Reflections on Occupy Wall Street and Contactcon (part 1)

I arrived in NYC in the afternoon to attend (an intense one day conference hosted by Douglas Rushkoff  working with Venessa Miemis and ).  Since I could not connect with anyone from the Contact event, I headed to the Wall Street area, and spent the rest of the evening participating in and observing and learning about Occupy Wall Street. This evening was cold, rainy, and extremely windy.  The park being occupied is mostly cement and cut granite, with a few trees, and filled with people eating, discussing, debating, camping, talking, playing music, and more.

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The park is surrounded on all sides by police barricades and news media vans and broadcasting equipment from all over the world. More than a month in to this, the people who have been camping here for a long time are generally reflecting that they are getting tired of being used as props in media stories. They turn down offers to be photographed, and can be selective about giving interviews. On days with nicer weather, the park is also crowded with tourists. But, on this day, it was mostly wallstreet workers passing by and talking, the occupiers, the media, and the police.

The police have this weird observation tower/camera/trailer thing parked next to the square.

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The observation tower on the trailer sits a good 25 feet or more up in the air. The glass in the windows is darkly tinted. Generally the police are respectful and nice in the park.  It’s my impression without knowing more that the violence that made the news recently happened around the corner from here when the group decided to march on the trade buildings just down the street. If you spend time in the middle of the park, you’ll usually find people sympathetic to the OWS effort, debating or discussing issues like gas fracking, health care reform, etc. You’ll also find people on the edges and sometimes within offering advice, or questioning the effectiveness of the approach and issues of the occupiers.

I listened in on this activity for an hour or so. I witnessed a woman who works on Wall Street debate with a man that lives in Queens who was wearing a sign demanding the arrest of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The woman said it was not realistic to demand arrest of the wealthiest people and their enablers, and that we should focus on the future and not the past. The man with the sign stuck to his message, and said that he couldn’t accept any other resolution than jail time, especially given how much jail time the non-wealthy tend to contribute to the reform and betterment of our society. I watched this play out over and over. The people occupying this park are dealing with relentless doubting, attempts to erode their values and focus, hour after hour, day after day, all while sleeping on the ground in the elements, and being eyeballed by police hovering around them 24/7. I decided that I would spend the rest of my time on Thursday night playing “question the questioners”.  I inserted myself into every exchange I could find where people were there to doubt and demoralize. And when I heard them say “you will never make a difference doing things this way” or “what you really need to do is (insert agenda here)” I would reply “how do *you* know that this will ‘never work’?” and “how long have *you* been doing what you are suggesting these people do?” etc. These people don’t have a lot of solid arguments when you put them on the spot while they are right in the middle of putting someone else on the spot.  They can’t really tell you why this is doomed to fail. Nor do they have good answers for why people should do what the doubter thinks they should do instead of what the occupier is there to do.  If you know me well, you can imagine that this activity was a lot of fun for me for a while. However, when the novelty wore off, and I kept hearing about “working groups”, I wanted to see what that was about.

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The information people pointed me to 60 Wall street, which is an indoor atrium across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, that was staked out by OWS as a place to go and work on agendas, etc as the weather gets worse. I made my way there, and on the way I noticed the street I was walking down, near the NYSE, was dotted with weird irregularly-shaped barricades designed to funnel people into single files lines, and presumably irregular-shaped to make it more difficult to climb on. The sides of the street also had crowd control barriers the whole way down the street. When I came to the atrium, I found circles of people with laptops open, etc so I dove in and started listening to what people were saying. The first group I joined was a “health care” group. This group was made up of young political activists, as well as a pediatrician from NYC, and some nurses from NYC. They were discussing how to leverage the attention that OWS now has, by presenting a different image. They came up with the idea to dress in their doctor and nurse uniforms. They also planned several events that would bring out lots of health care workers to demand access to health care for everyone. Other groups discussed a myriad of other issues. In all cases, the groups I witnessed are evolving their approaches and focus on a daily basis. They are gathering resources and support at a very fast pace, and spend an amazing amount of time coming back and coordinating with everyone at general assemblies. The process is amazing, and itself constantly being evolved by participants.

I learned from some of the participants who were visiting NYC from Boston, Portland, Seattle, and other far off places that the focus of working groups is different depending on the unique local conditions. Some people in some cities are taking more direct local and regional political action, and are less focused on the media. Occupy Wall Street has no choice but to deal with the media, which has a constant presence in the form of corporate networks from around the world, and independent news reporters, bloggers, photojournalists, etc. Many of the occupiers that I witnessed seemed rather burned out on the constant presence of journalists. The occupiers often turned down offers to be photographed, put on video, or interviewed. People from Anonymous (the hacktivist group) were actively trying to help occupiers enforce their wishes not to be photographed. I overheard one person who claimed to be with Anonymous admonish a reporter that they would “come find him” if he didn’t stop photographing some people who kept declining his requests.  The occupiers also have their own social media access. Fellow Contactcon participant Isaac Wilder and Charles Wyble have set up their “Freedom Tower” distributed internet technology at Zuccotti park and it is working to provide an uplink to clearchannel. The real promise in “Freedom Tower” is not just the relatively low cost (around $1500) but the conventions and community being built up around the technology, which will make it easier for others to participate, and evolve over time. I’ll talk more about  about Freedom Tower in the part 2 follow up to this post.

All in all, I was really glad I took the time to spend parts of 2 days at Occupy Wall Street. It was an intense and eye opening experience, and I found some real respect for the people occupying this space and carrying out this experiment. I think anyone who has lots of predictions about what is going to happen, will likely end being surprised by what comes out of this. A clue for me came from both the persistance in the face of hourly doubt and demoralization, and the focus on collective co-evolution that I witnessed among this group.

This is it for part 1. Part 2 will consist of a description of the contactcon event, and what I learned from, and took away from that experience.

1 Comment Reflections on Occupy Wall Street and Contactcon (part 1)

  1. AvatarSandwichman

    Thanks, Sam. Folks may want to have a look at Jay Smooth’s great video about “outing the ringers” (i.e., the news media cornballs that seem to be in some kind of game show about who can build the biggest strawman).

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