November 15th, 2011
Also published on HuffingtonPost
With police crackdowns increasing and their physical encampments too-often attracting outright criminals looking for trouble, should Occupy Wall Street consider switching to a largely online existence?
In mid-November, the movement seems poised at a profoundly important turning point. The ideas it promoted — that banks and a wealthy elite have benefited from the current economic system at the expense of the rest of us — have infiltrated the mainstream, with the concept of the 99% resonating profoundly with people across the country. At the same time, a public sympathetic to the physical protests seems to be changing its collective mind as they see violence creep in at the edges and a handful of outright predators take advantage of the naïveté of some of those assembled.
So here’s an alternative: why not cede physical ground to the police and city authorities as needed, giving up on the idea of long-term physical occupation when it’s necessary. Instead, focus on building an online-connected cadre of committed activists who can swoop in for sudden actions in the real world and take over the news cycle BEFORE police can react. I.e., instead of long-term occupations of a few places across the country, why not short-term occupations as they make sense? Much like a classic guerrilla movement, OWS shock troops could then melt away before Bad Things can happen, preparing themselves for the next takeover or encounter.
The internet excels at this kind of online-enabled real-world action, as we saw decisively in Obama’s domination of caucus states in the 2008 election cycle. And OWS is no stranger to online collaboration on projects ranging from OccupyTheBoardroom to hackathons to crowdsourced fundraising for television ads on Fox.
The danger for OWS now is that a so-far-successful tactic can take on a life of its own, the means is elevated over the ends. The occupation of physical spaces has attracted the movement worldwide notice, but its very success contains the seeds of its own decline, since the long-term encampments provide both authorities and criminals convenient targets. I’d certainly argue that the movement should give up ground carefully, since it’s harder to ignore a group camped out on your doorstep than one that pops up here and there, whack-a-mole style. But the last thing the occupiers want to resemble is either the long-time activists camped out in Lafayette Park across from the White House, ignored by everyone except tourists posing for photographs, or the aftermath of a Lollapalooza mosh pit.
So here’s an alternative — occupy Zuccotti Park and a handful of high-profile places as long as possible, continuing to take great care to mitigate any ill effects of the OWS presence. But at the same time, develop or adapt technology to allow these distributed, self-organizing groups to gather in the real world for actions to highlight injustice and grab public opinion in cities and towns across the country. The present course, I fear, could marginalize a movement that’s shown itself capable of changing the political discourse in this country in ways that makes the financial establishment very, very uncomfortable. And those guys? I’d hate to see them win — again.