This is a guest post from Melissa Gira Grant.
“Hi, everyone. I’m Drew. With the Internet.”
It’s midway through the General Assembly down at Occupy Wall Street. Radiohead failed to show up and overrun the revolution, but the park is still packed. Two rows of people behind me echo Drew’s words – “with the internet” – serving as a human mic, as cops have forbidden the protestors the use of amplified sound. Liberty Plaza is allowed a generator, which runs the laptop and webcam that’s livestreaming the Assembly.
Now that he’s been introduced, Drew continues for us and the cameras, pausing after each few words to give the human mic a chance to keep up: “Right now. Our website. Is having some problems. If you know how to fix those kinds of things. Come find me. After the GA.” The General Assembly crowd is thick, and as soon as he’s done speaking, Drew is lost within it. One night he gives his report back on the Internet Committee while wearing a hideous holiday-inspired sweater, so he’s easier for potential volunteers to spot.
For a protest movement born of the internet, Occupy Wall Street’s technical situation is at times precarious. There are always three or four people hunched over laptops at the center of the camp, circled by cables, hard drives, and on occasion, fresh netbook boxes. If the rain is pelting down, they’re still there working with umbrellas drawn over their faces and keyboards, posting meeting minutes, tending to blog comments, and archiving massive amounts of video. But for the first few days, Occupy Wall Street didn’t even have their own internet connection in the park. Anonymous reportedly hooked them up with a little wifi to tide them over until hotspots were deployed.
It was through Anonymous that Brian, one of the guys who’s now holding down the internal online communications, first found out about the occupation. Almost immediately, he started hitch-hiking here from Washington state, and a month later, he arrived at Liberty Plaza, where he’s been staying for the last eight days.
Brian served in the Marine Corps, he tells me, and he’s skilled in “security and strategic tactics.” On Sunday night, when we meet, he has an earpiece dangling from his neck and his plastic poncho covers a bulky backpack. He and Drew have convened an internet committee meeting just off-site at a friendly bar. They both sit at what ends up being the head of the table. Like others who speak up here, they don’t want to be seen as leaders, even if they hold the WordPress login info.
Who controls the Occupy Wall Street web presence, at this point, probably doesn’t matter. Even if the official website, which is nycga.net, was hit by a denial of service attack, the protest still occupies enough hashtags, twitpics and YouTube videos to get the message out. The idea is, if you don’t rely on a single gatekeeper, you also don’t have one person bearing all the vulnerability — which mostly works.
On Saturday, when news arrived at the park that hundreds of protestors faced imminent arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge, a member of the media team asked any of us who held a phone with a video camera to install an app on the fly and head down to the bridge to bear witness by livestreaming it. The work of monitoring potential arrests was now shared among the few dozen of us who made our way to the bridge, tapping through unfamiliar and seemingly unending sign-up screens as we hustled towards a potentially volatile confrontation.
The next night, when I ended up at Brian and Drew’s internet meeting, the group is far more racially and gender diverse than your everyday New York internet event, but the white dudes still dominate the conversation. One guy’s suggestion that we promote a Twitter hashtag to ask for material donations to the camp is met with pushback from another guy who wants us to abandon “corporate tools” for a custom Drupal solution developed by the occupation’s Open Source team. It’s kind of charming: instead of the usual circular debate on the minutiae of different strands of anarchist thought, these guys are having it out over GPL licenses and RSS scraping. Meanwhile, online supporters across the country and the world just want to know how to send us socks and pizza.
Chris, who’s been at the park for five days, joined the internet committee after the mass arrests on Saturday, as he watched people on the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page – which is not officially administered by the occupiers – freak out when updates stopped coming. “They thought we’d been removed from the park,” he says. In reality, it was just a glitch with the official Occupy Wall Street site, which cross-posts to Facebook.
Late that night after the meeting, Julie, a 21 year old New York University student from Harlem, launches a Tumblr to aggregate firsthand stories from occupiers. She’s studying globalization, which took her to London last winter, just as the student occupation against budget cuts took hold. What she’d been studying in the classroom –the Egyptian and Syrian uprisings – was now playing out in the streets below. “So over the weekend,” she says, “when I saw there had been over 800 arrests, I knew I had to come down and try to help.”
Still, that we connected at all in the park is mostly an accident. “Yesterday I just came down to the media table and asked if I could get more involved,” says Julie. “The internet meeting was the one happening next.”
As we talk at the perimeter of the media table, we notice a guy next to us with a clapperboard and another guy holding a shotgun mic. One mentions an internship he had at Comedy Central.
“Who are you guys shooting with?” Chris asks them.
“For the website, I think,” the former intern says.
“You know, we’re working on that,” Chris replies. “We should exchange information.”