As Protests Continue, Occupy Austin Wrestles with Becoming an Institution Itself
By Raymond Thompson
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN — The American flag inched into the waiting hands of an Austin City Hall employee as the standard came down for its daily retreat. The rope running along the side of the flagpole bounced off the metal edge, making a loud crashing noise. About 30 feet away, under two bright fluorescent lights, 31 people had gathered on a March evening for an Occupy Austin general assembly.
Three evenings a week, Occupy holds its assemblies in the City Hall mezzanine. The continuous occupation that brought the group notoriety ended in February, when the Austin Police Department cleared the protesters after the city limited non-official business uses of the plaza to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. With it, the sight of people camped out at City Hall and of protesters waving signs that proclaimed the will of the “99%” disappeared from the intersection of West Cesar Chavez and Lavaca streets.
Since then, Occupy Austin has worked through some growing pains, as organizers have rethought the value of a sustained physical presence to their goal of social change. A movement that prizes its lack of hierarchy is trying to figure out how to achieve the financial and organizational structure that will allow it to survive.
Occupy Austin still has an estimated 60 to 75 active members. They do not work as a single group but instead are organized into “work groups” that focus on individual goals. Kit O’Connell, who manages Occupy Austin’s social media efforts, describes it as an “umbrella movement” that targets “systemic problems” surrounding social class in the United States.
One of Occupy’s big successes so far started in the Bank Action group. Since last fall, it has pressured the city of Austin to move its money out of accounts at large national banks. In response, the Austin City Council decided unanimously on March 1 to study whether to close accounts with Bank of America and shift the money to local credit unions.
At the March assembly, the 31 participants wrestled with how to build a solid financial foundation to support the group’s activities into the future. According to the organization’s webpage, Occupy has collected more than $7,000 in donations. Media work group member Wendy Darling wrote in an email that the money has paid for marketing, food, transportation and administrative costs.
At issue was a proposal from the Alliance for Global Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, to provide financial management services. Along with its own projects, the alliance works to promote social and economic justice by helping grassroots movements build and maintain influence. For a 7 percent fee, AGJ proposes to assist Occupy Austin with the completion of tax paperwork, grant administration, insurance and other tasks. The alliance provides the same service to the Occupy Wall Street group in New York City.
Occupy Austin’s operating money has been what Corey Willian, 21, a student at Central Texas College, called a “hot potato.” For the past six months, its money has been stored in a series of participants’ individual accounts.
“People don’t want to hang on to it because they don’t want the IRS to come after them or have their tax bracket increase,” Willian said.
After listening to the Alliance for Global Justice pitch, several members voiced concern about Occupy Austin’s losing its independence and becoming part of a centralized organization where orders trickle down from the top. Occupy Austin organizers stressed that the arrangement was strictly financial and that the agreement would not influence daily operation of the movement.
While participation in the assemblies has dwindled since the full-time occupation ended, a larger group of people known as the “cyber 99” continue to support the movement online, O’Connell said. As of the March assembly, Occupy Austin had more than 8,600 Twitter followers and people and more than 20,000 Facebook page “likes.” Occupy Wall Street tweets reach more than 150,000 people.
The potential of a message to spread quickly to a large group of people is what O’Connell said makes the national Occupy movement unlike any in history.
“If I’m on Twitter, even if I don’t have a lot of followers, if I get to the attention of the right people and they repeat it for me, all of sudden my dozen followers can become hundreds of thousands people,” he said.
Robert Jensen, a longtime local political organizer and University of Texas-Austin professor specializing in media, ethics and politics, believes that social media have a paradoxical effect on social movements. They allow more “timid” people to become political involved in what they perceive as a safe digital environment. But if people only click “like” on Facebook or follow the movement on Twitter, engagement is weak.
“Online forms of activism that don’t lead you to institutions, networking and physical spaces are, in the end, probably a dead end,” Jensen said.
At the assembly, a final vote on the Alliance for Global Justice was called. Members raised both hands and wiggled their fingers, Occupy Austin’s gesture signaling a yea vote. They approved the contract.
Every word, motion and face was captured on a small, inexpensive camera mounted on a laptop under the bright fluorescent lights. The moment was being broadcast in Occupy Austin’s live stream, potentially to viewers all over the world.
“Social media is what links it all together,” O’Connell said. “It makes us more than just Occupy Austin, Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, but it makes this into an international solidarity movement.”
Reporting Texas is a digital media initiative from the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Reporting Texas accepts submissions from undergraduate and graduate students throughout the university, promoting engagement in the digital age of journalism.
Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and its Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, Reporting Texas serves four primary goals: To showcase the best work of our University of Texas at Austin undergraduate and graduate students; to offer quality, multimedia reporting to local, state, and national news outlets; to experiment with new approaches in journalism education; and to combine aspects of community reporting with multimedia resources.
These efforts grow out of two previous initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism – CapLink and the Capital News Service – in which student journalists provided free public affairs reporting to community newspapers around Texas. In that spirit, Reporting Texas offers all content free of charge to all news outlets as long as we are credited for our work.
Reporting Texas focuses on unique and often hidden stories, using text, photos, audio, and video to provide views of in-depth people and places rarely seen in the news.
Also, you can check us out on Twitter.
And once again, welcome to Reporting Texas!