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.