Rise of the Livestreamer: Telling the Truth About Occupy in Real Time

The first Occupy camp I went to was in Los Angeles at City Hall. On the corner there were communists standing next to Ron Paul supporters next to vegan activists next to those LaRouche people (who always seem to show up) — hanging out with some union guys all carrying signs saying they were the 99 percent. Yes, it sounds like the set-up to a political joke. I asked my guide, Cheryl Aichele (they had guided tours for the first couple of weeks at Occupy LA), to explain how this was possible. She said, “We’re not going to fight over what’s not the problem.”

But that was then. Now as Occupy has evolved, there seems to be lots of fighting over what’s not the problem. “It's frustrating,” says DC occupier Rob Wohl. “We're having the wrong discussion. Everyone wants to talk about whether or not to fight cops.”

Yes, it’s violence vs. nonviolence. White Bloc vs. Black Bloc. Diversity of tactics vs. “Fascisfists.”

And there’s no group of occupiers where this debate isn’t more pronounced than the “livestreamers.”

You can sum up livestreamers as those who came to protest and stayed to tell the story. They’re armed with a smart phone, an app and an audience of people at home watching every frame.

Occupy Wall Street’s Tim Pool left his home in Chicago to be at Zuccotti Park. He’s now become an innovator in livestreaming and has become a mini-celebrity within Occupy. He tells AlterNet, “I didn’t know I was a journalist.” Occupy Oakland’s Spencer Mills, or OakfoSho, has an MBA in international business and was under-employed at a gym before he became involved with Occupy Oakland. Now he calls himself an independent journalist. “I have an opinion, I travel around and I do bring people news,” he says.

Livestreamer Freedom LA (not her real name) says that she did “some journalism” before pitching a tent at City Hall and joining the Occupy media team. She calls what she does “new media.”

DC’s avid streamer is Andrew Metcalf, who was an intern for Congressman Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee during the financial meltdown. Metcalf, a journalism major, was interested in seeing the causes of the crisis put to justice. He thought he could be more useful as a journalist after a few days at McPherson Square.

Is livestreaming new? No. Minnesota-based UpTake has been livestreaming since 2007. Senator Al Franken credits them by name for his seat since they livestreamed every second of his recount against incumbent Norm Coleman in the spring of 2009.

I asked their founder and director Jason Barnett, who’s trained hundreds of "citizen journalists" (they call themselves UpTakers), if it’s unusual for protesters to morph into journalists because they downloaded a smart phone app. He explains, “It’s the natural byproduct of livestreaming. You’re forced into the role of the person handling the truth.”

There are no edits. There’s only what’s happening at that moment and maybe some commentary or explaining, says Barnett. If sunlight is a disinfectant, livestreaming is a laser. “People are tired of being lied to by the media,” says Tim Pool, who adds, “Transparency is paramount.”

But here’s the rub: As Occupy tries to find itself, transparency and more specifically livestreaming has become a double-edged sword. Yes, all occupiers love when the police are being filmed. But not so much when they are caught on livestream doing illegal acts.

A true nonviolent movement can have its plans known – the cops can know, the public can know, it can be on the livestream for everyone to see – because you can’t thwart civil disobedience by disclosure. Vandalism, property damage, graffiti, sabotage, throwing rocks and bottles at the police and petty criminal acts are not what the perpetrators want on UStream.

So as Occupy shifts from totally nonviolent, you can almost look to the livestreamers as the canaries in the coalmine.

Freedom LA had her camera stolen at the #J28 Occupy Oakland dust-up where over 400 protesters were arrested. It was the same night city hall was broken into and vandalized. Spencer Mills has been called a snitch more than once. “A dry snitch,” he specifies, meaning not an intentional one but a snitch nonetheless.

The documentary, While We Watch, directed by Kevin Breslin about the media revolution at Occupy Wall Street, portrays a showdown with masked “anarchists” and Tim Pool. Caught in the act of letting the air out of the tires on police vehicles, they try to take away Pool’s camera and threaten him. He defiantly keeps on filming. “Everyone deserves the truth,” he says.

Later, Pool said to me privately he regretted in the heat of the moment calling them "anarchists." “They weren’t anarchist, they were just vandals.”

Structurally, Occupy doesn’t have a way to deal with these “autonomous actors.” Yes, they agreed to nonviolence by group consensus and that can include property damage. But they also don’t have any leaders and decided to be in absolute solidarity with their comrades. So when Occupy Oakland steals an American flag and burns it or throws a bottle of urine at a media van, it’s not denounced. Instead there are solidarity marches against police brutality.

It’s a design flaw.

Then there are opinion writers like Chris Hedges, who proclaim Black Bloc to be a cancer in Occupy after celebrating that same cancer when it was in Greece in 2010.

It’s complicated further by arguments over nuances in definitions. Property damage, according to some, doesn’t hurt anyone so it’s therefore not violent. Attacking the police after they attack you is just self-defense, they say. Noting this is a PR war and not an armed conflict, OakfoSho tweeted, “The public doesn’t care about the semantics of what violence is or isn’t.” Indeed, a riot looks like a riot and Americans don’t like riots.

Occupy DC’s Rob Wohl says, “Well, tactics should be determined by your goal.” Which really does sum up the problem: It’s one thing to put the cart before the horse, another to put both before a destination.

The livestreamers now feel they’re holding the torch for truth but also nonviolence as a way to build a broad coalition movement. This means they get attacked online and threatened as part of their vocation. You know, just like real journalists.

The UpTake’s Barnett says it best: “It’s always the fault of the messenger.”

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