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#OccupyWallStreet, Philanthropy, and Organizing Causes

By Tom Watson on October 16, 2011No Comment

Occupy Wall Street, the angry and widespread protest collective that has moved well beyond Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, is a month old this week. For those of us who work in the nonprofit and social change sector, Occupy has been both fascinating and frustrating – the palpable result of terrible trends in society that most of us have complained about for years, but difficult by its very nature to latch onto, to engage with, or to emulate. We understand why people are angry. We sympathize. We want change. But we’re used to working within well-understood systems: philanthropy, organizations, government, and communities.

For readers trying to “figure out” the Occupy movement, I’d urge two things: caution and patience. Occupy is a decentralized groundswell protest. You’d be hard-pressed to find central leadership or a cohesive message. And I think that’s okay. Given the challenges we face as a society, a messy and sometimes heated public discussion – punctuated by bold “feet on the ground” – may well be a tonic. And unlike the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement of two summers ago, the Occupy protesters aren’t organized by a large media company (Fox), not do they represent a wing of a major political party (Republican). Having walked among them recently, the Occupy “disorganizers” are delightfully hodge-podge. Yet they are shaking and bending the iron chains of low expectations and gray conventional wisdom that makes us hunker in our cubicles, thankful every few months for a new gadget launch or sitcom to distract us from society’s slow-motion fall.

Here’s where nonprofit and philanthropy folks should pay attention, however: Occupy’s vision of technology is far more utilitarian and radical. They look up from their screens. They unplug their earbuds. They keep the message short and wide. Chants and drum circles, cardboard signs and masks. Tiny performance art pieces and costumes. Derided as spoiled trustafarians stinking of patchouli, they don’t seem to care. Radically, they’re using decentralized digital technology to power a massive amplification of their movement. Twitter and Facebook are just the glaze on their sweet profiterole network, with hashtags used to effectively lure tens of thousands of more casual supporters and hangers on. Anonymity is given real currency in this crowd, and its leaderless quality is taken seriously. As Nick Judd effectively illustrates in TechPresident (which may have to change its name to TechOccupy shortly), anonymous messaging services like Vibe blast the messages out to smartphones. As in the recent Middle East and North African uprisings, direct text messages are an old school standby. Twitter and its hashtags are for amplification outside the zone of conflict.

As is video: the use of LiveStream images from the park and from the marches, highlighting brief but violent clashes with police, has been as brilliant an example of live mobile video catalyzing involvement as I’ve ever seen. The crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend numbered perhaps 2,000. There were 700 arrests. And at any given time, 20,000 people watched the LiveStream, which was cannily set up to repeat the juiciest bits of conflict when the “streamer” lost a signal.

Personal stories – single individual tales – are told in simple, effective photos on the brilliant Tumblr site, We Are The 99 Percent. To flip through this site any day this week was to surf down the jagged, steep front of our economic collapse – an emotional and moving trip through what’s left of the middle class. This is close-in, user-generated journalism and a real model for how to tell a vastly complex story through hundreds of individual contributors.

Then there’s Facebook. Much derided by the techno-commentariat, the most social site in the world is once again at the center of public organizing (remember Egypt), the creation of local hives of activity around the general Occupy theme.

Clearly, Occupy Wall Street is tapping into something far deeper than just the energy of its core group of organizers. And by remaining open and not trying to control the message, it is encouraging thousands of people to paint their own version of what the Occupy movement means. It’s also fascinating (at least to me) to watch the evolution of groups like Anonymous, the hacking collective that has previously engaged in a form of activism that included silencing speech online by taking down websites. There are Guy Fawkes masks in Zuccotti Park, but they’re few – and they’re coming off. The Occupy movement was partially stoked by the young technologists of Anonymous; this may be their moment of change and maturity – when boldly acting in public comes to mean more than long-distance dilletantism.

I have no idea where Occupy Wall Street is going, but I’m impressed so far. As Allison Fine says, it’s “a delicious and irresistible idea.” And I think a mass expression of anger and outrage – even without specific demands, although as Bruce Bernstein noted their crowd-sourced Declaration of the Occupation is “coherent, insightful, and moving – is both appropriate to our times, and needed to get others off the sideline. It’s the advance unit of what may come next: the kind of economic and social reform that can heal this democracy of ours.

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