Occupying Wall Street: Places and Spaces of Political Action
Occupy Wall Street activity online. Click image to enlarge. [Timeline by the authors]
For nine weeks last fall crowds gathered every evening at the eastern end of Zuccotti Park, where a shallow crescent of stairs creates a modest amphitheater, to form the New York City General Assembly. A facilitator reviewed rules for prioritizing speakers and gestures by which participants could signal agreement or dissent. Over two hours or more, they worked through issues of common concern — every word repeated by the assembly, which formed a human microphone amplifying the speaker’s voice — until they reached consensus.
Such was the daily practice of Occupy Wall Street, paralleled in more than a thousand cities around the world. Participants borrowed tactics from Quaker meetings, Latin American popular assemblies, Spanish acampadas, and other traditions of protest and political organization. They also enacted something foundational to the western democratic tradition: constituting a polity as a group of speaking bodies gathered in a central public place.
At the same time, another crowd assembled in a range of online spaces. Moving between the physical and the virtual, participants navigated a hypercity built of granite and asphalt, algorithms and information, appropriating its platforms and creating new structures within it. As they posted links, updates, photos and videos on social media sites; as they deliberated in chat rooms and collaborated on crowdmaps; as they took to the streets with smartphones, occupiers tested the parameters of this multiply mediated world.
What is the layout of this place? What are its codes and protocols? Who owns it? How does its design condition opportunities for individual and collective action? Looking closely at these questions, we learn something about the possibilities for public life and political action created at the intersection of urban places and online spaces.
Top: Occupiers camp in Liberty Plaza as news vans line up across the street. Middle: Detail of #OccupyMap. Bottom: Occupy coordinators meet in the atrium of 60 Wall Street. [Photos by Jonathan Massey]
Occupying the Public Square
Zuccotti Park — or Liberty Plaza — was the site not only of General Assembly but also of the bustling camp that materialized and sustained the occupation. As architects, we were fascinated by the intensive use of this privately owned public space. As citizens, we were inspired by the movement’s critique of the U.S. political system and its experiment with alternate forms of social organization. After the arrest of 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, Jonathan began visiting Liberty Plaza and occasionally participating in rallies. Brett tracked the movement’s use of new media to expose inequalities in wealth distribution. Jonathan enlisted friends to survey and document the encampment, while Brett developed an interactive project, Public Space 2.0, that linked Occupy to broader questions about public space. Following the eviction of occupiers in New York and other cities, we decided to collaborate on a project examining the spatial and social organization of Liberty Plaza.
In the tradition of urban demonstrations and sit-ins, the camp claimed a prominent and symbolically charged city space in order to call attention to a political cause. It provided logistical support as the first day of protest extended into a two-month occupation. It gave visitors a point of entry into the movement and its ideas. Moreover, it prefigured in microcosm the alternative polity desired by many participants, modeling and testing modes of self-organization partly autonomous from those provided by the state and the market.
As such, it embodied one of the defining tensions of Occupy Wall Street: between the aims of protest and prefiguration.  One reason for claiming Liberty Plaza was to command the attention of the public and the state. Indeed, the blog post that sparked the movement, by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, urged activists to create “a Tahrir moment” by insistently repeating “one simple demand” akin to the call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.  But some of the New York activists who planned the occupation pursued a vision of autonomous self-organization and self-government informed by anarchist principles. Occupiers refused to formulate their objectives as political demands, even though doing so might have strengthened their grip on the public imagination. Instead of a unified plea to elected representatives, broadcast from a central square, Occupy yielded a polyphony of discussions in the agoras of the hypercity.
Top: Occupiers in mid-October. Bottom: NYPD Skywatch portable surveillance tower. [Photos by Jonathan Massey]
From its founding on September 17, 2011, the occupation traced contours of regulation and control. Its location, design and construction limned the legal, juridical and police affordances of New York’s public realm, revealing the constraints placed on people assembling to form a counterpublic — a public operating according to practices distinct from those of the mainstream.  The declared site of the first protest, carnival, and General Assembly was Chase Manhattan Plaza, but occupiers arrived to find the corporate space closed off by barricades and patrolled by police. Prior General Assemblies had been held in New York public parks and squares, but organizers knew the city tightly controlled those spaces by requiring permits, enforcing nighttime closures and barricading areas. The use of city sidewalks was also curtailed. Bloombergville, a sidewalk encampment near City Hall, had survived for three weeks in July, but a test camp-out on Wall Street on September 1 had been broken up by police.  When demonstrators found Chase Plaza closed, they moved to the privately-owned Zuccotti Park, three blocks away, claiming the space with signs, megaphones, sleeping bags and blankets.
The following weeks confirmed that the state would use police control to assert its hegemony over the terms of public assembly and discourse. When protesters crossed the border of Liberty Plaza onto city streets or squares, they encountered “order maintenance policing,” a euphemistic directive that empowers New York police to intervene in public events irrespective of criminal action. Over the past 15 years, the NYPD has expanded the practice to assert control over parades, festivals and rallies, often arresting participants for “disorderly conduct” and releasing them without charge.  Under this vague authority, NYPD limited the range and duration of Occupy demonstrations and tightly controlled their internal dynamics through barricades, kettling and arrests.
And yet Occupy Wall Street showed that possibilities foreclosed on private and public land could be actualized in the liminal territory of the city’s privately owned public spaces (POPS) — plazas, arcades and other spaces built by real estate developers in return for density bonuses under the terms of the 1961 Zoning Resolution.  The occupation of Zuccotti Park was made possible by ambiguities in the POPS system, which has created places where the city government must negotiate authority with corporate owners as well as site occupants. Even so, the city intervened in the camp’s internal organization and operation: fire marshals prohibited tents and other structures in the early weeks; they removed generators as the weather grew cold in late October; and, shortly after midnight on November 15, police forcibly cleared the park.
Top: The planned site of the September 17 protest, Chase Manhattan Plaza, was barricaded at the request of its corporate owners. [Photo by David Shankbone] Bottom: Police patrol Zuccotti Park on November 15 after evicting protesters. [Photo by Jonathan Massey]
During the two-month occupation, protesters rewrote the social and spatial codes that had determined use of the block for decades. Created in the late 1960s as a POPS concession linked to the construction of One Liberty Plaza, the park was rebuilt by new owners Brookfield Properties in 2006 to a design by Cooper Robertson & Partners that serves downtown office workers by encouraging passive recreations like lunch and chess while discouraging active ones like cycling and skateboarding. In a related feature on Places, we look more closely at the Cooper Robertson design and its transformation into the Liberty Plaza encampment.
Stepping partially outside state and market systems, occupiers created their own structures for discussion and governance; for provision of daily services; for medical care and sacred space; for music, dance and art. Some aspects of this counterpublic resembled the exhilarating, liberatory “Temporary Autonomous Zones” described by anarchist writer Hakim Bey.  Others were pragmatic, even bureaucratic. Within days, working groups resembling urban agencies — dedicated to issues like Comfort, Medical, Kitchen, Library, Sanitation and Security — created a series of nodes or workstations that cut diagonally across the park. They appropriated design elements such as retaining walls, benches and tables to define functional zones.
In overlaying the permanent landscape of the park with new activities and installations, the occupation created what anthropologist Tim Ingold calls a “taskscape”: a topography of related activities deployed in space and changing over time.  Through their patterns of spatial appropriation, occupiers responded to the asymmetries of the park — its slope, the priority of Broadway relative to Trinity Place, and the more favorable sun and wind exposures available in the northeast corner — by programming the plaza along a gradient. Running from north and east to south and west, this gradient shaded from public to private, mind to body, waking to sleeping, and reason to faith. Outreach/Media/Legal claimed the location that afforded the most shelter and the best sun exposure while also being situated far from the noise and dust of the World Trade Center construction site.
Kitchen compost station and The People's Library. [Photos by Jonathan Massey]
On the austere geometry of a tasteful corporate plaza, just under 33,000 square feet, the occupation created an entire world in which you could meditate, change your wardrobe, update your blog, cook lentils, read a book, sweep up litter, bandage a wound, bang a drum, roll a cigarette, debate how best to challenge corporate hegemony, make art, wash dishes and have sex, usually in the company of others. The square teemed with friends and strangers, allies and antagonists; it was intensely public and interactive. Daily activities were saturated with a talky sociability in which the challenges and opportunities of every action, every decision, were open to reinterpretation and negotiation. At any moment, the call of “Mic check!” could ring out across the camp, obligating participants to drop personal conversations and become part of a communal discourse. The act of chanting in unison, as a human microphone, created a common sense of purpose, established relationships among neighbors and intensified awareness of surrounding bodies.
This new world could feel exhilarating and inspiring but also threatening and claustral. It was crowded. It was charged with strong emotions. Its core members were working hard, and they were often tired. On top of reforming global capitalism, they had to handle fights, thefts, drug use and sexual assaults, while operating under the strain of official hostility, police surveillance, constant interaction with supportive and hostile visitors, and weather. Radical openness and participatory self-government proved taxing. As the occupation stretched from days into weeks and months, participants took shelter from cold, rain and snow in tents and tarps. The plaza became more internalized and lost some of its intense sociability.
The functional zoning also reinforced sociological differences in the camp. Many of the most active members identified themselves as coordinators or occupiers. These groups were not mutually exclusive, but they gravitated toward spaces in separate ends of the park. Coordinators, who facilitated discussions and posted on blogs, often spent nights at home, while occupiers put their bodies on the line by living and sleeping in the park. A spatial gradient emerged, with occupiers’ tents clustered toward the western end. Not surprisingly, these constituencies were marked by differences in class, education level, ethnicity, sexuality and gender. The Daily Show even aired a skit about the differences, using “uptown” and “downtown” to describe the two ends of the park. 
Top: Sanitation workstation. [Photo by Jonathan Massey] Bottom: Liberty Plaza Site Map drawn by Occupy participant on October 10. Click image to enlarge. [Map by Jake Deg]
Organizers worked hard to build the institutions needed to sustain the micro-city, but its autonomy was inherently limited; the camp was shaped by its adjacencies to the social, commercial and political networks of Lower Manhattan and the Financial District. Businesses provided restrooms. Sympathetic unions made facilities available. Organizations lent kitchen and office space. Individuals donated money, books, clothing and food. Murray Bergtraum High School opened its auditorium to meetings of the OWS Spokescouncil. A local government authority, Manhattan Community Board 1, mediated among protesters, neighborhood residents, Brookfield Properties and city officials in discussions about drum noise and other issues where order maintenance was enforced through claims about “quality of life.”
These interactions extended the spatial and social gradients of Liberty Plaza across a broader urban geography. Dozens of working groups met in the enclosed atrium at 60 Wall Street, a privately owned public space at the base of an office tower built by J.P. Morgan and currently occupied by Deutsche Bank. In that large room, designed by Roche and Dinkeloo and clad in marble and mirror and decorated with palm trees and postmodern grottoes, they shared space with chess-players and well-heeled denizens of the Financial District. From morning to night they used the tables, benches, chairs and wifi of the climate-controlled space as a purposeful, orderly extension of the eastern end of Liberty Plaza, establishing commuting patterns that figured 60 Wall as the Occupy office.
Occupying the Internet
The Wall Street protests would not have materialized without extensive work by on-the-ground activists in New York. But it was the Adbusters blog post that gave the action a name and date. It also gave them #occupywallstreet, the first of thousands of #Occupy hashtags that enabled the spontaneous assembly of strangers on Twitter and other internet platforms. In the months leading up to the first occupation, and in the year afterward, Occupy established an online presence unmatched in the history of social action, leveraging multiple online spaces to stage protests and to generate a distinctive counter-public and alternative polity.
Top: Occupiers connect via laptops and smartphones from Liberty Plaza. [Photo by David Shankbone] Bottom: Instagram photo sent by Occupy activist: “Riding in a bus with 50 others, in cuffs writing this.” [Photo by pulseprotest]
In the United States, the internet was largely exempt from the state control and censorship that curtailed protest activity on the street, but it was inherently open to surveillance and imposed another set of exclusions based on access to online spaces and protocols. Its various platforms afforded ties that were both broader and weaker than those at Liberty Plaza. Discussions took place in specialized forums and channels quite unlike the multisensory, multiparticipatory assemblies, meetings, marches and rallies of the physical realm. From its inception, Occupy tested the capacities of the internet’s virtual spaces to sustain organizational activity, deliberative discourse and other kinds of public-making. 
As with the physical occupation, many online actions had precedent in earlier movements, from the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s to the Arab Spring of 2011. For years U.S. activists have used sites like Indymedia to distribute information and mobilize protest participation.  After posting its call to action, Adbusters sent word to its email distribution list and created a Facebook event, mobilizing a pre-existing network of followers. As one of the largest privately owned public spaces online, Facebook became a key platform for the Occupy movement. Facebook profiles such as OccupyWallSt, Gilded.Age and OccupyTogether, created in the weeks leading up to the first protest, provided broadly accessible channels for information. When individuals “liked” or commented on items in these newsfeeds, Occupy ideas propagated through user-generated social networks. Throughout the fall, members used the site’s text, link, note, and photo and video sharing features to endorse events and activities. 
During the groundwork phase, organizers also used open-source web-coding tools to create dedicated Occupy websites. The most important were Occupywallst.org, a Github site launched in mid-July as a clearinghouse and contact-point for the movement; NYCGA.net, a Wordpress site created a few weeks later to serve the New York City General Assembly and its working groups; and the blog Occupytogether.org. These sites combined newsfeeds and social media links with manifestos, videos, crowdmaps and other resources, and they linked together other sites to create a sprawling landscape of information.
A selection of the more than 1600 posts submitted to the 99 Percent Project in October 2011.
In parallel, organizers tapped the internet’s capacity to build what sociologists Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport call “e-movements”: politically effective campaigns that circulate in the media without necessarily coalescing into mass gatherings. Online tools provide immediate and inexpensive site design and back-end functionality, allowing organizations or individuals to launch awareness campaigns and other political actions that demand little money or time from participants.  One such tool for Occupy activists was the image-based microblogging site Tumblr. In late summer, the 99 Percent Project invited people to “get known” as part of a majority disenfranchised by the super-rich. Under the slogan “We Are the 99 Percent,” the image blog featured self-portraits of working- and middle-class Americans holding handwritten signs or letters describing the circumstances of their indebtedness. The project called attention to the rise in income inequality and helped popularize the rhetoric of “the 99 percent.”  After September 17, it became an online analogue to Liberty Plaza, enabling a geographically dispersed set of participants to join the occupation of Wall Street and forging a common consciousness about debt and disenfranchisement. The self-portraits were often shot at a computer desk with a webcam, and overwhelmingly they were set in domestic interiors like living rooms, dens and bedrooms. But the handwritten signs pointed to a world outside those walls, evoking the signs of the homeless explaining their misfortunes and asking for help, as well as the signs of protesters bearing expressions of solidarity and calls to action. 
Global crowdmap on the Ushahidi platform. [Screenshot by the authors]
Contours of the Hypercity
In the summer of 2011, before the first protesters had set foot in Liberty Plaza, the Occupy movement was evolving toward a model of General Assembly that hybridized online and offline discourse. While street activists in New York were practicing consensus decision-making in public parks, online participants were responding to a poll Adbusters created using Facebook’s “question” function: “What is our one demand?” Answers included abolishing capitalism, demilitarizing the police, legalizing marijuana, reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act and freeing the unicorns. (The winner was “Revoke Corporate Personhood.”) Through this asynchronous online polling, Facebook supported a weak form of political discussion that prefigured the stronger and more interactive deliberations that filled Liberty Plaza.
By September 10, General Assembly minutes were being posted online at NYCGA. Over time these became more elaborate, and note-takers projected their evolving documents on a screen in Liberty Plaza so that participants could respond to the minutes-in-the-making. Assembly meetings were livestreamed so that participants across the globe could follow in real time, and some were archived online in audio and video formats. Congregants also livetweeted the assemblies under Twitter handles such as @DiceyTroop and @LibertySqGA. These accounts attracted thousands of followers, many of whom responded to live events, adding a layer of online conversation that augmented the face-to-face assemblies.
Hybrid discussions were the norm for the working groups that handled the day-to-day and week-to-week activity of Occupy Wall Street. During and after the occupation, working groups met regularly at Liberty Plaza, the 60 Wall atrium, Union Square and other locations throughout New York. A blackboard at Liberty Plaza listed some of these meetings, but more reliable information was found online at NYCGA, where nearly every working group had a page with a blog, activity wall, shared documents and event calendar, and discussion forum involving members who had never attended the face-to-face meetings. By spring 2012, the site hosted roughly 90 working groups, some with just a handful of registered users and a couple of posts, others with many hundreds of users and more than 2,000 entries.
Top: Blackboard at Liberty Plaza announces working group meetings. [Photo by Jonathan Massey] Bottom left: Livestream at Occupy Detroit. [Photo by Stephen Boyle] Bottom right: “People's Mic: Please join the Conversation.” 24/7 internet broadcast from Occupy Wall Street. [Photo by Chris Rojas]
As the weather changed in late October, the Town Planning forum hosted extensive discussions on a topic that simultaneously preoccupied the group’s in-person meetings and the General Assembly: how to sustain the camp into the winter. One participant lit up the forum with a long post advocating event tents that would cover large expanses of the park in communal enclosures, as an alternative to individual camping tents. “Safety teams are unfortunately learning ... that privacy equals risk,” wrote Sean McKeown, “because privacy allows for unseen violence, unseen sexual menace, and for drugs, alcohol, and weapons to be kept in shockingly large number if we are to guess by the number of needles found around tents lately since they have gone up.”  Members suggested building geodesic domes or frame structures with salvaged materials, or claiming regulatory exemption by designating the camp as a Native American sacred site. The reconfiguration of Liberty Plaza at the beginning of November was negotiated simultaneously in the park, in dispersed work-group meetings, and on the internet.
While online forums, as the Latin term implies, evoke the experience of face-to-face discussion, other online technologies create public spaces without analogue in the physical world. The Twitter hashtag, for example, enables radically new modes of creating, discovering and organizing affinity clusters, which proved useful in movements like the January 25 Egyptian Revolution and the Green Revolution in Iran. In self-conscious emulation of those precedents, Adbusters branded September 17 with the hashtag #occupywallstreet, signaling an expectation that participants would use Twitter to communicate with one another and with larger publics.
It took more than a week for the hashtag to catch on, and from July 25 through the end of August, the four hashtags #occupywallstreet, #occupywallst, #occupy and #ows together accounted for an average of only 27 messages per day. Activity increased in September, and by the day of occupation, Twitter volume on this group of hashtags hit 78,351 as the broader public of participants, bystanders and commentators joined organizers in using the platform for realtime micoblogging of information, opinions and photos. Twitter’s instantaneous syndication was a valuable conduit for time-sensitive news, and its 140-character message limit was well suited to the mobile devices that predominated in Liberty Plaza. Some activists used photo, video and geotagging features on their phones to make Twitter a medium for mapping and building the extended Occupy taskscape. Volume on those four hashtags peaked at 411,117 on November 15, the day protesters were evicted from the park. 
Visualization of the Occupy movement online, July to December 2011, including activity on Google, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and We Are the 99 Percent. Click image to enlarge. [Timeline by the authors]
Many other online spaces provided venues for discourse and arenas for participation. Internet relay chat channels allowed participants to talk to one another, individually and in groups. Live video streams from Liberty Plaza and other camps opened real-time windows onto parks, squares and streets around the world. Occupystreams.org compiled more than 250 such livestreams, each flanked on screen by a chat feed. Video and photo-sharing sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr and Instagram enabled participants to post, share and discuss images of Occupy protests, police actions, and other content. Much of this activity garnered only limited interest, but some posts went viral, such as the late September video of a high-ranking NYPD officer pepper-spraying women who had already been corralled on the sidewalk. Edited and annotated with the low-tech tools that support user-generated content, the video broadened awareness of and sympathy for the occupation.
As social media expanded the range of channels for participation in Occupy Wall Street, it also changed the nature of the public that joined. Extrapolating from the work of anthropologist Jeffrey S. Juris, we can contrast the network logics that predominated in summer 2011, when organizations and activists used email lists and websites to mobilize pre-existing networks, with a new set of aggregation logics that developed as the event took off. Social media engaged many thousands of people who had no pre-existing connection to social change organizations and activist networks. These virtual spaces, even more than city parks, became points of encounter where previously unrelated individuals aggregated to form popular assemblies.
Focusing on Occupy Boston, Juris suggests that while the alter-globalization protests of the 1990s created “temporary performative terrains along which networks made themselves and their struggles visible,” the Occupy movement activated a wider public. “Rather than providing spaces for particular networks to coordinate actions and physically represent themselves,” he writes, “the smart mob protests facilitated by social media such as Facebook and Twitter make visible crowds of individuals aggregated within concrete locales.” 
Political scientist Stephania Milan has characterized Occupy protests as “cloud protesting,” comparing the movement to “a cloud where a set of ‘soft resources’ coexist: identities, narratives, and know-how, which facilitate mobilization,” much as social media hosted via cloud computing gives individuals the tools for “producing, selecting, punctuating, and diffusing material like tweets, posts and videos.” 
Top: Protest sign in Times Square: “Get off the internet. I’ll Meet you in the streets.” [Photo by Geoff Stearns] Bottom: Collaboratively edited User Map at OccupyWallSt.org.
Though Milan and Juris don’t address them, we could add crowdmaps to the list of “cloud tools” that activated aggregation logics in the Occupy movement. Online maps populated by user-generated content were published at Take the Square, US Day of Rage, OccupyWallSt.org, and Occupy.net. Most used Ushahidi, free open-source crowdmapping software developed in 2008 in Kenya to support disaster relief and response efforts. By compiling data into a common geospatial framework, these crowdmaps visualized Occupy participants and camps as discrete elements that aggregated to form a global phenomenon. They associated people, texts, images and videos with particular places, constructing hypergeographies of action and potential. Animated timeline features encouraged users to visualize themselves and local events as part of a process of “#globalchange.”
The most robust crowdmap was the #OccupyMap at Occupy.net, built by the Tech Ops working group of NYCGA. It provided a web interface for reporting events such as marches, rallies and police interventions, with easy media embedding and compatibility with the Ushahidi app on iOS and Android mobile devices. It also populated automatically from Twitter: any tweet from a location-enabled device that included the hashtag #occupymap generated a geotagged report that could incorporate photos and videos via the Twitpic and Twitvid apps. By spring 2012, the map had aggregated some 900 entries from New York City into a database that could be sorted geographically and temporally, by medium and by event type — all viewable via map, timeline and photo interfaces. By pulling together disparate events and data across space and time, the #OccupyMap created a counterpublic integrated through its use of online media to contest state and corporate control of urban places.
The Occupy crowdmaps were most compelling rhetorically at larger scales, where they visualized landscapes fundamentally distinct from those visible in city streets. In counterpoint to the intense attention paid to Liberty Plaza, these virtual geographies redefined the public of Occupy Wall Street as a dispersed set of agents linked more by online communication channels than by proximity. Viewed at national scale, the red placemarker icons on the User Map at OccupyWallSt.org suggested a crowd of hot air balloons that had landed — or were preparing to take off — all across the country. In places they clustered so tightly as to create red contours marking an otherwise invisible topography of radicalism. But at the local scale, what had seemed a continuous landscape of occupiers thinned out; zooming in on Liberty Plaza, you saw only a forlorn green oblong scattered with a few markers.
While some online activists relied on corporate media such as Facebook and Twitter to reach a broad public, many made a point of using open-source software, sources and methods such as wikicoding. Occupy websites became spaces for the elaboration of what Christopher Kelty calls a recursive public, “a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence.”  In the physical realm, Liberty Plaza and other occupied spaces functioned as offline analogues of a wiki page. Participants without much prior affiliation built new worlds and organized themselves to maintain them while avoiding hierarchy and formalization whenever they could. At these “wikicamps,” open-source urbanism operated at a scale simultaneously local and global.  The New York camp was built with knowledge, idea and resources from Spain and Argentina, Chiapas and Cairo, as well as from local coalitions.
Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder map Liberty Plaza's functional zones and activities. See the sidebar “Mapping Liberty Plaza” for axonometric drawings of the site’s transformation.
Participants have continued to explore the ways that digital media can reshape our public spaces and public spheres. One example is a course project at The New School that emerged from a multi-day, multi-city “hackathon” sponsored by the working group Occupy Research. The Twitter bot @OccupyPOPS is a script that cross-references check-ins on social media sites Foursquare and Twitter with the New York City government database of privately-owned public spaces, then automatically tweets a call to temporarily occupy a particular POPS at a specific date and time. Created by Christo de Klerk, @OccupyPOPS mobilizes virtual spaces, physical places and social networks to reshape urban public space and the regulations that govern it. Other New York-based projects addressing the issues foregrounded by Occupy include #whOWNSpace and The Public School, as well as pre-existing initiatives like Not an Alternative.
Open-source hypercity urbanism becomes increasingly important as governments constrain public assembly in the offline world. On November 15, the state cleared the experimental agora at Liberty Plaza. Police and sanitation workers with bulldozers removed tents and tarps while resisting occupiers fell back to the People’s Kitchen. As NYPD blockaded the surrounding streets and airspace, people and texts and media feeds streamed out from an atmosphere made toxic by chemical and sonic weapons. Coordinated police actions evicted occupiers in Oakland, Portland, Denver and other cities.
Occupy Wall Street working groups and General Assemblies continue to meet in the 60 Wall Street atrium and other public locations, and to stage intermittent marches, rallies and actions. Occupations were sustained in other cities around the world, and activists tried several times to retake Zuccotti Park. Without its base camp, the Occupy movement relied even more extensively on websites and other online media as its primary means of communication and self-representation. This activity expanded into an array of diffuse campaigns: to reduce and renegotiate student debt; to resist foreclosures and reclaim bank-owned houses; and to challenge corporate power on many fronts.
Top: Sign posted at the 60 Wall atrium on November 15: “No excessive use of space.” [Photo by Johanna Clear] Bottom: Protesters remove police barriers and reoccupy Zuccotti Park on November 17. [Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh]
Occupy Wall Street had an immediate impact on U.S. domestic politics. Counteracting anti-deficit rhetoric from the Republican Party and Tea Party activists who sought to cut social services while borrowing heavily to fund wars and regressive income redistributions, the Occupy movement shifted the focus of mainstream political discourse to income inequality and the burdens of consumer debt. For many participants and observers, though, its more compelling achievement was to embody a minimally hierarchical communitarian polity that combined consensual direct democracy with a high degree of individual autonomy, and also a voluntary sharing economy with the market logics and state service provision that dominate everyday urban life. The longer-term impact of #OWS may well stem from the techniques it modeled online and in the streets for building new publics and polities.
What might this history mean for the future of public space and political action? Events are still unfolding, so the question is open-ended. But here are some provisional conclusions:
Finally, initiative is shifting to global-local coalitions. While Occupy was often framed in nationalist terms, its more pervasive character was simultaneously transnational and highly local, reflecting the new geographies of capitalism and its media. The intersections between global and local, online and face-to-face, reformist and radical are promising sites for the creation of the new publics and polities that might open up futures beyond the neoliberal state.
- Online tools are rapidly changing the dynamics of political action. The aggregative, rhizomatic, and exponentially expanding character of the Occupy movement reflects the distinctive capacities of social media.
- Media are accelerating the pace of discourse and action. Flash mobs and viral tweets may be excessively hyped, but the compressed temporality of the new media landscape is reflected in the rapid emergence, metastasis, and dormancy of Occupy Wall Street.
- Digital communities are good at building systems. Wikicoding and other modes of online collaboration can build online venues fast and well.
- These communities may still require face-to-face interaction to achieve substantive change. Digital communication is easy, but for that reason it can feel too light and weightless to mobilize people for the tenacious action it often takes to achieve deep structural changes.
- Bodies in the street still matter for commanding attention and galvanizing engagement.
- Modern forms of police control violate basic civil liberties. From the constraints placed on all manner of public assembly to the everyday civil rights violations of the stop-and-frisk system, police in New York and some other American cities have passed a dangerous tipping point.
- Asserting a broad right to the city means claiming public places, online and offline, for assembly, dialogue and deliberation by multiple publics with varying spatial and temporal requirements.
- Privately owned public spaces offer platforms for experimentation. The prevalence of corporate enclaves in our cities and online often homogenizes and constrains public life, but Occupy Wall Street showed that POPS can be sites for public-making and political action.
- But users should reclaim some of the value we create in using corporate media. Activists should find ways to gain at least partial control over the valuable and revealing information trails that users generate through activity online and in our cities.
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