Occupy: Anonymity or Transparency?

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It often seems that Occupy is all about transparency, that there is a fixation on the image through documenting every action from every conceivable angle and spreading the media as far as possible. Tim Pool, who I will discuss later and has been called "the eyes of the movement", states "transparency our principle of solidarity." But there is clearly another position within the movement, one that rejects pure transparency and holds onto the value of anonymity.

I want to distinguish these two positions within the Occupy movement: (1) those who most value transparency and (2) those who most value anonymity.

It is easy to make the case that Occupy is centrally about transparency. The value of livestreams from protests has even drawn the attention of The New York Times business section. Think of all those police brutality videos that have gone viral from the Occupy movement. In the footage, the number of cameras focused on the action from every conceivable angle is almost as striking as the police actions. Flashes go off and arms struggle to hold video-enabled phones high; all while the crowd appropriately screams that "the whole world is watching."

That which happens at the general assemblies in the parks and the protests in the streets easily flows online to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Livestream, Ustream, YouTube and Flickr. Occupiers have been so successful at making various actions and events visible that there is even a debate about whether images of police confrontation have gained too much publicity, possibly obscuring the income-equality message with anti-police resentment.

Indeed, much of what has been written about Occupy focuses on this newfound transparency, especially as we attempt to grasp the explosive rise of Livestream and Ustream as big new technologies of protest transparency.

The first star of this new technology is Tim Pool. Armed mostly with just a smartphone, he brought many of us into the Zuccotti Park for 21 consecutive hours the night of and day after New York City cleared Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park. I witnessed Pool's stream climb over 25,000 viewers as he was rebroadcasted on the websites of Time and Al Jazeera. Some watching were inspired to come to the park; some of them finding him and providing food and batteries to keep the stream going.

But Pool's Livestream also captures what many who have attended Occupy actions already know: that there are many who do not so openly embrace this transparency. We know that this same transparent visibility can be used to repress individuals. Certainly, the police apparatus is using similar technologies of transparency to surveil the movement. Individual protesters might be identified and subsequently arrested, as we saw with the UK Riots earlier this year.

The debate comes to a head in this tense exchange between Pool and other Occupy protesters:

Go to about the 28:25 mark in this clip pulled from Pool's live stream from November 15th around 4am. Pool is walking down a street near a major crowd at the intersection of Pine and Broadway in Manhattan when a small sub-group of protesters get angry at Pool for filming them. These protesters believe that if they ask not to be filmed, Pool should honor that request. Pool responds that it is a public street and he has the right to record.

The exchange becomes heated. "Keep them off camera or you lose your fucking camera!" one says. Another protester yells at Pool, saying "Get the fuck out of here; you have no respect." Pool responds by asking them to stop advancing on him and asks, "isn't transparency our principle of solidarity, from day one?" He goes on to say "that if you break that, you should not be a part of this movement."

Pool argues, "when you have anarchists draining the air on police vehicles and they say don't film me because I'm breaking the law, I'm going to film them." Another protester responds, "Well, I think that is really fucked." Pool responds, "Everyone deserves to know the truth. Information is free. End of story. Transparency is what brings me here." The protester responds, "I also think that people's personal safety is really important."

This clip is important for a number of reasons. It features the new protest technology (live streaming) as well as its biggest current star (Tim Pool). Most importantly, it features members of the same protest action literally hiding from each other. They are aggressively debating the true principles of the movement and both sides want the other to go away.

Pool said of the exchange, "When people were vandalizing police property, which really had no strategic value whatsoever, and then attacked me for it, it was very obvious they were not part of Occupy Wall Street, and most likely had their own political motives and needed to be documented."

These last words, that these people "needed to be documented," demonstrate the commitment to transparency: if it happens in public, it needs to be captured, recorded, documented and disseminated. (However, Pool is not so radical to support enforced transparency on the personal lives of individuals. As he says elsewhere, "personal privacy, public transparency.")

Opposed to Pool and the absolute authority of transparency are those who support more anonymity. At Occupy actions there certainly are protesters who demand, sometimes angrily, for cameras to be moved away. This is especially obvious to me as I usually have a camera in-hand when I've been at these events. There is a minority of protesters who wear scarfs or masks over their faces, afraid that authorities will identify them, perhaps using increasingly sophisticated video surveillance and face-recognition technologies. See these unofficial protest instructions handed out at Occupy Oakland advising people to cover their faces. Further, there is a contingent in the multi-faceted Occupy movement that is skeptical of our modern economy of transparency, an economy that most often benefits private companies in the name of bigger profits for companies or easier surveillance for governments.

This is the story told less often, which is unsurprising given that those who purposefully want to remain anonymous would be less visible for analysis about the movement. While Tim Pool preaches transparency, there are fewer voices that would or could visibly preach invisibility. Instead, those who want to be anonymous within the movement purposefully remain in the dark.

The transparency folks are certainly in the majority of the Occupy movement and have good reason to be skeptical of protest anonymity. Zeynep Tufekci has been especially eloquent describing the importance of not wearing masks and using real names on Facebook during protests and uprisings. Those wearing masks are easier to disrupt and provoke and are more quick to become violent and destructive. That Occupy actions involve mostly unmasked protesters makes the movement look less fringe and more like "us" (versus the "them" of Wall Street). A movement without masks is a movement of concerned citizens instead of anarchist rebels.

But some at Occupy actions do cover their faces and demand to not be photographed and the video above demonstrates how heated this debate is. Occupiers feelings about transparency and anonymity -- as principles and tactics -- are much more complicated than most reporting has indicated.

Image: Reuters.

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Nathan Jurgenson is a social theorist of media. He's working on a dissertation in sociology at the University of Maryland on self-documentation and social media.

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