Images and Metaphors of Occupy: On the Year Anniversary

September 17, 2012 - #OccupyWallStreet / activism / capitalism / cyberactivism / ethnography / experience / internet / Occupy Movement

Reading the online news today, I found mainstream media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) anniversary using images and metaphors to frame Occupy as unstable and barely intact. Media reporting alone might lead some readers to believe that Occupy has “returned” (from where? when did it leave?) resulting in “chaos” in the Financial District. Although news reports acknowledge the movement has enough power to send the financial capital of the United States into “chaos” the movement itself is framed as in “disarray,” struggling to “re-energize” since running “out of steam” after the eviction last November. Following the eviction, the media tells us today, Occupy began to “disintegrate” after “arrests and in-fighting.”

However, since the violent destruction of the kitchen, library, medical tent, residences and other structures and services at Liberty Plaza (Zucotti Park) in November 2011, the local and global Occupy movement has continued meaningful, effective, activist work on projects from Brooklyn across the world to Indonesia (the focus of my current research). In New York City, the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library is involved in a lawsuit that asks, among other things, whether the city has the right to seize and destroy books, and stomp on first amendment expression. Since the eviction, the People’s Library has organized scores of events. In one example, the library coordinated a book bomb to send English and Spanish books to communities in Tuscon Arizona as a response to the book banning by the Tucson Unified School District. In Sunset Park, Occupiers are working with rent strikers hand-in-hand to empower tenants. In Indonesia and Papua, indigenous activists are joining with Occupiers to continue their long struggle against worker oppression, land-theft, and violence perpetrated by U.S. mining companies, and other resource extraction corporations.

While ABC news is offering readers a “look back at the rise and fall of Occupy,” the Occupy movement activists and other everyday folks on the ground continue to build the movement. Much of this work doesn’t go on in the outdoor public squares anymore (though some still does), or even the public-private plazas like Liberty, but rather in public-private spaces across the internet. In social media spaces like Facebook groups and across Twitter feeds and through email list-serves and web sites, Occupiers continue to conduct the work of activism as they always have. These Facebook groups and list-serves and other forms of cyberactivism and cybersociality don’t usually result in arrest (in the United States at least) and they aren’t good targets for certain kinds of media attention or newspaper photographers. But these online engagements are as significant as those involving Occupiers who are working offline (if we’re ever really offline anymore).

As an example, consider the case of one Occupier, arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge along with hundreds of others last year. The New York district attorney’s office has subpoenaed over three months of his tweets from Twitter as they try to make a case against him. The fact that Twitter handed over those tweets is reason for all Occupiers to think seriously about using open-source social media alternatives (such as or StatusNet). But more to the issue at hand, it’s significant that the city considers these tweets essential to their case against the activist. This points to at least one of the ways activism and action in cyberspace can be as much about contested space, place and power as activism in physical places. Twitter’s decision to hand over the tweets as a stack of printed paper pages in an envelop also speaks to the privilege granted by institutional powers to material forms of evidence. Just as the mainstream media argues that the Occupy movement doesn’t matter if there aren’t a certain number of bodies on the streets, the courtroom only authorizes evidence from cyberspace when it is made physical through printing.

When the New York Times critiqued the spectacle of the early Occupy encampment, on September 23 2011, in an astonishingly myopic piece called “Gunning For Wall Street, With Faulty Aim” they mocked activists for unconventional tactics, clothing choices and the expression of diverse views. Here’s an excerpt:

A blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968, Ms. Tikka had taken off all but her cotton underwear and was dancing on the north side of Zuccotti Park, facing Liberty Street, just west of Broadway.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” Ms. Tikka, 37, told me.
“This,” presumably was the opportunity to air societal grievances as carnival. Occupy Wall Street, a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater, had hoped to see many thousands join its protest and encampment, which began Sept. 17. According to the group, 2,000 marched on the first day; news outlets estimated that the number was closer to several hundred.

This New York Times reporter underestimated the power of that spectacle, the power of the “carnival,” and failed to imagine the power of the networks that would be built between Occupiers. Just a month later, (through incredibly hard work of an all volunteer movement) Liberty plaza had become a thriving community of activists with the attention of the global media, linked into a growing global occupy movement, running web sites, social media campaigns, an extensive library, serving thousands of meals, providing medical services, feeding livestreaming of news and building networks that have persisted to this day. Gaining the attention of the mainstream media was a huge victory. And Occupy continues to be a powerful social movement because it continues to be much more than that initial spectacle of the undressed optimist dancing by Wall Street. It continues to be more substantive than much of the current US presidential campaigning, the gaff and celebrity obsessed reporting and tit for tat soundbites that mainstream politicians, corporations and media love to report on (and then sell to us, and then report to us on the sales). Recognition of OWS as a spectacle worth covering by mainstream media is vital to certain moments, the introductions, the campaigns, the anniversaries, but the spectacle and the media coverage are not the limit or the value of the movement, nor are these forms where the long-term future of the movement is being built by workers on the ground.

As the mainstream media trips over each other today looking for spectacular arrests to photograph (clergy are especially popular), hoping to boost ratings by broadcasting more images of police attacking protesters (and not coincidentally, I think, reminding us of our fate if we too speak out), and as they compete to be the first to announce the demise and deflation of the “Occupy bubble” – the Occupiers, as they have since last year, and in all the movements that were precursors to this one, continue to build networks online and in person, to collaborate, and innovate. They continue to work for change. And today on this anniversary, despite media reports to the contrary, Occupy is alive and strong in the streets, in the squares, online and across the globe.