The hashtag occupywallstreet inspired the most basic of organizing strategies: sit-ins. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) sit-ins became encampments, many of which are now being dismantled by law enfor cement and debilitated by weather. As the movement is increasingly out of the sight of pundits and the popular media, and criticized as leaderless and lacking a clear purpose, it has become fashion able to talk about OWS as inevitably failing. This is a mistake. Encampment “occupiers” come and go; hashtag followers live on in cyberspace, where OWS is spawning leaders and developing goals, just not in the way that most people are accustomed to.
• The Occupy Wiki Research Group, of which I am a member, has a robust online dialogue among college professors, organizing practitioners and activists. Weekly phone calls refine their efforts.
• Occupytogether.org was started by two designers who couldn’t get to New York so tried to track, on their own, activities around the country. Overwhelmed by the volume, they recently incorporated MeetUp.com into their site.
• Maps depicting FourSquare locations using the Occupy Wall Street hashtag show thousands of check-ins across the country.
• Students at Boulder Digital Works at the University of Colorado built Occupationalist.org, which describes itself as “an impartial and real-time view of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Covering history as it unfolds. No filters. No delays.”
• An urban gardening advocate’s blog about how Occupy Wall Street can help communities seeking to take over empty lots is circulating on Facebook.
These are just a few examples of the occupy movement taking root. The spring may bring new encampments (and the fall, along with the elections, political action). New communities will continue to be built online. In some places action will move seamlessly between the Internet and local coffee shops and public squares.
Look at Wisconsin, where, after Gov. Scott Walker, R, declared an end to collective bargaining and threatened to call the National Guard on protesters, an occupation of the state capitol morphed into an Internet community, UnitedWisconsin.com. It signed up more than 200,000 supporters in an effort to recall Walker over labor and budget issues. In less than two weeks, these “leaderless,’ ‘ Internet-driven recall supporters, in combination with the original “occupiers,” collected more than 300,000 signatures on the streets of rural and urban Wisconsin.
In many ways, Occupy Wall Street on the Internet mirrors and expands Occupy Wall Street on the ground. It blurs the lines between online and off-line activism. The anonymity of the Web allows anyone who identifies with the “99 percent” to participate, regardless of their ideology or attitude toward the physical occupiers. A gathering of 25 or 100 people participating in a “mic check” can look, and feel, awkward. But surfing the Internet, one can find mic checks nationwide in the constant retweeting about Occupy Wall Street. Blogs about Occupy Wall Street that generate comments (that frequently generate even more comments) are some of the everyday indications of what is important to Web denizens.
Encampments are easy to find and describe. The 2,000-plus Occupy Wall Street meetups that have been initiated are harder to stumble upon. They may be in Oklahoma City or Denver or St. Petersburg, Fla. They may attract five people or 50 or 150. The point is not how many people are attending them at this moment but how they are proliferating and how many of them will mature into ongoing get-togethers.
Signals about the movement’s future will come from spurts of public activity such as the efforts to occupy foreclosed homes and from the spread of ideas and advocacy online. Indeed, OWS is not leaderless. It is “leaderfull.” It is not without purpose. It is purposeful.
The excitement about Occupy Wall Street and its meme, the 99 percent, is unpredictable and expansive. It is spontaneous, organic, simultaneously online and off-line. It has no boundaries. It has and will continue to take many forms, in virtual and physical public squares, as it works its way into the national consciousness. The media and the political class should get to know Occupy Wall Street’s blended organizing model, or they will be the only ones surprised about what it achieves.
Gina Glantz was most recently adjunct lecturer at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.