#OccupyWallStreet protests, so I went to Wall Street myself to see what’s going on, and report on it.
It’s the quality of the coverage, not the amount that's the problem. It’s been on the nightly news every night for the past week, but there has been little “serious” reporting.
Zuccotti Park, owned by the same company (Brookfield Office Properties NYSE:BPO) that owns the adjacent skyscraper. An obvious step would be to contact them asking for a statement, but I could find no journalists that had yet done so. Well, if “journalists” aren’t going to do this, I can do this myself. I sent an email to their VP of Communications. I got a response, which I posted to my blog. When I posted it, I also Googled the sentences from the official statement, and found no results. I was indeed the first one “reporting” on this. Since then, others have mentioned the official statement, probably by picking it up from the #OccupyWallStreet Twitter hashtag that links to my blog.
we are all individuals” or “we must think for ourselves”.
More than just the amplifying the voice, there is a system for selecting speakers. There is a "Stack" of speakers expressing desire to speak, with their position on the stack dynamically adjusted so that all points of view get equal time, or so that shy women get pushed ahead in the stack to counterbalance loud males. The audience gives feedback, from up/down thumbs, to raised hands with wiggling fingers ("twinkles") to express enthusiastic support, like clapping, but without drowning out the speaker with noise. (Apparently, this structure was inspired by the Spain "Indignados" protests from back in May.)
live streaming video and other efforts the Media Team has used to exploit social media to their cause. Inspired by the New York occupation, other groups in most major cities have already started their own occupations, or plan to do so soon. In my own Atlanta, they plan for this coming Friday. These new occupations share the same organization, e.g. the General Assembly, the People’s Microphone. When somebody writes the definitive book on this, I’m sure this organization model will become a blueprint for protests years from now.
The point I’ve been trying to make with the last few paragraphs is that there is a “story” here. I started with the obvious task of asking the owner of the park for an official statement about the occupiers of the last three weeks, and following those threads, I saw a story emerge that is different than the standard narrative of “just-another-protest”.
But the protest isn’t angry. Quite the opposite, it is loving and accepting. If you go up to protesters with the opposite political view and debate them, they will express their undying love for you and ask for you to join them to increase the diversity of viewpoints. I did this myself, and watched this happen to others, including cops. This attitude pervades everything they do, and is frequently reinforced by the hard-core occupiers.
Burning Man” festival that takes place in the Nevada desert every summer. Whether it’s Burning Man or Occupy Wall Street, there is a cultural shift somewhere here. Now I feel compelled to go to Burning Man next year, just to track this thread down.
This is a particular danger to the Occupation movement. They still haven’t defined themselves, and risk letting the press define the movement for them. They started out with the idea that occupying Wall Street for weeks would be a good way to get their message out, but they are still trying to come to consensus on what, precisely, their message is. The press (and critics) claim they need a message and that they need a concrete list of demands, but I’m not sure that’s true. This is something else, something new, something that doesn’t need to be defined by the old.
In that way, it’s like the Internet. When the Internet appeared on the scene 20 years ago, it wasn’t like anything that predated it. Yes, you could define it in terms of the old, as a digital library, as an electronic form of mail, or as a communications network, but none of these descriptions captures the essence of what the Internet really is.
filter bubble”. While the Internet can expand a person’s universe, it gives people the power to shrink it. People create a “filter bubble” around themselves, using tools of the Internet to pass only those things they agree with. For example, Google watches what people search for, profiling them, and sorts the results for that individual. They see their own small universe reflected back, rather than the big universe.
That’s why, despite appearing nightly in the news, the occupiers feel the press is ignoring them. This protest has become the most important thing in the world -- among the people in their filter bubble and those in their social network. It becomes difficult for them to imagine that this isn’t the most interesting thing to everyone else as well. They apparently don’t comprehend that the “news” just reflects what the organizations think their audience wants to hear. If the public doesn’t seem to care, neither does the press.
There is much more to this filter bubble. An obvious problem is that people filter out opposing political views. But they also filter out intellectual arguments that otherwise agree with them. They’ve filtered their view of the world so that political arguments are black-and-white, rather than grey. In their filtered view, politics is about propaganda and rhetoric, rather than debate.
execution of Troy Davis case, but none of the details from the Wikipedia entry on the case. They could repeat the propaganda of Al Gore on Global Warming, but none of the science from the UN IPCC that declares the scientific consensus on the issue. They could repeat the economics of Michael Moore, but not that of Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, writer of the popular liberal/progressive blog “Conscience of a Liberal” at the New York Times and author of a college textbook giving an introduction to economics. For example, the protesters say “the rich get richer but the poor get poorer,” whereas Krugman says “the rich get richer but the poor go nowhere”. This is due to a profound disagreement about a basic economic concept and the economic data.
As the protesters try to define themselves in order to come up with a coherent political platform, they are hindered by this filter bubble. The forces will drive them to come up with something that excites their small group, but which will prove unacceptable to the larger world. I think they have to learn to reach outside their bubble if they want to actually influence things and to become to the Democrat Party what the Tea Party is to the Republican Party.
” footnote. Wikipedia uses this technique to allow anybody to challenge an unsupported assertion. Anybody can insert this footnote, expressing to the reader that (as yet) the assertion isn’t supported. Anybody else can find supporting evidence, and replace the  to a footnote pointing to a reliable source. If no citation can be found, the assertion is eventually deleted.
I found the occupiers had the same totalitarian attitude, though they don’t see it as totalitarian. Yes, their loving acceptance of those who disagree with them is astonishing, but it’s totalitarian. It asks that people give up their individuality to the state the occupiers are creating. Rather than free speech, the protest has a sort of "managed speech" to make sure everyone has equal time. There is also the flip side, that not to join the movement or to disagree with the protesters means that you are working against the interest of the people.
Reign of Terror. After they ran out of nobles, the Committee for Public Safety started beheading political rivals -- even those of their own party who helped overthrow the royalty. Their implicit thinking was this: I support the people. Therefore, if you disagree with me, you are acting against the people and must be beheaded. Or to paraphrase in the modern idiom, “you are either with us or against the people”.
The protesters have been settling on the idea that the conflict is the 99% against the 1%. But since the country is evenly divided between Democrat and Republican, they represent, at best, the interests of 50% against the 1%. No matter how poor, Republicans don’t see socialism as being in their own interests. Instead of chanting "We are the 99%" they should be chanting "We are the 50%", but they seem immune to seeing things from this perspective.
I personally experienced this duality between populism and totalitarianism. I had chosen a table in an empty area away from the crowd to type up my notes. I didn’t realize it, but it was near the General Assembly area that would soon become crowded. Members of the Media Team came up to me and insisted I move, so that they could set up a tripod and camera on the table to take pictures of the General Assembly. I refused. I tried to do this as nicely as possible, with a pleasant demeanor, but of course, I was being a jerk. I didn't like they way they insisted, but also I wanted to test them, to see what would happen when somebody didn't go along with their demands.
Of the three people, one was nice. He smiled, shook my hand, and said “peace”. I’ll bet he’s been to Burning Man. But the other two were nasty. The second guy, visibly twitching in anger, made unspecified threats that I had better move. The third person, tried to argue. She claimed that the protest had prior right to this spot, since they had been occupying the park for weeks (a fallacious argument, since the owners declare the park open to everyone equally). She then argued that this was for the entire group, to get the word out about the protest, to which I answered that I’m not part of the protest, that I don’t share their views. Her final argument was the totalitarian argument: this is for the people. She then proceeded to say that she was going to setup the tripod anyway, and that if I didn’t move, she would accidentally step on my laptop computer, because her attention would be on taking pictures and not where she was stepping.
libertarian, which means I’m interested in the connection between populism and totalitarianism, which we libertarians see as the same thing. I wanted to experiment with it.
Back to reporting. I see it as a struggle between the “story” and some sort of “narrative”. Take, for instance, the most reported event of the protest, the arrest of 700 protesters as they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. However you treat the story, you have to struggle with the “narrative” that “police oppress protesters”. Here’s what happened. The occupation is of the park in Wall Street. Last Saturday they marched from there intending to go to the park right on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, then back again. The march was planned ahead of time. The protest leaders talked to the police about it. The police told them to stay off the roadway to avoid blocking traffic, and instead use the pedestrian walkway one level above the roadway. The protest leaders widely communicated this to other protesters.
When the protest happened, many protesters followed the correct path above the roadway, but many others incorrectly chose the roadway. After about 700 had taken to the roadway, the police closed off both ends of the bridge, preventing them from escaping and arrested them all. Eventually the errant protesters were given summons for causing a public disturbance. Protesters accuse the police of causing the problem by letting protesters out onto the roadway in the first place rather than informing them to take the pedestrian way. They also point out that shutting down the bridge for hours caused much more of a public disturbance than letting the protesters pass for 15 minutes. Regardless of any agents provocateurs on both sides, though, it’s a good bet that the bulk of the 700 who got arrested were just sheep, going along with the crowd.
For me, that’s the “narrative”: stupidity and ignorance on both sides cause things like this, rather than malicious intent - barring a few on both sides who want to see the problem escalate.
The arrests themselves were interesting. The protesters above, on the pedestrian level, were not arrested, but shouted/chanted encouragement to those below. There was confusion about how to act during the arrests. Should they do so in the nice, polite, accepting manner that defines the niceness of the movement? Or should they act like traditional protesters, lock arms, and passively resist? They seemed to be split half and half. Again, I blame the media: protesters watch the news, and try to copy how they see protesters act, making the news retroactively correct.
The Internet is a force multiplier. There are actually only a couple hundred protesters sleeping night after night in the park. But their hard-core determination inspires a couple thousand during the day, 10,000 watching the live stream, and a 100,000 participating via social media.
In one incident, there was a traditional news team from Fox News, trying to do an interview. The interviewee went on a tirade against Fox News. Those within the filter bubble of the protest loved it, but of course, it’s perfectly useless to a news station reporting on the protest.What I found interesting about this incident was the claim by the Fox News reporter that the protesters can’t get their message out without the mainstream media. But that's false. The protesters are getting the message out via the Internet just fine. Indeed, neglect is preferable to the distortions as the media tries to pigeonhole the protest into their preferred narratives.
Obligatory Monty Python reference]
That the protest is dominated by Internet savvy youths exploiting social media is frequently mentioned. But what is not mentioned is the fact that the protesters are overwhelmingly college students, or recent graduates who still haven’t found jobs. They aren’t just any college students, but the stereotypical sort that you might expect to be involved in campus activism, such as graduate students in “Gender Studies.” I found nobody with engineering or science degrees, but many from arts and acting colleges. After talking with one guy for a while about unemployment and his difficult in finding a job after college, I found out that he was a “poet.” I’m not sure he understood that employers aren’t looking to hire poets. The only person I met that had a political science degree was one of the police officers “keeping the peace.”
The makeup of the protesters also led to amusement among the cops, stationed in pairs on all four sides of the park. For some, their normal beat is in the poor areas of New York City. The police, who daily see the struggle of the real poor, had little use for protesters complaining about jobs while they carried around expensive MacBook computers paid for by their parents.
I mention the racial makeup for a specific reason. The Tea Party was also predominantly white, which was frequently reported in the news, despite the fact that guidelines tell reporters to avoid mentioning race when it’s not relevant. They nonetheless reported it because it fit the narrative they wanted to tell about the Tea Party (that it has a racist component). In much the same way, they don’t mention the racial makeup of the Occupation because it doesn’t fit their narrative.
Every night is like a blowout bash you organized in college. After everyone has gone home or passed out, you sit on the top of the dorm with close friends, too excited to sleep, but too tired to do anything else but sit around in small groups and chat. That’s the vibe from the park at 2 a.m.: Quiet hours started at 10 p.m., most everyone has left, many are now asleep over there in the sleeping areas, but many are still too excited to go to sleep themselves. They huddle together in intimate groups around the park, discussing things.
I think it’s the intimacy and restrained excitement at night that is part of the real story here, not the hubbub during the day that the press tries to mold into their narrative of just-another-protest. What makes this different are those protestors staying night after night in the park. Yet, news reporters flock the scene at 2 p.m., but are absent at 2 a.m. I can’t understand why somebody like the New York Times isn’t sending a reporter down there to embed themselves in the occupation, sleeping there for a week and perhaps writing a Pulitzer prize-winning story.
Here's my point: the press and pundits have already decided on the "narrative" that's independent of what's really going on. For example, many Republicans and Fox News commentators insist that this is "planned" by the left for some nefarious purpose. It isn't (although that might change if politicos seize control of the occupation). Conversely, the Left has a narrative about police oppression that isn't quite right, either.
I see a different narrative. The love and acceptance of dissenting views is huge. The intimacy of the occupation over night is amazing. The excitement from the live stream and Twitter feed is infectious. The populism hinting at totalitarianism is frightening. The occasional irony is amusing. More citations are needed.
I think there is something interesting going on here. It’s not just another protest. I think it’s a more enduring addition to our culture. A decade from now, when the U.S. invades France over a cheese dispute, protesters will “occupy” the streets using the same principles being developed now.