A voice of Occupy Wall Street
By Andrew Burton
When the Occupy Wall Street movement began their Spring Training sessions earlier this year, I realized I had focused much of my coverage throughout the fall of 2011 on the most sensationalistic events – large marches, mass arrests and sporadic violence. It dawned on me that I had seen very little photojournalistic work, from myself or other photographers, looking at Occupy Wall Street’s more mundane or personal aspects – essentially, who the protesters were beyond the demonstrations.
I decided to approach Austin Guest to see if he’d be interested in allowing me to follow him as an individual. Guest is an organizer, videographer and creative-action planner in the movement. I had seen him lead marches, moderate group conversations and give speeches – in essence, I had been impressed at his ability to speak to groups and lead large rallies. Austin was open to the idea and over the past month I’ve tried to spend as much time with him as possible – before, during and after events, with friends, at the bar, eating dinner, shopping for supplies and training for future events.
What I found in Guest was a fascinating character – a Harvard-educated man who had been living in Brooklyn for the past seven years, working with Align, a community based organization focused on housing for low-income communities. Guest, who worked two blocks south of Zuccotti Park, was initially skeptical of the movement, but by mid-October, 2011, had been won over. He says a key moment was October 1, 2011 – a day in which over 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. On that day, Guest was on the pedestrian level of the bridge, watching hundreds of protesters getting arrested on the vehicle-level below him. He found himself simultaneously mic-checking the group (leading a conversation) about what the protesters should do, and filming the arrests. Later that day, he went and logged the footage for Occupy’s media team.
“In the world I came from, you had to work for years to get seniority enough to be in charge… [you were] constantly being disciplined if you weren’t on the right message, it was hierarchies… here I was being trusted with this really vital and important role to keep these people safe and document what was happening to them and it felt really empowering,” Guest said.
Guest quit his job on November 19 and has focused on the movement full time. He believes the country’s socioeconomic structures should be direct democracy, distributive work models, mutual aid and contributing based on your abilities. And while he never permanently moved in to Zuccotti, he believes the space was a model for how things should be organized.
“We built temporarily a place where we fed anyone who was hungry, provided shelter for anybody who didn’t have it, books for anybody who wanted knowledge and a space to speak for anybody who felt disenfranchised.”
However, when asked about a system for an entire country Guest admits, “A country is hard. A country is really big… I don’t think we yet have this direct democracy model. I’m not sure we know how to think on the scale of the United States yet.”
As a journalist, Guest helped re-shape my own notions of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like many people, I thought the OWS movement seemed unorganized and unwilling to state clear political desires. On the contrary, Guest demonstrated that the movement does have organization and leadership, though at times they focus so extensively on each person having a voice, it can be hard to reach consensus and mobilize. Regarding political goals, Guest explained that Occupy Wall Street is a social movement, not a political one.
“I hope that we never try to elect anybody, that we never endorse policies, because I don’t think we’re good at that… the decision to back one policy over others is the decision is to foreclose all the other possible options… I think we should open a discussion that creates more possibilities, and then our labor allies, or our think-tank allies, take that energy, take some of the possibilities, and say, ‘yes, we’re choosing this one, we’re going to push this one,’” Guest says.
“Anything that’s ever won real change, has done so by not asking for it, has done so by saying we are insatiable, all we are going to do is continue making this situation untenable for you. And since you’re the one who wants to fix the situation, fix it.”