Global 'Occupy' marches show reach of most unlikely consumer revolution ever

Corporate America: Customers have conquered your social nets, demanding more than disdain and dismissal

The most disappointing thing about the global "day of rage" protests inspired and coordinated by the coterie of activists known as OccupyWallStreet is that this picture of a Toronto Police officer playfully water-fighting with "protesters" is actually from the Toronto Gay Pride parade July 17, not any of the Occupy events.

Except for Italy, where a small, violent "black bloc" within the group of more than 10,000 marchers burned cars, attacked banks and threw rocks, the multinational protest went off in more than a dozen cities, with little violence, but more than 100 arrests New York and 175 in Chicago.

In Toronto the march of more than 1,000 protesters was peaceful, though the message they communicated through handmade sings with slogans like "CEO pay up 444% in 12 years. How about yours?" was apparently more puzzling than provocative for many Canadian pundits, many of whom seem confused about the difference between OWS and the protesters who turned the G20 Economic Summit made such a riot in June of 2010.

The global protest is the largest, most visible result of a protest launched in New York a month ago by the hactivist group Anonymous and a medley of liberal, real-world activist groups such as Adbusters, which describes itself as being focused on protecting consumers from exploitation by financial-services and other big businesses.

Unlikely coalition for real-world social revolution

Anonymous and the heavily educated, heavily digitalized contingent among the protesters have helped keep both the protest the often violent reaction to it by police.

They've also helped attract and publicize the support of major unions – the AFL-CIO, Teachers Unions among many others – and civil rights groups such as the ACLU that you'd expect to see among those supporting equality, but not necessarily one that specifically blames financial players such as Rupert Murdoch and the infamously radical-conservative Koch brothers for massive inequities in rules that heavily favor the wealthy on any question involving finance.

Even those whose support could have been assumed seem to have as many problems with OWS' tactics as with the tendency of police to beat and arrest them.

The wide and consistent impact of the protests – in the public consciousness if not in actual changes on the issues they protest – surprised even many among their supporters, because of the group's brashness, aggressive tactics and willingness to admit it doesn't have the answers but does have a list of questions that need serious answers from both lawmakers and the financial industry.

It also surprised opponents who expected the loonies, leftists and hippies they perceived the protesters to be would self-destruct or fade away quickly as the charm of sleeping outside in Manhattan, pressure from police and limited benefit of Patchouli among any unwashed mass took their toll.

The population of protest HQ in Zucotti park rises and falls with the weather, day of the week and the type of event planned for a particular day.

The best indicator of support may be the response to any crisis, which prompts supporters who can't be present in the park every day – many of whom have never participated in any other protests or activist movements – to crowd into the city and draw hordes who can't come to the city to attend online through social media and news sites.

On Thursday, as rumors swirled that the City would expel OccupyWallStreet from Zucotti Park temporarily to allow the real-estate firm that owns it to clean the trash, human waste and detritus of four weeks of zero-infrastructure urban camping, more than 2,000 swelled the population in the park mostly to scrub it within an inch of its life, not as reinforcements for a major assault on police.

Within the park – and in most of the other cities to which OWS has spread – the protests themselves have been remarkably peaceful -- carefully obeying rules against camping and obstructing traffic to minimize response by police. They also take pains to treat both police and opponents with carefully non-confrontational messages and keep minders throughout crowds of marches swelled by new supporting groups or other noobs, to keep the marches in order to the greatest extent possible.

At the same time, smaller contingents are openly confrontational and to some extent, provocative in both the way they design their events. After a huge and peaceful march with Unions last week, breakaway protesters stormed police lines, tried to expand their march to City Hall despite warnings from the Mayor they'd be barred from the site and arrested by police if they go t anywhere near.

Charging a line of police in riot gear, which is both admirable and incredibly stupid ant the same time, isn't the way to keep your event low key. Neither is leading a march to show up on the doorstep of a billionaire to sing songs about the tyranny of an economy obsessed with obscene wealth while the billionaire, presumably, surrounds him or herself with security goons and quavers in fear in a darkened control room first build to hear mad villains gloat over the pending triumph of their evil plans while preparing implausibly ornate and catastrophically untested ways to kill James Bond slowly while no one stays behind to watch the fun.

Unfortunately the billionaires OWS chose to taunt are all the wrong kind of obsessive megalomaniac, or are simply too smart to build a self-destruct system controlled by a giant red button they feel obligated to point out and explain to guests.

If anything, the Millionaires March was more boring than James Bond, though not for lack of titular villains or cool gadgetry (little of which was designed to blow up on purpose, though some ran on Microsoft operating systems, so the risk was never far away.

Cloud-based protest multipliers

The real difference between OWS and previous fight-the-man protests was the unparalleled effectiveness of its online component – hackers, hackerfans, hacktivists and geek-savvy protest wannabes who couldn't go to New York because ditching work for a month is a powerful multiplier of the risk one specific person will join the record-high number unemployed and underemployed already.

Why make the situation you're protesting worse by getting fired?

Even less well-defined than on-site leadership, however, OWS online support within the U.S and elsewhere has been the digital equivalent of the Human Megaphone – the analog replacement for voice-amplification systems OWS on-siters aren't allowed to use in Manhattan.

Online supporters don't simply repeat every word speakers say; they add more to the process than volume.

Though they're more diverse, even less well-defined than on-sites supporters – taunted by opponents on the right for being a random collection of fuzzy-minded liberal yahoos – online supporters generate passion and loyalty among both those who had been following the protest passively.

They do overreact to particular provocations – a little policework with baton and pepper spray after protesters charged the riot-suited line – buyt also add research, background information, encourageent and contributions of money to help support the movement.

Surprising persistence, surprising impact

I have to admit being among the surprised protesters. Anonymous, specifically, has been very effective at organizing mass online attacks, but getting people to show up in person for anything is far more difficult, especially then the event is brand new and the odds it will go on longer than a couple of ineffective days were daunting.

I actually expected more digital attacks from Anonymous or various participating groups, but even Anonymous has been relatively quiet, though every other contingent among the mob of pirates, hackers, "nation-state" espionage organizations, crooked insiders and all the other things that threaten the security of corporate data and networks have been as surprising as the consistency and long run time of the OWS show itself.

The first couple of weeks certainly didn't make either Anonymous or the other groups look as if they knew how to run a protest or gather support. Gradually the images, video, personal accounts and almost-liveblog – not to mention a concerted effort at PR in which designated protesters tried to explain the movement, its tactics and goals to visiting media.

It was obvious they were pressing an important, relevant and provocative topic, but the batttle between the rights of individuals compared to abuses by corporations or political parties has been sliding so consistently toward the advantage of fat cats that there was no reason to expect OWS would do anything but be squashed. More likely it would just fizzle from the Quixotic frustration of its own unreachable ideals.

Instead it has taken hold in more places, in more ways, among a wider variety of people than almost anyone expected.

"Radical hippies," or rational demands for rules enforcing fair play?

And they've done it using not only high ideals, but rational and ethical tactics that force even opponents to brush them off as "impractical" rather than as outlaws or rioters.

I don't think they are that impractical. The spread of the protests to Europe, which has been in the midst of economic turmoil for more than a year, may not be a good indicator.

The spread within the U.S. and widespread, largely benign recognition of the movement and its goals are good indications it will continue in other guises even after the Occupations themselves are over.

I hesitate to keep writing so frequently about OWS and its various spinoffs because, despite the important role Anonymous played and the important ways OWS' use of social media is changing the environment for political discussion, it's not purely a technology oriented topic. It's not even primarily technical.

It's primarily concerned with justice and honesty, which are rarely more than mouth music to major corporations, but which mean a lot to the customers who have to deal with them, and to the politicians who have to ask those customers for a vote.

That's where the push toward corporate financial-reporting regulations came from, and the resulting impact on IT.

I'm actually hoping OWS has a similar effect, even though the result for IT people may be more work as they try to create systems that meet new requirements for financial reporting that will ferret out more about the sequence of decisions behind financial decisions about finance, lending, borrowing, hiring, laying off and other C-suite issues.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

It's likely those systems will trace the meta-data behind major decisions much farther down the totem pole than they do now.

Changing the way customers talk to corporations, and making them listen

They will also expose far more individuals within corporations for decisions that result in grossly unjust policies or decisions that just piss off customers.

OWS is changing what is considered a "normal" level of communication for both customers (the mob) and corporations, encouraging the kind of grass-roots strength-in-numbers approach to policies customers really hate, but rarely so much that they create their own blogs or sites specifically to express that hatred and gather others of like mind.

It is making far more acceptable expressing the kind of anger sparked by customer-exploiting decisions like those below, not to mention give them a framework, examples and opportunities to do something about them.

Think about how OWS-influenced customers might respond online, through social networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a host of others, to outrages like the following assaults against customer rights and finances:

Bank of America gets hacked because its new fees are perceived as worse than those of other banks because of BofA's long successful history of nickel-and-diming customers into poverty and madness;

Verizon's decision to track and sell every thought, move and click of its wireless customers, make it difficult to opt out and refuse to promise that when it promises to honor a "do not track me" request that any of those words will apply to whatever it ultimately decides to do with the customer's information;

Facebook's decision that not only should customers provide private information it can make public, they can't have it back because once Facebook has it, all that personal data is certified as proprietary and belonging to Facebook.

"The financial industry" isn't the only target that shows up when you view the world through the kind of spotting scope OWS is making not only popular, but respectable.

If OWS continues to exist – to both represent and agitate for the rights of consumers and give consumers collective representation powerful enough to make their voices head – the result will be more work for IT, but it will be a tremendous benefit for American consumers, including those who work at even the most abusive organizations.

The specifics may be a little fuzzy if you're looking for a checklist of goals marked OccupyWallStreet until...

You won't find many firm goals after the elipses. Or, rather, too many goals to know which are likely.

The intent and methods, however, have been far more successful – and far more law-abiding – than anyone expected.

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