The DIY Personal-Interest Stories from the Occupy Movement

The Occupy movement may not have figureheads, but it is not faceless


Who are the leaders of the Occupy movement? Where is its Martin Luther King Jr. or its Stokely Carmichael? For some journalists, the questions has been, who are they, and when can I profile them? As The New York Times's public editor wrote on Saturday:

I polled a group of journalism educators on the question of how The Times should direct its coverage henceforth. Not all agreed on this, but most said it was important to understand who the leaders were and what demographics they represented. The point is: Who is Occupy Wall Street?

"Leadership tells you a lot about a movement," Jerry Ceppos, journalism dean at Louisiana State University and formerly executive editor of The San Jose Mercury News, wrote in an e-mail. "But I can't cite the name of a single Occupy Wall Street leader. I know some members say the groups are 'leaderless.' But I have trouble believing this is an entirely organic movement that grew without a leader. I'd push hard to see if there are leaders and to profile them."

Search they may, but for now, Occupy is, at least in comparison with other social movements, relatively leaderless -- and intentionally so. As the Statement of Autonomy on the New York General Assembly explains, "Occupy Wall Street is a people's movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people." In Denver, the movement's general assembly voted to make a border collie/cattle-dog mix the leader of the occupation.

But although the Occupy movement may be leaderless, it is not faceless.

That's because, through social media, the personal stories of a few of the occupiers have emerged and struck a chord. The mass may be a mass, but it's not without definition.

Probably the chief example of this is a tragic one: Scott Olsen, the Iraq War veteran turned protester who was seriously injured by police trying to clear the Occupy Oakland protest on October 25th. Video footage of the incident spread over rapidly on Facebook, Twitter, and via email. Within 24 hours of Olsen's injury, a Facebook group, We Are All Scott Olsen, sprung up. It now has more than 10,000 "likes." A statement of support for Olsen was shared on more than 50,000 Facebook profiles. 

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Earlier this week, Olsen himself put up a moving post about his recovery on Google+, with a picture showing him with a still-noticeable abrasion above his left eye. He wrote, "I'm feeling a lot better, with a long road in front of me. After my freedom of speech was quite literally taken from me, my speech is coming back but I've got a lot of work to do with rehab. Thank you for all your support, it has meant the world to me. You'll be hearing more from me in the near future and soon enough we'll see you in our streets!" The first commenter asked whether she could reshare the post, to which Olsen responded, "I posted it public for a reason :) go ahead."

Another story that has given a face to the movement is a happier one: The video of Beezy Douglas proposing to his longtime girlfriend Deb Zep at the Occupy Wall Street camp. Douglas gets down on one knee and asks Zep, "Will you occupy my life?" (She says yes.) More than 100,000 people have watched the video on YouTube.

The stories that gain traction on social media aren't the most polished or even the most pointed (the political message of two people getting engaged is a bit limited), but they are real; they feel authentic, and social media has a good nose for finding what feels authentic and bringing it to light. Social movements need personal-interest stories to thrive and inspire, and the Occupy movement is not unique in having them. But how these stories were observed and how they spread are particular to our time and our tools.

These two glimpses into the Occupy movement couldn't be more different: one is violent, the other joyous. But together they help us see into a movement without the "in" that leaders can provide. 

Image: bzdug/YouTube.