Occupy Wall Street Makes Its Own Media

One of the biggest stories you’ve never heard of is unfolding in New York City. For nearly two weeks now hundreds of people have occupied Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan under the moniker of Occupy Wall Street. Inspired by this year’s popular uprisings in north Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, OWS hopes to spark a similar movement for democratic change in the United States.
Much of the media have dismissed or denigrated the occupation, with many professional journalists missing its point entirely. The ongoing happening, at present, is not geared toward all-out, head-to-head confrontation with corporate America or the state, but rather to provide a space for folks from all walks of life to talk, listen, and collaborate, in the hope of reaching that point in the future.
This is a period of movement-building. Such things are not built in a day, or a week, or a month, or a year: in the uprising against the Vietnam War, people remember the events of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, but many are hard-pressed to recall the Port Huron Statement which helped to put Students for a Democratic Society on the map six years prior. (Most of its goals remain unattained, but the 1960’s anti-war movement was far from a failure.)
Others have questioned whether the “tactics” of the occupation are well-reasoned, and whether Washington, D.C. would be a better target for mass action. Don’t worry – two are in the works for D.C.; more than 60 other occupations are happening or imminent; and the idea is catching on around the world. The tactics will evolve.
What began as an ad-hoc event is turing into a long-term action, and the infrastructure to support it is coalescing as well. Occupy Wall Street now has its own media team, which has been streaming live video from the park (and the twice-daily marches on Wall Street) since the first day. The stream’s served millions of viewers, with several thousand watching simultaneously at any given moment.
Members of the occupation, armed with laptops, netbooks, and cell phones, give an unprecedented inside, real-time view of this movement-building process. Not only do they stream from specific protest actions, but they also broadcast the daily General Assembly and let anyone who stops by (or has a report to make) get some face-time. In addition to the rabble, I’ve seen Chris Hedges, Immortal Technique, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Dr. Cornel West, and Amy Goodman address the occupation and/or be interviewed by the media team.
The stream’s also served as a focusing agent for those galvanized by the occupation via social media like Facebook and Twitter and want to help. This action developed online before taking physical form, and those outlets remain important tools of communication between activists and the rest of the world. An online chat monitored by the media team buzzes about working to fulfill the needs of the occupiers and the planning of solidarity events.
Many of those that “anchor” the stream engage in direct dialogue with its viewership, answering questions about the occupation and the day’s events. Questions scroll by so quickly that only a fraction get answered – but it’s powerful nonetheless. Tons of supplies and tens of thousands of dollars in donations have come to New York thanks to the occupation’s own coverage.
This is a raw and mostly improvisational affair, but it’s also an excellent example of how the Internet has enabled the distribution of skills and support for protest activity and movement-building. “Master control” of the live stream is effectively split between Zuccotti Park and Minneapolis, of all places, and a loose group of people scour the ‘net looking for video content to run when the stream drops out of live-mode.
The media team adds new members every day, and it’s also working to educate other occupiers about how to use their smartphones as witnessing-devices, which has the potential to be quite a force-multiplier as far as coverage is concerned.
There is some reason for circumspection about activists’ over-reliance on information infrastructures which they do not directly control. Social media and free or cheap live streaming hosts are certainly powerful tools of communication, but they’re run by corporations who seek first and foremost to make a profit off of their use. There’s no guarantee that state or corporate intervention won’t modify or revoke aspects of their utility (or even shut them down) going forward. Social media and streaming make most Independent Media Centers look positively anachronistic – but if there was one thing Indymedia brought to the table that social media does not, it’s the table.
More importantly is the practice of grassroots journalism taking place among the occupation. The reportage is far from polished, but those involved are breaking new ground by collectively maintaining a live video stream in difficult conditions on a shoestring budget. Most of the effort is spent keeping the stream alive, and they’re hurting for help to produce and edit occupation-related content (both on-site and in cyberspace), of which there is a flood generated every day.
Social media as a tool for political mobilization isn’t a new story, but combining that with a rudimentary 24-hour TV news channel from inside the protest is, and it certainly lives up to the occupation’s revolutionary ethos.