It has been two years since the birth of the Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park — a movement organized through intensive in-person occupations connected through a wide range of online networks. Now, with the occupations long gone and those who supported them more dispersed than ever, activists must re-imagine digital infrastructure with an eye toward long-term network building. Nothing indicates the need for dynamic infrastructure more than the advertised theme of this second birthday, “Reconnecting with the 99%.” The time has come for a slow network movement, one in which infrastructures are developed from users’ perspectives and tailored to meet local needs.
I mean “slow network movement” in two senses. First, the movement must critique fast-paced corporate social networking for how it organizes us and prevents us from organizing effectively. Second, we need to learn the lessons of past organizing and recognize ourselves as part of a longer historical trajectory.
I recently traveled to New York City to catch up with the team behind InterOccupy — the global Occupy movement’s primary coordination platform — and discuss the infrastructure at work in the post-hurricane Occupy Sandy relief effort. While in town I also spoke with Todd Gitlin, the president of Students for a Democratic Society between 1963 and 1964. What piqued my interest was the similarity between the values outlined by SDS in the Port Huron Statement and OWS’s Declaration of the Occupation. While highlighting the continuity of values is critical, perhaps the most intriguing questions are much more banal: What skills were useful for organizing in the 1960s that are taken for granted now? Further, how does the current reliance on corporate social media make organizing both easier and more complex?
Jackrabbit, a volunteer with InterOccupy, reminded me, “Martin Luther King did not have a computer.” One of the significant effects of social media is the capacity to broadcast and amplify numerous voices across many platforms. But, a less-often-considered consequence is that activists have become less willing to do the messy work of collecting members’ information and maintaining a durable infrastructure. Moreover, many of our online networks are owned, operated, and located outside the movement itself — often by Wall Street-owned corporations. While automating information collection and network building leads to increased productivity, efficiency and a larger reach, it also produces a false sense of information security which stalls some activists from sharpening basic skills of organizing. Looking back, SDS’ infrastructure provides a valuable, offline exemplar of how a movement can be organized to coordinate networks of networks.
SDS formed in 1960 through the drafting of the Port Huron Statement, which outlined principles grounded in participatory democracy. Gitlin described his first encounters with SDS groups in Boston and Ann Arbor as a “far flung web” of “loosely connected” activists.
The infrastructure of the young SDS was held together by a cadre of office workers in New York — who assembled and mailed the newsletters, contact and work lists — as well as a complicated schema of elected national officers, local chapters, affiliates and associated groups. This structure allowed students to create their own SDS chapters on campuses, while it also encouraged established groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to work in temporary autonomous alliances. Technology important to SDS’ infrastructure included a national office, typewriters, a printing press and a Wide Area Telephone Service line for long-distance calls. SDS members relied on cars to travel between campuses and actions. Having the time, resources and ability to recruit at campuses, hand out leaflets and coordinate locally was an effective way to build chapters and camaraderie across the network. While the national agenda was set yearly at an open meeting, local chapters could choose to focus on issues like voting rights, poverty and racism in their communities.
While the dream of participatory democracy remained elusive for SDS in reality, coordination among chapters took place mainly through the national office in New York. Gitlin remembers, “During the time I was involved in the national organization, from ’63 to ’65, there was very little going on, between chapters.” National actions, workshops and convergences became more and more important for fostering ties as the network grew. By 1965, the intensification of the Vietnam War led to a rapid influx of new members, and the desire to modify the infrastructure revealed changing values. As Gitlin explains, “SDS decided to abolish the office of national secretary who was the staff chief, which is a development that came about because of a certain version of horizontalism although, it wasn’t called that then. It was a certain resistance to a division of labor.” Following this decision, numerous factions formed united fronts against the older SDS leadership. By 1966, a group once tightly coordinated and open to working with other organizations became fractionalized and more moderate elements, such as the Progressive Labor Party, were pushed out.
The Occupy movement first grew out of even more fractured conditions, with various groups around the country organizing more or less independently, coordinating only informally.
For every occupation, a new infrastructure emerged, which usually included a website, email list, streaming video, Facebook page, a Twitter account and public meetings. InterOccupy developed to bridge the gap between the various groups by using online tools as well as conference calls. Just as the Vietnam War propelled SDS to reorganize, a crisis propelled changes within OWS and InterOccupy.
During the Occupy Sandy campaign, more components were layered on top of this digital infrastructure. As the storm surged, an email list was set up by members of OWS and InterOccupy to circulate information about the condition of New York’s various neighborhoods. As the devastation grew, information gathered by volunteers on the ground in Brooklyn and Staten Island was funneled back to InterOccupy through texts, phone calls, email lists, a website, a donation page, maps and social media. InterOccupy then sorted the information for online distribution. Rather than occupying public squares, the movement transformed churches, storefronts and apartment lobbies into distribution centers. Although some participants wanted to separate the relief effort from the “Occupy” label, its ongoing use — as a political brand and a hashtag online — gave the effort momentum it might not otherwise have had.
There were two significant revisions to the digital infrastructure for Occupy Sandy. First, InterOccupy developed a database to log volunteers. Using open-source CiviCRM software, the network began gathering information about housing, work experience, languages spoken and more. Eventually, the online infrastructure grew as thousands of people signed up to volunteer and millions of dollars in cash and goods were collected. While the infrastructure could seem burdensome for those working in badly damaged areas, it brought to bear the coordinating capacities of those located outside the immediate area. With access to the database, I could find specific types of volunteers to fulfill needs in Brooklyn from my apartment in Los Angeles. I also arranged numerous shipments and hundreds of volunteers by staffing the main inbox, which could get as many as 1,000 emails per day.
Second, the vision of Occupy Sandy volunteers was long-term. Diego Ibañez, an organizer with OWS and Occupy Sandy, described the advantages of horizontal organizing during a crisis. “The network agreed that it is a crisis and then we all acted on it,” he said. “We didn’t ask — we created new channels so people can plug into and then address the crisis. If we could all agree that homelessness or houselessness was a crisis tomorrow, we could tackle it in the way that we tackled the hurricane.”
Being able to act in concert, without strict lines of communication and authority, allowed many small networks of relief workers to organize themselves according to the community’s needs. Along the lines of SDS chapters, the long-term vision included using funds to establish centers focused on organizing against racism, poverty and foreclosure, among other local concerns.
While participation in Occupy waxes and wanes, building databases that include information about the participants as well as the kinds of topics or events of interest to them can help point participants to projects they would like to work on. Much like missives from the national office in SDS, coordinating infrastructures like newsletters and phone banking can help maintain network ties during periods of relative stagnation. Moreover, a Facebook page or Twitter account could disappear at the discretion of the corporation that owns it or individuals with administrative access to it, potentially breaking the network into fragments. On Facebook, an upcoming March against Monsanto event was mysteriously deleted, as was the Occupy San Diego page and group. Examples like these suggest that simply relying on Facebook, Twitter or Google can make our networks highly vulnerable.
When events like Hurricane Sandy (or impeding war) require a strong public response, databases of volunteers, participants, activists and journalists, become indispensable for horizontal organizing because they mean that the infrastructure does not need to be built anew every time. Infrastructure design within a slow network movement requires thinking about the constituent elements of organizing, including the tedious tasks of database creation coupled with a multi-sited approach to distribution and storage. Thankfully, not only do many of the tools and software already exist, but groups like SDS and Occupy Sandy provide a historical precedent for what, if further developed, could work even better in the future.
When Dylan sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” he meant that when social problems become obvious, no one needs to explain it. In our current situation of movements mediated by social media perhaps another lyric from Dylan should be considered: “The pump don’t work because the vandals took the handles.” When the lever breaks on corporate social media, how do we keep organizing?
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