Monday, October 17, 2011


Today is the official one-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and supporters are congratulating themselves, with birthday cakes and marathon choruses of "Happy Occupy to You" from Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. But the movement's staying power should come as no surprise. What has been unexpected? Since the Tweet that started it all went viral July 15 -- "Sept. 17. Wall St. Bring Tent." -- the movement it catalyzed has appeared to kindle more heat globally than nationally. The New York Times journalist Nick Kristof, in a column Sunday titled America's Primal Scream, wrote how "it's fascinating that many Americans intuitively understood the outrage and frustration that drove Egyptians to protest at Tahrir Square, but don't seem to comprehend similar resentments that drive disgruntled fellow citizens to 'occupy' Wall Street."

Indeed, the #OWS movement had its largest single day of protests Saturday not in New York but far from Wall Street. Writes blogger Nate Silver: "In Europe, crowds in cities like Rome, Barcelona, and Madrid were estimated at 200,000 to 500,000 per city -- more, probably, than the protests in the U.S. combined." [See Cause Global's coverage of the rally in Times Square here.] Silver, who analyzed crowd turnout numbers and the distribution of the October 15th protests worldwide, also found that "despite Occupy Wall Street's name, its energy in the U.S. seems to be coming from the left coast" -- and apparently from people who didn't vote in the 2010 mid-term elections.

But it would be foolish to underestimate the movement's ideological diversity, its staying power, or its organizational savvy. This is not, as protester Justin Strekal told The Associated Press over the weekend, simply "a participatory democracy in a little park" near Wall Street. On the contrary, Occupy Wall Street has become a global franchise, backed by an impressively horizontal "wire-archy" of digitally connected strategy, media, and community organizing professionals, volunteers, sympathetic tech startups and consultants, online petition groups and other pro bono-minded social enterprises and innovators -- all of whom say they are working to redefine for the digital age what is meant by economic sustainability and participatory leadership (not to mention strategic planning).

For its part, the Zuccotti Park "branch" of the movement is continuing to meet daily in a general assembly and has aggregated nearly $300,000 of hundreds of individual donations into an Amalgamated Bank account. It has a local finance committee -- which, according to The New York Observer, just voted to turn down a donation from music mogul Russell Simmons because he wanted to help the group shape specific demands. (Victoria Sobel, 21, Occupy Wall Street's CFO, told The Observer Sunday that organizers are almost "obsessively sensitive" to any one individual or organization trying to exert leadership over Occupy; she said finance committee members are taking crash courses in money management to make sure the movement's books remain transparent and unfettered by New Age lobbyists.)

The Zuccotti Park installation also has its own newspaper, published in two languages, and a library, an infirmary, a rotating set of showers and rooms-for-no-rent in the area, and a waste disposal system set up by a social enterprise called Mobile Design Lab. And more widely, it has media savvy by the boatload, thanks to a real-time line-up of global PR volunteers and liasons who have, so far, managed the message cross-culture. People in London, Madrid, South Korea, Japan, Sydney and Stockholm, for example, were carrying similar signs and wearing similar t-shirts on October 15, all claiming membership in the "99 Per Cent." Meanwhile, multiple networks of crowdsourced "hackathon" techies are working to better connect sympathizers near and far, and more than 100 lawyers are donating their services to aid the arrested. Most protesters and their supporters, of course, don't live outside in parks, but rather in houses and apartments in multiple cities and countries. [Like the Arab Spring protests, this movement depends on people aggregating both geographically and online to continuously catalyze multiple communities while also populating a geographical "center" for public reference.]

And politically, at least for now, Occupy Wall Street is trending in the mainstream, if not on Twitter, among some of the movement's most unlikely supporters. The GOP-appointed Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told a recent hearing of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress that "at some level, I can't blame them (the protesters)" for "blaming, with some justification, the financial sector for getting us into this mess."

In the words of New Yorker Senior Editor Amy Davidson, "this is a global conversation going on now, and it would be foolish not to listen. ...Wall Street has long been a multinational brand name; now Occupy is, too. ...For an anti-corporate movement, OWS has a good sense of franchising -- and more importantly, it has something to say about enfranchisement."

No doubt. Occupy, perhaps most significantly, offers yet another example of how the Internet is profoundly enabling people to reshape the status quo at multiple levels of society. Occupy's loose-knit, distributed networks of hyper-agile, group-led "adhocracies" are -- thanks to our growing addiction to social media -- both inevitable and impossible to ignore. Can such digital organizations and movements topple governments as we know them? If you count the Arab Spring demonstrations, they already have. What's not so obvious is what comes next.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photo of Occupy demonstrator by Reuters, with permission. Illustration: Cover of the October 24, 2011 issue of The New Yorker]

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Anonymous Zohar Rom said...

I’ve followed your coverage, and you’re beautifully capturing the excitement of people taking a stand. With much of the U.S. already supporting OWS, it certainly feels like a caterpillar of a movement that will soon figure out how to fly.

Another thought: during Liberia’s civil war, when Muslim & Christian women developed a movement for peace, members of the ruling party would sneak over to their demonstrations at night and hand them bags of money. Why? Because the women’s approach was the only one that offered the country a way out of its downward spiral.

October 23, 2011 at 10:19 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks for reading, Zohar. You make an interesting note about Liberia's civil war; in Eygpt during the Arab Spring uprisings, there were reports of military support of civilians and in Tunisia, the same. And of course, the demonstrations in Burma several years ago were outwardly supported by Monks -- who had, up until then, stayed on the sidelines.

One of my favorite comments coming out of this year's PopTech conference that concluded Saturday night was from Mark Mykelby, a United States Navy colonel and strategic adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said: "We need to go from residents to citizens" -- to invest less in overt militarizaton and/or "keeping the peace" at home and around the world's hot spots and more in education, development aid, and sustainability infrastructure.

Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson also weighed on the need to rebalance power in the world, saying: "We are seeing a tectonic shift in the nature ofour societies, transforming the balance between the market on one hand and democracy on the other. The democratic power of this movement that technology has enabled and brought about is now so strong and so fast that the operations of the traditional institutions have almost become a sideshow."

I'll be posting on this next. Thanks for reading -- and for weighing in.

October 24, 2011 at 8:41 AM  

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