The Occupy movement has successfully shifted the public’s attention to the corrupt influence of corporations over American government. At the same time, it has pushed the limits of free speech about as far as local governments will allow. In many cases the protesters have forced confrontations with police, highlighting every egregious use of force with the aid of youtube in a way that is both profoundly important and at the same time incredibly annoying. Each arrest is met with jeers from protesters who apparently don’t understand that being arrested is a part of civil disobedience. It seems they do not believe that their symbolic encampments are, while inspiring, almost always illegal. This kind of thinking is completely removed from reality, but that can apparently be fixed by using the incredibly creepy human microphone to repeat passages from the constitution as each protester is arrested.
A similar kind of activist dissonance is even more egregious and disturbing within the Anonymous subculture, which claims responsibility for organizing the Occupations and the Arab spring. In response to the financial blockade of WikiLeaks, a sickening product of extralegal pressure from government, Anonymous successfully perpetrated a string of high profile denial of service attacks. The comparison between denial of service and the sit-ins of the civil rights era has been made repeatedly by Anonymous and its supporters, but no comparison could be more nauseating. In the bizarre world of AnonOps IRC, the arena where these attacks were coordinated, a pervasive and infectious paranoia was evident in the constant discussions on how to best remain anonymous and completely unaccountable for the “cyberactivism” that was taking place. Not only did these “activists” take every precaution possible to avoid identification, but the laws which were broken are actually in place to ensure the freedom of speech and integrity of the internet. Anonymous may have worked for a noble cause, but the means were more akin to those of the masked Klu Klux Klan than those of civil rights activists. Thankfully, AnonOps no longer coordinates denial of service attacks.
It is worth noting that most Anons are probably not supporters of this kind of wholly destructive action. Anons are generally just young people, enjoying internet culture and not participating in much more than internet memes and occasional trolling raids. As in previous countercultures like the Punks and Hippies, what truly defines Anonymous is opposition to all that is sanitized and corporate and not the actions of whatever small group gains the most notoriety. That’s pretty much true of the Occupiers as well. Both these movements have self-organized, and as each is set in direct opposition to corporations, both naturally mimic corporate structure. It is helpful to think of groups of Occupiers or Anons as franchises acting independently of one another and beholden only to the three ring binder of cultural norms, which if broken will result in revocation of franchise status. This is a rare event, but Presstorm was an ideal example. Presstorm was a group of mostly Anon supporters acting as a media outlet covering issues mostly of interest to Anons. The editor-in-chief published a long editorial sharply criticizing Occupy Wall Street and over night Presstorm was disenfranchised, disavowed, and under denial of service attacks.
Although there does appear to be an informal kind of accountability for extreme cases like Presstorm, this is really where the franchise analogy breaks down. There are no headquarters for Anonymous or Occupy and no central organization to keep out the insane and destructive. In lieu of any unifying authority holding these movements in line and on message, there’s a few powerful labels that are used liberally to fix any inconsistencies. Should someone make outrageous comments, vandalize, or engage in any other deviant behavior, he or she is immediately deemed an infiltrator and associated with whatever enemy is most convenient. While it’s true that agent provocateurs have been used and are still used to discredit popular movements, the hysterical overuse of this point by Occupiers is laughable. With regards to AnonOps IRC and its media front end, AnonNews, one particular publication understood this mechanism and hit the nail on the head.
As it stands, both Anonymous and Occupy have won over supporters, gained media attention, and forced discussion of their issues upon the general public. Both have been fraught with negative press because of the not-so-peaceful nature of their confrontation with authorities, while at the same time highlighting a few major issues of public interest. Non-lethal violence against Occupy protesters is often shocking, as exemplified by the UC Davis pepper spray incident, Scott Olsen, and Tony Bologna. As for Anonymous, sometimes the bad boy hackers actually root out important facts. Private security contractors are using social media to manipulate people in conflict zones, as revealed by the Anonymous attack on HBGary. No one would know about it if it wasn’t for Anonymous. But are these things going to actually make a change for the better? Realistically, both of these movements are playing a zero sum game or worse, winning a few small victories at great expense to their cause.
Anonymous and Occupy aren’t situated on terra firma. In their dogma, the ultimate goal is to eliminate corporate and government structures in society and replace them with the same decentralized organization in which they are situated. In this utopian vision, perhaps legitimate authority will only take the shape of denial of service attacks and infiltrator witch hunts. This particular brand of magical thinking, in which the ongoing peaceful “revolution” will overthrow all existing power structures, is probably a symptom of the young and idealistic who are not yet willing to bend to reality.
The tragedy is that revolution, and not reform, is all that Occupy and Anonymous will accept. Running politicians (But not Michael Moore?) out of the encampments is a fun sport for the Occupiers, and harassing politicians and businessmen with crank phone calls is former Anonymous spokesperson Barrett Brown’s favorite hobby. I don’t think either movement is going to accept the cold reality that reform is the best thing they can hope for. Symbolic tent cities aren’t going to cause a revolution. Denial of service and harassment is worse. The people who want change need to work in a positive way with those in power, but the powerful who have tried to reach out to Occupiers have received only vitriol and hate. Anonymous and the Occupiers have fantasies of a better world, but the scumfucking Tea Party’s plans are already in motion.