stations in the Financial District. I observed police on horses patrolling the streets, as well as police interrogating a man lying on the sidewalk who refused to move. I overheard a policeman complaining about the “damn hippies” who wouldn’t let him get back to doing his regular job. Overall, in comparison to our visit in Boston, I felt the tension in New York was much greater between protestors and police. In Boston, I didn’t notice a police presence much to be honest.

This first part is addressed particularly to Mary's post: the police presence situation in Boston has changed since our class visited - last night there either were or nearly were arrests of protesters. I don't want to say much about it because I wasn't there myself (I heard this through friends who were there), but I think it's at least true that there has been more tension with the police.

I agree with you (still Mary, but other people expressed similar views in their posts) that organization and uniform message creation are a problem, in that it seems potentially inherently impossible to represent 99% of a population via a self-selecting group of protesters - Matt talked about this too, about trying to connect with people with more apolitical tendencies, etc. - but maybe there's another way to look at it. It seems to me that if part of the message that were most heavily emphasized by the group actually camping out and going on marches was that they did not represent the views of everybody else, then it might be a surmountable problem. I think this could help with the problem you mentioned with presentation as well. And when we spoke with the head honchos at Occupy Boston during our class trip, they said that they didn't represent everyone, but they were trying to do the best they could, given that they would also like to release publications. Sasha brought up the idea of a paper that was clearly not representative of everyone, but just of the contributors and editors. It seems to me that if, regardless of what publications the group manages to get out, there was always some focus on everyone working together when possible and realizing that we are all on the same side - whether we agree on things or not, we all want things to be better for ourselves, our friends and families, the general public - then the lack of a cohesive message might be less problematic (that would, in a way, be a cohesive message, so I guess I'm assuming everyone there would agree on that, which may not be the case).

One of the comments on the banners in the front of the encampment was "This Revolution Will Be Incorrectly Televised", which I think reflects the fact that it is already easy enough to manipulate media to frame events the way the framer wants the viewer to see them, but that it's even easier when you have a group such as Occupy Boston which is not particularly cohesive and has such a variety of people supporting it - framers can select which people to show as "representative", which is particularly harmful when the group itself is not, in many ways, as we've discussed, actually representative of "the 99%", nor is it exactly meant to be.

I think that the lack of the ability for the Occupy Boston group to be representative (which goes back to your points about organization, cohesive message creation, and presentation) could actually be one of its strengths if properly (and often) explained.

If the group never claims to represent the 99% in any way other than being on the side of the 99% and offering a space for any member of the 99% to speak if they so choose, then they will be harder to cast as extreme, or hippies, or irrelevant, or anything in particular (the argument that the views you hear members of the encampment evince are not the views of the average member of the 99% is not valid).

This might make it harder for them to call for large-scale action from people not at the encampment (... or it might not).

tl;dr: With the right framing, the lack of the ability of the Occupy Boston encampment/ organization to "represent" (in some senses) the 99% could potentially be a strength of the movement rather than a weakness.

I don't have an incredibly epic comment to post (much has already been said). A few pieces of thought:

1) Since going to the in-person state I have lurked in IRC for a while and man oh man is that thing a giant loud soap box. It is difficult to process / identify which thoughts are core to the movement and which ones are just a single person's ideas (which may, in fact, be crazy). Similar things could be said about the physical gathering but generally it was much slower paced and therefore easier to distinguish between angry rants and thoughtful contributions.

2) I wasn't shocked by this, but it is interesting to stress that according to the folks I talked to in Boston, flyers have been much more effective at spreading the word than digital tools. Again, not too shocking since this is a geographically based movement and the interent isn't geographically organized at this point, but worth reminding everyone.

3) The people I talked to were in it for the long haul. Planning to stick around until it got so cold that they couldn't take it any more (i.e. until December). I was proud of their dedication, and curious about what the next steps are (the lot was already so full!)

I'll have to save more thoughts until after sponsor week.

Some of the most compelling artifacts I ran into during our visit to Occupy Boston were a series of large sheets of paper (see above). Each sheet asked a particular question, such as 'Why are you here?' or 'what is wrong with this country?' Here was an 'old media' way to share your thoughts and feelings to a large audience. I could imagine each sheet of paper being it's own Tumblr page - perhaps that musing was triggered by the widely popular and moving We are the 99% Tumblr. I took pictures of the area and also some specific 'posts' from visitors. These posts ranged from the utterly random to emotional stories of tragedy and perseverance.

I found this particular spot of the camp to be more calm and subdued, a place where you could collectively reflect. The feel was a stark contrast to what was happening on the opposite side of camp, where organizers had just set up an open microphone for occupiers, and people were taking turns telling their own story, sharing their own grievances, asserting their dreams and demands. However, I didn't find what was being said on the microphone so different from what was being said on the large sheets of paper. Each medium served different ways of giving people a voice.

Here is a link to the rest of the photos I took of the sheets of paper at Occupy Boston.

During our fieldtrip, the thing that amazed me the most was the level of effort by the people on the ground towards having a participatory democracy inside their movement, instead of a representative one. Coming from a place which is (in)famous for its political activism, I'm no stranger to Dharna (sit-ins), Anashan (hunger-strikes), Gherao (blockades), and other forms of political action. However, in most instances, there is a hierarchical structure in the protesters, with one designated leader (or a group of leaders), who usually has the final say on where the movement is going, and acts as the "voice of the people". The #OccupyBoston crowd on the other hand, tried to be much more collective, without a single face or, even a single agenda. Of course, this leads to problems - as Dan and others have pointed out. Occasionally, it may look like there are way too many soapboxes out there, and it's difficult to come up with a list of demands, or even a coherent list of grievances. But even with all these drawbacks, the #OccupyBoston and in general, the #Occupy{X} folks have managed to garner worldwide attention, and have managed to initiate a dialog on the tight coupling of the state and the corporate world. Corporate corruption is nothing new, and indeed, it is a pressing problem. In a recent interview in the the Indian newspaper Economic Times, an equity trader was refreshingly honest enough to point out that "markets are not there for morality". I'm just glad that someone is trying to counter that - and in this particular context, it makes much more sense to be as decentralized and faceless as possible (it is much more easier for corporations and mainstream politicians to influence and infiltrate a movement with a centralized leadership).

After our field trip to Occupy Boston, coincidentally I ended up having various discussion with friends about what was going on with OccupyUSA. It startled me to realize that although I had toured around OccupyBoston and spoken with several activists there, when asked about what these groups stood for, I had difficulty pinpointing what exactly they were protesting and what changes they wanted to see and how they wanted those changes to be implemented. I deduced that it was because the group itself stood for so many issues that there was no proliferation or unification of one solid messages--rather it was a jumble of counter publics seeking to be one.

I could respect their passion and concern for their nation yet their efforts were not directed in a constructive manner. Perhaps this is what it takes for others to get fired up and for them to be represented in the general public, but what progress is this making other than several people on soapboxes and chanting/marching until everyone becomes desensitized? Call it harsh but coming from personal experience (I used to just like them, running to D.C. whenever I had the chance to protest and rally against 'fill in the blank') I found my efforts to be rather backwards, radical, and primitive. As an outsider viewing the OccupyBoston movement, I felt it difficult to empathize with their sentiments--mostly because of their heavily radical viewpoints and 'hippie-like' unrealistic demands for what this nation should look like. If people want change to happen, perhaps it would not be unfounded to present their case in a more appealing manner to the mainstream public so that more people could join in their cause and feel dispelled. I am not encouraging dilution of their message but perhaps a dilution of how they present their case to the public.