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The Golden Bear Awakens

10 November 2011

Something is happening in Berkeley.

The birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley, tonight demonstrates the emerging potential of social media combined with ever-more-powerful handheld computers and ever-faster ubiquitous wireless data service.  These devices have the potential to turn the tide against the 1%, something which was largely lost after power brokers learned their lesson from the tide-changing press coverage of the Vietnam War. Those haunting TV images beamed back to American living rooms were themselves a revolution at the nexus of media and conflict. Vietnam is termed the “first ‘television war.'”

Since that time, a lot of work has been done to erode and corrupt the free press in the United States.  Billionaire tycoons and corporate titans plus deregulation didn’t work so well for the 99% when the billionaires ran banks and brokerages and eventually government; unsurprisingly, those institutions evolved to serve the interests of the 1%.  Why on Earth would the press be any different?

I chatted with a friend a day or two after attending Occupy Portland’s action at Jamison Square. “Citizen journalism,” he said (and I paraphrase) “is going to be what makes the difference.” And it’s true. I didn’t attend the action at Jamison Square because I supported it; while I strongly support the ideas behind the #OWS movement, I considered the announced “expansion” of Occupy Portland a tactically poor move. No, I was there to put cameras on the cops.

I’ve documented civil unrest before with digital cameras and camcorders.  Then I had to rush home, process the material and upload it.  This would be the first episode with police involvement where I finally had my dream come true: equipment capable of beaming live video and audio to the Internet where the footage is archived in the cloud, thus being stored safely as it is broadcast — away from the ability of anyone to break or confiscate the memory card.

I did my best at Jamison Square, and during tense moments in the standoff, I did broadcast video.  There were technical issues and only some of the video was saved, but I was just happy to have had a trial by fire, so to speak.

Fast-forward to tonight. While tuned in to the General Assembly on the Occupy Portland Livestream — basically a dude walking around with a webcam on sticks, batteries and a portable computer or tablet — someone in chat called out that #OccupyCal at UC Berkeley was being raided at that very moment, that students earlier in the day had been beaten, and that there was a live video feed from the crowd.  I quickly changed channels to http://occupystream.com/ which was showing live video from Berkeley on its Global channel.

Here’s where I first saw the future arrive. I tuned in to that channel, joined by some 700 other live viewers. As I watched, someone at the controls cut from feed to feed, sometimes displaying two feeds at once or a live feed plus earlier video. Sounds like garden variety live cable news coverage, except that this was all streamed live from the crowd itself. There were helicopter shuts intercut from a news feed intercepted from somewhere, but nearly everything was coming direct from citizen journalists broadcasting live. You could see the guy running the channel occasionally clicking around in windows visible in the broadcast image. It was very post-postmodern cable-access.

And that’s what we need in this country. More cameras in the hands of citizens, streaming to more offsite archives. Since we’re long down the road toward being a panopticon state anyway, the best thing we can do is make sure the governed have just as many cameras pointed at the government (and its agents) as they have pointed at us.

Crack a US veteran’s skull with a shot from a tear gas canister — that’s new video analysis with additional footage, by the way, from citizen journalists — the video goes out, it goes viral, the mainstream media cannot ignore it, and the movement grows.

Shoot an unarmed and lawfully recording citizen journalist for no fucking reason whatsoever, the video goes out, goes viral, and the movement grows.

And today, beat UC Berkeley students with truncheons, the video goes out, goes viral, and the movement grows before it’s time for dinner.

That’s the second critical difference between the time we live in now and the time just before, that “going viral” part. Citizen journalism, for all its flaws, is “realer” than professional old-media journalism. “Life is like video footage, hard to edit, directors, they never understood it.” And social media, for all its flaws, is a hell of a lot faster. Combine the two with the power of a radio or television station that can fit inside — and broadcast live from — a backpack, put that equipment within the means of the ordinary man and woman, and it’s a whole new era.

So, someone raised the alarm in the Occupy Portland Livestream chat room. And I tuned in, and I watched from the perspective of the people what was unfolding at UC Berkley.

And I watched the viewer count.

Seven hundred… nine hundred… a thousand. Fourteen hundred. Two thousand. More. And it wasn’t the only distribution channel. There were thousands more viewers on different feeds. All live. Many in the chat room, sending greetings and well-wishes from New York, Michigan, Portland, Prague, Australia. One user simply said “upstate New York. witnessing.”

The whole world really is watching. The police, understanding that the inevitable sadistic thugs within their ranks will make them look bad, have tried to resist. There are laws — fucking laws, actually on the books in the United States of America — in Massachusetts and other places against recording so-called “public servants” when they’re supposed to be serving the public. But it doesn’t matter. Ridiculous un-Constitutional laws against recording police abuse mean nothing on the Internet.

The 1% have the cops on a short leash. But now we can watch the results of that play out in real time, uncensored, and uncontrolled by those at the top.

My thanks to the University of California, Berkeley, for once again playing a part in the evolution of the people’s voice.

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