I don’t think I’m alone in initially dismissing the Wall Street protesters as the same ill-informed, ideologues who protested the WTO and the imprisonment of Mumia in one pointless breath throughout the late '90s and early aughts. It was hard for me to take seriously the political sentiments of the mostly privileged college kids who wanted to smash in Starbucks' windows. That was especially true given that I had maxed out my Federal Work Study hours and had taken a part-time job at a local Starbucks. It was the highest paying job I’d ever had and the first one at which I was offered health insurance, despite my being only part-time, and I had a pretty good idea of who was going to have to clean up the messes those protesters made. For a movement committed to global economic justice, they seemed clueless about how their actions affected real people.
But as the Occupy Wall Street protests moved into their third week, marked by the arrest of 700 protesters who blocked the roadway on the Brooklyn Bridge Sunday, they morphed into something different. The change is helped by the campaign from AdBusters, the Canadian magazine that started the protests. The “We Are the 99 Percent” slogan isn’t just a slogan; it’s now the running ethos of a tumblr. It’s an informal blog space where users can upload pictures of themselves holding handwritten notes that tell their personal stories. The pictures are mostly dark and lo-fi, and the postcards and notepads on which the stories are written usually cover all but the person’s eyes. They could be anyone.
Today, the stories posted range from sad: (“My husband and I have $80K in student loan debt. I am in the process of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I have over $30,000 in medical debt. . . .) to angering: (“I was laid off to be hired back as a contractor so THE COMPANY wouldn’t have to pay health insurance or payroll taxes. ‘It’s only temporary,’ they said. . . . more than 2 years ago.”) Each note ends with “I am the 99 percent.” But the stories are so specific that the overall effect is that they’re telling the general story of the crisis. And, because the stories are so varied, showing people who struggle through hard luck or no luck or despite doing everything right, that it doesn’t take too long before you realize you are the 99 percent too.
The first criticisms lobbed at the protests were the same as those lobbed at the WTO protests, the 2004 convention protests, the May Day protests: They don’t have a point. “What does ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Want” asked Ezra Klein in The Washington Post Monday. He came to the conclusion that they’re drawing attention to the 99, not “offering a concrete policy agenda.” But they’re not politicians or policy-makers. Sometimes it’s enough to be loud. It apparently takes shutting down a city bridge to rebalance the scales so that most of the country’s people can carry the most weight in the conversation.
The protests will gain extra, mainstream-left legitimacy when unions and other groups join their ranks this afternoon. They also, in the AdBusters slogans, have a message that resonates with most Americans, many of whom are still angry about the crash, foreclosures, and TARP but aren’t angry Tea-Party-style. Most important, the tumblr actually bridges the people who feel angry but aren’t willing to engage in civil disobedience with those who are. The tumbler is a quieter entry point for what looks, increasingly, like a real movement.