Scenes From the Occupation: Before and After the Wall Street Eviction

Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan, just two days before the eviction of the camp on Monday morning. Credit: Quinn Norton/Wired

Before Monday morning’s police eviction, Zuccotti Park was choked with tents of all kinds and colors and with all kinds of writing and decoration.

There were small one-man tents, dome tents, family sleepers, and military tents — sometimes piled nearly one on top of another. Handmade signs hung everywhere, from the declarative: “Autonomy” to the jaded “Election day sale! Buy one politician, Get one FREE!” to the witty ”20 years ago we had/Steve Jobs/Bob Hope/Johnny Cash/Now we have/No Jobs/No Hope/No Cash”.

You could barely commute around Zuccotti for how jammed with tents it was, though little walkways, demarcated by tape, were mostly kept clear.

It was a little city within the Big City, with its own library, medical center (often staffed by volunteer nurses and doctors), information center, a common kitchen dispensing thousand of meals a day, and even its own tough neighborhood — the West Side. People filled the walkways and sidewalks surrounding the occupation day and night. They ate, chatted, held spontaneous teach-ins and occasionally nasty fights.

There was nearly always a chess game going on a dedicated chess table. General Assembly-style meetings, a radical democratic institution focused on consensus, could spring up spontaneously around any kind of group decision or disagreement.

Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan, Monday evening after the eviction of the camp earlier that day. Credit: Quinn Norton/Wired

Last Saturday evening OWS participant Tim Fitzgerald, a 27-year-old IT worker, stood overlooking the park, facing the west, after a particularly difficult GA that had brought up a lot of the tough social issues around occupation.

“It’s not fair that we have to deal with all the problems of the world in this little park, but that’s the task that we’re faced with,” he said, referring to the class divide between the occupiers, many of whom were the indigent, mentally ill, and even sometimes criminals.

Their presence in America’s cities has been decried by mayors for decades, and when they’re part of an Occupy, used as the reason for evictions of the encampments, but they are part of the occupation nonetheless.

“We don’t have anything without them,” said Fitzgerald. “They hold down this place.”

           

Though often lacking in social skills, the West Siders proved to be the ones with the survival skills and grit to take life in the tent city — they are the full-timers, and many are as committed to political change as the activists. The part-timers, like Fitzgerald, would come in the evening, spend the night once or twice a week (if at all), and often attend a lot of working group meetings and GAs.

Chief Sponsor Wavers on Web Censorship Bill in Charged Hearing

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, right, accompanied by Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., discuss their efforts to modify the internet's workings to fight copyright and tradmark infringement in a news conference Monday, April 4, 2011,. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Legislation that would prevent Americans from visiting websites the government claims are violating copyright rules had a tumultuous first hearing Wednesday, with its main sponsor unexpectedly expressing reservations over the bill’s scope.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), one the chief sponsors of the bill, expressed uncertainty over allowing the Justice Department to obtain court orders demanding that American ISPs prevent users from visiting blacklisted websites. ISPs receiving such orders would have to alter records in the net’s system for looking up website names, known as DNS.

The House bill also allows the Justice Department to order search sites like Google to remove an allegedly “rogue” site from its search results.

“I’m not a technical expert on this,” the chairman of the committee said, adding moments later: “I’m trying to ferret this out.” When he introduced the package last month, however, he pronounced that the bill was needed because “Rogue websites that steal and sell American innovations have operated with impunity.”

In a marathon, 3.5-hour hearing before the 38-member House Judiciary Committee, lawmakers debated among themselves and with a panel of six witnesses, five of which favored the Stop Online Piracy Act. The committee took no immediate action, but it was apparent that the 79-page measure is likely to be amended, in no small part, due to a backlash from the tech community.

Much of the package is similar to a stalled Senate measure known as the Protect IP Act.

Both proposals amount to the holy grail of intellectual-property enforcement that the recording industry, movie studios and their union and guild workforces have been clamoring for since the George W. Bush administration under the theory that online copyright infringement is destroying American jobs.

Smith, who said “everybody in this panel is committed to fighting piracy,” noted commentary from internet security experts concerned over the fallout if the Justice Department begins ordering American internet service providers to stop giving out the correct DNS entry for an infringing website under the .com, .org and .net domains.

Putting false information into the DNS system — the equivalent of the net’s phonebook — would be ineffective, frustrate security initiatives and lead to software workarounds, according to a paper co-signed by security experts Steve Crocker of Shinkuro, David Dagon of Georgia Tech, Dan Kaminsky of DKH, Danny McPherson of Verisign and Paul Vixie of Internet Systems Consortium.

“These actions would threaten the Domain Name System’s ability to provide universal naming, a primary source of the internet’s value as a single, unified, global communications network,” they wrote.

In other words, the bill would break the internet’s universal character and hamper U.S. government-supported efforts to rollout out DNS-SEC, which is intended to prevent hackers from hijacking the net through fake DNS entries.

The bill’s big-pocketed proponents weren’t moved by those arguments.

Michael O’Leary, Motion Picture Association of America vice president, told Smith that, “it’s a concern, but frankly overstated.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) whose district includes Silicon Valley, expressed alarm that Google was the only company invited to testify against the bill. Google was peppered over and again by lawmakers asking why it it doesn’t simply stop rendering infringing sites in search results.

“The search engines are not capable of actually censoring the World Wide Web,” Lofgren said. “We need to go after people committing crimes.”

Katherine Oyama, Google’s policy council, responded at one point:

“We don’t control the World Wide Web,” she said, adding that Google does not know what sites are hosting infringing content unless the rights holder tells Google. When that happens, she said, Google usually stops displaying results pointing to that particular page within six hours.

The MPAA’s O’Leary countered later that, on a Google search, the in-theater-only movie J-Edgar has “a better chance that the Pirate Bay is going to end up ahead of Netflix” on a Google search.

Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, AOL, Yahoo, eBay, Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of other groups and companies oppose the measure, saying the bill will break the internet as we know it.

Not all members of the committee said the legislation needed work.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) said, “This is a good bill.”

Rep. Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) expressed some reservations, but said legislation was needed.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” he said. “Not only are online piracy and counterfeiting drains on our economy, they expose consumers to fraud, identity theft, confusion and to harm.”

John Clark, the security chief for Pfizer, testified that counterfeit drug sales run rampant on the internet.

“I see counterfeited medicines as attempted murder,” he said.

Troubling to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) was how the bill described what sites could be targed, those “dedicated to infringing activity.”

The House bill allows rights holders to demand that online ad services and credit card companies stop working with an allegedly infringing sites. The copyright holder need only allege the site is “dedicated to infringing activity” — as say Viacom alleges about YouTube, and if the ad service or credit card company does not quickly sever ties, they can be held liable. No court approval is needed to send such a letter.

“It imposes harsh, arbitrary sanctions without due process,” Google’s Oyama said.

Smith’s measure also grants the U.S. attorney general sweeping powers to block the distribution of workarounds, such as the MafiaaFire plugin on the Firefox browser, that let users navigate to sites that have been blacklisted or had their domain name seized.

Smith asked witness Maria Pallante, the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights, what she meant by her testimony that if “Congress does nothing,” the “U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail.”

“I don’t think,” Pallante said, “that’s an overstatement.”

It’s not clear how the copyright system is failing given that the Netflix streaming service counts more than 21 million subscribers, accounting for the largest share of peak internet traffic every night; that YouTube is paying millions out to copyright holders; and an increasing number of people get their online music from paid and ad-supported services such as Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Amazon and iTunes.

Photo: Richard Winchell/Flickr

California City Approves Spy Plane to Fly Overhead

Not content to spy on people using street cameras, the small city of Lancaster, Calif. approved a resolution last week that will allow a crime-fighting spy plane to fly overhead and watch what’s going on below.

The city council voted unanimously last week to allow the surveillance to begin next May.

The Cessna 172 fixed-wing aircraft, equipped with infrared imaging and a video camera, would fly at altitudes between 1,000 to 3,000 feet, up to 10 hours a day, and feed encrypted video footage directly to the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office.

Instead of being deployed only in response to specific incidents or needs — as most police aircraft is used — the plane would be dispatched for general-purpose surveillance, regardless of whether there’s any suspicion of a crime being committed.

When a 911 call comes in, the location of a suspected crime will be relayed to the aircraft, which will then fly to the scene and begin recording, a sheriff’s spokesman told the Los Angeles Times.

The project, dubbed the Law Enforcement Aerial Platform System, or LEAPS, will cost $1.3 million to launch and thereafter cost the city about $90,000 a month to maintain and operate.

The technology, not surprisingly, was developed by a local company, Spiral Technology.

“The camera could spot a home invasion robbery or track unsuspecting criminals. It could note car accidents so patrol cars could get there more quickly,” city officials told the Times.

But Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, told the paper that, “People who have done nothing wrong shouldn’t have anything they do in their yards or homes subject to video surveillance from the sky. To the extent that it involves observing things which a typical pilot overhead might not be able to see, it raises serious constitutional questions.”

The Supreme Court has upheld in two different cases that police aerial surveillance of land surrounding a house or property without a warrant does not constitute a search, since anyone flying overhead can observe what is occurring in that space, and therefore the owner or residence of a property under surveillance has no expectation of privacy.

Image courtesy of Lancaster city.

Inside Occupy Wall Street’s (Kinda) Secret Media HQ

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Media Room


From left: Spike, 26; FluxRostrum, 48; and Lorenzo Serna, 31, answer interview questions at the Occupy Wall Street video room in New York City on Nov. 9, 2011.

Photo: Bryan Derballa/Wired.com

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The revolution may never be televised, but if Occupy activists in a semi-secret media war room in New York’s Bowery district have their way, it will be livestreamed.

Police seizures at occupations, as at the flagship camp in New York City on Tuesday, not to mention rain, cold and theft, are horrible for expensive media gear, as Occupy Wall Street found after setting up an ad hoc media operation in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September.

So Occupy Wall Street decided the best way to keep livestreams of the protests online was to move much of the gear to a safer location somewhere indoors.

Wired.com visited the sorta-secret Media HQ in Manhattan last week for the first thorough tour of the facility. The conversations with activists eerily presaged the turmoil in Manhattan Tuesday and in cities like Oakland and Portland over the weekend.

The popular all-volunteer operation, originally run from a tent in Zuccotti Park, moved to a narrow room in the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan, in part to escape police raids that confiscate equipment.

“We moved most of this equipment the day before the police raid,” said 26-year-old, bandana-bedecked Spike, referring to the failed attempt by the city to clean the park on Oct. 14. Occupiers feared that meant eviction, which did finally happen almost exactly a month later.

With the move from a free tent to a $400-a-month brick-and-mortar home, the global revolution is being broadcast from a narrow room on the second floor of a rundown building, filled with cobbled-together gear and a hint of body odor.

The operation runs a global livestreaming video campaign, where activists monitor hundreds of livestream feeds, culling the best to feature on the semi-official Occupy online video hub called globalrevolution.tv.

“It’s really important that it’s decentralized so people can tell their own stories,” said Spike. “We get to report these stories before any mainstream media do. We break the news, and they pick it up.”

In fact, on Tuesday they broadcast from inside the besieged park until the moment that police hauled the livestreaming video team off to jail.

Long before Tuesday’s raid, the move had the benefit of getting the videographers away from the crowds at Zuccotti Park.

“It was practically impossible to get anything done,” said FluxRostrum, or Flux, one of many occupiers who go by either a title or a first name only. Sporting a mohawk of brown-hair dreadlocks, glasses and a wispy, gray chin-strip beard, the 48-year-old has been a traveling video activist for 11 years.

Like other occupations, Zuccotti has several independent video teams on-site. But this cramped room is the heart of the Global Revolution, the livestreaming operation that began with a single roving camcorder, laptop and 4G wireless card on Sept. 17 in New York City.

Now the operation serves as the unofficial (like all things in the Occupy movement) media center of the crusade.

Think of it as a rag-tag, political version of ESPN’s video technicians trying to spot the highlights of pro football on a Sunday.

“Two weeks ago, three occupations were attacked [raided by police] at the same time,” said Flux. “It happens a lot.”

The location of Global Revolution’s lair has leaked out through the press, but the team is still skittish about discussing it.

“We don’t need right-wing wingnuts firebombing us,” said Spike.

That may be an extreme case, but security is a legitimate concern. That day, Nov. 9, a portion of the Occupy St. Louis website suffered a type of attack called a SQL database injection, said a media team member who goes by Jay. He’s an active participant in Anonymous who works in IT security by day.

The SQLi attack was “real candy-ass,” said Jay, and was fixed within an hour.

But it was the latest in a string of crude volleys — many of them distributed denial of service barrages — coming two or three times per week since the occupations began on Sept. 17. Jay suspects the attacks come from a mix of experienced hackers who dislike Anonymous and novice, right-wing activists fumbling with attack technology.

Video equipment disappears, too. Global revolution sent a laptop, 4G hotspot and webcam to Occupy New Orleans. But in late October, the volunteer who had set up most of the tech ran off with the laptop, plus the money from the online donation system he himself had installed. Other thieves infiltrate occupations and gain the trust of media groups — before sneaking away with equipment and moving to the next target.

Then come police raids.

That happens daily, said Flux, a week before the Zuccotti takedown.

The night before Wired.com’s visit, Nov. 8, authorities seized equipment from three livestream operations. While it’s not clear that’s legal, the seizures do slow down the operation and raise legal problems that Occupy is still trying to solve. The New York General Assembly is trying to start a national trust fund for legal support on various issues, according to volunteer Lorenzo Serna.

Originally a key member of the NYC General Assembly’s outreach committee, the husky, full-bearded Serna hung a laptop around his neck to run the inaugural livestream on Sept. 17 and has been with the media team ever since. Unlike Flux and Spike, Serna had no experience with video tech.

“I don’t even know how I’m here,” said Serna, wearing his horned-rim glasses and permanently affixed baseball cap. He completed his master’s program in English from the University of North Dakota in May and wandered coincidentally to New York City in July. On Tuesday, Serna was livestreaming the police raid from the center of the park when he was arrested, say witnesses.

When not dealing with attacks and robberies, the Global Revolution team scours the internet for the hottest events in the movement. None of them could say how many livestreams are running, since the number constantly changes. “Anyone with a cellphone can livestream,” said Flux. He reckons there were around 200 that evening.

A few sites maintain lists of streams. Their favorite three have very similar names, reminiscent of the Judean militias in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: occupylivestreams.org, occupystream.com and occupystreams.org. The Global Revolution team also skims Twitter, IRC chat rooms and chats on their own site to find more streams.

They capture and rebroadcast video using the free Procaster app and the paid Wirecast program (nobody was sure whether the $449 application was purchased or pirated). Dragging a box around the video window on a site — like cropping a photo — captures it for rebroadcast.

“You got an ad, Flux,” said Spike, pointing to the video window on an ad-sponsored site. Flux adjusted the box to crop it out.

One might picture a fat data pipe feeding the media center, but the broken-down building’s wiring can’t carry that kind of load. Instead, the team uses something more ad hoc and mobile: 4G mobile hotspots.

They said three or four were set up that evening. Reporters in the field had others.

The team works on Dell laptops purchased on eBay that cost about $400, total, after souping up with new processors, RAM, hard drives and batteries. Laptops have gone to other occupations, in addition to the now-stolen one sent to New Orleans. Global Revolution has also provided training and tech support for teams around the U.S. over the telephone and by video.

They are paying forward a favor from the Puerto del Sol occupiers in Madrid, who established the first occupation livestream long before the U.S. movement began. A few Madrid occupiers came to New York before the Wall Street action to train a U.S. team.

Where does it go from here?

Lorenzo Serna fantasizes about a multimedia outfit, consisting of a wearable camera and a heads-up display, so he can see his own video feed, watch the chat stream coming from viewers around the world, and respond in real time.

“Dude, you’ll be like a livestream cyborg,” said Jay. “That will be awesome!”

Jay immediately turned to the web on his Android phone, searching for the gear to build it.