The Masters of the Message for “Leaderless” OWS

Home Brooklyn Life The Masters of the Message for “Leaderless” OWS

At two o’clock in the morning on Thursday, Nov. 3, two members of the Occupy Wall Street media team, Justin Wedes and a woman named Victoria, who declines to give her last name, decide it is time to head to what Wedes calls the team’s “super-secret lair.” They hail a taxi. Wedes hands the cabbie a small paper with the address.

So few people, both in and outside the movement, appear to know about the off-site media operations center that when journalists are granted access, they are blindfolded with a maroon scarf and told the precise location is off the record.

Ten minutes later, the cab stops outside a rundown building in NoHo. Up the stairs and down a hallway, three men and a woman, all in their late twenties and thirties, are fixated on the monitors in front of them. They’re using, at turns, a third-party Twitter application or running a live feed from Oakland, Calif., that’s streaming a late-night clash between police and protestors.

The office serves as headquarters for, a live video feed hosted on Livestream that’s become a go-to source for national Occupy Wall Street footage. It is a crowded space that looks as if it were thrown together by a bunch of college kids. There are a few desks littered with wires and food containers. Shelving units hold enough laptops and tech equipment to approximate a small newsroom. The room is long and narrow with paint-cracked walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the street.

Occupy Wall Street insists that it is leaderless by design, but the scene and activity at the “lair” suggests that, in fact, the media team in lower Manhattan has assumed at least part of that role.

Zuccotti Park has taken on such a hippie-homeless vibe that it’s difficult to distinguish between actual occupiers and freeloaders. But the community there has organized itself around more than 80 working groups that attend matters like food, security, medical care and sanitation. The media team, however, represents something different: a small group who have taken it upon themselves to disseminate the movement’s message and help coordinate events like marches and teach-ins.

They are the movement’s public face, the voices most often quoted, the ones who appear on such programs as “The Colbert Report.” They talk with journalists and even try to convince them to join Occupy Wall Street.

Wedes is quick to downplay any notion that a leadership core has emerged. “Did you really think that we were a fucking operation?” he says. “We’re just a bunch of fucking renegades.” He explains that it is the absence of hierarchy and specific demands that keeps the movement dynamic.

Another member of the media team includes Thorin Caristo, a 37-year-old from Connecticut, who helps manage media operations in the park. He has also been assisting with the encampment’s electrical issues in the days between when Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered generators and fuel removed, then gave them back. “It’s a constant battle,” Caristo says. Forty thousand dollars in equipment was recently stolen from the park, he adds, and during the night of the recent snowstorm, he caught a man tampering with the media tent’s tarpaulin roof. Quacy Cayasso, a Guyanese man in his twenties, helps Caristo manage the Livestream.

Wedes, a 25-year-old from Michigan who teaches leadership part-time at a Brooklyn high school, is one of the movement’s most recognizable faces. He helped organize the occupation at Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17 after a smaller encampment called “Bloombergville” fell apart late in the summer.

He is often the person to whom other protesters turn, seemingly for everything. That’s not surprising given that he serves on the Arts & Culture and Community Relation working groups, too. He often sleeps at the park. After a cable news segment on the recent sexual assault allegations at the park aired, an occupier approached Wedes to ask for his reaction to the report. “Very good. Well done,” he told her.

His media arsenal includes a Macbook Pro, an iPad, a flip camera—which he refers to as his “weapon”—and a cell phone that he tweets from through text messages. Wedes was in Detroit late last month to see how that city’s protests were unfolding. A few days after he returned, police arrested two protestors there. “I go to Detroit and I tell them to be more edgy and two of them get arrested,” he says, proudly.

Another role for the team is to decide, for instance, on the Twitter guidelines for the main @OccupyWallStNYC account—what to tweet, how to confirm details and who are reliable sources, including journalists, to follow. “We want to be open and inviting and transparent about what we’re doing,” Wedes says. This brought the team into conflict with the public relations working group, which wants control of the account that only four or five people currently can access.

Wedes and Victoria are adamant about keeping it under the media tent. And while the team is still hashing out how central a role Twitter should play and whether to make those guidelines public, there remains the daily—and nightly—business of spreading the movement’s message.

Back at the NoHo office, three members of the Global Revolution team are focused on a live feed streaming out of the Oakland occupation. Protestors have clashed with police, again, and a man is filming live from his Droid X and tweeting under handle @OakFoSho. They are frantically putting his stream onto the main Occupy Wall Street feed. At around three o’clock, one team member says more than 6,000 people are tuning in—the most since the Brooklyn Bridge arrests in early October. Meanwhile, another is buying cheap laptops on eBay. When they arrive, he will reconfigure them so they can be sent to occupations in Rochester and Indianapolis. It was unclear who made the decision to buy the laptops and who authorized the payment.

At dawn, Wedes is asleep. He has to be up in a few hours to appear before a group of students, to talk about the movement and what’s next.

>>More on this story:

Q&A: Occupy Wall Street’s Media Man
Where are the Intellectuals? An Essay on Occupy Wall Street 

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