A Guide to the Occupy Wall Street API, Or Why the Nerdiest Way to Think About OWS Is So Useful
The most fascinating thing about Occupy Wall Street is the way that the protests have spread from Zuccotti Park to real and virtual spaces across the globe. Metastatic, the protests have an organizational coherence that’s surprising for a movement with few actual leaders and almost no official institutions. Much of that can be traced to how Occupy Wall Street has functioned in catalyzing other protests. Local organizers can choose from the menu of options modeled in Zuccotti, and adapt them for local use. Occupy Wall Street was designed to be mined and recombined, not simply copied.
This idea crystallized for me yesterday when Jonathan Glick, a long-time digital journalist, tweeted, “I think #OWS was working better as an API than a destination site anyway.” If you get the idea, go ahead and skip ahead to the documentation below. If you don’t get, let me explain why it might be the most useful way of thinking about #Occupy.
API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface. APIs allow data to be pulled from an online source in a structured way. So, Twitter has an API that lets app developers create software that can display your Twitter feed in ways that the company itself did not develop. Developers make a call to that API to “GET statuses/home timeline” and Twitter sends back “the 20 most recent statuses” for a user.
What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don’t have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).
A key feature of APIs is that they require structure on both sides of a request. You can’t just ask Twitter’s API for some tweets. You must ask in a specific way and you will receive a discrete package of 20 statuses. We decided that breaking down the inputs and outputs of Occupy Wall Street in this way might actually be useful. The metaphor turns out to reveal a useful way of thinking about the components that have gone into the protest. Obviously, many of these tactics owe a debt of gratitude both to traditional organizing training (e.g. consensus decision-making processes) as well as more recent protest movements in North Africa and Europe (e.g. taking the square, distributed leadership). Nonetheless, it is Occupy Wall Street that pushed many of these ideas out across this country.
So, here’s your guide to the Occupy Wall Street API. I realize that this is not a realistic API, just a useful frame, but we employ, for verisimilitude, the REST architecture, just like Twitter. That means we only have a few actions: Get (retrieve info), Post (create or update info), Delete.
GET Occupation: Occupying physical space stands in for a greater metaphorical occupation of the commons. Actions to permanently occupy or reoccupy a park focus and energize a larger group of temporary protesters and armchair supporters at home. The physical location provides an anchor for virtual activities.
GET Decentralized leadership structure: Repeat mantra that the movement is ‘leaderless.’ In practice, have no single leader on whom the media and/or public can focus. Avoid profiles of organizers. If necessary, elect a dog as leader of the occupation, a la Denver.
GET Loudly inclusive userbase: Do not require any particular identification, such as labor or ethnic identity. While youth-driven, make sure to highlight examples of older occupiers.
GET Money: With the approval of the General Assembly, other occupations can draw on the funds raised by the main Occupy Wall Street fund. This is not required. Accounting battles in these situations can and have gotten messy.
GET Strategy/studied police antagonism: Occupy protesters have courted some confrontations with police officers while shying away from others. While the occupations have been almost exclusively non-violent, they have also refused to heed police orders. Hundreds have been arrested and a few injured in clashes with police. In return, protesters have gotten to document the heavy force the police have deployed. Images of hundreds of riot police facing down unarmed protesters has catalyzed support for the movement.
GET Strategy/open source ideology: From the beginning, the occupation was meant to take on a life of its own. Organizers and occupiers alike have not tired to maintain control of the message or methodology for spreading ideas or occupations. Anyone who wants to support Occupy Wall Street can just do something, trusting they’ll be able to connect to the movement. Hence OccupyHistoryand hundreds of like sites.
GET Strategy/General Assembly: The occupations are governed by general assemblies in which consensus rules. These are generally run by organizers who are familiar with the consensus method. The GAs strive for inclusiveness and bring the whole group together on some predictable schedule. Anyone can speak at the meetings and detailed minutes are taken.
GET Strategy/working groups: While the big decisions are made by the GA, the thousands of other tasks involved in running the camp have been farmed out to working groups that focus on specific issues. For example, the Internet Working Group works on the infrastructure requirements of the protesters.
GET Strategy/social media: Occupy Wall Street had a social media strategy from the beginning. They encouraged all protesters to record their experiences with cell phones and cameras and then used that media to drive awareness of the protest in its early days. Since then, a whole network of social media has emerged from Twitter accounts to Facebook pages to wikis. This web is woven together by a media team as well as outsiders who have begun to act as signal amplifiers and filters. A particularly effective outside effort was the WeArethe99Percent tumblr, which presented stories of everyday people who were struggling despite their hard work.
DELETE Strategy/Marxist ideology: Despite the dogged determination of some on the right to read any critique of capitalism as pure Marxism, this is just not the case. While some protesters may espouse the desire for massive and structural changes to our economic system, they are not calling for a Marxist revolution. As journalist Bruce Nussbaum put it, “OWS is against Crony Capitalism, not Capitalism. It’s FOR Entrepreneurial Capitalism… OWS has splits. Some want a share economy. Others are nihilist. But most see Steve Jobs as a hero.”
DELETE Strategy/Mainstream media mediation: In the early days of the protest, it garnered little attention. An NPR editor said they did not cover the protest because it did not ”involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.” So, the protesters made their own media and distributed it (see above on social media). While media attention is easier to get now, the channels the protesters created in the early days remain active and provide a direct transmission of what the occupiers think is happening.
GET Tactic/camp outs: Occupation has meant actually living in Zuccotti Park. That means the protesters have had to learn how to camp out in a city. The structure and rules of the mini-settlement became part of the narrative of the protests, but there were also many practical considerations that were worked out at OWS before the police booted the protesters.
GET Tactic/linked-arm peaceful resistance: To defend the settlement police were attempting to clear out, protesters linked arms around the camp, forcing police who wanted to clear them to physically move them.
GET Tactic/veterans in front: In major clashes with police at Boston and Oakland, the group Veterans for Peace has played a central role. They have positioned themselves between riot police and the protesters protecting the camps. Police have to go through the flag-wielding veterans. This has created very powerful media and highlighted the way state power was being deployed against people who’d served the country.
GET Tactic/medics: Occupiers built their own medical infrastructure to tend both to confrontation-induced injuries as well as more every day problems. Most of the medics are street docs with some first-aid training, not MDs.
GET Tactic/legal: Legal battles were anticipated and support organized. Protesters were instructed to write the phone number for legal help on their bodies in case they were arrested. The National Lawyers Guild initiated a mass defense for occupiers. A variety of other legal help and counsel has been given and received as well.
GET Infrastructure/Internet: Zuccotti park wifi has been run by a group called The Free Network Foundation. They created a $2090 ultra Internet hub called The Freedom Tower that can be easily copied.
GET Infrastructure/network amplification: Though the number of people in any individual occupation has tended to be small (relative to the biggest civil rights marches, say), the number of people acting as network amplifiers has been large. Bloggers like BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin have become key nodes for disseminating information as have internal activists.
GET Infrastructure/kitchen: A fascinating feature of the occupation was the kitchen that occupiers set up to offer free food to all comers. An Occupy field manual detailed the list of sanitary regulations that should be enforced. A system was also arranged whereby food could be purchased at Costco with donations from around the country.
GET Infrastructure/electricity and water: Different types of electrical generators have been employed from traditional fossil fuel units to bike power.
GET Infrastructure/library: The Occupy Wall Street library became a powerful symbol that the camp had a rich intellectual life. It contained more than 5,000 donated books about all kinds of subjects.
POST Infrastructure/livestream: The livestream was a key part of how events at Zuccotti were relayed to outside parties. There was an official livestream but also unofficial ones. The key point was that live video can be very compelling, particularly during periods of conflict with government authorities.
POST Infrastructure/blanket cell-phone documentation: As in protests across Europe and North Africa, the presence of thousands of individuals recording their experiences has changed how the protests are viewed by the outside world. Instead of being experienced through traditional news media genres, a bewildering array of personal narratives have been transmitted by participants in the protests. Streams of live tweets, video streams of meetings, photos posted from the front lines of battles with police. All have played a role in making the protests feel much more active than they would if one read only distilled media accounts.
POST Infrastructure/storytelling: The Occupied Wall Street Journal produces stories about the occupation and is actually distributed as paper to people in the local area. The literary magazine N+1 has also produced a ton of occupy-related content, including a printed gazette. OccupyWritersalso publishes new work about the occupation by high-profile writers.
POST GA/human mic: In Zuccotti Park, no electrified amplification was allowed. Occupiers responded by creating a human mic in which a speaker’s words were repeated by the crowd so that everyone could hear her. The process takes a long time, but some occupiers felt it had good psychological effects and it kept speeches short.
POST GA/consensus-based decision-making: This form of group deliberation has been a key differentiating component of the occupation. Led by skilled facilitators, the entire group can engage in debate about what courses of action to take. Consensus-based decision-making is not some newfangled idea, but has been developed for years. Take a look at this overview of how it works for more details.
*Ideas and Memes*
POST Idea/economic inequality: The core message that the world’s playing field is tilted to the advantage of the wealthy has come through loud and clear. Since Occupy Wall Street began, mentions of economic inequality have skyrocketed in the national media. The protests have become a “news hook” to look at the United States’ shockingly unequal distribution of income and wealth. Though OWS’ package of complaints was the catalyst, the more reporters look, the more they find.
POST Idea/inadequacy of politics: Approval of Congress and President Obama are near all-time lows. The idea that our politics are not up to the serious tasks we face in fixing our economy and society has become widespread. Instead of pointing that out, as many have, Occupy Wall Street simply ignored mainstream politics. As the press clamored for position papers and lists of demands, OWS responded by paying no attention. There were two messages in that relative silence: 1) your media is inadequate to convey the scale of changes necessary and 2) your politics are inadequate to make the scale of changes necessary.
POST Meme/the99percent: One especially savvy viral idea to come out of the protest was the idea of The 99 Percent, or those Americans who make less than approximately $250,000 per year. Not only did a viral Tumblr spin out of the idea, but it became a kind of rallying cry of solidarity. American progressives have often been torn apart by their micro-differences, but the 99 percent was the biggest tent that could be imagined. It provided space for nearly everyone to ally with the occupy movement.
POST Meme/occupyX: Occupy has become a cultural token with its own value outside the protests. People don’t just occupy cities in the true spirit of Occupy Wall Street. They also OccupySizzler andOccupytheBathroom. It’s a meme with a strange power. It’s a testament to the flexibility of Occupy Wall Street that Occupy jokes don’t seem to subtract power from the movement but add it.