A long time ago, back before I was occupying, I fancied myself a writer. I spent hours a day typing away, blogging or free writing or adding pieces to the long list of Google Docs that probably I’ll never do anything with. I have a book contract that I have been quietly plugging away at throughout all of this occupying; I’ve been published here and there from time to time. Occupying has taken up all of my time and energy lately, but my brain is still the same writer’s brain that it always has been. I tweet constantly now, simply because I only have tiny snippets of time during which I can do that which I naturally feel compelled to do. That said, I’ve never thought of myself a journalist, not by a long shot. I considered following that career path many long years ago, but I knew that journalism wasn’t something that I could handle. I have been an activist for more than half of my life now, meaning that there’s an inherent bias and lack of legitimacy to any sort of neutral reporting that I could do. Also, for whatever reason, I tend to lack the ability to remain disengaged or impartial when collecting, studying, and reporting facts. (For all of you who wonder why I’m not a facilitator at general assemblies: there’s your answer. Within ten minutes I’d quietly drop the mic and walk off the stage.)
Over the weekend a member of Occupy Boston called a meeting to be held Sunday night. The meeting was expressly private; all recipients of the email were BCC’ed, and we were asked only to share the information about the meeting with people whom we personally trusted and knew to be interested in discussions about the general topic at hand. This meeting was not an Occupy Boston-sanctioned event. It was never mentioned at general assembly; it was not called as part of any working group. A decision was made at Sunday night’s meeting to hold a follow-up meeting on Monday, and the guidelines for this meeting were the same as Sunday’s. Both meetings were held at a private off-site location, and was semi-private: not invite-only, but not exactly public, either. It was sort of a “tell your trusted friends!” sort of a deal. The best analogy I can come up with, as odd as it sounds, is that of a Saturday night house party: bring some friends, but don’t bring the guy who gets too wasted and pees in closets.
At this juncture of my post, it is important for me to explain both what autonomous action is, and what its place in the Occupy movement is. Autonomous action is the notion that someone can take an action as part of the movement, but that it doesn’t speak for or on behalf of the movement. What the Occupy movement is up against is huge, and involves focus that must come from a vast number of angles. Different people are passionate about different issues; an occupier can use their values and skill set independently in order to achieve important goals (another key movement buzz term: “diversity of tactics”. Look it up). Therefore, autonomous action is considered by many of us to be a key to our continued and eventual success. It isn’t an easy concept to endorse, as it sometimes means going against our own individual tactical or political beliefs, but it is important. Occupy Boston expressly supports the use of autonomous action. For example, on the first night of our occupation, a group of occupiers marched around downtown, culminating with a spontaneous occupation of the plaza in front of the Federal Reserve. Many of those of us who had remained at Dewey Square freaked out, wondering what exactly was going on as blue lights flashed all around us. It took many difficult discussions about the intersections of autonomous action and diversity of tactics before we felt fully comfortable with them. Now the practices feel like old hat (to me, anyway).
The meetings that were held on Sunday and Monday were both autonomous actions. They were called by one person, and were eventually attended by forty to fifty people (the people in the crowd weren’t the exact same ones each night). I won’t discuss what was discussed at those meetings, out of respect for the people there. That said, I will say that plans were made. This was a planning meeting- a non-“officially Occupy Boston” planning meeting (there were some unfamiliar faces in the crowd, according to “regular” OB-ers), but a planning meeting nonetheless.
During the second meeting, it was made apparent that a member of the media, Ariel Shearer from The Boston Phoenix, was in attendance. Word about this traveled through the room pretty quickly, and a vote on media presence was placed at the top of the agenda. Members of the media were asked to be transparent about their presence. Ariel identified herself. A vote was taken, and by show of consensus, she was asked to leave. She did leave, after making a statement about her notebook being “this is what democracy looks like,” and was followed by some men who had come with her. In her blog post (more on that later), she seems to claim to have been supported by shouts of “Ariel Solidarity!”, but no one I spoke to who attended the meeting heard anything of the sort.
After some tweets that I interpreted as being snarky, one of which was factually incorrect in multiple ways (she said that the meeting was a general assembly- definitely untrue, as GAs are open to anyone- and that it was about “eviction,” which isn’t exactly correct, plus could be misinterpreted as though we were facing immediate eviction), today Ariel added a blog post to the Boston Phoenix blog. The post is riddled with factual errors (all of which I will address directly), and seems to show a grave misunderstanding about the general function of the Monday meeting, our processes, and how Occupy Boston functions, as well as why she was asked to leave. I’m going to address factual errors first, so that there is clarity for readers who may not be familiar with the inner workings of Occupy Boston.
1. In her post Ariel neglects to divulge the location of the meeting, saying only that it was “at a Chinatown location.” On Twitter she refers to the space as being “a public space.” Due to the vague description of the location, a reader could assume that the meeting was held at our Dewey Square encampment, at a park, or at a restaurant: some space that is legitimately public. The meeting was held at Encuentro 5. E5’s status may be confusing to Ariel, as they hold many public events there, but it is not a public space: it is private. The facilitators of the Sunday and Monday meeting asked permission from Encuentro 5 to hold the meeting there, and were granted that permission. The meeting wasn’t held at Dewey Square precisely because it was a semi-private meeting between certain individuals. The meeting could have just as easily been held in someone’s home, had the meeting been smaller.
2. The first sentence of Ariel’s post reads, “About 40 members of Occupy Boston met in a working group last night at a Chinatown location to discuss strategy.” There are three factual errors in this sentence. One, not every person in attendance could be confirmed as a member of Occupy Boston. Two, there was no “in a working group.” On a semantics level, we never describe ourselves as meeting “in a working group”; we would say “a working group met,” or “there is a working group.” The meeting isn’t the working group; the working group is having the meeting. Three, this was not a working group meeting. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make this clear. There was no working group that called this meeting. As far as I know, new working groups very well may form as a result of this meeting, but that is something that could happen long after the fact, not a cause of the meeting itself. Ariel saying that this was a working group meeting indicates that the meeting was officially sanctioned by Occupy Boston. As I’ve said before, that is not the case.
3. Ariel claims that she was asked to leave the meeting “20 minutes into the discussion.” According to seven different people I’ve talked to, this is not true. As is often the case with activist meetings (and meetings in general), everybody sat around shooting the shit for awhile before starting the meeting so that latecomers wouldn’t feel left out. Once the meeting began, media presence was the first item on the agenda. The discussion about Ariel’s presence happened pretty quickly. She may have sat there for twenty minutes, but the meeting itself didn’t begin as soon as she sat down.
4. The title of Ariel’s post is, “This is what a journalist getting evicted from an Occupy Boston meeting looks like.” First of all, as I’ve mentioned before, this was not an Occupy Boston-sanctioned meeting. Also, Ariel was not evicted from the meeting; she was asked to leave. She freely admits in the article that she left of her own volition. Using strong language like “eviction” makes it sound as though she was forcibly removed. For those of us who are a part of Occupy Boston, this is an especially harsh term to hear thrown around. We have successfully evicted exactly two people from our movement- Paul Carnes and Sydney Sherrell– and it was a difficult, complicated process. We have never evicted anyone from a meeting, nor am I certain that we have the power to do that. Even meetings like these that aren’t officially about Occupy Boston don’t contain evictions.
6. This isn’t in response to a specific point in the post, but it’s an overarching theme throughout: the piece makes it sound as though Ariel’s identity as a journalist was clear to everyone in the room. This is not the case. She did not identify herself as a journalist until she was asked to do so. In fact, many people with whom I spoke after the fact were shocked to learn for the first time last night that that Ariel is a journalist (one did so publicly, via Twitter). Ariel is a familiar face at camp, but lots of times she’s hanging out with people in an apparently social way: no notebook, phone, or press badge. The fact that Ariel wasn’t transparent with some other occupiers about her job (not with me, for the record; she has always been up front with me) is seriously troubling to me. Every time a journalist approaches me at camp, they make their reason for being there known, either via a press badge or by openly identifying as such, often followed by them handing me a business card. My guess is that either Ariel is having a hard time figuring out which side of the fence she is on (journalist vs occupier), or that she is engaging in stealth journalism. If it’s the latter, we are a very transparent group of people, and many of us tend to grant interviews pretty freely. There is no reason for her to engage in that type of behavior. I seriously hope that isn’t the case. If it’s the former, then she needs to be transparent about her struggle in her blog post. She identifies solely as journalist there, which seems to me to be misleading. However, if she does identify solely as a journalist, she needs to follow the same ethical guidelines that every other journalist covering Occupy Boston has.
Because she is such a familiar friend-type face around Occupy Boston, my guess is that the group of people who walked out with her did so as friends, rather than in solidarity with her as a journalist. I’d love to hear their side of the story; I know at least one of them considers her a friend. This dynamic, I understand, is tricky. I don’t say this easily, but I feel like there are a few journalists who cover us that I’ve become friends with. I didn’t anticipate that happening at all. That said, I am careful to hold these journalists’ work and their behavior separate from who they are as people, and I feel that they do the same with me.
Now, onto the general points Ariel raises in her article. She states that the meeting attendees “were engaging in a form of censorship” by asking her to leave. This is a problematic choice of wording on her part. For one thing, no one forced her to leave. She was asked to leave, and freely did so. The meeting attendees did not ban her speech, or black out anything that she wrote. For another thing, as I’ve expressed throughout this article, the meeting was private. Referring to the act of asking members of media to leave a closed meeting as censorship walks a very wobbly tightrope. If I have a small, vaguely Occupy-related meeting in my living room, am I required to invite members of the media to attend? If I don’t invite media into my home, am I censoring them? Similarly, as Ariel said at the end of her article, am I participating in “an effort to prevent the free flow of information”?
My response: no, no one censored her, and no, we aren’t required to invite media into private meetings that are held in private, offsite locations. Sure, the line feels blurry; with a movement as different as ours is, LOTS of lines are blurry. That said, as individuals and as groups of individuals, we deserve to maintain some privacy. In these past few weeks, we have given up a LOT of our personal privacy for the sake of Occupy Boston, and we have heard no complaints from members of the media who’ve happily gathered and disseminated that information. But to be perfectly honest, this is starting to feel a bit like a situation where we’re giving a lot of ourselves, and now we’re expected to keep giving beyond a reasonable expectation. No one is saying that we should shut off the complete movement transparency that we’ve managed to maintain. What we are talking about here is individual privacy. By describing the consensed-upon feelings of individual members of a meeting as “censorship,” Ariel reveals either a lack of understanding of how our movement works, or a very deep lack of humanity. As individuals, we have a lot of reasons for not wanting media to show up at our private meetings. Some people who consider themselves part of Occupy Boston never come to camp and to GAs because they fear losing their jobs or public housing, being deported, facing arrest. They come to private meetings because there’s some modicum of safety there. Some people who voted to ask Ariel to leave simply felt uncomfortable having a discussion with media present. Ariel never mentions these very human aspects of the consensus vote in her article, leading me to presume that they never occurred to her.
Another important point: when Occupy activists ask you to leave our private meetings, we aren’t keeping secrets from you. Rather, we just aren’t telling you what is happening YET. Believe me: everything that was discussed in that meeting will be seen and known eventually. But why would we tell you our tactics now, rather than let you see the results of them? We are still telling you the story, and are maintaining transparency. We merely want to choose the narrative. It is our narrative, after all, and we have the right to create it. Hypothetically speaking, how would it help anyone to have Ariel write down all of our plans for protests and publish them, meaning that they’d immediately be thwarted by the city and/or the police? Journalists: what is it that you want to report on, actually? Do you want to watch us sitting around in a room eating Gummi Bears and shooting the shit about direct action events, or would you rather watch them unfold in real time? Which is the real story here? When you choose the former- specifically, when you cross the line, interfere and prevent our actions from happening- I can’t help but wonder whether you’re participating in “ooh lookie at me, I got the scoop first!” journalism, rather than genuinely covering our movement.
Whether it’s expressly clear or not, the transparency of the Occupy movement is in direct response to the glaring lack of transparency that we see on Wall Street and in our government. I’ve participated in hundreds if not thousands of political actions, and have definitely attended thousands of activist meetings. The Occupy movement has been much more transparent than any other activist work I’ve ever been a part of, despite the fact that we stand the most to lose, and despite the fact that this thing is literally bigger than the accumulated mass of everything else I’ve done in my life. Some of us have been called out by name by police officers, followed around downtown, and even to our homes. We are risking a lot for the work that we are doing, and we deserve a level of basic human respect. Our very real fears for our safety should be taken into consideration, not played for manufactured outrage.
Lots of journalists seem to understand the interconnections between our movement’s transparency and the sad lack of it in our economy and government. I notice that many more journalists have begun working to dismantle the deep levels of secrecy that our political and financial institutions maintain. Similarly, most journalists understand that above all else, we are people, and that as individuals we have literally put our lives on hold in order to effect change. On a personal level, almost all of the journalists that I’ve interacted with have treated me like a human being who is deserving of dignity, and I thank them for that.
If Ariel is so upset about a lack of transparency being “one of the biggest systemic problem[s] choking our democracy,” I can give her a long list of story topics. For example, Mayor Menino secretly gave JP Morgan/Chase a 3.5 million dollar tax break, but he continues to complain about a much lower (and likely inaccurate) supposed cost to Boston created by Occupy Boston. If she’s worried about true censorship, perhaps she can write about police departments’ refusal of journalistic access to the front lines during various Occupy raids, as well as police brutality directed toward and arrests of journalists covering those stories. Perhaps that isn’t as easy as writing a short, factually inaccurate blog post about being asked to leave a meeting related to various means of drawing attention to, uncovering, and stopping awful things like that tax break, but heck: good journalism is never simple. If there is one thing I’ve learned from this movement, it’s that as much as I enjoy consuming it, being a journalist is ridiculously difficult. I’m glad it’s not my job.
I’ll continue to direct the best stories at camp toward the journalists who understand the peculiarities and intricacies of all of this. You folks who take the low road and write blog posts like Ariel’s: maybe y’all should consider covering something else.