This Changes Everything: How the 99% Woke Up
“We fail to understand why we should have to pay the costs of the crisis, while its instigators continue to post record profits. We’re sick and tired of one injustice after another. We want human dignity back again.
This isn’t the kind of world we want to live in, and it’s we who have to decide what world we do want. We know we can change it, and we’re having a great time going about it.”
—From #HowToCamp by the Spanish indignados, whose occupations in cities throughout Spain helped inspire Occupy Wall Street
Something happened in September 2011 so unexpected that no politician or pundit saw it coming.
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Inspired by the Arab Spring and uprisings in Europe, sparked by a challenge from Adbusters magazine to show up at Wall Street on September 17 and “bring a tent,” and encouraged by veteran New York activists, a few thousand people gathered in the financial district of New York City. At the end of the day, some of them set up camp in Zuccotti Park and started what became a national—and now international—movement.
The Occupy movement, as it has come to be called, named the source of the crises of our time: Wall Street banks, big corporations, and others among the 1% are claiming the world’s wealth for themselves at the expense of the 99% and having their way with our governments. This is a truth that political insiders and the media had avoided, even while the assets of the top 1% reached levels not seen since the 1920s. But now that this genie is out of the bottle, it can’t easily be put back in.
Without offices, paid staff, or a bank account, Occupy Wall Street quickly spread beyond New York. People gathered in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Atlanta, San Diego, and hundreds of other cities around the United States and claimed the right of we the people to create a world that works for the 99%. In a matter of weeks, the occupations and protests had spread worldwide, to over 1,500 cities, from Madrid to Cape Town and from Buenos Aires to Hong Kong, involving hundreds of thousands of people.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is not just demanding change. It is also transforming how we, the 99%, see ourselves. The shame many of us felt when we couldn’t find a job, pay down our debts, or keep our home is being replaced by a political awakening. Millions now recognize that we are not to blame for a weak economy, for a subprime mortgage meltdown, or for a tax system that favors the wealthy but bankrupts the government. The 99% are coming to see that we are collateral damage in an all-out effort by the super-rich to get even richer.
Now that we see the issue clearly—and now that we see how many others are in the same boat—we can envision a new role for ourselves. We will no longer be isolated and powerless. We can hold vigils all night when necessary and nonviolently face down police. We are the vast majority of the population and, once we get active, we cannot be ignored. Our leaders will not fix things for us; we’ll have to do that ourselves. We’ll have to make the decisions, too. And we’ll have to take care of one another—provide the food, shelter, protection, and support needed to make it through long occupations, bad weather, and the hard work of finding consensus when we disagree.
By naming the issue, the movement has changed the political discourse. No longer can the interests of the 99% be ignored. The movement has unleashed the political power of millions and issued an open invitation to everyone to be part of creating a new world.
Historians may look back at September 2011 as the time when the 99% awoke, named our crisis, and faced the reality that none of our leaders are going to solve it. This is the moment when we realized we would have to act for ourselves.
The Truth is Out: The System is Rigged in Favor of the Wealthy
One of the signs at the Occupy Seattle protest reads: “Dear 1%. We were asleep. Now we’ve woken up. Signed, the 99%.”
This sign captures the feeling of many in the Occupy movement. We are seeing our ways of life, our aspirations, and our security slip away—not because we have been lazy or undisciplined, or lacked intelligence and motivation, but because the wealthiest among us have rigged the system to enhance their own power and wealth at the expense of everyone else.
Critics of the movement say they oppose the redistribution of wealth on principle. But redistribution is exactly what has been happening for decades. Today’s economy redistributes wealth from the poor and middle class to those at the top. The income of the top 1% grew 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office. For those in the bottom 20 percent, income grew just 18 percent during those twenty-eight years.
The government actively facilitates this concentration of wealth through tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, and bailouts for giant banks and corporations. These entities also benefit from mining rights, logging rights, airwave rights, and countless other licenses to use common assets for private profit. Corporations shift the costs of environmental damage to the public and pocket the profits. Taxpayers bear the risk of global financial speculation while the payoffs go to those most effective at gaming the system. Instead of investing profits to provide jobs and produce needed goods and services, the 1% put their wealth into mergers, acquisitions, and more speculation.
The list of government interventions on behalf of the 1% goes on and on: Tax breaks favor the wealthy, global trade agreements encourage offshoring jobs, agricultural subsidies favor agribusiness over family farms, corporate media get sanctioned monopolies while independent media gets squeezed.
The people who go to work producing things we need—the middle class and working poor—pay the price for all this. Speculative profits act as a drain on the economy—like a hidden tax. This hidden tax is one of the many reasons the middle-class standard of living has been slipping.
This lopsided division of wealth corrupts government. Few among the 99% now believe government works for their benefit—and for good reason. With the 1% commanding an army of lobbyists and doling out money from multimillion-dollar campaign war chests, government has become a source of protection and subsidies for Wall Street. No wonder there isn’t enough money left over for education, repairing roads and bridges, taking care of veterans and retirees, much less for the critical transition we need to make to a clean energy future.
The system is broken in so many ways that it’s dizzying to try to name them all. This is part of the reason why the Occupy movement hasn’t created a list of demands. The problem is everywhere and looks different from every point of view. The one thing the protesters all seem to agree on is that the middle-class way of life is moving out of reach. Talk to people at any of the Occupy sites and you’ll hear stories of people who play by the rules, work long hours, study hard, and then find only low-wage jobs, often without health care coverage or prospects for a secure future.
And many can find no job at all. In the United States, twenty-five million people are unemployed, underemployed or have given up looking for work. Forty-five percent of those without jobs have been unemployed for more than twenty-seven weeks. Some employers won’t hire anyone who is currently unemployed. Meanwhile, the cost of health care, education, rent, food, and energy continues to rise; the only thing that’s falling is the value of homes and retirement funds.
Behind these statistics are real people. Since the Occupy movement began, some who identify themselves as part of the 99% have been posting their stories at wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. Here’s one: “I am a lucky one. I have enough money to eat three of four weeks of the month. I have been paying student loans for fifteen years and still no dent. My husband lost his job...Last year I took a 10 percent pay cut to ‘do my share’ and keep layoffs at bay. I lost my house. I went bankrupt. I still am paying over one thousand dollars in student loans for myself and my husband and that is just interest. We will not have children. How could we when we can’t even feed ourselves? I am the 99%.”
Another personal story, by a sixty-year-old, reads, “Got laid off. Moved two thousand miles for new job. Pays 40 percent less than old job. Sold home at a loss. Filed Chapter Eleven. Owe IRS fifty thousand dollars. Fifteen thousand dollar per year debt for son’s tuition at state university. Seventy-five percent of retirement funds shifted to the 1%! I am the 99%!”
The website contains thousands of stories like these.
Now that we know we are not alone, we are less likely to blame ourselves when things are hard. And now that we are seeing the ways the system is rigged against us, we can join with others to demand changes that will allow everyone to thrive.
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