Conference calling across the Occupy rhizome

    Volunteers for meet at the Occupied Office in New York City. Photo by the author.

    As Occupy camps spread around Southern California in early October, a small group of occupiers located at City Hall in Los Angeles reflected on our experiences setting up a camp and our first assemblies. “It’d be awesome to see what they do in San Diego,” I remember saying, sitting in the comfort of Occupy LA’s People’s Library. “Do you think the cops will even let them put down tents?”

    The librarian replied, “We should help them. We should be there so that their first GA isn’t as bad as ours was.” But, as we would soon learn, both the challenges and the potential of coordinating Occupy assemblies would be far greater than that.

    I drove to San Diego on October 6th to meet with their General Assembly’s facilitation team as they marched around downtown, eventually settling in Children’s Park. We talked about the idea of having a team of people ready to keep the peace and teach horizontal democracy. Then, a week later, after moving the camp to the Civic Center and doggedly resisting pressure to leave, OSD was given an eviction notice. Occupiers were pepper-sprayed when they decided to defend one lonely tent in the middle of a public space. I raced down to San Diego to help arrange bail funds that night. Curiously, another person, a young man dressed in a Tommy Bahama shirt, also showed up and claimed to be from Occupy Wall Street.

    He suggested that remaining members of OSD break off into smaller groups and spread out around the city. He disrupted the General Assembly several times to say that the cops were going to move in soon, but that OWS was sending “1,000 people to OSD to fortify their camp.” I was perplexed, because if this person was really from OWS, he should know how to build consensus rather than cause disruptions. On my way back from San Diego, I stopped at Occupy Long Beach to check in with them. There, one occupier mentioned that his girlfriend at Occupy San Francisco heard 5,000 people were coming from OWS to OSF to prevent eviction. Infiltration was afoot, but I had no direct line to OWS to confirm or deny these rumors.

    I went back to OLA dismayed, eager to find someone with a connection to OWS on the ground. I thought about sending an email—but to whom, and how would I know their information was reliable? At that time, most emails that were sent around occupations went unanswered for a variety of reasons, including inability to access computers and Wi-Fi at the camps. Fortunately, the brother of someone at OLA, Jackrabbit, was at OWS. Jackrabbit was patient with my paranoia and assured me that there wasn’t a plan from OWS to send anyone to California. In fact, they don’t even have 5,000 people at OWS. I relayed the info back to San Diego, and the infiltrator’s response was to further divide the General Assembly by stating that OWS was going to denounce OSD as an occupation. He disappeared from OSD the next day and never returned. Crisis averted, with just a simple phone call.

    The last week of October, I received notice that the OWS Movement Building Working Group would be hosting a conference call with other occupations on October 24th. The OLA Occupation Communication Committee set up a speakerphone in the media tent at our camp and dialed in. There were over one hundred people on that call and nearly 40 occupations represented. At the end of it, OWS asked for volunteers to help set up the next call—and thus began the early makings of InterOccupy. The first “Call Planning” meeting happened via telephone the following Thursday, when we decided on some protocols for rotating the hosts of the Monday night general call and soliciting agenda items. Occupy Philadelphia led the charge on the second general call, and OLA took up the third—albeit with technical support from OWS when the bomb squad showed up at OLA that night. After much debate, this small call-planning group settled on registering the domain name and started a call calendar.

    Before the encampments suffered eviction, the calls provided a sense that the movement was much bigger than any one camp. It felt truly global when I heard an occupier say “Goodnight, from Italy” on a call in November. OLA hosted a call for sharing advice on peaceful resistance among occupiers all over the country. By December, InterOccupy was arranging calls for large-scale actions such as the West Coast Port Shut Down—but most of its organizers still had not met one another.

    After the evictions, we decided that it would be important to meet in person to improve our services. I bought a plane ticket to NYC in mid-December, as did an occupier from Portland. Occupiers from Philadelphia drove up, while members of OWS arranged places for us to stay. Others from Kalamazoo, Stanford, and Reno called in to the three-day meeting. In a sunny apartment in Manhattan, we established some best practices for getting new voices on the calls, set up a series of subgroups for administration and expanded our call services. InterOccupy evolved from a group of distributed occupiers to an organization intent on providing a platform for truly horizontal communication. Clay Shirky, the New York University professor and author of Here Comes Everybody, attended the meetings, where he talked with us about decentralized communication and described the structure of Occupy as “loosely connected clusters of tightly connected groups” united by “satisfying and effective ties.”

    InterOccupy is able to put horizontality at the forefront of its mission to foster coordination across general assemblies and working groups. It’s meant to expand the way rhizomatic plants mature, with growth spreading out, rather than up. Any occupation can ask for a call, and no one agenda is given priority. The content of the calls, therefore, is up to the movement itself, with the goal of aligning strategy and actions, not to efface the autonomy of local assemblies.

    Because many of us started out traveling and connecting with other occupations face to face, we knew that the virtual network is strengthened, both emotionally and effectively, by physical encounters with one another. Modeled on the communication networks in the American revolution, Occupy Philly designed a network model called Committees of Correspondence. CoCs are encouraged to spread information about the actions of other occupations, inform local working groups about upcoming calls through InterOccupy and arrange face to face regional meet-ups. This model greatly increased the density of ties between occupations and, in doing, the volume of calls through InterOccupy.

    Using this model, Occupy So Cal in Long Beach recently hosted the first regional gathering with 50 occupiers from 10 occupations attending. We discussed how to better facilitate our communication, how to work together towards the proposed May 1st general strike and how to combat corporatism nonviolently. A second meet-up for Occupy So Cal is in the works for February 11, and InterOccupy is helping to coordinate it. Currently, others working with InterOccupy are on an OWS bus tour, spreading the model of CoCs around the northeast.

    Because face-to-face communication is as central to this movement as the latest technology, InterOccupy seeks to provide channels that amplify voices and ideas of the Occupy movement, while simultaneously deepening regional networks. As InterOccupy organizer Nate Kleinman says, “We lay the tracks, someone else has to drive the train.”

    This article is published in collaboration with the Social Science Research Council’s Possible Futures project. Learn more about Possible Futures here.

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