The #Occupy Movement Is An Ecosystem, Not A Political Party [update]by samgimbel on 11/22/2011
[Update 11/22/11 4:21PM]: It turns out someone is already writing about #OWS in this way. Check out what Inhabitat has to say.
I’m amazed by the rate at which the #Occupy movement has grown and strengthened. It’s a beautiful thing to see something start as a feeling in the hearts of many and slowly but powerfully work its way into our everyday lives as a living, breathing movement. But I’m equally amazed by the intensity of the reactionary response fostered by most media outlets and leaders on the left and the right. For instance, all major news networks declined to cover the 30,000+ person rally (figure courtesy of police scanners) this last Thursday the 17th. That’s 30,000 people’s voices systematically silenced because CNN, NBC, and others decided it wasn’t worth their resources.
The reasoning behind pulling coverage is relatively simple: they don’t see a cohesive message. It’s a trope that has been repeated many times and caused ripples of dissent in much more moderate circles than would be expected for such a pro-equality anti-corporate movement. The criticism always seems to be that without a unified message #OWS can’t expect to grow, can’t expect to gain mainstream support, and certainly can’t attract followers that buck the trend of unwashed, dreadlocked white twenty-somethings deliberately set by cable news photographers to help narrow the focus of coverage. And yet, day after day, week after week, more occupy camps are started, and each one continues to add participants. It’s taken on a viral nature that has allowed it to become international, coordinated, and physically more mobile than ever before. Just take a look: HuffPo, CSM, Business Insider.
That’s a far cry from the claims made by CNN, the New York Times, Fox News, Bloomberg (the mayor AND the news service), and even MSNBC. Even the Huffington Post, long considered an ally of liberal causes, has been relatively critical of #OWS’s organizational styles and methods. Why? What facet of the movement is being observed and declared deficient? Where is the disconnect between the official media status (disorganized, muddled messages, no clear leadership) and the dynamic reality (day-over-day growth for the last two months, 30,000 participants in the last NYC rally)?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last few days, and the discrepancy seems to be based on the perspective of the viewer more than their ideology or political agenda (although let’s be honest: plenty of pols are leveraging the existing controversy for their own needs). A recent talk with a fellow #OWS supporter who has not been able to attend events revealed that he shared the same concerns: how can #OWS capture the hearts and minds of non-participants without a unifying message or set of ideals? My answer was inadequate and tried to explain it in terms of a strategy to prevent infiltration: if there is no obvious leadership or policy requirement, then there can be no simple placation or hijacking of the message.
That makes some sense, but it’s not the whole story. Perhaps an analogy will help: Think about a simple meadow sitting on a lot on a typical suburban or low-rise city block. What do you see? Your answer largely depends on who you are. Your first reaction might be “nothing,” or “you mean besides the grass?” If you’re a scientist of the botanist variety, your answer will probably be much more in-depth and complex. A real estate developer would have a totally different perspective, but still a well-thought-out answer. A photographer or videographer might envision it as a creative backdrop. The children among us would probably see it as a place to play. Mr./Ms. Working Joe will probably see it as an escape, as a new and interesting sight compared to their daily routine. But a media person would probably go with the “nothing” answer, because there really isn’t a great story to tell about a simple meadow. Point out to this person the myriad ways in which others are thinking about the meadow and the answer is still, “there is no story, just a bunch of different ideas.”
Now let’s apply that to #OWS. The movement is an ecosystem unto itself, similar to the meadow. It also has an extremely complex set of external and internal governing forces. On one hand the complexity is implicit, a byproduct of so many people coming together from so many different backgrounds, and on the other hand it’s deliberate–you can’t remove the head from a headless organization, and thus this was the model created by organizers. Once you start inspecting this complexity you realize that there’s no dearth of unity but rather a lack of idea conformity. Like in the meadow example, the beauty of interpretation has led people to support #OWS for different reasons, each according to their own perspective. What unifies them is not a single stated goal but rather the promise of new experiences and societal change manifested in many separate ways. It’s these promises that constitute “demands” in the more traditional sense, allowing for multiple unique demands to be made for every individual who joins the cause. Oddly enough, this also allows for widespread dissent within the movement itself, but the ecosystem persists because it is governed by consensus, which draws strength from the diversity rather than becoming paralyzed by it.
Perhaps the only individuals who have a hard time categorizing the movement are those trying to distill it into an idea that can be understood politically and therefore incorporated into a news cycle. The concept of an ecosystem–a living, breathing entity made up of individuals–is too complex to use as a premise for a report on the week’s latest clash with the NYPD. It’s always been easier to say something doesn’t exist than it is to explain that you don’t know how to describe it, and that’s what is happening now. Media outlets are clueless on how to spin this movement into soundbites without resorting to tired old protest stereotypes. This has made the movement easy fodder for politicians looking to ingratiate themselves with the astroturfed Tea Party or all those poor bankers everyone seems to be so upset at these days.
All this is to say that after two months of escalating protests and action, a strategy does exist and it’s working. There is an integral misunderstanding between those acting and those reporting that action, and this misunderstanding is being leveraged by people with power, but that is a much better fate in light of the growing numbers of occupiers than a movement stopped short by too narrow or political a focus. The movement has successfully dodged the issue of infiltration (for now) by creating a virtual immune system, a way of buffering outside influence from taking over the entire conversation.
My only advice to the movement would be to shore up alternative methods of communication to the outside world so that #OWS need not rely on CNN to reach the televisions or newspapers of “Middle America.” Once you have that worked out (perhaps easier said than done), the next step is to aggregate that information nicely so we can find it easily. We don’t need a single leader, but having a usable news portal with up-to-date information is essential to continued involvement. Yes, we all would prefer it if occupiers were physically present at every rally, but there will always be those who can’t make it, and keeping them in the loop is an easy way of keeping the movement in their minds.
Regardless, numbers don’t lie–and each day of action breaks the record set by the one directly prior. We have an amazing thing starting on our streets, and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s an ecosystem of equality and common-sense rules, and it’s growing. I can’t wait to see what it will become.