Tweeting From the Barricades: The People’s Climate March and Twitter

When the C train slowed to a halt at Fulton Street station on last Sunday morning, I saw an assortment of anti-Tar Sands and anti-Keystone XL signs. As I boarded the train, I quickly realized that almost each passenger on the quick ride uptown with me were also heading to Central Park West, to protest against the climate inaction of the past twenty-five years. Seeing floods of protesters walking onto the train as we ventured uptown confirmed what I suspected, that the People’s Climate March would be larger than any protest I’ve been to in my whole life. When getting off at 72nd Street around thirty minutes later, the conductor said ‘have a good day at the march, make it count’ over the intercom. This wasn’t anything resembling a normal New York City demonstration. Concerned citizens from all over the United States were in Manhattan and it wasn’t for an over-hyped award show or fashion week. The people were here to save the climate.

At over 310,000 people, the People’s Climate March was the largest protest in the Big Apple since the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It was also touted as the largest climate protest in history, achieving the goal set by, Avaaz, and hundreds of other participating organizations. Even with established groups bankrolling the outreach for the event, including advertisements on ten percent of the subways in New York City in the weeks leading up to the march, the historic day came together from the ground up, via decentralized hubs which featured listservs, weekly conference calls, and frequent planning meetings. While thousands of people were lining up next to Central Park, thousands more were following the event on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

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Twitter and the National Fight For 15 Convention

Last week, I posted an analysis of the media coverage of the Fight For 15 convention, which I compiled using the Google News aggregator. With the exception of the New York Times article by Steven Greenfield, all of the information and quotes of each article originated from two Associated Press articles,one previewing the event, and the other providing a recap. This was a sign that very few mainstream media outlets actually covered the event directly.

To supplement these findings, I have also analyzed the top tweets of the #FightFor15 hashtag which correspond to the events that took place in Elmhurst, Illinois on the weekend of July 26th and 27th.

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Early Hypotheses: Who is Fighting for $15 on Twitter and What are they Tweeting?

What findings do I expect to discover from my research into the Twitter presence of 15 Now and related movements fighting to raise the minimum wage and how they tactically mobilize and spread the movement using a social media platform comprised of only 16% of the U.S. population? [source] Due to my years of experience using Twitter for these purposes, it won’t be too much of a stretch to formulate a hypothesis of what the hashtag histories of #15now, #FightFor15, and other related tags will look like.

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What’s In a Tweet?

What is in a tweet? Certainly, we see twitter elements featured on ads in subways and bus shelters, linking our digital and material worlds as if the hashtag symbol itself were a QR code. These hashtags and handles are symbols referencing meanings associated with the digital environment of twitter, whose content is itself comprised of references to the events of our physical world. This interconnectivity between different environments is only increasing as we move into a generation of smart electronics and Google Glass. As we witness this process of singularity occurring before our eyes, we must ask ourselves the question: What is the impact of these technologies on our social world? What I want to explore in particular is how these social networks impact the mobilization and radicalization processes of social movements, and how they can use these tools to build the political power needed to work toward either moderate reform or substantial systemic change in American politics.

As this exploration into the new social movements of the digital age begins, one method for ascertaining the role of social media would be to study current movements against the backdrop of similar mobilizations working toward comparable change in the pre-digital era. How do the protests, rallies, and sit-ins of today differ from past struggles for productive change? What portion of this difference can be attributed to communication via social media? For example, what distinguishes the current fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage from past movements of poor, disenfranchised workers in the United States?

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The Only Constant Is Change

The only constant is change.

How often have you heard these words spoken by your peers who were trying to give you advice on how to renew your perspective on life, looking toward the changes of the future rather than the issues of the present?

In my short years on this earth, I have finally come to the conclusion that this mantra is indeed true, at least on a personal level.

Sure, this advice might be great to hear in you were attending an appointment with your life coach or therapist, but what about when we apply this to the political system and society as a whole?

We have seen the language of change used in speeches, pamphlets, and opinion columns alike since the American Revolution but how often do these words translate into action? How often is change really possible and if these political power shifts actually occur, are they truly systemic or just moderate reform? Like most sociological concepts, the answer depends on the situation.

In recent years, we have heard about change in political discourse quite often, especially after America lived through the bank bailout, foreclosure crisis, widespread dissatisfaction of the Bush administration, and the passage of laws which equate money with free speech as the sini coefficient continues to rise.

Would Obama have won if he didn’t frame his mission with buzzwords like ‘hope’ and ‘change? There is no doubt that Barack appealed to the masses, the disenfranchised war-fatigued public who had seen a great deal of their savings and jobs disappear in just a few years.

When thousands of people celebrated his inauguration, with an energy for change not seen since the beginning of the 1970s, they might not have fathomed how disappointed they would be in a few years as the status quo remained, Obama’s promises never came to fruition and the economic conditions for many became even more dire.

Many soon realized that true systemic change was not possible by simply electing a candidate who said all the right slogans. Some of these disenfranchised people, especially the young underemployed college graduates of modern American society, decided to take the next step three years later. Occupy Wall Street was born.

As the tents were erected in public squares in cities and small towns throughout the US and the rest of the world, it became obvious that the dissent wasn’t aimed solely at Wall Street. Very soon, the protests bloomed into a large, diverse movement pushing for the change that couldn’t be acquired through a ballot box.

The Occupy movement grew largely through social media, blogs, and other websites, subverting the mainstream media which were largely ignoring the protest, except to stereotype and minimize the discourse for change promoted by the protesters. Soon enough, the police moved in and broke up the camps in a coordinated, synchronized attack throughout the country. Occupy was over…. Or was it?

Many critics of the movement would point out that there were their lack of clear demands and focus, which in certain ways was a fair assessment as Ron Paul supporters who wanted to end the federal Reserve camped out next to socialists who were looking for universal health care, who shared meals with activists focusing on ending stop and frisk and police brutality.

Of course, the reason for the diversity of these protests was the widespread interconnected failures of the corporatist structure, but still, it is challenging to achieve significant systemic change, especially in such a short time period. While the ability of people of different beliefs to come together to resist the system is quite a beautiful thing, the question still remains: How can a decentralized movement in the information age influence even force the enactment of tangible political gains.

There is no doubt that the first wave of occupy is indeed over, as protesters are no longer trying to hold space in public parks like Zuccotti in Lower Manhattan. Occupy has now been defined as a tactic, much like it was before it became the label for a historical flashpoint. People have continued to push for change and what was once occupy has dispersed and spawned a multitude of new movements holding protests, more focused with a greater ability to mobilize, educate, and agitate, since they have a more clear message,comprised of specific goals and aims.

Included in this second wave of dissent are groups like Strike Debt,, and Fight for the Future. A portion of these diverse activist groups might have existed independently of Occupy Wall Street, but I contend that the energy of Fall 2011 has led activist groups to become larger and more confident that they otherwise would have been. We are still living in this wave at this very moment, and the change people hope for is beginning to be realized, even if in a less radical, reform-based way.

To return to the earlier question: Can these movements really create change in America’s plutocratic two-party environment? If so, how?

Recently, I have been falling into the black hole of depression: perpetually unsatisfied as an IT associate at a company I hate, even though I am being paid enough to survive and am in the lucky group of Americans with health insurance. After speaking for weeks with my worried friends, I realized that the quote I started this post with is indeed true. change is constant and I needed to work on a passion that could bring me happiness even if it meant struggling to meet basic financial needs.

No, I didn’t quit on the spot and decide to travel the globe and drain my savings, but I did decide to work toward a career in studying social protests and the movements which are working to shape our world each day.

My goal in life is to make an impact by studying those who struggle and fight for change.. By examining the few successful cases of groups which spawned out of the energy burst of 2011 and actually won concrete reforms, I hope to create meaningful research which can be used as a guide for individuals and groups who are currently pushing for change in the same cities and towns that had occupy encampments back in 2011.

The starting point of this exploration is Seattle, the city which recently passed a $15 an hour minimum wage, by far the highest in the nation, in large part due to the organizing efforts of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant and her group 15 Now. How did the groups fighting for $15 an hour in Seattle win political gains so quickly? How did the sociopolitical environment of Seattle play a role in facilitating this change, and how can workers in other areas of the United States apply their example to fight for a living wage?

An early comparison in this study will be California, which also swiftly passed a state-wide $13/hr minimum wage. What are the similarities between the organizing efforts in California and Seattle and why are some cities and states with strong movements unable to obtain the same victories, for instance, New York City or Chicago?

Just like that, my exploration into change begins. Now I leave you with this quote by Margaret Mead:

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’