On Wednesday, three years to the day since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, one of its former leaders has sued another leader over a disputed Twitter account.
@OccupyWallStNYC has 177,000 followers, and it’s apparently controlled by Justin Wedes, a self-identified “educator and activist based in Detroit, Michigan” and a “founding member” of the New York City General Assembly. Wedes did not respond to Ars’ requests for comment.
According to the suit, which was filed by the OWS Media Group in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Wedes “hijacked” the account in early August 2014, “making himself the sole person in control of the Twitter Account.”
The suit demands that the court declare the OWS Media Group as the account’s rightful owner (bar any future transfer of the account), compel Wedes to return it, and award $500,000 in monetary damages.
The account was originally created by the Canadian organization AdBusters, which helped spawn the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. As the protests grew, AdBusters handed the account over to Marisa Holmes, a local activist. She expanded the circle of people that had access, including Wedes.
Holmes is now a director of the OWS Media Group, an organization that sprung from the protest movement.
A “last resort”
Earlier this year, Holmes, Wedes, and others began to argue about what was an appropriate use of the Twitter account. In particular, Wedes began tweeting about the Detroit Water Brigade, another activist group in the Motor City that he is heavily involved in.
“It’s really important historically to think about the legacy of Occupy and everything that meant, and going forward we want to be able to continue the movement work,” Holmes told Ars. “We want to be able to have the platforms available to us that we helped build. It’s really that simple. He stole it. We want it back and we want to get on with building the movement.”
Holmes noted that Wedes has yet to be formally served with the suit. She viewed it as a “last resort.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking with him over the course of several years now of trying to work together,” she said. “He’s just not interested in any nonviolent communication or mediation and has been unresponsive to that. This is the least harmful option that we could think of, and it’s unfortunate.”
She went on to call the alleged theft of the Twitter account a “moral and ethical breach.”
“It goes against everything that this movement was about, sharing and collecting resources—it’s equivalent to stealing money.”
“I had to say ‘enough!’”
In a blog post on his own website on August 12, 2014, Wedes said that earlier this month a thread on an internal e-mail list concerning appropriate uses of the Twitter account prompted him to seize control.
A thread about “self-promotion” became just another shaming session. If we start from a place of assuming bad intentions—i.e. discouraging “self-promotion” over encouraging solid, relevant content—we will end up with rules that shame rather than empower. Group members took on the task of limiting others to “1 to 2 tweets per day” (or week) on a topic, a form of censorship that would never have been allowed in the earlier days of the boat. I had to say enough!
This party is over. Time to go home. Time to clean house for the next party. Time to sleep, to heal, and to reflect.
Clearly the question of ownership of the account is a contentious one, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. The success of the #TweetBoat was in creating shared ownership of this collective resource by many different people with often divergent perspectives on what Occupy is. Still, even collective resources like gardens need human stewardship. I don’t shy away from currently being the chief steward of this account, and my plan is to reinvigorate it again by putting it back in the hands of responsible stewards.
At that time, he stated that the Twitter account would remain inactive, but it picked up again just two days later.
“We don’t actually want money.”
While it may seem a bit ironic that an anti-capitalist activist group would sue for money, Holmes underscored that her organization “can’t deal with money.” According to her, the $500,000 figure was only imposed to prevent Wedes from further transferred ownership of the account.
It is unclear, however, why imposing such monetary damages prevents such a transfer.
“If we don’t have any damages, then he can decide to just give the password of the Twitter account to a friend and then we’d have to sue his friend and then it would be this endless ordeal,” she said. “We wanted it to be short and sweet. We don’t want to draw this out. We have no intention of collecting that money. We don’t actually want money. What we want is for him to give the account back.”
UPDATE Friday 11:54am: OWS Media Group’s attorney, Thomas Hillgardner, wrote to Ars to say:
If my clients get the account back, they’d be much more likely to forego damages. But if [Justin Wedes] further alienates the account from his possession and control, the only thing left for my clients to recover would be money and his exposure to a judgment for monetary damages would be at its zenith. The measure of damages if we get the account back would be far less and likely would be waived. We think these matters are not lost on Mr. Wedes who is a fairly sophisticated gentleman.