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A detailed look into the ad hoc community that has formed in the space and its implications for my own thesis work:

September 26, 2011

Since first witnessing the protest occupation currently overtaking Wall Street, in Zucotti Park, I’ve been fascinated by the ad hoc community that has sprung up from what is seemingly a random and wide spread assortment of people: from twenty-somethings with asymmetric haircuts, to war veterans, elderly women and others in full business attire, there’s a wonderful dynamic of opinions and back stories to those that have come. Although the occupation has been taking place since Saturday, September 17th, Wednesday was my first real encounter with the park. I knew immediately that this protest was different – it didn’t have that feeling of transient haphazardness that plagues other activist clusters, where turning away for a moment might make the whole thing disappear. Occupy Wall Street is special, it’s a community trying to be self-sustaining. Organizing first, becoming survivable, then figuring out their demands to Wall Street in an organic bottom-up approach. The most unique aspect of this dynamic are the working groups that have sprung up to take care of community needs: tasks for media, legal, direct action, arts & culture, food distribution, communication, medical, waste disposal & cleanliness, treasury and child care have been carefully divided amongst volunteers with a surprising amount of efficiency.

Artifacts of this organization can be seen throughout the community, from a schedule of daily events, including general assemblies twice a day, to a generator-powered tech center broadcasting WiFi from 4G routers, compost and recycling bins, a kitchen area and a map detailing locations within the park of each sub-committee. As I watched cheery volunteers sweeping up cigarette butts with brooms, medical teams wearing red cross patches, carrying first aid supplies and handlers wearing gloves to distribute massive amounts of food to a line of hungry activists, I had to find out how such a well organized community developed, seemingly overnight.

After the peaceful protest turned violent on Saturday, September 24th, when police arrested more than 80 people and penned and maced others, I went back on Sunday to assess the state of the community by interviewing some of my own target users and stakeholders for my thesis in mesh network (decentralized Internet) communities. When I imagine ad hoc communities forming around similar clusters of interest, and connecting with “strong ties” to other like-minded clusters within proximity and around the world, this Occupy Wall Street community fits the role. The proximity cluster is Zucotti Park, while similar clusters on the web are the Twitter hash tags united around the movement, the Occupy Wallstreet website and forum, the Adbusters website, IRC channels, scattered Anonymous alliances, and the now-forming Occupy Together online movement to spread the word nation-wide. Similar physical clusters are the occupy efforts happening in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and many other cities. They are all connected by strong ties through a web and phone interface, contributing to a reciprocal exchange economy of live streaming video, community structuring, protest flier design, the National Lawyers Guild contact information and other bits of information. Within the Occupy Wall Street community, there are smaller clusters, from the medical team to the legal team, that are generating original content or pulling resources from outside through strong and weak ties and sharing them with the other clusters within the closed system of Zucotti Park. The media group is acting as an information hub, recording video from within and around the park, then editing and distributing out to the rest of the world. The community outreach group is engaging local businesses surrounding the park, developing strong ties and sympathy for the movement. From the perspective of my own thesis research, through ingraining mesh networking as a communication and exchange tool to foster similar group clusters, I was hoping to gain an understanding of how this ad hoc community sprung up with such stability.

Before the interviews, I was expecting to find that the only planning was in the original call to action from Adbusters and that everything was just sorted out when a kaleidoscope of people descended on the park. What I found was a much more thought out process that had unexpected results for the original planners. My first interviewee was Matt, one of the original planners who is still actively involved in five or more working groups.

“When Ad Busters put the call out several months ago to occupy Wall Street on November 17th, a bunch of New Yorkers were curious and decided to get together and actually make it happen. Starting in early August, we met down at Bowling Green and had our first general assembly in New York.” While some organizing was done on an active listserv email mailing list, with up to 25 emails an hour, all final decisions had to take place in person, during general assemblies. “Since then we’ve met on a weekly basis leading up to September 17th, dealing with all sorts of issues of tactics, food, legal…messaging, reaching out…we would typically have about 100 people at each general assembly and they would last for about five hours.”

After the occupation had started, the original planners had grown exhausted and began to disperse. “At this point, I know less people…new people have come and fulfilled the roles” of those not around since the start of the occupation. He says that the working groups are “organize[d] on a horizontal level, [they] have decentralized committees empowered to make certain decisions without consensus.” New directions that affect the entire community must be brought up for vote during general assemblies.

On the subject of how influential the movement has been outside of New York, he said they’ve “had to rely on [them]selves” to communicate outwards, primarily through the 24-hour live stream, which consistently has 4000 – 7000 viewers, because the “mainstream media is not reporting” on the event. They’ve received support from within activist circles around the world, from Egypt to Spain and Wisconsin, in the form of monetary and food donations. Scattered clusters sharing the same ideals are creating a supply chain to pump life support into the movement.

Himself and the other original organizers are surprised the occupation has lasted as long as it has – he says it’s because “people are conscious of how to treat this space and treat each other” and they “are concerned with actually making this a space.” For the future growth of the community, Matt believes that “introspective” discussion from within the group on “anti-oppression…talking about dynamics within the group…[and] self-criticism” are essential. New working groups are springing up as the needs flow in. A child care area is being planned to make the space more family-accessible. A welcoming committee is forming to introduce new members to the “people’s mic” and hand gestures the group uses to communicate during general assemblies.

My second interview was with Ted, a vocal member of the community that was not part of the original planning from before the occupation, but has been there since the first weekend. He has become well known, “know[s] others [at the occupation] very well…” and has established himself as an active and important part of the movement. He says that the “family sense [there] is strong, [he] knows them and trusts them.” On the subject of work group organization, he says that there’s “no formal hierarchy,” but “some people come out as leaders [t]here, there are strong people that help provide a really good perspective and they’re usually involved in a whole bunch of things.” He says that newly arrived Marine veterans will be helping to efficiently organize the community, while the community itself has gotten stronger through dealing with “rain and cops raids while [they] try to build [their] home.” They “have a…system of communication and camaraderie and friendship that’s unparalleled…which can be applied to sustainability” to keep the community alive.

While he thinks the Internet connectivity on location is functional, he believes “the issue is bandwidth, [they] can have maybe ten people on the Internet at once.” When I first came to the park the previous Wednesday, I was set up to meet with Isaac, a member of FreedomNet (a mesh network initiative) and part of the Internet working group. He was arrested during a march while I waited at the camp – he flew back to Austin the next day, so I was unable to talk with him about his plan to set up a local mesh network and directional cantennas (made out of Pringles cans) or woktennas (made out of parabolic cookingware) to grab broadband from elsewhere.

Based on the interviews with Matt and Ted, I feel as if there is a shift in the active members. Matt had mentioned that many of the original planners were burnt out from the months of meetings and couldn’t make it through another week. What they did was catalyse a movement and let others take over when the basic structures had been formed. In my thesis work, this resonates with my view of targeted stakeholders and users. The stakeholders I have to engage are those that work with mesh technology and the people willing to go into micro-communities, or clusters, and setup the basic infrastructures. Additional stakeholders and the users need to rely on an interface to engage and perpetuate an information exchange economy to keep the mesh alive.

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