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Cloud Protesting and the Occupy Spring

'Cloud protesting' helped the Occupy protest movement grow at unprecedented speed throughout the world, but has also led to something of an identity crisis. Now Occupy must make itself the sum of its parts, and rally the 99% once more.

by Pierre Leibovici On February 21, 2012

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Restructuring. The word keeps coming up. From New York to Paris, via Montreal and London, the activists of the Occupy movement contacted by OWNI assure us: their determination has not wavered, but it is time to redefine the targets of their protest.

But behind the enthusiasm and hope, an existential crisis threatens to descend on its supporters. Much like the Anonymous movement, the Occupy banner is being co-opted for many diverse purposes, and increasingly specific campaigns. The latest project launched by the Occupy Wall Street site calls for the occupation of US telecoms giant AT&T, after the company announced the layoff of hundreds of employees.

On Facebook and Twitter the Occupy brand is being put to use in support of ecological causes such as the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, or with Occupy Tricastin, an infamous nuclear site in France, as well as the likes of Occupy Bacon or Occupy Your Mom.

Occupy the Cloud

While this diversity of appropriations doesn’t necessarily erode the value of the brand or the reputation of the movement, it does emphasise how easy it is to claim to belong to Occupy in the age of the Internet. Stefania Milan, researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, has identified the issue as part of her analysis of “cloud-protesting”.

In computing, “cloud” indicates the delivery over the Internet of customized services such as software. Similarly, contemporary mobilizations such as the #occupy protests can be seen as a cloud where a set of “soft resources” coexist: identities, narratives, and know-how, which facilitate mobilization (…) They can be customized by and for individuals (…) social media infrastructure and devices, platforms and applications enable this relatively new social dynamic.

Occupy is indeed a movement without a leader, without what sociologists refer to as “movement entrepreneurs”. But the sociological profiles that meet there are less heterogeneous than it might appear. The hardcore members of Occupy are very often from preexisting political movements. And behind the apparent bazaar of the Occupy ecosystem, there have been many attempts at reframing the protest because, as Stefania Milan indicates:

The Internet has become a driving force in the production of standards and rules for Occupy.

How to Occupy

No binding set of rules has ever been established for those claiming membership of the movement. The platform HowToOccupy offers, according to its slogan, “Basic techniques for global change”. How does one start a peaceful revolution? What should one do in case of arrest and interrogation by the police? How does one maintain a community garden? All of questions are answered anonymously, building on examples of revolutions in the Arab world or the street assemblies that took place in Spain last spring.

Highly specialized technical advice has also emerged. One can  learn how to secure your computer data to prevent cybersurveillance, or develop strategies for “filming a revolution”.

Occupy Design was set up “to build a visual language for the 99%”. It gathers together a wide variety of contributions from professional and amateur designers, ranging from data visualizations on the unequal distribution of wealth to emblems of the movement such as the clenched fist or the Wall Street bull. On the more artistic side of things, Occuprint curates hundreds of posters from occupations around the world.

Online, the dialogue between the various camps stands out. Interoccupy aims to organize a giant telephone conversation every Monday night that can bring together “over 500 people” at a time. Occupy Together lists hundreds of occupations around the world and aims to create “local solidarity actions near you”.

No international Occupy “politburo”, then. But multiple efforts towards establishing a communal identity, common dialogue, even centralization. The admins of all these platforms are still at pains to clarify that they are not spokespersons or representatives of the movement.

A Popular Movement

The challenge that arises now for Occupy is to make the movement the sum of its new and disparate parts, to finally rally the whole of the 99%. As noted by Catherine Sauviat, economist at the Institute of Economic and Social Research in France:

Occupy Wall Street was a milestone in the history of social protest in the United States. But it still hasn’t made a significant impact on the average worker, on unions, and on the underprivileged black population.

When asked about the future of the movement, the occupiers of New York, like their Parisian counterparts, say they are confident. For Mark, of Occupy Wall Street, “many people are searching for an outlet for their frustration with this unjust system, which is why we continue to gain support day after day.” Nico, who works with Occupy France, adds:

I don’t think the movement is going to go away. The problems highlighted by Occupy persist, the spirit of Occupy persists. Don’t forget also that the sensation of freedom you feel during the occupations is highly addictive. We also keep going because we love that feeling.

To mark five months since the public emergence of the movement, a video compiling dozens of photos of Occupy slogans was published on Facebook. One of them, echoing the words of Alexander Dubcek, sounds like a warning:

You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.


Image Credits: Raina Dayne, Nathan M and McMillian-Furlow (CC BY-NC-SA) for OccupyTogether.org

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