Creating Technology for Social Change

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.


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.