The revolution may never be televised, but if Occupy activists in a semi-secret media war room in New York’s Bowery district have their way, it will be livestreamed.
Police seizures at occupations, as at the flagship camp in New York City on Tuesday, not to mention rain, cold and theft, are horrible for expensive media gear, as Occupy Wall Street found after setting up an ad hoc media operation in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September.
So Occupy Wall Street decided the best way to keep livestreams of the protests online was to move much of the gear to a safer location somewhere indoors.
Wired.com visited the sorta-secret Media HQ in Manhattan last week for the first thorough tour of the facility. The conversations with activists eerily presaged the turmoil in Manhattan Tuesday and in cities like Oakland and Portland over the weekend.
The popular all-volunteer operation, originally run from a tent in Zuccotti Park, moved to a narrow room in the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan, in part to escape police raids that confiscate equipment.
“We moved most of this equipment the day before the police raid,” said 26-year-old, bandana-bedecked Spike, referring to the failed attempt by the city to clean the park on Oct. 14. Occupiers feared that meant eviction, which did finally happen almost exactly a month later.
With the move from a free tent to a $400-a-month brick-and-mortar home, the global revolution is being broadcast from a narrow room on the second floor of a rundown building, filled with cobbled-together gear and a hint of body odor.
The operation runs a global livestreaming video campaign, where activists monitor hundreds of livestream feeds, culling the best to feature on the semi-official Occupy online video hub called globalrevolution.tv.
“It’s really important that it’s decentralized so people can tell their own stories,” said Spike. “We get to report these stories before any mainstream media do. We break the news, and they pick it up.”
In fact, on Tuesday they broadcast from inside the besieged park until the moment that police hauled the livestreaming video team off to jail.
Long before Tuesday’s raid, the move had the benefit of getting the videographers away from the crowds at Zuccotti Park.
“It was practically impossible to get anything done,” said FluxRostrum, or Flux, one of many occupiers who go by either a title or a first name only. Sporting a mohawk of brown-hair dreadlocks, glasses and a wispy, gray chin-strip beard, the 48-year-old has been a traveling video activist for 11 years.
Like other occupations, Zuccotti has several independent video teams on-site. But this cramped room is the heart of the Global Revolution, the livestreaming operation that began with a single roving camcorder, laptop and 4G wireless card on Sept. 17 in New York City.
Now the operation serves as the unofficial (like all things in the Occupy movement) media center of the crusade.
Think of it as a rag-tag, political version of ESPN’s video technicians trying to spot the highlights of pro football on a Sunday.
“Two weeks ago, three occupations were attacked [raided by police] at the same time,” said Flux. “It happens a lot.”
The location of Global Revolution’s lair has leaked out through the press, but the team is still skittish about discussing it.
“We don’t need right-wing wingnuts firebombing us,” said Spike.
That may be an extreme case, but security is a legitimate concern. That day, Nov. 9, a portion of the Occupy St. Louis website suffered a type of attack called a SQL database injection, said a media team member who goes by Jay. He’s an active participant in Anonymous who works in IT security by day.
The SQLi attack was “real candy-ass,” said Jay, and was fixed within an hour.
But it was the latest in a string of crude volleys — many of them distributed denial of service barrages — coming two or three times per week since the occupations began on Sept. 17. Jay suspects the attacks come from a mix of experienced hackers who dislike Anonymous and novice, right-wing activists fumbling with attack technology.
Video equipment disappears, too. Global revolution sent a laptop, 4G hotspot and webcam to Occupy New Orleans. But in late October, the volunteer who had set up most of the tech ran off with the laptop, plus the money from the online donation system he himself had installed. Other thieves infiltrate occupations and gain the trust of media groups — before sneaking away with equipment and moving to the next target.
Then come police raids.
That happens daily, said Flux, a week before the Zuccotti takedown.
The night before Wired.com’s visit, Nov. 8, authorities seized equipment from three livestream operations. While it’s not clear that’s legal, the seizures do slow down the operation and raise legal problems that Occupy is still trying to solve. The New York General Assembly is trying to start a national trust fund for legal support on various issues, according to volunteer Lorenzo Serna.
Originally a key member of the NYC General Assembly’s outreach committee, the husky, full-bearded Serna hung a laptop around his neck to run the inaugural livestream on Sept. 17 and has been with the media team ever since. Unlike Flux and Spike, Serna had no experience with video tech.
“I don’t even know how I’m here,” said Serna, wearing his horned-rim glasses and permanently affixed baseball cap. He completed his master’s program in English from the University of North Dakota in May and wandered coincidentally to New York City in July. On Tuesday, Serna was livestreaming the police raid from the center of the park when he was arrested, say witnesses.
When not dealing with attacks and robberies, the Global Revolution team scours the internet for the hottest events in the movement. None of them could say how many livestreams are running, since the number constantly changes. “Anyone with a cellphone can livestream,” said Flux. He reckons there were around 200 that evening.
A few sites maintain lists of streams. Their favorite three have very similar names, reminiscent of the Judean militias in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: occupylivestreams.org, occupystream.com and occupystreams.org. The Global Revolution team also skims Twitter, IRC chat rooms and chats on their own site to find more streams.
They capture and rebroadcast video using the free Procaster app and the paid Wirecast program (nobody was sure whether the $449 application was purchased or pirated). Dragging a box around the video window on a site — like cropping a photo — captures it for rebroadcast.
“You got an ad, Flux,” said Spike, pointing to the video window on an ad-sponsored site. Flux adjusted the box to crop it out.
One might picture a fat data pipe feeding the media center, but the broken-down building’s wiring can’t carry that kind of load. Instead, the team uses something more ad hoc and mobile: 4G mobile hotspots.
They said three or four were set up that evening. Reporters in the field had others.
The team works on Dell laptops purchased on eBay that cost about $400, total, after souping up with new processors, RAM, hard drives and batteries. Laptops have gone to other occupations, in addition to the now-stolen one sent to New Orleans. Global Revolution has also provided training and tech support for teams around the U.S. over the telephone and by video.
They are paying forward a favor from the Puerto del Sol occupiers in Madrid, who established the first occupation livestream long before the U.S. movement began. A few Madrid occupiers came to New York before the Wall Street action to train a U.S. team.
Where does it go from here?
Lorenzo Serna fantasizes about a multimedia outfit, consisting of a wearable camera and a heads-up display, so he can see his own video feed, watch the chat stream coming from viewers around the world, and respond in real time.
“Dude, you’ll be like a livestream cyborg,” said Jay. “That will be awesome!”
Jay immediately turned to the web on his Android phone, searching for the gear to build it.