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John Dennehy | Occupied Stories

Categorized | Stories

John Dennehy


When I was 19 I threw my television out the window. I dragged the cracked screen back inside my college apartment, placed it in the living room and scrawled ‘Kill your TV’ across the glass. I was majoring in Communications with a media emphasis and was increasingly in radical opposition to the modern media apparatus. I learned that television was not free; that when you watch, the product being sold is the mind of the consumer (to the advertisers who fund the media, mostly large corporations)—and I was not okay with that.

I joined a group of concerned citizens already organizing and helped them launch the Hartford Independent Media Center (HIMC) a node on the global Independent Media Center (IMC) network. With the support of some sympathetic faculty at my university I was able to spend the next three years mixing academics and activism. My internship, independent study and many of my research papers revolved around the IMC movement. The professor who taught my ‘Media Literacy’ class helped a group of us create a workshop to export to other schools in the area and encourage people to think critically about media consumption.

I was also a pacifist and in the wake of September 11th, just as I began a mission to alter the media landscape I also sought to try to stop a war and the militarization of my home. I was young and naïve. When we went to war in Iraq I was profoundly disappointed in my country, and when we re-elected the president who led us there, I gave up. I left.

I spent five years in the developing world, mostly South America. I joined and was inspired by social movements in Ecuador but never saw any reason to believe it would be worth trying to change anything in my birth nation again, not even after I moved to New York in 2010. Then Occupy Wall Street began.

I stopped by on the first day out of curiosity rather than hope, and over the next two weeks the movement began to break down my American apathy. On October 1st I believed again.

When I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge there was no doubt in my mind that this was a movement capable of radically changing the national and global power dynamic. On the bridge, trapped in a tightening police net and waiting for arrest, Nicole Rose and I shared our first kiss. That night in jail, I shared a cell with Danny Valdes. Both Nicole and Danny would join the Occupied Stories project early on and play large roles throughout. So it’s a fun side note that in a very real way the mass arrest helped the project grow.

After my arrest I spent much of my free time at Liberty Plaza and slept there on weekends. It really felt like the whole world was about to turn over that October, and everyone else there felt it too. We shared stories of all the incredible actions happening and fed off each other’s energy. I barely had time to read the news those days, but each time I did I was struck by the dichotomy between the reality on the ground and media reports. In the mainstream press the story was mostly told from the point of view of paid professionals who did not actually witness what they were reporting on. The alternative press was better but it still used standard journalistic concepts meant to give it an air of unquestioning objectivity. The media has been broken for some time, but it was never as obvious as when watching coverage of Occupy Wall Street that quoted the police commissioner more than the people who were actually in the streets.

I had toyed with the concept of creating a user generated, first-person media platform loosely based on the IMC movement since college but it was never more than a fleeting thought. Indymedia was an amazing concept and while I credit it with changing the dynamics of media to make it appear (but not actually be) more inclusive it never spread beyond a base of activists.

The Occupied Stories project borrows heavily from the IMC movement with some important tweaks. First, it is far more focused and about one subject only, in this case #occupy. Second, it is only written in the first-person.  Writing in the first-person is an important tool, both to make it more inclusive and encourage untrained people to write but also to smash the perception of objectivity. Everything is a point of view and the reader naturally understands that when they read first-person and so long as everything is a point of view, we should hear about it from the people who were actually there.

With a core idea of ‘first-person user generated news about #occupy” in mind in mid-October I began looking for a partner to handle the technical aspects, as I’m somewhat of a Luddite. I stumbled upon Bryan Milano, an old friend from High School who had recently registered a cache of domains with an ambition to generate income and was willing to help me set up the technical side of things (we actually went with the same format HIMC used for their web project).  On October 31st we finalized the layout and posted the first story. A week later, while putting up flyers in Liberty Plaza, Danny expressed interest and Nicole, Danny and I had one of those wonderful conversations that were so common in the park those days and they both decided to join the project. Nicole and Danny gave a big boast and Byran ceded the technical aspects to these equally capable partners.

We did well at first then over the winter, as the movement slowed so did the project. But this spring and summer Occupied Stories has grown by leaps and bounds and added a number of new volunteers; and I feel like a naïve 19 year old again sometimes. I want to radically change how we create and consume media and for the first time in a long time, I believe that it’s possible.

This is just the beginning.


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