After covering Occupy Oakland demonstrations in his spare time, citizen journalist Spencer Mills is hoping to make Occupy journalism a full-time job.
Mills, 29, also known by the Twitter handle OakFoSho, has been streaming protests live since the general strike action in Oakland on Nov. 2, and his broadcasts have been watched by thousands around the world.
Not even a month after that protest, Mills took a leave of absence from his sales job at an Oakland gym and took his protest coverage on the road, traveling to Los Angeles to cover the eviction of Occupy LA from its encampment near City Hall.
He covered the Occupy groups’ protest at the Port of Oakland earlier this week that was part of a West Coast port blockade. In the coming months, he plans to travel to Southern California for the “Occupy the Rose Parade” action, then to Washington, D.C. for demonstrations on Jan. 17 and Jan. 20.
Mills is funding his coverage by collecting donations online, and said that not even a week after he began soliciting funding, he had raised more than $4,000 — enough to cover his rent, bills and travel expenses for several months.
Before finding his role as a streaming journalist covering protests, Mills was active in the Occupy Oakland movement. He did not camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza, but would work security shifts there, and said he lives a short five-minute bike ride away, in Oakland’s Adams Point neighborhood.
It wasn’t until after the general strike on Nov. 2 that Mills said he found his calling. That night, a small group of protesters took over the closed Traveler’s Aid Society building adjacent to Frank Ogawa Plaza, and Mills jumped into action.
Using his cellphone to stream video to Ustream, Mills was one of the few sources of live information in the subsequent hours-long confrontation between protesters and police, in which lines of police shot tear gas at protesters and some protesters set Dumpsters ablaze while others smashed windows along Broadway.
Since then, Mills has covered general assemblies in Oakland, stayed up all night waiting for raids on Occupy encampments in Oakland and San Francisco, and covered a large assembly at the University of California at Berkeley after police used batons to force themselves through lines of student protesters.
His streams are rebroadcast all over the Internet, making estimates of viewers difficult. Mills guesses that at some points during big protests, as many as 30,000 people may be watching his streams.
After a few weeks of streaming from his Droid X cellphone, Mills’ followers decided that the grainy picture wasn’t sufficient, and that Mills needed more professional equipment.
Knowing that San Francisco-based Ustream sometimes loans or leases streaming equipment to individuals, Mills’ Twitter followers campaigned for the company to sponsor Mills.
Eventually, Mills said, he was contacted by a representative of Ustream, who offered him a “Livepack” capable of broadcasting high-definition video to the Internet instantly with six to seven hours of battery life.
The high-definition picture offers a much clearer view of the events Mills covers, and for overnight actions, the camera is equipped with night vision. After the batteries run out, Mills said he reverts to using his cellphone.
Tony Riggins, public relations and marketing manager for Ustream, said the San Francisco-based company sought out some key broadcasters in the Occupy movement to provide them with professional equipment.
“We felt that it was important to donate one of these packs to him and to the things that he was seeing,” Riggins said.
Ustream, which was founded in 2006 in Mountain View, now has offices in places including Los Angeles, Texas and Budapest, and has as many as 12,000 streams on its website daily.
Since the Occupy movement began in September, Riggins said that 700 Occupy channels have popped up on Ustream. Many are using Ustream’s mobile application, which allows users to broadcast from their cellphones.
Riggins said of those watching broadcasts from a mobile device, 89 percent are watching Occupy, and 70 percent of broadcasts from Occupy events are from mobile devices.
“We’re seeing citizen journalism at its purest form. This is what Ustream mobile was made for, and it’s pretty powerful. When you look at those numbers, it’s pretty exciting, regardless of your position on the movement,” Riggins said.
“We’ve seen, through them, the birth of the citizen video reporter,” he added.
Mills is proud that while covering protests, he has “the equivalent of a very small cable TV show on a cellphone.”
Born in Oakland, Mills said he only moved away briefly to study business in Southern California. He had originally intended to become a sustainability consultant and teach businesses how to lower their carbon footprints while improving their bottom lines.
“That was my original goal in life. It’s still a passion, but I haven’t ever felt a fire like this that I really want to dive into,” Mills said.
Mills volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008 and, after graduating from Loyola Marymount University with a master’s degree, entered the workforce but found the job market forbidding.
“I graduated as the crisis hit,” he said.
Like many his age, he described himself as “overeducated and under-experienced,” which he said led many employers to overlook him. He did some political consulting, and tried to start his own business, which folded.
“I don’t want to consider it a failure; it was a learning experience,” Mills said.
He found his job at the Oakland gym unexpectedly. Mills said he used to be overweight, weighing around 350 pounds, and a friend eventually talked him into going to the gym.
“Seventy pounds later, I just started working there; it had changed my life,” he said.
Mills said that despite the fact that he’s leaving his job to pursue protest reporting full-time, it’s not because he disliked the working environment there, or the job he was doing.
“I love that place, the people there are wonderful, but at some point in your life you’ve just got to take a chance and follow a dream,” Mills said.
Scott Morris, Bay City News