On the Scene: A Geek’s Guide to the Wall Street Occupation

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71wym2qYQdA&version=3&hl=en_US]

Editor’s Note: Seattle lawyer William Carleton spent several days last week in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the nerve center of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He had two goals — better understanding how Occupy Wall Street works, and not getting arrested. He accomplished both. Continue reading for his report from the scene.

Click for larger image. (Photo by William Carleton.)

I flew in Sunday night and went straight from the airport to Zuccotti Park. The scene was synesthetic and, my first hour there, almost overwhelming. But once I got the lay of how the occupation organized the space — where the kitchen was, where people slept, where the library was, where key working groups were set up — it became a comfortable, inviting space.

They call it Liberty Park, or Liberty Square. Not only is Liberty the name of the street bordering the rectangular park, it’s also the name that pre-dates Brookfield Properties’ private ownership of the space, and brings to mind revolution and patriotism. It fits the scene.

Two men airing a webcast from the occupied space.

Every pocket in the park was alive with activity. Drummers drummed at the west edge of the park. Along Broadway, the east side of the park, demonstrators brandished cardboard signs and chanted slogans. Throughout the rest of the park people talked one-on-one or in small groups — until it was time for General Assembly.

“General assemblies” are conducted without amplifiers or bullhorns. The sound system is the assembled audience itself, which relays short sentences or sentence fragments uttered by the speaker on “the stack” (the occupation’s term for “the floor” or “the podium”) by repeating them aloud, in chorus. In terms of communication, this human microphone is the iconic method of the occupation.

It reminded me of responsive readings in a church. Except you are not responding to a prompt with the remainder of the thought or verse; you are repeating what has been said. And by actively repeating, aloud, what you hear, I think you may listen more attentively.

I settled in Sunday evening and stayed for the first 3 hours of the General Assembly meeting. I thought I might be cool and objective at first, but began participating in the human microphone. This was my favorite sentence of the night:

If you have an expenditure … If you have an expenditure … If you have an expenditure
over a hundred dollars … over a hundred dollars … over a hundred dollars,
please talk to finance … please talk to finance … please talk to finance
before spending the money! … before spending the money! … before spending the money!

If the city were to reverse itself and allow amplified sound in the park, I doubt the occupiers would use it. (That said, the topic of improving communication came up in each meeting I attended. The Sunday General Assembly was also the first, it was said, at which notes of the meeting were being projected on a screen as the meeting occurred.)

Committees reporting on my first night — sentence fragment by sentence fragment, each repeated twice — included (but were not limited to): Inventory and Shipping, Security, Sanitation, Library, Media, Legal, Arts and Culture, and the Alternative Currency Working Group.

The occupation strives to be nonpartisan. Process, process, process, (financing), process. “Personal political views” are not allowed at the General Assembly.

I talked to two people in the Social Media and Communications Working Group to ask about the occupation’s IT strategy. The communications network of the occupation at the park itself is pretty ad hoc, or it was as of midweek. People admitted into that working group simply bring their own laptops and devices, and plug into the myriad of power strips connected to a single, gas-powered generator protected (and somewhat hidden from view) by a pile of jackets and tarps.

While I was there, four or more people at a time were continuously monitoring and updating Facebook, Twitter, and other feeds.

I went to Liberty Park in part to find out whether Occupy Wall Street is a Twitter or Facebook revolution. It is not. It’s a revolution that includes middle-class people who happen to be comfortable using consumer electronic devices in their daily lives. Occupiers throughout the park use cell phones, smartphones, netbooks, and laptops.

At early stages in some democratic uprisings in the Mideast, despots were notorious for attempting to shut down the Internet and the phone networks. I got no sense that corporate America was colluding to do that in Liberty Square. If it is happening, it wasn’t evident to me on the ground. The wheels of corporate commerce reach into the functions of the occupying community: videos upload to YouTube, FedEx makes deliveries to the Shipping and Inventory Working Group, the Finance Working Group issues prepaid debit cards to better control and account for expenditures.

The main website for the occupation is hosted outside the park, presumably somewhere safe from the elements.

For that matter, organizers and working groups met routinely outside the park. It struck me as particularly ironic that the NYPD did such a zealous job of keeping chanting protesters from marching down Wall Street itself, and yet — one by one and two by two — occupiers trickled past the barricades at Wall Street and Broadway, and other side streets, unmolested, on their way to low-key working group meetings at another public/private space, an atrium at Deutsche Bank headquarters, at 60 Wall Street.

Of course, the virtual town square extends far beyond Manhattan. Dave Winer’s blog is giving voice to many of the technology issues implicated by Occupy Wall Street. This is a very important post (every technologist should read it, I think) in which Dave talks about how our politics have become as commercialized as everything else in public life. Occupy Wall Street may not wear an overt critique of technology in our society, but it is of a piece with the recent and excellent critiques by Winer, Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov.

I don’t know what the park is like in the middle of the night because I chose not to sleep there. But except for Tuesday, when I split my time to participate in the “Millionaires March” up Park Avenue, I spent the better part of my days in New York at Liberty Square.

Monday, Columbus Day and a school holiday, saw elementary school children there engaged in poster making and other activities. I saw many families, parents and kids of all ages, coming through and observing.

I’ve never witnessed or participated in a more earnest and wholesome manifestation of direct democracy. Much has been written about the lack of formal demands as a tactic, and a shrewd one at that. I worry, though, that such “praise” is overloaded with the Madison Avenue values that the movement seeks to subvert.

My own take is that the act of occupation is a performance, if you will, that invites citizens to reflect on the myriad ways in which our advertising-driven commercial and political life occupies our frames of reference and unduly influences our desires. The word itself, “occupation,” is brilliantly chosen, expressing both defiance and sovereignty.

See William Carleton’s blog for his posts from Occupy Wall Street and his Flickr photostream for more pictures.

  • http://twitter.com/BenDoernberg Ben Doernberg

    I completely agree with your assessment. For anyone who sees the Occupy protestors as ignorant anarchist hippies, I can guarantee that attending one General Assembly will change your mind. 

    Imagine a political process where one person can stand up and, through reason and passion, shape the decision of thousands. Picture a town hall where everyone is actually listening (and repeating) the words of whoever is speaking, rather than shouting them down or preparing counter-arguments. 

    I think the dedication of the movement to non-violence has also been severely underrated. I’ve only been protesting for two days, and already I’ve *personally* been driven at with police scooters, ridden at by mounted police, and “moved along” gently or not so gently by at least 10 other officers. I’ve seen other protestors punched in the face, shoved with batons, and arrested with extremely unnecessary force.

    Given all that, it’s incredible that the Occupy response has almost exclusively been to chant “this is a non-violent protest” and flash peace signs. It’s clear that everyone involved understands the importance and difficulty of the task ahead, and is rising to the challenge.

    Those who are benefitting from the status quo at the expense of everyone else ignore this movement at their own peril.

    • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

      Ben, thanks. I recommend following @twitter-30914122:disqus on Twitter as he is a startuper who was participating in the marches this weekend. I am really appreciating having his “eyes and ears” on the ground in NYC.

  • Anonymous

    Great article, thought I might add: a geeks (Android) app for the Wall Street Occupation – http://market.android.com/details?id=com.thinglet.occupyeverything

  • Dave

    Thanks for this overview Bill. I’ve seen a lot of articles on this protest movement and what it is against, but really nothing on what the movement is for. Is the movement in favor of something or is the group too diverse to have one particular agenda? 

    • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

      Dave, you’re welcome, and that’s a great question. If the movement is in favor of one, unifying objective, I think it may be this: everyone’s welfare should be considered, everyone’s voice should be heard. There’s a pervasive sense that money has bought off our democracy. If money buys influence and money equals speech, then those outside “the 1%” aren’t included in decisions that impact their lives.

      I think this “message” is manifest in how process oriented the occupation is. The general assemblies can be very, very frustrating, for how slow things move. But at the same time, it’s remarkable how respectful most of the assembled are about the process itself.

      A common chant on the marches – you’ve probably heard it – is “Tell me what democracy looks like – THIS is what democracy looks like.” Trite to some ears, perhaps, but the occupation lives that slogan in how the occupiers conduct the general assemblies, how they treat people who show up at the park and ask questions, how they work with their own dissidents (eg, the drummers who won’t respect the GA’s decision to limit drumming to certain hours of the day, out of respect to neighbors who requested such limits – see this article from the AP on that point: http://hosted2.ap.org/PASCR/d30f3f32e9d849979111e891380b64db/Article_2011-10-15-Wall%20Street%20Protest-Who's%20in%20Charge?/id-500db80b7a694057bee63076e5f08e1e).

      No question there are a variety of business models and organizational structures that startup tech companies model, but some entrepreneurial businesses pride themselves on having very flat structures, and doing things, in terms of process, to encourage everyone to feel proprietary about the venture, and, in a sense, to speak for it, to own it, to act like they belong there and the company also belongs to them. There is a startup mentality to #OWS, if you will. If they don’t have a “product” yet, and are still team building, well, we’ve seen that before!

      Back to the political arena: I think the organizers of #OWS are very wary of espousing a set of policy proposals too quickly for tactical reasons as well. I see the President and others are trying to “get out in front” of the movement in some sense, but the movement is wary of this. A lesson of the Tea Party movement, I think many think, was that that movement allowed itself to be co-opted by the Republican party too readily. Expect #OWS to resist these overtures.

      It’s hard to say that any one voice speaks for the movement, but an editorial in “The Occupied Wall Street Journal” was very clarifying to me while there. Here is a quote from it: ”The exhausted political machines and their PR slicks are already seeking leaders to elevate, messages to claim, talking points to move on. They, more than anyone, will attempt to seize and shape this moment. They are racing to reach the front of the line. / But how can they run in front of something that is in front of them? They cannot. / For Wall Street and Washington, the demand is not on them to give us something that isn’t theirs to give. It’s ours. We aren’t going anywhere. We just got here.”

  • Guest

    Bill, thank you for filing this report. I’m glad you made it out of there and back to the real world!

    • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

      Thanks! I’m hoping my real world changes to look more like #OWS!

  • Colm Gent

    Was speaking with the author on Facebook, and was asking questions about his experience.  Thought people would like to see the Conversation

    ME – William, do you think that they (occupiers) are resistant to working with the democratic party at all? If the D’s made some commitments, is it possible that they could partner? Or are the political parties just dead to them?

    A- It’s hard to say definitively, but my take is they are hostile to the Democratic party, by and large. Many feel President Obama is as much in the service of Wall Street as President Bush was. Wall Street may not like President Obama, but in a way, Wall Street could not have a better chosen champion. When you look at his campaign, it is all Madison Avenue – top down messaging to raise money, money, money. He is not using his network to listen to America and lead. He could have done that, but he chose not to (Dave Winer has a great post about that).

    A continued -  I want to type in here an excerpt from an editorial in the second issue of “The Occupied Wall Street Journal.” It reads in part as follows: “The exhausted political machines and their PR slicks are already seeking leaders to elevate, messages to claim, talking points to move on. They, more than anyone, will attempt to seize and shape this moment. They are racing to reach the front of the line. / But how can they run in front of something that is in front of them? They cannot. / For Wall Street and Washington, the demand is not on them to give us something that isn’t theirs to give. It’s ours. We aren’t going anywhere. We just got here.”

    ME- I am in complete agreement about how Obama’s econ team seems to be a Goldman Sachs operation. Not sure I see an alternative to the existing politicians in affecting change though. Historically, those that successfully achieved the political change they wanted (in the US anyway) used their leverage to drive politicians to them, rather than “throwing the bums out.” The Ken Burns documentary on prohibition actually demonstrated how popular movements got incredible changes through a democratic system. I think Occupy has a chance to do the same now, but only if they look back to what’s worked in the past. They could steer the whole country I think, but they’ll have to live with the steering wheel this car came with. :)

    A - Well said. Speaking for myself, I do think it would be good to change the rules so that paying politicians for access was called out for the corruption that it so clearly is.

    ME - Oh, and I know that the republican party is actually an example of creating a whole new party for new times, but keep in mind that’s the only time it worked. Every other time was self defeating. i.e. Nader

    ME - I’d love for us to follow the model that prohibitionists, and then anti-prohibitionists, used to amend the constitution so to make any and all polical donations banned. Be it in kind, direct donation, or independent group. No money should be used as part of poetical speech. That’s my 2 cents anyway

    • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

      Colm, awesome of you to share our FB exchange here in this thread! Thank you.

  • Cb161

    Great article!  You really get it when you point to the tension between the “disruption” and reinstantiation of the political economy that the Occupiers represent. Here in Chicago, the Occupiers converge in a somewhat awkward 3 cornered area where La Salle St. dead ends into Jackson. (I’ve posted on it at http://www.bloomvox.com/index.html.)  There is no adjacent space or park like Zuccotti in which to set up shop. I wonder what effect that will have on the movement here. I recently heard a spokesperson for Occupy Chicago interviewed on a local NPR show here who said the Occupiers were looking for a sheltered, indoor space to move to.  I have mixed reactions to that prospect. My first thought was how will they keep the pressure on if they go inside?  But my second thought was this is the move to institutionalization that could be positive, the instantiation of a new democracy (And of course I’m completely sympathetic given the brutal Chicago winter bearing down on us!) I’ll be in NYC this week and will stop by Zuccotti to check it out.  Curious if you have any thoughts on the prospect of the movement “moving inside.”

    • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

      Looking forward to hearing what you think of the occupation in NY, and of course I will be following closely what you report re Chicago. I read in the Twitter stream that there is an idea of moving the main, daily general assemblies to Washington Square Park. In a small, breakout group I took part in at a general assembly in Liberty Park, we discussed how it might be desirable to have GAs in many parks or places all over the city . . . but I don’t recall that we talked about being inside. I guess I’d have to think about that; offhand it seems that out in public view is part of the point. Here in Seattle I need to get caught up on the tents/no tents issue. At Liberty Park, of course, tents are not permitted. So the occupation uses tarps in the rain (pictured).

  • Dave Stone

    The Occupy movement reminds me of the Bollywood movie “Rang De Basanti” in which apoltical slackers are moved to action. Unfortunately it has a bittersweet ending with the arrival of the riot police and anti-terror commandos.

  • Anonymous

    In other words, OWS is a Seinfeld episode.  It’s about nothing, with some humorous and/or thought provoking tidbits thrown in.

    I guess OWS is more about being “art” than anything else in that you can interpret meaning that is there for you only and others can do the same or for many of us wondering what their issues (other than middle class angst) really are.

  • Circularsolution

    Not knowing anyone in New York, but wanting to do my small part, I would like to organize the collection of jackets, coats, sweaters and socks for the Occupy Protesters in the park.
    Can anyone help me connect with someone in New York who would deliver what I collect to the park.

    Rhoda
    Lakeland, FL
    circularsolution@aol.com

  • Circularsolution

    Not knowing anyone in New York, but wanting to do my small part, I would like to organize the collection of jackets, coats, sweaters and socks for the Occupy Protesters in the park.
    Can anyone help me connect with someone in New York who would deliver what I collect to the park.

    Rhoda
    Lakeland, FL
    circularsolution@aol.com

    • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

      Rhoda, the physical address for #OWS at Liberty Park is: 118A Fulton st #205

      New York, NY, 10038.
      You may find other useful info at https://www.nycga.net/how-to-help/.

  • Anonymous

    Have you noticed how silent politicians and media personalities are about the movement?  Washington and Hollywood won’t embrace #Occupy because they are the 1%

    Judge Judy and Taylor Swift made $45 million in 2010
    Miley Cyrus $48 million
    Sandra Bullock $56 million
    Jerry Seinfield $75 million
    Steven Spielberg $100 million
    Tiger Woods $105 million
    James Cameron $210 million
    Oprah Winfrey $315 million

    Who else is in the top 1%? of income earners?
    Barack Obama, $5.5 million, 2010
    Nancy Pelosi $34.2m
    Justin Bieber, $103 million, 2010
    Eminem, $71 million, 2010
    Phil McGraw, $80m
    Jerry Bruckheimer, $100m
    Tyler Perry, $125m
    Paul McCartney, $93m

    How about Congressional Wealth?
    Sen. McCall, $294m
    Rep. Issa, $220m
    Sen. Kerry, $190m
    Sen. Rockefeller, $81m
    Sen. Warner, $76m
    Sen. Feinstein, $45.4m

  • Anonymous

    Have you noticed how silent politicians and media personalities are about the movement?  Washington and Hollywood won’t embrace #Occupy because they are the 1%

    Judge Judy and Taylor Swift made $45 million in 2010
    Miley Cyrus $48 million
    Sandra Bullock $56 million
    Jerry Seinfield $75 million
    Steven Spielberg $100 million
    Tiger Woods $105 million
    James Cameron $210 million
    Oprah Winfrey $315 million

    Who else is in the top 1%? of income earners?
    Barack Obama, $5.5 million, 2010
    Nancy Pelosi $34.2m
    Justin Bieber, $103 million, 2010
    Eminem, $71 million, 2010
    Phil McGraw, $80m
    Jerry Bruckheimer, $100m
    Tyler Perry, $125m
    Paul McCartney, $93m

    How about Congressional Wealth?
    Sen. McCall, $294m
    Rep. Issa, $220m
    Sen. Kerry, $190m
    Sen. Rockefeller, $81m
    Sen. Warner, $76m
    Sen. Feinstein, $45.4m

    • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

      You make a good point. But I think some of the 1% are starting to see the light. I suppose some people may always be content to live in a gated community, but others want cities and the country at large to be vibrant, viable. An America truly re-committed to democracy would be just awesome an energizing . . . for the 99.9% (allowing that 0.1% will stay in their walled gardens)!

  • Anonymous

    Have you noticed how silent politicians and media personalities are about the movement?  Washington and Hollywood won’t embrace #Occupy because they are the 1%

    Judge Judy and Taylor Swift made $45 million in 2010
    Miley Cyrus $48 million
    Sandra Bullock $56 million
    Jerry Seinfield $75 million
    Steven Spielberg $100 million
    Tiger Woods $105 million
    James Cameron $210 million
    Oprah Winfrey $315 million

    Who else is in the top 1%? of income earners?
    Barack Obama, $5.5 million, 2010
    Nancy Pelosi $34.2m
    Justin Bieber, $103 million, 2010
    Eminem, $71 million, 2010
    Phil McGraw, $80m
    Jerry Bruckheimer, $100m
    Tyler Perry, $125m
    Paul McCartney, $93m

    How about Congressional Wealth?
    Sen. McCall, $294m
    Rep. Issa, $220m
    Sen. Kerry, $190m
    Sen. Rockefeller, $81m
    Sen. Warner, $76m
    Sen. Feinstein, $45.4m

  • Anonymous

    Have you noticed how silent politicians and media personalities are about the movement?  Washington and Hollywood won’t embrace #Occupy because they are the 1%

    Judge Judy and Taylor Swift made $45 million in 2010
    Miley Cyrus $48 million
    Sandra Bullock $56 million
    Jerry Seinfield $75 million
    Steven Spielberg $100 million
    Tiger Woods $105 million
    James Cameron $210 million
    Oprah Winfrey $315 million

    Who else is in the top 1%? of income earners?
    Barack Obama, $5.5 million, 2010
    Nancy Pelosi $34.2m
    Justin Bieber, $103 million, 2010
    Eminem, $71 million, 2010
    Phil McGraw, $80m
    Jerry Bruckheimer, $100m
    Tyler Perry, $125m
    Paul McCartney, $93m

    How about Congressional Wealth?
    Sen. McCall, $294m
    Rep. Issa, $220m
    Sen. Kerry, $190m
    Sen. Rockefeller, $81m
    Sen. Warner, $76m
    Sen. Feinstein, $45.4m