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Occupy everywhere: From Arab Spring to American Spring

Occupy everywhere: From Arab Spring to American Spring

In this series of posts Phoebe Fletcher from the University of Auckland’s Film, Television and Media Studies Department will explain some of the issues around the phenomenal growth of the Occupy movement, what it means for society and whether this represents a shift in the modes of protest. In this first post, Fletcher looks at the origins of the movement – which are more complex than many might assume.

For many, the Occupy movements have been indecipherable. Beginning with just a few people who were cast as ragtag hippies, the movement has gone on to have phenomenal success. Preceded by an Occupy Dataran in Kuala Lumpur in July, an event that garnered little attention from the international media, the protests in the US began on Wall Street on September 17th and grew at a phenomenal rate. Just three weeks later, a total of 95 cities were Occupying across 82 countries. To date, there have been protests in too many countries to list, but some interesting ones include Jakarta, Taipei, Tokyo, Serbia, and Bosnia. So how is it that the Occupy movement has been so successful internationally, yet so difficult for people to interpret? People have sat around in groups talking for centuries, but Occupy is one of the first truly global movements. The truth is that to explain why the protests have been so successful is a little like getting to the fifth season of Lost and expecting a plot summary in 500 words – you have to have been watching the signs to understand why and how it has developed in this way.

At the Davos World Economic Forum in 2005, Bill Gates was asked what he expected would be the result of the growth of the internet. He responded that he expected the uptake eventually of a broader, transnational movement of human rights. The notion that the internet might be a force for human rights is nothing new. The philosopher Jacques Derrida, for example, speculated that it would be difficult for a totalitarian regime to survive the introduction of the telephone. New modes of networking provide new forms of organizing for citizens and new challenges for states in controlling this mobilization. Yet technologies in themselves do not necessarily translate to social mobilization: the role of text messaging and Facebook in creating flash mob teenage parties in New Zealand is an example of how the form these will take can be unpredictable. Yet, in the case of Occupy, understanding the influence of technology is critical.

The Occupy America protests were the brainchild of Toronto-based magazine Adbusters and renegade hacker group Anonymous.  Drawing from the Spanish encampadas, Tahrir Square and Occupy Dataran, the groups announced a call for Americans to Occupy Wall St. At the beginning of September, Anonymous announced via a Youtube video that this would be the first phase in a global non-violent war which would last till December. The aims, they said, would be to generate global occupations, to raise awareness of Anonymous and its work, and to draw attention to any human rights abuses that people saw around the world.  Such aims seemed stupendously high for a group of loosely organized and shadowy hackers who had sprouted from humble beginnings in 2003 where they were known for stunts such as forming swastikas in online games, taking out Scientology websites and Operation Titstorm, where they engaged in DDoS (direct denial of service) attacks on the Australian Government’s website and porn-bombing their email over the Australian censorship of women with small breasts and female ejaculation.

However, the group had come of age during Iran’s 2009 so-called ‘Green Revolution’ or ‘Twitter Revolution’, and had played an active role along with hacker groups such as Telecomix and the Libyan Electronic Freedom Army in the Arab Spring, and were able to apply these lessons in a way that translated to America. While such initiatives online do not necessarily lead to masses of people on the street, the low internet penetration of 24.5% in Iran in 2009 demonstrated the power that middle class, educated citizens could have online. With the rise in ownership of mobile phones with cameras, images of violence could be quickly made into iconic images that could circulate online. The growth of citizen journalism via Twitter and other platforms meant that journalists could now bypass state sources and talk to activists online. These activists, as native citizens, were able to get into places that journalists could not, providing media fuel to the protests. For example, the Kasr Al Nile bridge protests in Cairo filmed by a young woman on her phone were responsible for mobilizing thousands more Egyptians out onto the streets.

The Occupy protests would be based on notions of non-violence, and organized in a way that anticipated a heavy state response based on the lessons of the Arab Spring in generating media and iconic images. In the early days of the protests, Youtube pamphlets from Tahrir Square translated from Arabic into English were circulated around social networking sites on how to resist non-violently (this would extend later on into websites demonstrating how to teach yourself to escape from zip-tie cuffs at home and Android applications on US law if you are arrested). 

The involvement of Anonymous also allowed for the incorporation of symbols that already had a wide degree of international currency.  Anonymous draws part of its inspiration for internet and citizen freedom from the comic book series V for Vendetta, which is loosely based on the story of Guy Fawkes set in a 1984-styled Britain where citizens are unable to express their opinions freely. The final scene of the 2006 movie remake shows a nation of people wearing the V mask, defiant in expressing their opinion.  These symbols were already widely incorporated into iconic images of the Arab Spring, and are also present in the mass movements occurring in Latin America right now, where Anonymous has already hacked into several governments.

The protestors were right in anticipating a heavy police response that would provide the iconic images to fuel the protests further. New York policing has a history of heavy response to left-wing protests: one only has to look at the way protestors were treated during the Republican Convention of 2004 to see that the NYPD would take the bait.  And they did, first with the pepper spray incident and then the 750 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.  And so an international movement was born. 

For more from Phoebe Fletcher, check out here blog: blog is www.tumeke.blogspot.com