sinking-ship

The Justine Tunney Debacle & OccupyWallSt.org

Over the last few days, the world of #Occupy has been reinvigorated. Not for any particular achievement, mind you, but for the public meltdown of a dedicated OWS activist named Justine Tunney, who just happened to be the woman who founded (or co-founded) some of the movement’s core assets, including fb.me/occupywallst, @occupywallst, and occupywallst.org. (The last often referred to simply as STORG.)

As detailed in various places including, heaven help us, Buzzfeed, Ms. Tunney asserted control over the Twitter handle she created, and essentially told her story. Part of that story is that she has felt unappreciated and disrespected from the very beginning. I’ve felt that way at times. It’s a common experience in activism.

A main thread emerging from the backlash to Ms. Tunney and STORG is that these digital assets were movement resources regardless of who founded them or when. They wouldn’t exist as important communication tools were it not for all the others who made OWS possible in New York City, or the others who expanded it nationally and internationally, and all those who wrote, commented, retweeted, followed, liked, shared, and gave a damn. The Occupy brand is being defended by those who feel they are stakeholders, as happened when STORG began to sell Occupy themed merchandise.

STORG is like Facebook in that it generates value from the unpaid labor and creativity of others. But, at least with Facebook, the deal is understood by both sides from the outset. With STORG, it wasn’t as clear. Had all stakeholders understood that these were Justine’s personal accounts from the get-go, maybe they wouldn’t have added all that value. Had Justine and STORG committed to those assets being controlled by something other than a small group of individuals, maybe those accounts wouldn’t be susceptible to these kinds of shenanigans.

The Problem of Accountability in OWS

There was a time when this lack of clarity was treated as a serious concern by the Tech Ops Working Group, which founded this blog and created NYCGA.net as a tool explicitly owned by OWS. Unlike STORG, it was constructed by and for the OWS General Assembly – something we treated as our governing infrastructure. For better or worse, Tech Ops cared deeply about being accountable to something larger than itself. Not accountable in the sense that we care what other people think, but in an operational way. We were enthusiastic about working on behalf of General Assembly decisions and we paid for things (in part) with funds funneled by the GA from donors who wanted to support its work.

In late October or early November of 2011, Tech Ops pushed for a General Assembly resolution that would have asserted symbolically that STORG was – or was not – a movement resource. We wanted to enter negotiations with STORG over their use of the domain occupywallst.org. Our take was that a website seen as the de-facto voice of OWS should strive to become the de-jure voice as well. And if not, then maybe there could be an official statement that it shouldn’t be our collective platform.

We believed that successful movements need to build and own their own infrastructure. Absent that, we are dependent on the goodwill of others who might not be there for us down the road. This is one reason why so many of us were FLOSS fanatics. (aka Open source and free software.)

Alas, the General Assembly process failed us. Despite their statements rejecting the authority of the GA to make any decisions regarding STORG, their supporters felt comfortable showing up and ‘blocking’ any decision on the topic. But I’m not bitter. In retrospect, maybe it was the best outcome.

The inability of the GA to take a position on movement infrastructure was in keeping with an Occupy culture that had real trouble with planning and coordination. Efforts to engage a wider circle of volunteers, address racial justice issues, establish proper email lists, engage in community organizing, manage office space, honor commitments with other movements and organizations, and handle money competently were also features of OWS, both before and after the Zuccotti Park occupation. Sort of like The Little Rascals Start a Revolution.

Against that background, the decision of actors like Justine and STORG to absolutely refuse to give up the resources they had created so that they could be managed accountably makes perfect sense. Their relative success and longevity compare quite well against many other pieces of online movement infrastructure including NYCGA.net, occupywallstreet.net, Interocc and the Occupy Network. (Which doesn’t mean those other efforts are failures – I’m part of the Occupy Network which puts out an excellent newsletter that still covers much of the New York Occupy movement.)

Many of the very best Occupy media resources also fall short of any kind of ‘movement accountability ethic.’ Occupy.com, Waging Nonviolence, Global Rev, the Occupy Wall Street Journal and Tidal are all examples of that. When push comes to shove, every one of those online media properties could be taken off the deep end as the STORG twitter account was – and there’s not a thing anyone could do about it.

Where Does That Leave Us

Ms. Tunney is a person and a friend. She has contributed a great deal to the Occupy movement. It’s funny how we became friendly over time, given that I was part of the effort to shame her group into giving up control of her digital properties. It’s also relevant that we aren’t particularly close politically or organizationally.

Watching her be savaged by the online version of a mob with pitchforks fills me with sadness and more than a little shame. This target of online toxic rage has a narrative that makes her recent actions quite understandable. No, I don’t agree with them – but I have empathy with the person who did those things. I can put myself in her shoes. There’s a coherent logic at work.

In my humble opinion, what happened to Ms. Tunney and the STORG twitter handle was the result of years of pressure building up. Years of feeling unappreciated and under attack. The lack of folks working to establish closer relationships and one-on-one solidarity across whatever lines divide us from each other. And yet that doesn’t go far enough. Justine is fairly young, a cancer survivor, an out transgendered woman and nerd with a lifetime of shit to deal with. I’m sad and ashamed that 2.5 years in the Occupy movement did nothing to heal her; instead, it just added more layers of shit.

If you were paying attention, as so few of us are, you’d see that Justine is having a public meltdown. A crisis. I can’t see her recent pronouncements as a political conversation about which one might have a firm opinion. For me, it’s a moment of weakness, maybe far overdue. She’s earned the right to have it. I wish that the movement folks wielding online torches and pitchforks could be persuaded to walk away instead of fanning the fames. That wouldn’t just make us look better, as the Occupy diaspora. It would actually make us better.

My last point is that the Occupy movement really screwed up by not insisting on accountable infrastructure. The General Assemblies were terrible, the horizontalist impulse ended up as a self-defeating cultish behavior few survivors would care to repeat. We changed the conversation and blew ourselves up. Let’s own that and leave STORG – and every other Occupy splinter – the hell alone. Focus on what’s next, not what’s past.

I sure hope what comes next involves more compassion. And infrastructure.

22 comments

  1. PatiaGardner

    Bravo
    We not only contributed; but
    We “used” that handle!
    This is a good lesson in our own accountability.

  2. _anonym

    Thank you for this article, calling out the mob feeding frenzy and calling for solidarity. Fire Dog Lake’s attack shows us what a repulsive pseudo alternative bourgeois rag it really is.

  3. Malú

    As a technician, administrator and feeder of the Twitter account Ms Tunney has done a terrific work that MANY OF US PEOPLE are all VERY GRATEFUL for, but being the voice of a whole historic and leaderless movement is not easy and you don’t do that so that you get personal recognition. Wearing an anonymous mask (or a collective avatar for a Twitter account) and being a spokeperson is an enormous responsibility and your only recognition and payment should be to make the powerless and the voiceless speak. Ask this guy (on the video) how tremendously DIFFICULT it is to put up with all the insults over the years (and word has it he is seriously ill now). Watch this video, where he finally shows his picture and takes off his mask!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRnoJt7PTDE

  4. John Penley

    Scott Olsen was shot in the head with a tear gas cannister and almost died. Many, many people were arrested and suffered severe police brutality and serious charges all over the country because of their participation in OWS. I spent all last year going to court in North Carolina [not a lenient state like NYC] on two charges. My point is this many people have suffered and sacrificed all over the world because we joined the OWS movement. No one owns OWS, as far as I am concerned many, many people and not just in NYC are “founders”. This bad publicity has not helped any of us and the I am going to take my or our ball and go home because you don’t give me the props I think I deserve SUCKS and has destroyed OWS groups all over the country. I hope we are not done for as I have been with and love tons of activists I met by Occupying in Zuccotti,DC,Tampa,Charlotte and Asheville NC and without OWS this would never have happened. WE ALL STARTED OWS !

  5. Jerry Ashton

    Another bravo from this quarter. In reading some of the posts it became clear that OWS didn’t need outside forces to besmirch it’s name and standing. We are doing quite well on our own.

  6. MadHatter

    Good article. Really gets the point of why many wanted to keep movement communications autonomous from the General Assembly. However one correction, Justine Tunney did not found or cofound the occupywallst Facebook page. Please fix.

  7. DPrince

    Justine does a lot of great work, and has good ideas, and a great mind. Similarly Occupywallst.org had taken down the wepay link, and routed it to something they controlled, it got flipped back. I also, tried to convince her to give over occupywallst.org website to GA, and she actually agreed to do so, though it lasted all of 12 hours in early October 2011, I’ve enjoyed her company on the rare occasions I have it, and wish her well.

  8. Pea

    I should begin by disclosing that I work with occupywallstreet.net and helped write an article about the email sent by the Solidarity Network, which I think precipitated the debacle. And, I’m one of the TechOps FOSS “fanatics” to which Charles refers…

    First, to say that the general assembly failed to create an accountable infrastructure because of the movement’s horizontalist impulse is an oversimplification, which betrays your bias toward hierarchical structures. There were external forces actively working toward the movement’s destruction. Our decision-making structures, like the GA and spokes council, were infiltrated by people whose purpose it was to impede our ability to make collective decisions and develop structures. They used disruption as a tactic to halt discussion and, ultimately, consensus in meetings and assemblies. The consequences were an absence of functional processes, and the extreme discouragement, frustration and disunity of participants.

    Second, discourse about unaccountable resources is not merely to focus on the past because these resources continue to operate without accountability in the present. Take, for instance, the recent case in which Storg claimed there was an official Occupy response to Obama’s State of the Union Address. It is as though, as the “founders” of the movement, they’ve now given themselves the authority to decree something to be official Occupy. But, Ms Sawant wasn’t speaking on behalf of Occupy and Occupy has never made official statements. And, when people put themselves forth as the “founders”, it implies that they can legitimately speak on behalf of the movement. This happened recently, when a self-proclaimed founder, spoke at a Five Star Movement rally, saying, “Hello Five Star Movement! Occupy Wall Street is proud of you!” Again, Occupy Wall Street hasn’t had discussions about or agreed on its position on the M5S. Indeed, some among us might have blocking concerns about such a position.

    But, ultimately, any person who solicits money on the basis of being a founder of the movement from everyone who registered an account on the unaccountable website they run doesn’t elicit a great deal of sympathy from me. I am one of those who received the email, which has made me aware that my (presumably, along with everyone else who registered an account on storg) email information is in a proprietary email program without consent. Perhaps I’ll soon write a post about why using proprietary systems for organizing puts our movements at risk…

    • owsspawg

      Very good points across the board, but i agree completely with the Five Star Movement statement. even if one believes that everyone in the movement, or NYC moverment or OWS would agree you still have to have a discussion. i have always believed that a specific workgroup can agree to make a satement or endorse support for a group, a moverment in the U.S. or anywere in the world. but it has to be specific. such as The member of the ? working of of occupy wall st or ows offer are solidarity and support for you movement, action or petition ect. it is only support from a specific group that was formed under Occupy Wall Street not the NYC Movement. which is the movement that carry’s the most weight when speaking on an international stage or around the nation.

  9. Nathan Schneider

    As a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence, I would just like to clarify that WNV has never claimed to be a “media resource” of Occupy or to speak for the movement, though we have often been proud to collaborate with Occupy media groups and were one of the first independent media organizations to cover the movement, starting before the first occupation began. Describing our organization as falling short of an “accountability ethic,” without any evidence, likely stems from making no attempt to inquire into how we are structured. In fact, we have a system of accountability that includes consensus-based decision-making among the editorial staff, financial and consultative accountability to our members, and moral accountability to our board of advisors, which include veterans of many movements over a series of decades.

    While we often provided supportive (and constructively critical) coverage of Occupy, and individuals in our organization have been participants (including myself), one reason we make sure to distinguish ourselves from the movement per se is precisely to ensure that we are accountable and sustainable in ways that we have noticed movement structures often are not.

    While I appreciate the mention as being among the “very best,” everything else you associate with our name here is seriously misleading to the point that I believe a correction is in order.

    • Charles Lenchner

      I see what you mean Nathan. Actually, I think we just have a misunderstanding. I know that WNV has an accountable structure – so why would I ask you about that? :)
      The point is that you aren’t accountable to OWS, and never were. WHICH IS FINE. I think you interpreted that factual statement as some kind of critique. It is not. The contrast would be with say, NYCGA.net.
      Only a fool would suggest or insist that any media or autonomous effort should find a way to be accountable to OWS in a real, formal sense. But I’ll happily argue with anyone who thinks OWS didn’t need it’s own media infrastructure controlled and operated by folks acting on behalf of OWS in the most formal way.
      All these groups: Occupy.com, Waging Nonviolence, Global Rev, the Occupy Wall Street Journal and Tidal – they had ‘accountability methods.’ Just not with regards to OWS itself.

      • Nathan Schneider

        I’m afraid your claim is much more serious. You are claming in that paragraph that we and the other publications are liable to go rouge at any time and that “there’s not anything anyone can do about it.” In fact, there have been times when people in our community have objected to our content and our organization, and we have developed processes to address those objections that incorporate our community and stakeholders. If you look at our membership list you’ll likely recognize a number of names from Occupy (as well as other movements). These are people and organizations which, by helping to make our organization possible, make us accountable to them. It is true, thank goodness, that we’re not directly accountable in any way to the General Assembly (if there were one), or to whoever happens to claim to be an Occupier. This is part of why we have continued publishing steadily long after NYCGA fell (mostly) silent. Our model of movement-centered journalism is one which we’ve developed specifically to ensure that we are both adequately independent from and also appropriately accountable to the movements we cover.

        Since we began to conceive of ourselves as an organization — which was well before Occupy began — we have tried to serve as a model for an accountable, sustainable, multi-generational, global approach to movement-centered media. We’re not perfect. And I can’t speak for the other organizations you include in this accusation. But you might find that our approach actually resonates very much with the admirable call you make in the piece for more accountable movement structures.

        As written, your claim is one that could do serious damage to good organizations — which would be especially unfortunate because, in the terms stated in the article, it is a misrepresentation.

        • Charles Lenchner

          I feel like you aren’t taking ‘yes’ for an answer….
          WNV could decide to stop supporting Occupy or even nonviolence if the individual or corporation that legally owns your domain name and other digital assets decided to. That’s the nature of ownership under capitalism. If you have actually incorporated – that’s fantastic.
          The structures you have in place are quite admirable and I’m a little jealous. If only OWS had taken such care with infrastructure and media assets it might have made a real difference.

  10. Jackie

    The GA & OWS generally was so organizationally dysfunctional that little accountability was possible. The reigning notion of autonomy allowed anyone to do whatever they wanted & claim to speak in the name of OWS. It was often, as even anarchist Mark Bray acknowledged, just liberal libertarianism. Given this situation it is understandable that Justine & Priscilla kept occupywallst.org, on which they have generally done a great job, autonomous.
    But they should be clear that they are only speaking for or raising money as the Occupywallst.org website collective, not occupy Wall Street (as they unfortunately did in publicizing their own slogan as that of the S17 actions, in naming their fundraising corporation the Occupy Solidarity Fund, in claiming Kasama Savant’s excellent response to the State of the Union speech was an official Occupy response & in Justine’s absurd claim to be the founder of OWS). They should be treated in a comradely fashion & valued positively in a for their actual contributions, but not allowed to portray themselves as Occupy. No one can. There is still a need to mobilize some of the Occupy network in a more functional & accountable mode of organization, but people seem too allergic to organization to do so. People seem content that many occupiers are still active in other ways, but more on not & in fact there has been a tragic loss of political influence & growth with most of the national Occupy movement disintegrating.