Occupiers from Tunisia, Spain, New Zealand, Taiwan and France compare notes

The highlight of my recent trip to Europe was this conversation in the photograph above (also captured in this 360° video, and this audio recording).

The people in this photograph are participants from the Tunisian revolution in 2010, the Spanish 15M movement and the New Zealand Occupy movement in 2011, the 2014 Sunflower Movement from Taiwan, and Nuit Debout, the horizontal protest movement currently underway in France.

We were at Medialab Prado for a week-long hackathon and conference hosted by D-CENT, which I’ve written about here.

The recording is 3 hours long, so I’ve loosely transcribed it and cut it down into a couple of chapters:

  1. Nuit Debout: the French incarnation of the movement of movements
  2. Revolutionary technology from Spain to Burkina Faso to France to Taiwan
  3. How Taiwan solved the Uber problem
  4. What happens once the protestors go home?

For more of this, check out another conversation I transcribed with a Nuit Debout activist.

Nuit Debout: the French incarnation of the movement of movements

Baki: We are a fucking frustrated generation.

First time I voted, extreme right wing guy almost won power. Since that day his ideas are taking power in France.

Many of us work in the digital field, but the progressive parties and unions, are not in the digital world. They are dead against digital, it’s too transparent, too this, too that.

We are working in this field. I built a platform called WeSign.It, a citizen mobilization platform, petitioning, campaigning, crowdfunding. Now we are building new tools. About 1 month before the 31st of March [when Nuit Debout started] we decided that the next struggle must be digital. We decided that non-democratically, we just made a statement. We decided to build a media centre, 20 days before this struggle started. Why? For two reasons:

  1. Internal frustration. Digital is not used by progressives, only by conservatives.
  2. We want to tell a real narrative of what is happening in the struggle. Not waiting for the mass media to tell their narrative, which in general is like, 2 guys broke into a car, the police arrested them, and so on. We wanted to build our own narrative of the movement.

We told all the unions that we’re meeting, told them we’re building a media centre. They said ‘ok’ but they weren’t interested.

So we built it. We tested all the communications tools before the day of the march, Telegram, Signal, Loomio. We tested everything. We even had Firechat, so we could communicate even if they shut the internet down. We were ready. Our phones were hot!

The day of the struggle, we decided to establish a stable media centre somewhere, and another mobile one.

Here is media centre group in Telegram. 173 people in there. People send us what is happening in the streets. We use that material to create tweets.

We thought this was just for 1 day, March 31st.

At the start of the day, 500 people following our Twitter account @NuitDebout [English language tweets on @GlobalDebout]. In the morning the mass media were sharing stories of guys breaking cars. They were saying “it’s in the streets near where the march is going to start”, but sharing it as if it was part of the march. These were the only images. So we said, let us start sharing the real images of the march. We started sharing these images: people marching, walking, doing things, all happy.

By 2pm we have like 5000 Twitter followers. We were surprised. There was a movie that was to be screened at night. We used two hashtags, #nuitdebout and one that meant ‘on the 31st of March I’m not going home’. People stayed, they camped at Place de République. The march ended at Nation, which is about 3km away, but they carried on to watch the movie and to stay. We didn’t think that people would really do it but they stayed.

All the media were talking about the struggle over the labor law. At 5am, April 1st, a journalist from Le Monde called me, and said ‘we know you’re working with Nuit Debout, how do you see this movement?’ I said, ‘I don’t know!’

This is the first article about Nuit Debout, and it is a Storify [an editorial collection of tweets]. The journalist just picked up all the tweets that we made through the day, and the videos, and that was the story. This is the very first article in the media. So at 5am, we say, we won. Our narrative is the reality!

From then, we created a Facebook page, which rapidly became the most popular page in France. 150,000 people.

So now in France we are changing the calendar. Instead of April 1st, we say March 32nd. Why March 32? In the middle of the night we saw the extreme right was making an attack. They were saying, “once again, the lefties are making an April Fools joke,” and we saw that the hashtag April1st was trending. I was about to go home, then we heard about this April1st attack. We said, this is not a joke, so tomorrow is not the 1st of April, it’s the 32nd of March. So we created the March32nd hashtag, and then that became a trending topic.

We bought the domain name nuitdebout.fr, we created the Numérique Commission, all kinds of developers and hackers came along eager to contribute. Next thing we have a website and 64 developers.

The main challenge we have is that the extreme left in France is not like it is in Spain. In Spain they are very poor. In France they are very rich. They have MPs, they have money, they have people working for them. The big fight we’re having right now in the square, is digital or not digital. Digital or physical.

I come from the digital field and I cannot do anything without digital today. If you are not physically there, you can’t be condemned for not being there. Digital is there to help. We need tools to make people write the text together, discuss on the text, vote on the text, and share it.

First tool: Loomio. A few people, a small number of noisy people, from the classical left, the pure ones, those who say they are more left than you. They tell us no, Loomio is a marketing tool. We say, oh it’s free, these people develop it. They say, someone can manipulate the data. We say, yes, someone can manipulate the ballot too, so what’s the problem?

With the Numérique Commission we decided to use Loomio for every discussion we had concerning the website. It works. When there is a text to discuss, we put it in Loomio, and we discuss it. Then it works. People see that it is not taking power in politics. Their main problem is: ‘is this going to take power in politics?’

The developers in the Numérique Commission, they are very good smart people, they decide to not be opponents to the classical leftists. They say, we have to build the tools, the tools must be neutral, you guys in the street, maybe the tools can help you, maybe not.

Now people are using these tools, but they cannot say they are using them! They have to say they don’t like them, even though they are using them.

My challenge was to explain how we created Nuit Debout and to show how progressive they’ve been. They’ve come so far! Now we have a big problem in France today. Classical politicians want to take this movement.

[…] Since Podemos in Spain, in all of Europe now, the political parties think a social movement is going to take them to power. We’re saying, ‘guys, no! It’s not going to take you to power unless you do the job to get to power.’

I have a small company to do communication for NGOs. So they say ‘Oh this guy has a private company, so he’s a capitalist!’ I say, ‘ok, what’s the problem’. They say ‘you cannot control the communication.’ I say, ‘I’m not controlling the communication, I’m trying to distribute the communication.’ They say, ‘but you have the codes!’ I say, ‘you can have the codes too.’

We are building all these tools together, people from my generation, the so-called digital natives. We have this frustration. For example, people always tell us, ‘you guys are too democratic, it is impossible to take everyone to parliament to decide.’ But today my tools can make that possible! You could tell me this 30 years ago, but today you can’t tell me this. I have too many tools that can make everyone participate.

For example. We go from a simple petition, to a direct action. Looking at our petition platform WeSign.It. Looking at this petition about the stop-and-search laws: 21,000 people sign this petition. You can call that clicktivism, ok. People criticise and say it is not real engagement, pure engagement is in the street. So ok, people can give money. They say, oh money is just a credit card, we need real engagement. Now we go to the next level. Everyone from the 21,000 people can say where they live, and we generate a tweet to their senator. They click one button to send a message to the senator saying “I’m against stop-and-search, what about you?”

When we launched this, we saw 5000 tweets a day for every senator. They went crazy! People accept this. Sometimes the senator reply to the tweet, saying ‘yes I’m going to vote against it’ or ‘no I support the law’. People say, ‘is she answering me!?’ yes, she is really answering you. Tweets are public, she can’t avoid seeing them. She can’t block me. Well she can block me but she can’t block Audrey. And if she blocks Audrey she can’t block the next person. The tweets are coming from everyone, there’s no central account to block. 5000 tweets from 5000 individual people. So she can’t go to court to say ‘they’re harassing me’, because one person only sent you one tweet, it’s not enough for harassment. Who are you going to prosecute in court?

People accept this. Our main concern now is to have deliberative platforms. We can sign petitions, give money, make direct actions, and deliberate. Why? When we built WeSign.It, we thought our challenge was to make people ask government to do something, or to be against something. Now we notice people are using it more and more to count their crowd, to do things themselves.

Another petition example is this one about a farmer. His land in Lyon has been in his family for 400 years. The Mayor of Lyon decided to build a stadium for the European soccer cup. They bought all the farms around him, but this guy said ‘no I can’t sell my farm, this is the only inheritance I have from 400 years of family’. So they decided to divide his farm in two by making a highway going from Lyon to the new stadium. He told them, I will give you the borders of my farm so your road can go around the edge. They decided to go between his house and where the animals live. Now his farm is cut in two.

This petition was not to tell the Mayor of Lyon to change his mind, but it is to say ‘we support the farmer.’ We are not asking the Mayor or the government anything, we just support the guy. 163,000 people say they support him, but they’re not asking anything of the government.

So we say ‘OMG what are we going to do? These people are not classical, we’re not going to print this petition and give it to an MP. What is the next level? Let them give money.’ The people that signed the petition say we need to build a bridge to connect the two halves of the farm. We were looking for 15,000 Euros to help him, we collected 25,000 in one week. This petition turned into that action.

These type of people don’t want us to challenge the MP, they don’t trust the MP enough to even ask him something. Not just because they want to do it themselves, but also because they want to count themselves, how many of us don’t want to ask the government anything.

This for us is the main point of the petition.

After this step, they asked us how can we act? It was impossible for us, because we don’t have a space to deliberate, to plan. This is the next level. We say, we’re not going to build tools that exist, so let’s see what exists. And then comes Loomio. We started to see how it works. Then comes Nuit Debout and we say OK! Nuit Debout is the training ground.

I can show you how the Numérique Commission in Nuit Debout is using Loomio. We have many discussions in there. For the movement this is not decision-taking, but work in progress.

People are very critical about all these tools. In general people who are critical, are critical about control. The old left want to control everything. If they can’t control it, that means someone else is controlling, in their minds. They want to know how it works. We tell them the code is open, but they say ‘no, there must be someone controlling.’ What we learnt from working with the Spanish people: these people are used to using control all throughout their activist life, so they think that when we’re using tools, someone must be controlling it. They always look for who is the man behind the code?

On the other hand, some of us say we don’t care. For example, in a general assembly I was asked to explain what I do with the data of the 150,000 people who liked our Facebook page. I said ‘guys, 150,000 people on the Facebook page of Nuit Debout are already on Facebook, so why are you asking me? Are you asking me to ask Zuckerberg to hand over the data? 100% of them were already on Facebook. 70% of the people who sign our petition have a Gmail account, 99% of them have a Facebook, so what are you saying? You want to discuss data?’

Things are moving but very slowly.

We need more tools to link. The problem we had with Loomio: we built a petition, then we tell people to come to Loomio. But it is not inside the petition site. People obey when it is inside the site, but they are not willing to go to another place. We say, you’ve signed the petition, now we need you to go to Loomio to discuss and decide, they say ‘who is Loomio?’ But if we link the tools and they can sign the petition, then discuss and decide in one place, that’s natural.

Whenever you change the place of the action, they feel there is a manipulation somewhere. This is few people, maybe less than 10% of the people. But they are very noisy, very tough. They’ll send 100 messages to ask who is behind the tool? That’s why I’m happy to meet you today so I can say, I met him, he’s a New Zealand guy, he has a beard…

If we can make people participate online, people who want to use old methods of activism, Stalinism, Leninism, all those people have to use physical pressure to make their point. Loomio don’t let them put physical pressure. If we succeed in doing this, it means they definitely have to change their ways of doing politics. This is not easy for people that think they are pure, always right. Audrey interjects: ‘Always left!’

This is a disease of the French left, they are more pure than you. Are you anticapitalist? Have you been in 100 demonstrations against capitalism? Then you’re not really serious. They have the truth. The light, the bible. If they lose control of where the decisions are taken, they lose the truth and purity. This makes them crazy.

For some of us, this is the fight. Why? Not only to fight against the classical left, it’s also fight for the new ways. My personal belief. Audrey is a conservative anarchist. I’m an anarcho-syndicalist. This is my hypothesis: if Karl Marx were living today, he’d have a Twitter account.

When they created the anarcho-syndicalist movement, they were talking directly with people in factories. They weren’t gathering in squares, it was in the workplace. They write books. There’s a French anarchist we call the Christ, he wrote one book and died at 33 years old. He said workers should have a place where they can save their own money, get their own healthcare etc. He wrote a newspaper, developed with the workers. Why? to touch people where they are.

Today, if we want people to come to Place de République everyday — The first day of Nuit Debout. I have a friend, a very good activist. He has a child. He couldn’t leave his child because his wife was not there. So he couldn’t come to Nuit Debout, he had to stay home. He says ‘how can I follow this?’ We say, we’re all over twitter and video streams, you can participate there. I was thinking, if I keep doing things the way the old left wants us to, this guy is excluded from the group. He can’t participate. His ideas are genius but he can’t participate in the Place. So if people can’t participate because they’re looking after children, or they have to work, or they are sick, if we exclude those people, that’s no longer progressive. For me it is ideological: people have to participate, whatever problems they have.

Rich: I want to share something my friend Ahi wrote:

“…the most radical thing is building relationships, being gracious, and being strategic.
Don’t burn bridges over imperfect politics but don’t let people get away with oppressive dynamics. Talk like friends, meet people where they’re at, listen more. If your movement isn’t accessible to kids, disabled people, poor people, elderly people, and other minority groups; it’s not a movement it’s just a scene.
Accessibility is everything.”

This is part 1 of a 4-part series of conversations with activists from around the world. Part 2 is here.

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