. . . the 99%

November 17, 2011

One of the key requirements of a social movement is a collective identity–a sense that the members of the group share the same life experience that has been the source of their suffering.

The slogan, We are the 99% (and so are you), easily captures the essence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots: 1% of the population controls 20% of the wealth, at the expense of the 99%. The movement draws its energy from an increasing awakening that the distinctions between the homeless, the working poor, the middle class, and even those we might think of as wealthy, become meaningless when compared to the distinction between all of those people and the elite 1%, whose lives most of us can’t even imagine, even from reality TV.

That awareness has drawn supporters to the movement as well as those who say, “I’m not one of those Occupiers, but . . .(I share their outrage).”

The problem, however, is that a social movement has to push up against something in order for there to be significant change. There is a clear oppressor here–the 1%. But where are they? The demonstrations necessary for the movement create far more disruption for the 99% than for the 1%. The movement is walking a fine line between calling attention to the fact that the majority of Americans are working harder and harder for less and less and disrupting those same Americans while they do their jobs–including bank tellers, bus drivers, and city police.

This doesn’t mean Occupiers need to go home and tidy up in order to make nice with the 99%. It’s just a challenge that they face.

The women’s movement faced a similar challenge. In forming a collective identity with other women who shared the same life experience, the movement asked women to wake up to the fact that they lived in a world that was organized to benefit men. A lot of women felt that to identify with this movement would mean viewing their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons as adversaries. Their solution was to say, “I’m not one of those women’s libbers . . . (but I share their outrage).”

The Occupy movement does not need what many pundits and politicians have said it needs; it does not need a hierarchy of authority or a list of demands. It does not need to elect people into the same system that it opposes–an approach that has had only limited success for women and African American men. However, it does need to gear its efforts so that whatever disruption is felt by the 99% becomes felt with greater intensity by the 1%–just the way the 1% has disproportionately benefited from what the 99% has put into this economy.

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