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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Occupy the Stream


Elizabeth (OccupyMusician on Ustream) broadcasts from her trombone on May Day in New York City.


     In the late evening of May 20th, I received a text message from a fellow journalist covering the Occupy NATO protests in Chicago: A police van had plowed into a crowd of protesters at the foot of the Jackson Street Bridge, striking several and hospitalising one. Scrambling online for more information, almost all reports pointed to a group of citizen journalists relatively new to the realm of political activism: livestreamers. With one click, I had footage of the van plowing through the crowd from multiple angles. With another, I watched a live broadcast of the aftermath of the scene.

Courtney Moses (at left - courtneykissme on Ustream) livestreams while running with a black bloc demonstration in Washington DC.  (Photo courtesy of Sophia Miyoshi) 
     As the minutes passed and viewers amassed, more and more information surfaced. Livestreamer Sky Adams (crossXbones on Ustream) told me that “within 45 minutes [of the video going viral] we had freeze frames of the license plates, vehicle identification number and a photo of the drivers face. If we had still been relying on the corporate media for our information it would have been impossible to publicize this information so quickly.”

Livestreamers broadcast from New York City on May Day.
     A means of mass-communication made possible through recent technological developments in the wireless telecommunications industry, a livestream is a live video feed generated by any internet-enabled digital camera. The livestreamer broadcasts this feed across a hosting service such as Ustream.com or livestream.com. Anyone with an internet connection can watch the streams live and unedited. Some events such as the OWS shutdown of the Brooklyn Bridge have garnered as many as 50,000 viewers across multiple feeds. Most of these feeds feature a chatroom, so any viewer can join the conversation, for free. Adams says the chatroom is central to his experience as a livestreamer; “I sometimes don't even consider them to be viewers so much as participants - they don't just watch in a lot of cases. They communicate in between different streamers. They provide [livestreamers] with information about things that might be going on just around the corner. Its a very interactive format.”

Nathan Grant (OccupyEye on Ustream) broadcasts the raid of Occupy DC in McPherson Square.
     Our nation’s 4th estate (more commonly referred to as “the press”) consists of journalistic institutions and entities attempting to keep our citizenry informed of information relevant to their voting decisions. Citizen journalists, as members of this journalistic estate, are utilizing the livestream format to keep the nation informed of actions by both protesters and police. Flux Rostrum (of fluxview.com), one of the original livestreamers covering Occupy Wall Street in New York City, comments that “It accomplishes some sense of protection, some sense of accountability, to the police. They can't say ‘well that was edited’ because people are watching it in real time.

A streamer broadcasts the arrests of Occupy DC activists.
     Citizen journalists have long filled an information gap left by corporate-owned mainstream media. Many in the Occupy movement credit livestreamers as the reason that corporate media broke their blackout of the Occupy movement in the early weeks of the Zuccotti Park encampment. “The mainstream press can't ignore the stuff if its already being distributed. If enough people know about it, they wont be able to keep the cat in the bag for very long. I think thats what happened in New York.” says Rostrum, who began livestreaming in 2010, to raise public awareness of town-hall forums following BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Media record the erecting of Occupy DC's "Tent of Dreams" in McPherson Square.
     Being members of the citizen media, some livestreamers consider themselves to be proper journalists. Some even abide by a code of ethics akin to that of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) or the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). Being embedded in a social movement like Occupy requires citizen journalists to be aware of their relationship to the movement more so than what might be required from a professional journalist who considers Occupy to be just another story for the books. Sky Adams believes that “The onus is really on us to cover those who are in power and have the money and the weapons and not so much the individual protestors. It's more important that we hold those in power accountable than it is to get everybody's face on camera.”

NYC - May Day
     Regardless of ethical considerations, livestreamers have not been immune to the style of police harassment which has plagued independent media for decades. During the Occupy NATO actions in Chicago, livestreamers Luke Rudowski (wearechange.org), Tim Poole (timcast.tv) and journalist Geoffrey Schively faced constant harassment by members of the Chicago Police Department and Department of Homeland Security. Ten minutes after receiving word that a friend had been hauled to a DHS facility and interrogated on their whereabouts, the harassment culminated when, according to Rudowski, “we were pulled over by multiple squad cars, multiple undercover cops and three whiteshirts. They ran at us with guns drawn - and we streamed the whole thing over uStream.”

Citizen media run through the streets of downtown Chicago during an Occupy NATO demonstration.
     Rudowski continued that after the three were detained and some (but not all) of their recording devices deactivated, the police found a bag of hard drives, phones and battery packs which they proceeded to slam against the side of their car. “We don't know if one of the hard drives still works because they were banged up pretty hard by the Chicago Police” says Rudowski.
Illinois State Police use a monopod-mounted camera to record a  march in Chicago during the 2012 NATO summit.
     Legally, the line differentiating “citizen” and “journalist” has always been blurred. “It's a question that is going to plague us for a long time” says Mickey Osterreicher, General Counsel to the NPPA and member of the committee to enact federal shield laws to protect journalists nationwide. Shield laws, which vary from state to state, protect journalists who refuse to testify or reveal sources. “The problem is that, if everyone is entitled to that qualified privilege then they will strike the shield laws down as being overly broad. To define who is and who isn't a journalist will continue to be our greatest challenge” says Osterreicher, adding that “the law is always trying to catch up to technology”.

Jake Roszak video records the arrest of occupiers in Washington DC.
     Regardless of how much effort is put into the suppression of free information, there will always be citizen journalists to provide independent viewpoints, and many of these citizens are already preparing for the next technological evolution. Citing when only a week before Occupy NATO when Ustream was shut down by a DDoS attack originating in Russia, Shively states that “We need software that can run on your home server and your phone so we’re not reliant on a small number of online services. Sure, anyone can use [the technology], but those bottlenecks will still remain a critical point of failure. We need to decentralize.”

High-definition livestream equipment, both camera and tethered backpack, typical of the loadout utilized by corporate media for livestream broadcasts.
     Kevin Zeese, a lawyer and member of Occupy Washington DC, sees the path towards the decentralization of media as already well paved. He says that while the corporatized media continue to concentrate their power through laying off swaths of employees, “[The independent media] are going the opposite direction - we are growing bigger, more dispersed. The decentralization of our media promotes both diversity and creativity while at the same time making us harder to attack”.

An activist blocks the lens of a Fox News cameraman in Chicago
     In a country where fiscal interests govern both the mass-politic and mass-media it is up to the citizen media to focus their investigative lenses on issues ignored by both. As the citizen’s journalistic estate grows more robust and the corporatized journalistic estate ever more precarious there will come a point at which the public’s consumption of the former will encompass that of the latter. Until that point, regardless of how many citizen journalists are harassed, beaten or arrested, Shively illustrates the state of livestreamers and citizen journalists alike: “There so much work on the reporting side, the hardware side, the organizational side... they can’t get us all”.

Courtney Moses (courtneykissme on Ustream) broadcasts occupiers singing together during Occupy DC's "Carnival of Resistance" in McPherson Square.