What does infrastructure have to do with collective action?

Structure of a virtual organizationFrom WikiLeaks to Anonymous, dissent has gone digital, yet protesting remains rooted in the streets. With smartphones in hand, the streets are now digitized. In 2011, protesters across the world called for an end to corruption in politics. In Tunisia and Egypt, rulers were ousted, while protesters were slaughtered in the streets. All the while, we, the living, watched on YouTube and Twitter. Inspired by the courageous acts of these protesters, democracy became the watchword of the year. The democracy movements of 2011 expressed a core grievance against a global financial crisis that left millions homeless, jobless, and hopeless. By the spring of 2011, like-minded folks in Spain took up public space to deliberate justice, liberty, and freedom under a collapsing global economy. The central tactic of occupation brought hundreds of thousands into public squares, where protesters discussed their differences and formulated counter-power. In the spring of 2011, Americans joined the growing democracy movement as hundreds online posted calls to #OccupyWallStreet. In Tompkins Square Park, groups met with increasing frequency to discuss plans for the event. On September 17, 2011, nearly 300 people camped at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, kicking off one of the largest protests in American history. Within a month, there were hundreds of encampments across the USA and many more keywords related to the growing movement online.

Because channels of communication between Occupy encampments were accessible through social media, it appeared that the movement was densely connected with a high degree of coordination. For nearly every occupation there was a Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel, Livestream, email address, phone number, email list, donation page, etc. The presence of online channels, however, did not translate into movement-wide coordination. The image of cohesion was an artifact of the architecture of the internet. Using the internet like a massive copy machine from platform to platform, protesters replicated keywords, images, documents, memes, and slogans. Yet by relying on social media, there was no way to ensure a message would be read or answered between or within locations. The few who created websites for the movement- NYCGA.net, Occupytogether.org, and OccupyWallSt.org– aided in the diffusion of the tactic across the US. Understaffed and overwhelmed, these website administrators quickly were inundated with tens of thousands of messages, posts, pictures, videos, and donations. Unfortunately, the buzz about the movement sounded more like a busy signal to those who sought to coordinate nationwide.

INTEROCC1V1Despite the numerous open channels for communication, the movement needed a way to connect with itself more systematically.  On October 24, 2011, a group of protesters at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park coordinated a national conference call, where hundreds of people from over thirty locations called in. On this initial call, a small group volunteered to continue facilitating national “InterOccupy” conference calls every Monday evening. Over the next few months, this group developed a strategy to create a communication platform between encampments using conference calls, email lists, a weekly newsletter, a website with a newswire, and several social media accounts. Over the winter of 2011-2012, the co-creators of InterOccupy.net constructed a communication infrastructure designed to support the internal coordination of the Occupy movement. Throughout the spring of 2012, InterOccupy transitioned from supporting camp-to-camp communication into a national network of protesters working on collaborative actions worldwide.

OccupySandy_PosterTestament to the level of commitment this movement inspired in the general public, at the close of 2011 over 5,000 Americans had been arrested at Occupy protests. InterOccupy was hosting about ten conference calls a week, while also administering a website and dozens of email lists. Yet less than a year later, the spirit that brought so many into the streets dissipated. As Superstorm Sandy bowled over the east coast in October 2012, Occupy protesters used InterOccupy’s platform along with other methods of mobilizing to coordinate a disaster relief campaign called Occupy Sandy. This initiative raised over $2.5 million, distributed millions more in donated goods, and recruited over 50,000 volunteers across New York and New Jersey. Repurposing InterOccupy’s infrastructure to support Occupy Sandy required Occupiers to leverage every skill, resurrect all legacy networks, and fashion a distribution system in rapid succession to meet community needs.

interoccupy-network-red-blackWhen protesters turn their attention to building infrastructure as a political action, they strengthen the movement’s capacity to get shit done. Infrastructure is a unique resource because it can be re-purposed, modified, and scaled when the need arises. Though, when building infrastructure, it is important to focus on how people, technology, and values interact. While social media helped Occupy Protesters find each other, it was not sufficient for coordination. Coordination requires time and space for discussion so that everyone can contribute to the overall vision. Otherwise, information bottlenecks occur when few feel committed to the goals of the project. InterOccupy continues to offer infrastructure services, particularly conference calls, to a wide range of groups committed to anti-racist action, climate justice, democracy movements, debt resistance, and more. We are very proud of where we started and hope to hear from you soon. Get on a call!

Joan Donovan

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