South By Southwest gets a dose of Occupation

Anonymous wrecks
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  March 21, 2012

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Even before Occupy protesters rallied on Sixth Street last Friday — bandanas wrapped around their grills, middle fingers raised — you could easily argue that social justice was the centerpiece of South by Southwest 2012. Music is only half the story at the weeklong fest; there's also a film festival, and a parallel, nerdier conference on interactive media. And this year activism was a common thread running through them all. The film fest's hottest flick was the Anonymous documentary, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. On the music side, Bruce Springsteen, America's highest-profile Occupy endorser, smoked the headline concert.

Then there were the interactive panels, dozens of them, that reflected a raucous year in revolution. The Interactive conference has long been a powwow for everyone from online activists to nonprofit crusaders. The 2012 congregation, however, rang more aggressively progressive than in years past.

I've covered Occupy endlessly for months, so I didn't plan to write much about the Austin movement during my short time in Texas. Really. SXSW is my annual vacation, and I had a long list of new artists to check out, old friends to smoke reunion blunts with. In practice, though, if I thought I could get away from the movement, I thought wrong: everywhere I turned, SXSW was more Occupied than the toilet queue at the annual Nuclear Taco party.

ANON AND ON

It's easy to forget how young the Occupy movement really is. Here's a reminder: it first sprouted months after this years's SXSW Interactive panel proposals were due. Still, two Occupy-themed offerings were announced past deadline, while other presentations were tweaked to explore activism in the heat of American outrage. Al Gore even showed solidarity. In an interactive talk with Web honcho Sean Parker (portrayed by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network), the former vice-president of the United States challenged his audience to "occupy democracy."

Speakers on both Occupy-specific panels — "Occupying Media: 24-Hour Protest People," and "But Are You a Real Journalist?" — provided personal accounts of their struggles to disseminate info from the trenches. On the former, OWS blogger-operative Priscilla Grim explained how the Occupy media squad in New York established a vast in-house "spectrum of news media," from live streams to print papers. In his turn, Boyd Carter of the Free Network Foundation discussed his role delivering Wi-Fi to Occupy encampments.

Of all the Occupiers on the scene, Boston's own Gregg Housh was the most visible. The Dewey Square do-it-all is also known for his work with Anonymous, and he came to Austin with director Brian Knappenberger, whose unreleased film, We Are Legion, features several interviews with Housh. On Tuesday, the two joined a couple of Guy-Fawkes-masked Anons for a panel discussion on the festival's runaway hit, and to address how, as an Anon panelist from Occupy Austin put it, so much "nerd rage" evolved into the most widespread force against oppression in recent history.

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LEGIONAIRES

We Are Legion is a threat to anyone who would wish to suppress political or artistic expression. Dramatic and inspiring, it's sure to invigorate many more "nameless, faceless mercenaries of free speech," as McGill University media professor Gabriella Coleman defines Anons in the film. But at its core, the doc is a comprehensive portrayal of Anonymous, its outlandish battles, and how the collective sprung from MIT hacker ingenuity to later incubate itself in the esoteric, oftentimes crude bowels of the Internet.

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