Within the Occupy Movement and, from what I understand, in many of the social movements that preceded it, there has always been a conflict between the “revolutionaries” that want to create a crisis to first disrupt, and then destroy, the existing social order; and the “reformers” who want to take control of existing power structures and change society from “the inside”. Within the occupy landscape, the “revolutionaries” gravitate towards the language of “occupy” and “direct action” while the “reformers” gravitate towards the language of “99%” and “protest.”
This essay is concerned with a third group within the occupy movement – a group rarely mentioned by the media and often discounted by the activists who spend their time doing the type of self-promotion that gets them on to panels. I’m referring to the “providers”: activists who invest their time and resources into providing services to individuals and groups within “the movement”. These people are often vocal advocates for “mutual aid” (leftist terminology) or “free aid” (rightist terminology). Since occupy originated more from the left than the right, the term “mutual aid” is most popular, defined on Wikipedia as “voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.” Within the context of OWS, mutual aid is probably more accurately described as “the revolutionary act of helping people for free.”
During the occupation of Liberty Square, there were 17 “operations working groups” which were defined by the “spokes council” as groups that supported the logistical operation of the park. About a dozen of them provided mutual aid-style services. A few examples of such groups were the OWS library, which maintained a reading space and made books accessible to the community, the “occupied kitchen”, which fed up to 5000 people a day, the street medics, who did their best to keep folks healthy, and the “comfort” group, which handed out clothes and other items to the park’s inhabitants. I’m involved with a group that came to be known as the Technology Operations Group, or TechOps for short. This group manages NYCGA.net, a free/libre/opensource social network with nearly 10,000 users that became the main communications organ of the OWS community; stared the Occupy.net suite of free/libre/opensource software services such as the wiki, map, notepad and a dozen other services; manages the CRM (constituent relationship management) system that sends out newsletters to tens of thousands of people; and runs a cloud hosting environment.
Depending on one’s perspective, Occupy Wall Street’s TechOps groups was either a disastrous failure or a brilliant success. It was a failure because Occupy’s web presence is still wildly unorganized and people find it difficult to engage with the movement through the web. TechOps is a success because it has laid the foundation of a free/libre/opensource technical infrastructure that will integrate elegantly with existing FLO systems to provide a framework through which social movements can transform the economic landscape by “producing their way out of oppression.”