It’s a crazy late, I’ve been at my computer for over 14 hrs and I’m tired as shit…but I know that if I don’t put my thoughts down now and finish this piece, I’m NOT gonna be able to sleep anyway. So away away I go, deep into the latest Occupy can of worms about livestreaming, and debates about transparency, security and privacy. I’m pretty emotional right now, but fortunately wrote most of this yesterday in a more thoughtful state.
Today has been a day full of conflict, anger, tears and laughter. My brain hurts from multitasking – meetings, conversations, actions, streams. Sometimes it hurts just from the mental coordination, others it’s because my heart is so deeply in it. How much I want things to change. How strongly I feel about issues like racism and misogyny and capitalism and hate, and how clear some things seem to me. If you’ve only met me, you probably think I’m harsh and bitchy. If you know me, you know I am that…and more. I hold real solidarity in the highest regard and will speak out and challenge shit I find hurtful and oppressive. I also love deeply, have endless patience with people who have good hearts and make a sincere effort for personal and social change, and sometimes am even able come around to seeing when I am the asshole in a situation. It’s with this love, honesty and fighting spirit that I write.
I want to start by saying that I have mad respect and appreciation for most of the streamers I’ve met through chatting/tweeting in streams, and while engaging in roundtable meetings. Despite my positive feelings about individuals , some of what I have to say may feel like an attack on all livestreamers. I ask everyone to read with an open mind and understand that I am just trying to expand the dialogue about how we ALL engage in Occupy and activism, and that livestreamers happen to be in a very visible, unique (and powerful) position.
I’d also like to acknowledge that emotions are running super-high on these issues. Recent debates and Twitter wars have been full of sarcasm, hostility, defensiveness. People are tired, hurt, disillusioned, frustrated and resentful. Comments and debate feel like personal attacks because activism IS intensely personal. We have ALL been working fucking hard for months, putting in countless hours, personal funds, sacrificing family time, losing sleep, jobs, homes, often relationships while confronting the police state. Many of us feel the need to defend our views because they reflect concrete concerns for the safety and wellbeing of our friends and comrades. Lots of shit has happened to cause mistrust of the livestream process. Streamers have been threatened. Occupiers have been threatened. Both have been disrespected (remembering of course that many are Streamers/Occupiers at the same time). People have been assaulted, arrested, incarcerated – in one case some feel strongly that this was connected to livestream footage being used as evidence against Occupiers. We know there is a least some level of Cointelpro happening, simply because there couldn’t NOT be. The whole attack on Tim Pool by a masked (then unmasked) man seemed a pretty obvious example of such tactics, in my opinion. Trust is low, emotions and righteousness high.
My hope is that if we try to remember we’re all humans who give a shit, while also being willing to accept critique and challenge, Occupy might avoid becoming paralyzed over differences and come to terms on this issue.The following are some observations and analyses I’d like to offer to the conversation. To be clear, I am not currently a streamer or physical Occupier due to limitations of disability and geography. My perspectives come from being involved in activism for over 20 years (including direct action) and from participating in online Occupy organising nearly full-time since Oct.
1. How the Cult of the individual has impacted Livestreaming: The insidious separation between “streamer” and “Occupy”
My personal feeling is that this disconnect has been a major underlying factor in creating resentment, division, anger, hurt and defiance. In what so many have joyfully embraced as a horizontal movement, streamers have become the accepted “faces of Occupy” to many. We know them by their first name, they give interviews and presentations about Occupy, they have massive followers on Twitter and personal websites and channels. Some have become celebrities and public figures whether they wished for it or not. People call them heroes, gush, and disproportionately credit the success of Occupy to livestreamers – minimizing the efforts of thousands of others off-camera in a dynamic system of occupying, organizing, communication and direct action. In less and less instances are there livestream TEAMS connected to an Occupy, funded through, and accountable to a GA or other group. Streamers are now (in most cases) freelance – “citizen journalists”, the “new media” – whether working closely with an Occupy or not. This disconnect (which 1st happened with Tim Pool, and at the time didn’t seem so problematic to most) has brought to the surface questions of power and privilege in both the framing of the message, and the opportunity to participate in livestreaming.
In some instances, the separation has been functional and worked well. Ethical questions remain, however, about whether promoting individual streamers or activists is antithetical to Occupy. I raise this here not as an attack on streamers, but as a fundamental question for Occupy, in the USA in particular where the freelance phenomenon is most prevalent. Is fundraising for individuals via WePay and public donations diverting money from community Occupy projects (direct action, feeding homeless folks etc)? Or does the independent fundraising take pressure OFF local Occupies to maintain a livestream? Streamers (whether they identify as Occupiers or not) work CRAZY hard and put themselves in harm’s way to show the world what is happening. I feel they should be appreciated and thanked for their contributions. But the question arises – are their contributions any more important than OTHER activists/Occupiers who work tirelessly every day, and many who also put their bodies on the line?
Shifting to a freelance model has afforded a small group of people the opportunity to use their own funds, as well as donations to buy equipment (which they then own), travel cross country and internationally, to stream,learn and skill share with each other. None of these things are inherently negative. It’s been through the motivation and dedication of numerous people deciding to stream that many of us have been able to witness first hand the work of Occupy around the world. My question is: Who is being left out? Who cannot access these opportunities? Wasn’t the idea at one time to teach everybody to stream, so people could participate locally and be empowered to witness and frame their own Occupy narrative? In a freelance individual system we leave out folks who cannot afford their own tech and/or who are not fundraising savvy. Unfortunately, these are often the voices/perspectives that are the most marginalised to begin with. In a freelance system without equal access, we also end up concentrating the power of livestreaming/media in a small number of hands which almost always proves to be problematic.
What’s most concerning to me is that while we clearly want as many people, views and perspectives as possible involved in livestreaming, there is no ethical code or accountability structure. Some people see themselves as journalists – whether they have any knowledge, understanding or commitment to journalistic ethics or not. (Though many do) Some Occupiers and streamers believe anyone recording anything amounts to free speech, with no analysis of power. In some cases, livestreamers are not guided by, or accountable to, a GA or another Occupy group. So, not only is access to livestreaming somewhat privileged, anyone with that smart phone and financial support can go into any community (whether invited/welcomed or not) and proclaim themselves a citizen journalist, uniquely equipped to get the real story. This is not only privileged access to media creation, but in some cases an extension of imperialism, racism and colonization in controlling the narrative. Also disturbing are reports of individuals planning to secretly film communities and Occupy events. Clearly, there are all kinds of fucked up power relations at work here. This goes far beyond any single streamer or Occupier imo, we all have a responsibility to think about our relationship to a community , as well as the impact of our presence and actions. I think we all need to be able to self-reflect, and we also need to be able to call bullshit.
2. Streamers, Occupiers, Occustreamers and more
Another matter causing confusion, friction and huge mistrust between folks on each side of the transparency debate is that. *not all livestreamers are the same*. Many are also Occupiers themselves who see their role as being there to support and protect activists, and show the world what is happening – live. Others envision their role to be that of an objective, neutral, outside observer. (Which I don’t see as entirely possible since filming always involves a degree of subjectivity) Regardless, folks are expecting the same principles of solidarity and alliance from ALL streamers who may or may not be similarly politically motivated. On the flipside some non-Occupy livestreamers expect to be treated differently than other media, be given free rein to film, participate, question and access Occupy resources and intel.
Personally, I’m not comfortable unquestioningly supporting anyone – livestreamer or not. Not all streamers have their shit together politically imo – sometimes causing harm and replicating oppressive relationships – while some are some of the most kickass activists I’ve met. I base my own opinion and level of trust based upon their individual actions and choices when filming, and the message they each choose to communicate. Point is, lets not judge all streamers as one, and streamers, don’t expect that acceptance or criticism of one, means acceptance or criticism of all. Some of us will have significant political disagreements, and some of us simply wont like each other. Occupiers – if you have a hate on for all streamers and zero trust, they might not be there when we need them the most. Streamers – if you blindly support each other as a group, your credibility is affected and people lose trust.
3. Transparency, Security, Privacy and Current Surveillance State
The best piece I’ve seen so far on this discussion/debate is from Adam Rothstein: Transparency vs. Security: The Two-Headed Beast
Once a camera is placed between people, the power dynamics DO change. We are all acclimated to some extent, to the current surveillance state. We are constantly on camera in urban areas, walking, at bank machines, driving a vehicle, at the 7-11. In some ways we’ve gotten used to it and this fact has become normalised. I’ve heard the argument from a streamer that cameras are everywhere, so they should be able to stream. I understand that argument, on the surface. But it also presumes that govt/private surveillance is acceptable to begin with. A similar argument is saying it’s legal to record, as if law implies right – often then becoming a competition of rights within an already oppressive system.
The transparency debate has been particularly interesting to me in that people seem entrenched in their positions and have been retreating to absolutes. “Everything and anything can be filmed, we are being transparent” vs. “Don’t film anything because it’s not the public (or govt’s) business.” Personally, I see how livestreams are important and useful to film actions, events and cops in particular. I also see the need for discretion, and respect for privacy. With regard to streaming illegal activities @roamingradical said it pretty concisely the other night on Twitter “yo, streamers. please don’t record ppl breaking laws. yo, ppl breaking laws. please look a-fucking-round before you do it. #problemsolved.” Fact is, people *choose* what to stream, how, when and why – whether they are conscious of it or not. Just like MSM, streamers get to decide what is most important/relevant to film, what to leave out, and what narrative they are going to participate in and create. Intention and perspective cannot be removed from that choice. There is no single reality/fact/truth, just the ability of a participant (incl witnesses) to interpret, frame, describe and assign meaning to what is being filmed. This is done even without commentary – simply by pointing a camera.
A much less talked about aspect of transparency is accountability. To whom are we accountable, how and why? Somewhere along the way, the value of transparency in gov’t became applicable to Occupy. At first glance it makes sense – let’s be exactly what the govt is NOT. Let’s have open communication, accountability through GA’s, integrity and honesty. And it worked for awhile. Kinda. But even then the meaning/discussion was about being transparent and accountable to each other thru a governance process. Transparency meant people being able to share knowledge, get involved, make decisions collectively, avoiding hierarchy and conflicts of interest. Finances were to be open, minutes of meetings available. The debate about transparency meaning “all people/activities could be filmed at all times.” was only starting. Within the conversations I was involved in at the time, the question first came up with regards to direct action planning and secret meetings. Should people be able to plan occupations and actions outside of the GA? How can successful actions happen if cops know our every move? Should we stream the actual (breaking?) entering into a building for occupiers to see first hand? Tough questions that only seemed to get more contentious when D/A included squatting, barricading, fires to dispel gas, and black bloc tactics. As physical camps were raided and GA’s became (seemingly) less integral to organising actions, transparency quickly became about legality, cops, security and risk, with folks strongly divided. Occupies were no longer working so much in an accountability structure of transparency as a legal one. Real life consequences of arrest, incarceration, trumped up charges and criminalisation of protest were brought to the forefront and how some occupiers were disproportionately at risk if identified on film. (People with criminal records/warrants, undocumented immigrants, high profile activists and runaways, for example). That bizarre incident of someone in a black mask attacking Tim Pool in NYC happened and many started blaming “the anarchists”. It became “You’re either with the streamers or your against us”, and “You’re either with the anarchists, or your with the cops”. And folks are still throwing daggers each way because in debating transparency (and tactics, they’ve pretty much been joined together in this) we are talking about things like privilege, risk, fear, and intense racism and repression within a police state. I think many Occupiers are wondering how transparency without accountability is any different from surveillance.
A discussion of transparency vs security (and privacy) in such a police state, also needs to acknowledge and consider that many marginalized communities and neighbourhoods are constantly surveilled and may not welcome cameras, whether MSM or livestream. My view is that transparency should not always take precedence over privacy, and in some cases safety. An example of the (potentially) problematic nature of “anyone streaming anywhere” happened yesterday as activists occupied the Woodlawn Mental Health Centre in Chicago. Overall it was a brilliant action, and I commend the occupiers (including clients and doctors) on their tremendous heart and resolve. When I initially linked to the inside stream however, it was not made explicitly clear whether or not the people inside had given permission to film, knew they were being livestreamed or were involved in the organising. Only after asking the question repeatedly and engaging in some intense, emotional back and forth in the Ustream did I get some confirmation that these folks had indeed given permission to film. When I first raised the question, I was shocked how it was brushed off by some saying “well they see the camera” and “it’s a public building”. It struck me just how far we had moved from the notion of valuing dignity and privacy to a demand of right-to-know. Just because something is legal, doesn’t make it ethical. Recipients of mental health services are some of the most marginalised people in our society – often homeless or living in poverty, frequently dismissed, scorned, feared and at the mercy of the state for essential health programs. Many folks are tracked, restricted, frequently assaulted and arrested, and in some cases forcefully medicated. Their rights to privacy, dignity and security of person are violated as a matter of course. That is NOT to say people with mental illness do not have important things to share, the ability to organise, or the power to Occupy and fight back. The deep concern for me in this situation was about privacy, informed consent, and subjectivity/control of the narrative. Too often activist groups have gone into communities claiming to know “what’s best” for that community and how to achieve it, effectively objectifying and other-ing a group and denying their experience, agency and right to tell the story in their way.
I also think we need to realise that in a racist police state non-residents coming into a community and filming may be met with suspicion or hostility – especially since actions often bring the police. Filming folks on the street without their permission may incite anger since privacy is routinely denied to those who are poor or homeless. (Think about it – we’re in their living room) These reactions should are to be expected as normal responses in our fucked up society. None of this means don’t livestream, but that all of our activities (incl direct action, occupations, streams, marches) should consider the needs of those most at risk of direct harm as a result of our methods and choices. I would also suggest that if a streamer is not prepared to be challenged by individuals being filmed, that they may want to consider streaming primarily non direct-action events. I believe that we should ALWAYS be looking out for each other and have each others backs, preferably working in teams or affinity groups during actions, for safety. Still, protest and streaming in public inherently involves risk, I think we have a responsibility to be aware our own comfort levels with confrontation and quickly changing circumstances , and participate accordingly.
4. Masks, Tactics and Alliances
This discussion belongs in the debate on transparency because it’s the clearest example of how we often frame “transparency” according to our ethics and politics of the moment. So much of this discussion has been centred around concerns of being recorded and identified on livestreams for legal and political reasons. There have reportedly been threats made to livestreamers by masked individuals, creating a hostile and apprehensive climate. Some folks believe that if you’re going to participate in an action, you should be “transparent” and show your face, so categorically do not accept or respect masked tactics. They could be cops! (So could that hipster over there…oh wait) They are anarchists! (actually no, that one WAS a cop…) There has been an unfortunate (and I would wager calculated) cultivation of mistrust for masked activists and anonymous tactics in many Occupies. Transparency has also come to equate “legal” for a vocal few in this movement. I’ve seen statements of folks who think any illegal activity is morally wrong, and should be filmed. These proponents also believe all protest should occur within the permits and confines of the current laws. Others have said they heard that if they saw illegal activity and didn’t film it they are then at risk of being charged with conspiracy. This threat, in particular, is a known tactic to frighten both livestreamers and activists away from political organising. Again, I suggest we all participate in ways that we are comfortable, knowing the risks to ourselves AND others.
Something that’s really ironic to me is the disconnect between the incredible popularity and respect people have for Anonymous who engage in similar tactics, and the vilification of direct action approaches involving masks, black bloc, or monkeywrenching. Both strategically employ anonymity, secrecy, in some cases affinity groups, and at times, technically illegal activity. All with the goal of disruption-as-social change. I saw a tweet the other night that said something like “if you mess with a streamer, u mess with a hive”, and I thought. Hmmm.. that’s weird coming from an Anon. I sensed that blind allegiance “all streamers are one” idea again. That regardless of their choices and conduct, streamers needs/feelings/views/safety override those of another Occupier/activist/citizen – even when it’s with regards to anonymity, a basic premise of Anon. Obviously, I DO NOT think its OK for livestreamers or other Occupiers to be threatened or assaulted, but I also think streamers need to try and respect the needs of others, and to expect anger and resistance when they do not. I’ve noticed that most streamers are paying attention to this shifting need and have been responding, using creative strategies and quick thinking to adjust camera angles, and action plans. And I applaud and thank them for that.
Occupy has been successful thus far because of the hard work, fearlessness, and amazing contributions of physical and online occupiers, livestreamers, folks doing communications support, and community members sharing resources of money, food, skills, love and hope. Political organising has ALWAYS involved controversy and arguments over tactics, politics and priorities and I don’t see that changing. This basic tendency toward conflict will also continue to be exploited by the gov’t, corporations and Cointelpro to create divisions and mistrust. My belief /hope is if we can challenge ourselves and each other with real honesty, humility and respect we will be one step closer to developing strategies for real liberation for all.