Q&A: Occupy Wall Street’s Media Man

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After two weeks of covering Occupy Wall Street, I finally got my sit-down with Justin Wedes, an early member of the movement and a core component of its media team. The 25-year-old teaches leadership part-time at a high school in Brooklyn, but most of his time is dedicated to the people of Zuccotti Park and growing the movement online through social media. Justin and I spoke about his day-to-day responsibilities with using different platforms to make Occupy Wall Street more interactive, building relationships with journalists and what motivates him to get up every morning and push on. Here are a few excerpts:

Andrew Katz / The Brooklyn Ink

Andrew Katz: I’ve been to Zuccotti no fewer than a dozen times and I see you everywhere here. Who do you generally work with and what do you do?

Justin Wedes: I work on three different working groups: the Media working group, the Arts & Culture working group—but only in a very tangential way—and the Community Relations working group, which is tasked with building positive relationships with local residents and businesses, and employees and tourists and all the folks around here.

One of the specific things that I do is social media. So I tweet and I Facebook post and I help coordinate different social media campaigns and projects that we do to get the word out about our events and actions, and what’s happening here, and sharing the stories and narratives of all the people here in the park.

AK: How did you first get involved with Occupy Wall Street?

JW: I met the folks in the park when we were at the New York City General Assembly back in July. Some folks from “Bloombergville,” which is another encampment that we did a few months ago, they were interested in trying this again but on a much larger scale and Adbusters put out the call to occupy Wall Street so we decided that—as sort of a collective—we decided to hold a General Assembly on Sept. 17 as part of Occupy Wall Street, and then to make the decision to stay the night. And here we are.

AK: And why have you stayed since then?

JW: I think what excites me about it is it continues to grow and bring new challenges, and as it’s grown, it’s sort of gone through different phases of maturity: from a bunch of people hanging out in a park, not sure what they’re going to do the next day, to thousands of people sleeping in a park and in thousands of other cities across the world holding General Assemblies and occupations. And that excites me because it offers up the opportunity for many, many people to have their voices heard, but also to listen to each other and to coordinate their actions across time and space and really build what I think will ultimately be a direct democracy where people can directly participate in their self-governance.

AK: Describe your typical day, from dawn to dusk, with Occupy Wall Street.

JW: Well, there’s no typical day. But I think if I had to summarize or kind of approximate what a typical day would be, I would say that around 9 a.m., my alarm goes off. I have some tea. I tweet a little bit. I check my email. I try to eat something. Then I usually meet up with the media team, either here on-site or at our off-site location; check in with people with the Livestream, with social media; check in with the PR team to see if they’ve got any press releases or things that they want me to help push online; and then come through the park; have lunch in the park and talk with people; interview people on Twitter—on the new occupier hashtag so that they get introduced to other occupiers online—and then usually in the afternoon we have working group meetings. For example, the media team will meet, or the Arts & Culture committee, or the Community Relations committee.

Later on, we’ll have General Assembly in the evening at seven and I try to tweet those, too, or at least help coordinate who’s live-tweeting each General Assembly so that people can stay informed. Also helping the media team and tech people put up new forms of interactive technology for the General Assembly, like projection screens and online polling and text responses and all of these things we’re trying to build to make it more interactive. And then in the evening if I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to relax a little bit with folks here at camp, or maybe go meet up with some folks, or speak at a forum or a workshop in other places to do outreach, like at local colleges or local events and just kind of get the word out about what we’re doing. And then usually in the late-night, I’m back here at Zuccotti and doing like late-night media round-up: looking at the news of the day, doing question-answer sessions on the Livestream—people like to do that—and yeah, one or two or three in the morning, or maybe I just stay the whole night, I usually head back to Brooklyn and try to get some sleep.

AK: How do you build engagement and which platform is producing the best result?

JW: You get engagement in a couple ways. One, by telling compelling stories and narratives. So, like the little short jokes that kind of reveal a small truth about the occupation, or about politics in our country, or about the state of our democracy, or whatever. People tend to retweet those and really dialogue with you on these.

We’ve had some really fun kind of dialogues going, like, for example: Michael Bloomberg won’t tweet about us, but he said multiple times in public that he’s having trouble finding people to negotiate with and talk with. And it’s so ironic because if he just tweeted at us, he’d probably get a lot of engagement. But he refuses to, and so we tweeted that because he refuses to acknowledge us on Twitter, we’re going to start negotiating with @ElBloombito, who is the Spanish parody of Michael Bloomberg. And we’ve had some interesting back-and-forth there.

I think the other point of engagement is when people really feel that rights are being violated. So when like police crack down on encampments—peaceful protestors—that becomes a flash point and a big issue and generates a lot of social media buzz, but also concrete action. People will call mayors’ offices, will call police departments, they’ll call the Real Estate Board of New York when they learn the Real Estate Board of New York is going to put pressure on the city to close privately owned public parks like this one from one to five in the morning because they see that as a direct attack on the openness of these spaces.

Twitter has been instrumental. Early on, it was our best tool. Now, in combination with the Livestream and combination with traditional media, blogging, Tumblr, Facebook, it’s a very powerful tool that we have.

AK: How have you worked to build relationships with journalists, rather than their news organizations, and have you seen stronger coverage because of this?

JW: Here’s the thing. Journalists are 99 percenters—most of them, at least—and they recognize what’s going on here and many of them have embedded themselves in here and taken on more than just their official capacity in terms of really wanting to tell, accurately and in-depth, the story of what’s happening here.

Other journalists have sort of come here as an obligation to their work or even like an attempt to delegitimize us, and those reporters and journalists I have very little patience with and usually will tell them ‘If you’re going to slam us, or you’re going to paint an unrepresentative picture of what’s happening here, I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want to inform it.’

The mainstream media is a difficult monster because there’s good and bad in it and in many ways, we want to recognize, or I want to recognize, the good in it at the same time as I seek to inform people about the influences behind it and the real corporate sort of agenda of many mainstream media outlets. So it’s a complicated relationship, but I would say that, to summarize, the folks that really embed themselves here and take time to get to know what’s happening and get to understand what’s behind this apparent chaos—which is very organized and very productive and very inspiring for so many people—those people are embraced by our media team. And if they don’t embrace that and they don’t make the effort to try to accurately report on what’s happening, then they’re usually pushed out.

AK: What motivates you to come here every morning, stay all day and night, and do it all over again the next day?

JW: It’s the little things. It’s talking to a little kid at the parent sleepover and doing a ‘mic check’ with a kid and hearing the kid say that the ‘mic check’—the ‘people’s mic’—is ‘so powerful because it gives me voice.’ Or hearing a guy—I pulled down the window the other day as I’m going with the Sanitation team to pick up supplies in a pickup truck and I pull down the window and I see some Hassidic men driving next to me and I say to them ‘Come Occupy Wall Street with us.’ And he says, ‘My wife’s keeping me occupied enough.’ And you know, little jokes, just little moments of clarity where you understand that what you’re building is not just the day-to-day grind, is not just the hustle, but a bigger platform, a bigger structure upon which we can rise up and make our voices heard.

AK: What’s the next step for Occupy Wall Street?

JW: Come together. More people. More people in the streets. More people in this park—in every park. Wall Streets is all streets. I mean, over 900 cities I hear are holding General Assemblies and occupations. That just brings a beautiful feeling to me because I realize now that what we created here was not some freak accident, but really a widespread symptom in many ways of what people are feeling now.

For more context and tweets about Occupy Wall Street, follow me on Twitter: @katz. Other live-tweeters include Craig Kanalley of the Huffington Post, Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones and Anthony De Rosa of Reuters.

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