It's the Organization, Stupid
While the NYT apologizes for the NYPD brutality, and even the lefty media has been twisting its pearls because the protesters have no, gasp, "single, unified message", a design student at Parsons has produced the best document about the Occupy Wall Street happening that I've seen. The student, JR Baldwin, had a novel approach--he actually went and spoke to key organizers in person and asked them how they put it together! (Reporting..what a concept.)
I knew immediately that this protest was different – it didn’t have that feeling of transient haphazardness that plagues other activist clusters, where turning away for a moment might make the whole thing disappear. Occupy Wall Street is special, it’s a community trying to be self-sustaining. Organizing first, becoming survivable, then figuring out their demands to Wall Street in an organic bottom-up approach. [...]I had to find out how such a well organized community developed, seemingly overnight.
So he goes down to Zuccotti Park last Sunday and interviews some key organizers. Guess what! They've been actively planning their movement for more than a month now. I guess that means they're not a loose collection of disorganized ragtag hippies.
More than that, Baldwin--who is writing his thesis on "mesh network communities"-- discovers sophisticated, new approaches to the art of organization. He quotes one of the original organizers:
“When Ad Busters put the call out several months ago to occupy Wall Street on November 17th, a bunch of New Yorkers were curious and decided to get together and actually make it happen. Starting in early August, we met down at Bowling Green and had our first general assembly in New York.” While some organizing was done on an active listserv email mailing list, with up to 25 emails an hour, all final decisions had to take place in person, during general assemblies. “Since then we’ve met on a weekly basis leading up to September 17th, dealing with all sorts of issues of tactics, food, legal…messaging, reaching out…we would typically have about 100 people at each general assembly and they would last for about five hours.”
Now here's the really interesting thing. Many of the original organizers got burned out in the early days of the demonstration. But because the group is horizontally organized, newcomers could easily fill in their places. From Baldwin:
Based on the interviews with Matt and Ted, I feel as if there is a shift in the active members. Matt had mentioned that many of the original planners were burnt out from the months of meetings and couldn’t make it through another week. What they did was catalyse a movement and let others take over when the basic structures had been formed. In my thesis work, this resonates with my view of targeted stakeholders and users. The stakeholders I have to engage are those that work with mesh technology and the people willing to go into micro-communities, or clusters, and setup the basic infrastructures. Additional stakeholders and the users need to rely on an interface to engage and perpetuate an information exchange economy to keep the mesh alive.
This has enormous implications for the future of political work, particularly of the trans-national kind (and I would argue that as corporations, banks and wealth have de-nationalized, so too must political resistance).
The medium is the message. Remember that one? There is an enormously important--and yes, unified-- message coming out of the Occupy Wall Street protests. It's not about the What, it's about the How.
Last night I was thinking about this, and remembering what it was like when the Internet came into general use at universities. I was a late-blooming grad student of 39, and had an .edu account. None of my generational peers knew what I was talking about when I talked about "email," and the "Web". Many did eventually catch up, but some never did.
I feel like what I'm seeing at OWS is another Internet moment, and that I deeply need to learn all I can from it.