How Occupy birthed a rhizome
[...] By being involved in Occupy protests, I amplified my associations with all kinds of humans, broke with the norms of public decency and challenged authority by standing up to the state. Moreover, I had to confront my own middle class privilege and bourgeois values that bound me to a world that I only understood through social theory. Eventually, I had to accept that I was no longer “just doing ethnography” in the moments when I was dodging rubber bullets fired by the LAPD or strategizing to blockade the ports with activists from Vancouver to San Diego. Importantly, personal revelations like these are essential for evolving research design, and they have led me to look at the history of occupation and its maturations. Comparing 2011 to 1968 sheds light on the past and present shape of the Occupy movement as a social change network that leverages both online and offline social networking to propagate ideas and produce distributed direct actions.
While the Situationists distributed communiqués and shared ideas through graffiti, Occupy protests began with the writing on digital walls that led to encampments across the globe. Following the touchdown of OWS at Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, activists in other cities built solidarity communes using online forums and public parks. A week later, on September 24, a video of NYPD officer Anthony Bologna assaulting protesters in New York was shared across the Internet, sparking public interest in the occupation itself. By October 15, there were over 1,300 occupations around the world, according to data gathered by Occupy Together and Occupy.net.
While sharing information enlivens the spirit of social justice that manifests in direct action, the spread of the camps was not a spontaneous cascade of people spilling into the streets. Rather, it was a back-and-forth among activists across numerous digital and physical spaces. Mobile phones helped bridge the divide between digital and physical, as well as private and public, allowing protesters to feel connected to everywhere from anywhere.
The process of organizing the camps was coordinated through mainstream social networking and by making parallel grids online and offiline. Without leaders or an organized structure to call for local meetings, Occupy Together’s online platform coordinated activists looking to set up camps locally. The ability to organize people without the need for a hierarchical bureaucratic structure in this way appears to be a new feature of social movements with their origins in the Internet. Uniting the local networks created by the camps, InterOccupy.net then helped to organize other distributed direct actions including the Move Your Money Day, the West Coast Port Shut Down, the anti-ALEC protests, and the May Day “general strike,” among others. InterOccupy and its kin make up a complex network of networks that indexes and opens channels of communication without seeking control of the content.
[...] Occupy employs rhizomatic communication, wherein multiple channels are used to strengthen networked connections that spread ideas from one group to another. This model includes the simultaneous use of email groups, social networking sites, SMS groups, conference calling and face-to-face meetings to cultivate the circulation of information from many to many. Keywords, such as #occupy, allow networks to flourish as information about the movement can be queried across multiple online spaces. This networked structure, then, becomes a model for how to carry out direct actions themselves in distributed and redundant (while also coordinated) fashion. [...]