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Uniting States of Americans: Are we the 99%?

Internationally, we should all be concerned by how the unifying discourse of the 99% occludes important differences amongst political, economic, and socially disaffected peoples that the OWS brand can never fully capture.

Cynthia Weber
19 September 2012

This is the second part of the author's article on the OWS movement. You can read the first part here.

A year ago this month, activists inspired by the Arab Spring, the Spanish indignados, and the Greek economic protesters chanted, "We are the 99%” as they marched on Wall Street and occupied New York City’s Zuccotti Park. Within weeks, what became known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) spread to hundreds of sites across the US, prompting some to pronounce OWS the newest American Revolution and others to dub ‘We are the 99%’ as the most successful protest slogan since the Vietnam War’s ‘Hell no, we won’t go!‘

Who are the 99%?

As David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist and activist who claims to have coined this expression, explains about his thinking behind suggesting it as the mantra for OWS, ‘If 1% of the population have ended up with all the benefits of the last 10 years of economic growth, [including] control of wealth [and owning] the politicians...why not just say we’re everybody else?’

By saying they were everybody else, OWS went beyond being a US movement that imported Middle Eastern and European strategies of peacefully occupying public space while demanding political, economic, and social change. It became a movement that exported a unifying slogan that appealed to many of the world’s economically disaffected, be they activists or everyday people. ‘We are the 99%’, then, became the brand of OWS (which allowed OWS to become the brand of peaceful, public global occupy movements) and the mantra of many everyday people who had been looking for a language in which to express their distance from and dissatisfaction with political and economic elites and the corporations, financial institutions and governments that they control.

But like any unifying identification, ‘We are the 99%’ was more of a working fiction - a utopian prefiguration of local, national and global unities that are lived incompletely in the present in the hope that they will be lived more completely in the future - than it was an accomplished fact. One of the things that endeared many US Americans to OWS and the 99% movements in its early days was how committed these movements are to working through their working fictions. But this working through is not without its difficulties.

Indeed, like any unifying identification that announces a common subjectivity, ‘We are the 99%’ includes as much as it excludes. The exclusion OWS and the 99% movements were mindful of making was of the 1%. But how to figure the 99% in relation to those US Americans who did identify with it or who could be identified with it - the homeless, the disruptive, and other precarious figures whose lack of access to both The American Dream and to some of the on-the-ground OWS prefigurations of utopian living - has been an on-going struggle for the movements.

Unifying identifications like ‘We are the 99%’ can also be too inclusive. Domestically, US radicals pushed back from this slogan’s initial inclusion of US liberals. And internationally, we should all be concerned by how the unifying discourse of the 99% occludes important differences amongst political, economic, and socially disaffected peoples that the OWS brand can never fully capture.

These struggles remind us that, whether voiced in the language of liberal tolerance or in the language of radical solidarity, inclusions and exclusions are always problematic aspects of identify formation, no matter how well intended their creators might be.

The three films in my ‘OWS: “We are the 99%’ collection embedded in this article mark some of the ways unities and disunities played themselves out through inclusions into and exclusions from ‘the 99%’. In viewing these films, it is as important to note who you see and what you hear as it is to note who you don’t see and what you don’t hear.

Granny Peace Brigade

Granny Peace Brigade activists outfitted in bright yellow ponchos that feature sayings like ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport’ were among those who frequented OWS events. In this film, Granny Ann speaks to how the OWS movement bridges generational divides among activists on the left by weaving a range of political ideas into the OWS protest. Yet at the same time, Ann suggests that OWS exacerbates what should be artificial divides between OWS activists and New York Police Department officers who constantly patrol and corral them. ‘I am the 99%’, Ann declares for the camera. And then she points to a row of NYPD officers fencing her in and says, ‘And they are the 99%’. The response of one NYPD officer might surprise you. ‘Aren’t we all?’ While on the one hand, this marks a hopeful moment of unlikely unity, it also raises the question, ‘If we are (almost) all included in the 99%, is the expression “We are the 99%” so all-encompassing that it loses effectiveness as a political tool? What does it mean, for example, when everyone from individualist libertarian followers of Ayn Rand to collective libertarians like followers of David Graeber to Republican US Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney identifies as or claims to sympathize with ‘the 99%’? Could the moment Romney said of the 99%, ‘I understand how those people feel’, have been the moment when the 99% movement died?

A-Alikes

As rapper J. Ivy of the group A-Alikes lays down a compelling rendition of ‘Bridges to Nowhere’ in occupied Zuccotti Park, the groups producer Ness talks about the racial politics of OWS. ‘There’s a lot of white people around here,’ he says. ‘Black and brown people, indigenous people, have been oppressed for centuries. And to see another layer of society actually feeling this... lets me know that we’re getting to the point that the time is up’. Ness’s astute observations about how race functions at OWS suggests a broader truism about US politics -- that the threshold of political success in US politics is keeping white people happy (and, I would suggest, largely white men happy). Might the unhappiness of white people be among the reasons OWS spilled over from a movement organized by collectivist anarchists to a populist movement embraced by many middle class white US Americans? And might this also in part explain why President Obama’s re-election is at issue - both because he is not white and because so many white people hold him responsible for their unhappiness?

Occupylujah!

This mock Public Service Announcement for OWS features an array of Zuccotti Park occupiers and their supporters declaring ‘I am the 99%’. The diversity of OWS occupiers is apparent in this short film. But who is missing or marginal, and why? One group that became increasingly visible at OWS yet whose inclusion sometimes became more rather than less precarious during the occupation of Zuccotti Park was the homeless. While this isn’t how things played out at all the occupy movements around the country, ‘the homeless question’ seemed to befuddle many at OWS. Could this have been because OWS activists never quite resolve for themselves the relationship between ‘living in public’ and ‘living as public’? By equating these two notions as the basis of a political program based on direct action peaceful occupation, the mostly ‘voluntarily homeless’ occupiers weren’t homeless at all, as signs like ‘Welcome Home’ in Zuccotti Park attested to. More problematically, homeless people who were already living in pre-occupied sites were sometimes displaced by the voluntarily homeless occupiers. What are the relationships among being forced to living in public, voluntarily living in public, and being part of a US American public? As more and more US Americans are forced into living in public but feel excluded from being part of a US American public, these questions - whether staged through OWS or through the 2012 US Presidential elections - become more pressing.

Cynthia Weber’s exhibition ‘Uniting States of Americans: From “I am an American” to “We are the 99%”’ at the Usdan Gallery at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont opened on September 11, 2012 and runs until October 18, 2012. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

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