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Our Story | Occupied Stories

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Joseph Sutton

I made my way to the camp at Liberty Plaza, the place surrounded by police barricades, curious tourists, and occupiers singing, debating and informing others why they were there. Police told those of us on the outside to keep moving, that one cannot stand stationary on the sidewalk. But I wanted to circle around the park first before entering, anyway, to see what it was all about and to decide which of the few entrances available—thanks to the police blockades—would be strategically the best to take into this maze of activists and the disenfranchised.

Until this moment I had shrugged any time Occupy Wall Street was mentioned. I read about cases of police brutality online, but when the topic came up in conversation I didn’t really have much to say, hadn’t given any of it much thought. Discussions went like this: a friend making some criticism that didn’t in any way address what the protesters stood for (“They marched by my work and I smelled a waft of weed—and I’m like, ‘Really, guys? Is that what you’re doing with your time?’”) with me just nodding in agreement. But I wanted to see what it was all about for myself.

Inside the park, I was immediately impressed by the people’s ingenuity, how the park had become its own self-sufficient community: the kitchen preparing and passing out food to anyone who needed it, the library with hundreds of books donated (and where I dropped off a few of mine), the group of volunteers powering the tech hub on stationary bicycles. To forget the politics for a moment, politics I wasn’t sure yet if I understood clearly, the alternative society that Occupy Wall Street had set in motion in the park looked innovative, felt inspiring.

But that would be my only visit to the camp. Just shy of two weeks after my visit, I decided to check my Twitter feed a final time before going to bed. It was around 1:30 in the morning and I noticed a lot of buzz was going on about police at the park. The people were being evicted. So I sat in front of my computer for another two hours, refreshing Twitter in one tab and watching the action on Ustream in another.

Reports came in of a media blackout, that the NYPD was keeping reporters away. No one would know about this but from the reports on Twitter and the live streamers. And I was not simply fascinated by what I was watching, which deeply troubled me, but also by how I was observing it all: piecing together loose bits of the narrative from those there—happening right now!—and experiencing it all live. Alternating livestreams and Twitter feeds, the whole experience felt investigative; even though I sat in my bedroom in front of my laptop, I felt like I was there. Facilitating re-tweets and asking questions to get a better idea of what was happening, I felt like how a journalist might feel while happening upon a big scoop. As a student studying writing, and who dreamed of writing for the New York Times, that’s the one thing I’ve wanted to experience the most.

Shortly after, I went home to New Jersey for Thanksgiving. My mother, my uncle and I sat with my grandmother in her living room. Someone asked how my semester was, and I shared my most recent educational experience: after the eviction, I showed up to my Thursday night class of five students, and my professor told us he was deeply troubled by the events that had taken place at Liberty. He gave us two options: we could have our regular class, or we could all march across the Brooklyn Bridge with the occupiers and show some support. So we marched, which was my second time with the people of Occupy.

My family, who had never before seen any evidence of Occupy Wall Street first-hand, scoffed. They slung the standard criticisms: What are they doing? What are they even trying to achieve? I recounted to them everything I had seen on my visit to the park, all I had seen of the protesters’ exit from their home instigated by the NYPD. Do you feel comfortable, I asked them, living in a city where peaceful protesters are blinded in the middle of the night, caught off-guard and dumbstruck, beaten, have their property taken from them and destroyed—all this while the media is turned away so none of it gets reported to the public? News had spread that the federal government had given these tactics to the NYPD, and other local governments throughout the nation, over a conference call. Do you feel comfortable in a country that promises liberty and freedom but deals with social criticism this way?

My voice and lips wavered and quivered as they always do when I feel heated about something or distressed. Voicing these opinions aloud for the first time made it very apparent to myself that this was something I deeply believed in. It would be some time before I would give real thought to the economics behind Occupy Wall Street, but for now I was troubled beyond measure by a government that I saw for the first time as dangerously oppressive.

It would be months, though, before I would get involved: between finals, my part-time job, outside writing, and Occupy’s long struggle through the winter, there didn’t seem to be any good opportunity for me to jump into the action. But when spring came I decided enough was enough; I would attend a meeting and see where I could get involved. I made the mistake of jumping into the deep end by attending a large meeting in which participants were meant to speak their grievances on what they perceived to be imbalances of power within the community.

Of course, I had no grievance because I was not yet a part of the community. But because Occupy is built around everyone having a say, I was constantly asked throughout the six hour-long meeting how I felt about my humble position in relation with the community’s more networked individuals. “I don’t really have much to say,” I told the break-out group I sat with, in which words like “spokes council” and “affinity groups” and so many other terms I couldn’t fathom were tossed about like confetti. “But I am new and trying to become involved,” I said, “and don’t know where or how to begin.” Others had expressed similar feelings when they started out, that the community as it stood now was not beginner-friendly: a huge problem in power relations and tackling hierarchy in the community.

So they told me to join an affinity group, because once each of them had done so, everything else worked naturally.

I’m a writer, so I searched the NYCGA website for a group that would be relevant to my interests, a way I could become involved without it seeming like a chore in my already busy schedule. I found Occupied Stories which, after the media blackout that so scared me during the eviction, seemed to be an important resource for the movement. And maybe with that I could keep that satisfying feeling of being a journalist, or serving an important function in the media.

I met with John, Danny and Nicole at Liberty Plaza in March on Occupy’s six-month anniversary. Immediately my opinion—I, who at the time felt as though I knew nothing—was being asked for, and I was surprised by how quickly these people placed trust in me and regarded me as a friend. Soon enough we had inside jokes, which pretty much is proof that you’ve found your group.

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Danny Valdes

Like a lot of people, I had been waiting for something like occupy to happen for a long time. I’ve been an activist of one sort of another since I was in high school, but I was feeling very jaded until occupy happened. Those first days in Liberty Square left me feeling reinvigorated, like suddenly a whole new realm of what was possible had opened up. After I was arrested with 700 others on the Brooklyn Bridge 3 weeks after the movement started, I’ve never been able to stay away very long.

The same arrest is what lead me to Occupied Stories. John Dennehy and I shared a one-person jail cell with 3 others after being detained on the bridge. Sharing an experience as dehumanizing and absurd as jail builds a strong friendship. John and I stayed in touch and a month later he approached me at Liberty Plaza with his idea for Occupied Stories. I’ve been working on the site ever since.

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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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