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The Photocopy-and-Furtive-Conversation Revolution

- December 13, 2011

bq. P. took the subway to Bowling Green. On his way to the exit, he passed a line of police officers accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs. Outside, police had surrounded the “Charging Bull” with barricades and, a few blocks north, sealed off a stretch of Wall Street around the Stock Exchange. P. tried to look nonchalant as he carried a black messenger bag that contained a first-aid kit, a bottled solution of liquid antacid and water (to remedy the effects of tear gas and pepper spray), fifteen Clif bars (carrot cake), and several hundred photocopied maps, showing seven possible locations. “We decided that low-tech communication methods would be best,” P. told me. “If we’d used a mass text message, or Twitter, it would have been easy for the police to track down who was doing this…”

bq. …P. quickly found the two other members of the Tactical Committee, both white men in their twenties. All three were “extremely nervous,” P. says. They left to scout Location Two, three-quarters of an acre of honey-locust trees and granite benches, a few blocks to the north, called Zuccotti Park. It was almost empty, and there were few police nearby. As the Tactical Committee had learned in its research, Location Two was a privately owned public space. While the city can close public parks at dusk, or impose other curfews, zoning laws require Zuccotti’s owner to keep the park open for “passive recreation” twenty-four hours a day.

bq. Soon, maps were distributed and people began to murmur, “Go to Location Two in thirty minutes.” The first arrivals took seats beneath the trees on the eastern side, arranged themselves in small groups, and ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. By that afternoon, nearly a thousand people had gathered for a general-assembly meeting. Late that night, P. went home; nearly three hundred of his comrades settled in to sleep there.

From Mattathias Schwartz’s article on Occupy Wall Street in The New Yorker.  It reminded me of this study (pdf) of Tahrir Square protestors, which found that 93% named live conversation as a medium used in protest activities, while 46% named text messaging and only 13% named Twitter.

Of course, no one is claiming that the Internet or new media or social media was irrelevant to either OWS or the Arab Spring.  But, given the apparent relevance of various media for actually getting people to protest sites, it seems like we need fewer articles about “Twitter Revolutions” and more on the ingenious capabilities of Xerox machines and word-of-mouth.