From the very beginning, supporters of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) have touted its decentralized nature as one of its greatest strengths. The opponents of a political movement commonly attempt to discredit them by pointing to outside powerful interests secretly pulling strings, thereby jeopardizing its grassroots legitimacy. We saw this with the Tea Party, whose opponents very early on argued that it was backed by corporate entities like Fox News and the Koch brothers.
Though similar claims have been made about Occupy Wall Street — including attempts to tie it to conservative bogeyman George Soros — its reputation as a leaderless movement has mostly remained untarnished. People tend to look down on political organizations that are little more than astroturf, and Occupy Wall Street is effectively able to wear the banner of populist outrage.
One Big Obstacle: Winter
But though the decentralized structure of OWS has helped its public perception, its sluggish decision-making has made it ill-prepared for one major obstacle: winter. As the protests stretch on into December, many of the northern locations will be plunged into below-freezing temperatures. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already predicted OWS will peter out with winter, and unless the protesters adequately prepare for the next few months, the cold will likely pose a significant challenge. Yet because of an inefficient mass-voting system, it’s difficult for any particular encampment to make the kind of executive decisions needed to purchase the expensive supplies that would shield protesters from the chill.
Jane Hamsher initially addressed this problem by purchasing supplies out of her own pocket. Hamsher, founder of the popular progressive blog Firedoglake, had been attending Occupy DC protests when she realized that the protesters didn’t seem to have a contingency plan in place.
“We were asking them, ‘What do you need? Are you prepared to weatherize? Are you really going to get through the winter?’” she told me in a recent phone interview. “Because we don’t want to see this die, and nobody was asking how these people are going to get through the next three to four months. So we just started to do it ourselves.”
Hamsher’s Firedoglake has been a longtime fixture in the progressive blogosphere, and along with other left-of-center blogs has been a significant source in supporting and promoting OWS. Often referred to as the netroots, a term coined by MyDD founder Jerome Armstrong for websites that engage in political activism, these bloggers have sought to influence elections and political causes since before 2004, when Daily Kos raised $500,000 for 15 Democratic congressional candidates. They played a large role in electing Ned Lamont in the 2006 Massachusetts Democratic primary and, more recently, netroots bloggers were a major force behind the Wisconsin collective bargaining protests, helping to organize the subsequent recall elections. Unsurprisingly, many of them have latched onto OWS, promoting specific protest locations and actively fundraising for the movement.
Centralized Effort for Gear
Hamsher wanted to scale her efforts to purchase winter gear for the protesters. Kevin Gosztola, another Firedoglake blogger, had been covering OWS since almost the beginning and was embarking on a nationwide trip to cover the movement in various cities.
“I thought as long as we’re sending Kevin on this tour, let’s see if we can raise money for him to buy things,” she said. “Everywhere we went, there were people who needed all kinds of supplies, not just warm clothes, but if they’re going to get through this thing, they needed serious polar gear. And we realized that we could do this on a centralized basis more efficiently than we could do retail one at a time.”
So on October 21, Firedoglake introduced the #OccupySupply Fund. Readers were encouraged to donate, and the bloggers would use those donations to first purchase and then deliver gear to the various cities. On November 3, Hamsher announced that the first shipment — “500 pairs of UFCW union-made socks made to withstand -40 degree weather” — would be sent out. To date, more than $83,000 has been raised, and Hamsher told me most of it came from small donors. All of the materials, she said, were U.S.A. union-made, no small feat given how many textile mills have been shut down. The average price for an article of clothing? $8.40.
I asked Hamsher why it was better for the bloggers to organize the purchase of winter gear rather than the protesters themselves.
“When you’re sitting in front of a computer all day long there are things you can do much faster than people who are on the ground,” she replied. “Everybody has their job, and that’s one thing we can do in addition to covering them that I think can be really valuable.”
Keeping the Story Alive
Chris Bowers, co-founder of the netroots blog Open Left and current campaign director for Daily Kos, told me that his work around OWS has mainly focused on driving people to the locations.
“We had over 300,000 page views on a list of Occupy Wall Street events, and over 25,000 pledges of people pledging to attend events,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m sure the number of people who went to the events who used our list are much larger than that. It’s entirely possible that it’s the largest source driving people to events of any website around.”
Daily Kos is known, in part, for its active diarists’ community, and Bowers estimated that several hundred diarists have contributed on-the-ground reporting from various OWS locations. So far, there are about 6,000 posts that use the OWS tag, several of which have gone viral. One such post, an open letter to an OWS opponent, has received 144,000 Likes on Facebook. Bowers said it was one of Daily Kos’ most viral posts ever.
I asked Bowers to assess how much the netroots blogosphere is influencing OWS.
“It has largely helped keep the story alive in addition to driving it in the first place,” he replied. “It’s made the content viral, which helped get coverage in the mainstream media.”
Hamsher, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure the progressive blogosphere was influencing the movement at all.
“I think we’re probably more influenced by them,” she said, laughing. “The liberal blogosphere isn’t really cohesive anymore, and it’s been really tied at the hips with the Democratic party too — afraid to oppose very non-progressive agendas coming out of the administration, and I think Occupy Wall Street has given them the courage to do that in many cases.”