This article is by Damien Crisp
The future has not been written, but blueprints are being drawn up everywhere.
Many of us live as prisoners to architecture defined by capitalism. Rent is too high and far out of balance with wages. Mortgages are rigged against us.
We can pay and pay but still lose our home to foreclosure. The job market around you has collapsed and you live in fear of exile. We live in fear. Many people are homeless in the United States. Elderly and whole families unable to find shelter are becoming more and more common across the country. Homelessness and becoming a prisoner to your home mortgage are intertwined states.
What is the solution? There are endless solutions. Long term solutions demand redefining architecture, redefining the home, redefining homeless shelters, and redefining perceptions of homelessness. These solutions require lengthy dissections of our whole system but their need is immediate.
In Wisconsin, Occupy Madison occupiers collected energy leftover from the end of a successful occupation and focused on building an organization capable of redefining what it means to shelter the vulnerable homeless from economic violence.
Their tiny houses project has the promise of permanent revolution for Madison. Each homeless person, inside each tiny house, will become a homeowner and steward of projects on the land where houses are parked. Occupy Madison’s solution is: give people a home. Plans for OM’s tiny houses include composting toilets, structures wired to plug into both the grid and solar power sources, vented propane heaters for blistering Wisconsin winters and a water system.
The group imagines on-going construction leaving many tiny houses spread across the city. Mobility and adding sites are central to realizing this larger idea. Tiny houses are designed with trailers on wheels. Keeping homes mobile will allow owners to rotate through a circuit of sites. Becoming stewards for various spaces, every owner would play a role all along this network. Travelling with their house to points along a circuit, owners would have shifting views through windows as they switch parking lots. Tending to projects such as gardens established at all sites, everyone would contribute to projects sustaining the community without becoming fixed on one particular role. Expanding the projects’ map furthers potential for sustainability. One garden becomes two gardens, two become four and four become eight as the list of sites grows. Every additional site multiplies openings for new stewards.
As the circuit grows, it could become a community living visionary alternatives to our dominant order that question traditional parameters defining how living, home and survival are conceived. Purchasing just one site, however, has been difficult enough. Buying one site after another is an impossibility for now but Occupy Madison is working around this obstacle by connecting with churches willing to share their parking lots and surrounding land.
How did Occupy Madison shift from encampment to construction?
“Our encampment was one of the longest,” Occupy Madison’s Bruce Wallbaum said. “It was about 580 days. We found that people that camped and were part of the political protests joined with people who didn’t have homes.“
When Occupy Wall Street was in full swing and energy flowed towards occupations movements nationwide, Wallbaum says, their focus was the “greater political protest”. Special communities had developed within Occupy Madison and lasted after “greater political protests” under Occupy’s banner were pressed until dissolution under the boot of the all-knowing State. Small communities within communities, which had orbited within Occupy Madison at its encampment, were all seeking ways to create a better world with the collective energy they found together occupying. Several people from OM travelled to Eugene, Oregon and learned from a tiny house project there. Wallbaum recalls they found the same narrative there: collective growth during occupations and a shift from greater protest towards creating another world. Because Occupy Madison became a combination of occupiers with homes and Madison’s homeless, their shift from encampment towards building another world for the homeless was simply their group dynamic manifested into an idea.
The homeless population in Madison faces a hostile real estate owner’s market hell bent on constant production of high-end residential buildings with little consideration given to ensuring balanced growth for people from diverse economic circumstances. The city has a 2% real estate vacancy rate, which is only 1% higher than New York City. This creates a top end expensive housing market for owners and renters. It also exacerbates homelessness. The city briefly had more sway over development which ensured real estate plans included affordable housing . This attempt at balance came from legislation championed by future Occupy Madison activists.
Building a solution has been easier than challenging powerful local real estate developers with legislation. Support for OM’s tiny houses has been overwhelming, according to Wallbaum, who says the group struggles to plug in all who want to volunteer. Fundraising events have also seen overwhelming response. Still, OM’s vision faces a myriad of local zoning laws as well as the not-in-my-backyard syndrome which plagues many attempts at empowering, or even sheltering, people who find themselves homeless.
The tiny house movement is an escape for the homeless. Other models of alternative housing gaining popularity focus on building escapes from mortgages and and escapes from rent. Bruce Wallbaum says younger activists joining the tiny houses project see it not only as a solution to homelessness but as a solution to their own crisis of how to survive against the pressure of debt, against a flood of low wage jobs, against widening economic inequality. Escape from standard residential space, which demands its owners or renters play the game out of fear of homelessness, as well as escape through solutions to homelessness, could reach a depth of transformation comparable to any other powerful social revolution.
Too often “home” is narrowly defined by square feet, location, and income from full-time work. Too often “home” is defined by what we are told we deserve if we just work hard enough. Cracks in the illusion our system rewards hard work will not be repaired by raising more expensive condos or denying suffering under the thumb of capitalism all around us. Cracks in the illusion of our dominant order should be encouraged, not repaired, until the illusion shatters and leaves us free to redefine living on a large scale we can only begin to glimpse in projects like Occupy Madison’s Tiny Houses.
Damien Crisp is an artist, writer and activist. He has lived in New York City, Guadalajara. Mexico, and currently lives in southeast Tennessee. His writings can be followed on social media and blogs. He was a body, voice, and citizen journalist during Occupy Wall Street's time at Zuccotti Park, as well as a coordinator for Occupy Sandy.
We received this dispatch from an occupier
Thank you for reaching out and sharing your story. I agree with many of your criticisms. One of the things we have to do if we move forward is accept everything good about what we've done in the past... as well as the bad. That's the only way we're going to learn.
Right now the most important thing you can do is to continue to take care of yourself, your family, and your community. These are tough times for everyone, regardless of belief (as you mentioned.)
But if you're sure you still want to get involved with the movement, we'd need to know more about you, where you live, and what skills you have. Resumes are always a good way to do this if you have one. We're also going to be doing a "census" of the movement in March and you should hear from us when that happens.
Until then, stay strong :)
Yo Occupy! Please post your own response to Tracy below. What are the projects and initiatives that you are most excited about in 2014?
Ed.Note: A frequent question to the team of the Occupy Solidarity Network is, “Why are you still here? Isn’t Occupy over?” The response is that we carry a moral responsibility to maintain and grow the networked communication hubs that we have been a part of building to help bring radical social change. Ms. Donovan’s article speaks to the importance of servicing, preserving, and lighting up these networks when needed. Additionally, this article speaks of how interconnected the networks are with on-the-ground work, and how one cannot happen without the other. Activists are only as good as the community that we organize and work with, so we honor all of you who work tirelessly organizing with information, resources, or people, one cannot work without the others. -Priscilla Grim
Occupy, Solidarities, and Social Movement Creation
by Joan Donovan
I am often asked, usually in a pejorative tone, “What has Occupy even accomplished?” As a sociologist though, these questions make me wonder “How do occupiers accomplish anything? How are projects made? How are they spread? Under what conditions are they successful? What do failed projects have in common?”
This has led me to study of very boring things, like infrastructure across multiple platforms. Here, I articulate how the Occupy movement communicates and coordinates action using the example of Occupy Sandy. I also introduce an idea that I am calling net work, i.e. the use of one’s free time in the service of a project involving multiple skills, knowledges, technologies, and people. It is concept closely related to Star’s work on infrastructure, where she describes infrastructure as a process and product where people ideas and technology are densely entangled. The concept of Net Work helps to better grasp how Occupiers organize without organizations. Important for Occupy, no one directs how the movement will unfold. Instead, people begin working on an idea, recruit some allies, and carry out action without knowing if another group is doing the same thing. The hacker ethos of “don’t propose, just do” helped Occupy become a multi-modal movement that melds online worlds and offline spaces. Focusing on how the communication infrastructure became formalized across occupy projects illustrates how occupiers as knowledge workers cull, assess, analyze, summarize, and distribute information in the service of the movement. I conclude with the example of Occupy Sandy to show how the forms of communication networks already used by occupiers were leveraged to provide direct aid to storm-torn communities.
Those who participate in net work projects are often already employed as knowledge workers. Italian theorist Bifo Berardi describes them as the cognitariat, workers whose labor consists of spending a good deal of their time thinking about and moving knowledge from one place to another. They gather, analyze, and assess data, facilitate collaboration and think critically about future directions. In the case of Occupy, the cognitariat remix the corporate space of social media for their own purposes, while also taking up public space or “privately owned public spaces” (POPS) as a way to challenge corporate rule. I argue that net work becomes possible because the main currency of the internet is keywords. A keyword like “occupy” can be used to move between online and offline groups and helps the user find similar communities of practice in ways that keywords like “social justice” simply can not.
Star stipulates that “Nobody is really in charge of infrastructure.” This is because infrastructure is layered overtime and involves not just different locales, but also generations of users with different skill sets and idiosyncrasies. Occupiers did not consciously make decisions early on about how to build a unified infrastructure, but rather, many infrastructures appeared with similar characteristics. For each occupation there was a facebook page, twitter account, webpage, general inquires email address, a google group, a donation page, phone number, a camp or public meeting space, as well as a set of committees.
Also, they all had keywords in common: #OccupyWallStreet is not an address, but an organizational schema that signals to the user to go on twitter and use that keyword to seek out like-minded people. When coupled with other keywords like “#OccupyOakland” or “#OccupyCleveland” localized groupings become possible.
Keywords also produce a kind of solidarity, if solidarity is thought about in the sense put forward by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim believed that solidarity refers to the interdependence of components within a social system which are held together by a set of similar values. The term “Occupy” became synonymous with another more potent phrase “We are the 99%,” where 99% refers to not just a proportion of the population, but a class position opposite the moneyed 1%. Becoming part of Occupy was more than just identifying with a subject position, it included finding a niche where you could use the skills that you have in order to start a new project or work on an existing one. For some, this could mean sleeping in parks, going to street actions, doing outreach, picking up garbage, or working on the group’s finances. But for the cognitariat it meant curating information, producing content, broadcasting livestreams, and administering social media platforms. Each form of participation was integral for the whole system to operate. Without people using the internet to promote actions, they would be sparsely attended. Without actions to report on, live streams would be dull, and social media stagnant.
The ability to find one another as well as a place to plug into the Occupy movement is an effect of rhizomatic communication. Communication across this global movement has no center or command post; instead, there is a sprawling organizational structure that leverages all points of connectivity to foster growth. It’s a rhizome, a nodal mass of roots that grows horizontally under the soil, such as a root of ginger. Like infrastructure, rhizomes rarely become visible and as such require some digging.
Occupy employs rhizomatic communication, wherein multiple channels are used to strengthen networked connections that spread ideas from one group to another. This model includes the simultaneous use of email groups, social networking sites, text loops, conference calling and face-to-face meetings to circulate information from many to many. This rhizomatic form, then, becomes a model for how to carry out direct actions themselves in distributed and redundant (while also coordinated) fashion.
Mobile communications such as smart phones and laptops with WIFI are technologies of social change that allow users to connect to the global network from anywhere with signal. Global movements against capitalism have creatively re-imagined the uses and constraints of social media’s capacity to network and broadcast. Castells calls this counter-power, where people use technology to build a sense of togetherness to combat state power. And this, I argue is where 8net work flourishes. Today, no single call to action is effective, but rather cognitarians, push information through networks with the intention of networking networks. Posting, linking, liking, friending, inviting, sharing, tweeting, retweeting, following, instagramming, regramming, streaming, broadcasting, commenting, blogging, emailing, texting, calling, watching, donating, recording, editing, documenting, note-taking, meeting, and finally, protesting are all forms of “GSD” within Occupy. GSD means “getting shit done” … In other words, labor or work.
Importantly, many cognitarians brought skills from their daily lives to bear on occupy projects, while also poaching much of their paid work hours to conduct mundane tasks for Occupy projects, like answer email, write press releases, admin social media accounts, all from their workplaces. Being able to plug into the network from both inside and outside the camps was critical for building solidarity and coordinating massive direct actions, like the west coast port shutdown in December 2011.
In my opinion, Occupy Sandy is the most sophisticated project to come out of the Occupy camps. Responding to the devastating superstorm, occupiers leveraged all existing platforms around a set of keywords in order to organize donations and volunteers. Instead of adopting a rigid bureaucratic structure that requires compliance to a set of rules (Think Red Cross), networks that use rhizomatic communication leverage aspects of bureaucratic communication, including reliance on documentation and skill building, while removing the hierarchical process of approval for taking action. “Don’t propose, just do!” became the ethos after the storm. With 40K New Yorkers without power, water, or access to public transit, already-existing Occupy social media accounts began using the keywords #sandyvolunteer to query needs and link people to social services and web resources. However, this quickly became an overwhelming and ineffective way to organize. The demand for information and resources far surpassed the people-power managing those accounts. Moreover, occupiers on the ground in Rockaway, Red Hook, and Staten Island were also experiencing a myriad of communication glitches from lack of electricity to cell services.
Enter InterOccupy.net, a small group of “network nerds” based in locations all over America. IO began in October 2011 during the height of the encampments, as a project to link different occupations together and provide conference calls, email lists, and documentation tools for those who wanted to spread ideas or coordinate actions nationwide. Importantly, by the time Sandy hit New York, IO had some practice dealing with ecological crisis as some worked on a campaign after Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. Moreover, IO and OWS volunteers also were able to rapidly set up internal and external email lists, a website, and social media accounts with nearly 30 administrators from all over the USA. Sharing the burden of communication and information management to those outside of the crisis area allowed for other forms of work, like databasing volunteers, routing donations, and answering emails, to get done more quickly.
The name #occupysandy was adopted later because one occupier who worked on finances for the camp in Manhattan already set up a donation page bearing the name. Moreover, in tweets inquirers were re-using occupy-related keywords and overlapping them with #sandyvolunteer. Many of the people volunteering in the emerging network were opposed to an occupy related organization, but were powerless to stop its momentum.
In order to remain cohesive around the Occupy Sandy keywords, a facebook page, twitter, and email account were set up to drive people to the website, donation pages, and volunteer locations. On the back end a series of conference calls, email lists, text loops, chat boxes, google docs, maps, phone calls, carpools, a volunteer database, newsletters, and wifi equipped volunteer locations, held the network together, albeit by a thread. Because Verizon held the lone cell towers in badly damaged areas, some were unable to reach the cell network and began using google voice numbers through their wifi as a way to patch holes in the communications system.
Interestingly, while InterOccupy always envisioned themselves as a network that circulated ideas, it did not occur to any of us that we could also distribute goods. This fact though was obvious when the movement had camps; as occupiers were able to feed, clothe, and provide medical services to many on a daily basis. But after the raids the question remained: how could Occupy enliven a spirit of public service akin to the one felt in the camps? Occupy Sandy shows that whatever networks move information, can also move goods and people. Yet, the conditions of the crisis still matter.
A hashtag like “mutual aid” would not have produced the kind of solidarity needed to respond to hurricane sandy. However, mutual aid is the basis for projects that use net work to meet community needs. In the case of Occupy Sandy, a group running the social media accounts might never speak to the person transporting 1000 flashlights, but all of the work is significant for making Occupy Sandy successful because actions are animated by mutual aid.
The anarchist zoologist, Peter Kropotkin, describes the benefits of mutual aid in his study of bees, “These small insects by working in common, multiply their individual forces; by resorting to a temporary division of labor combined with the capacity of each bee to perform every kind of work when required, they attain such a degree of well-being and safety as no isolated animal can ever expect to achieve, however strong or well-armed it may be. In their combinations, they are often more successful than man, when he neglects to take advantage of a well-planned mutual assistance. Thus, when a new swarm is going to leave the hive in search of a new abode, a number of bees will make a preliminary exploration of the neighborhood, and if they discover a convenient dwelling-place-say, an old basket- they will take possession of it, clean it and guard it, sometimes for a whole week, until the swarm comes to settle therein. But how many human settlers will perish in new countries, simply for not having understood the necessity of combining their efforts.”
Here, the combined efforts of Occupiers acting as cognitarians to leverage the networks built during the days of the encampments, while also scaling-up the technologies of communications that occupiers are already accustomed to using, led to direct aid in the most devastated areas. In the words of the New York Times, “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There.”
Joan Donovan researches global anti-capitalist movements use of information and communication technologies. In 2011, she helped build the InterOccupy.net platform, which facilitates distributed direct actions by linking networks of activists. She is completing a dissertation at the University of California San Diego on the communication infrastructure of the Occupy movement.
This article was originally published on Occupy the Social.