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PORTSIDE  October 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE October 2011, Week 2

Subject:

'We Are the 99 Percent' Creators Revealed

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Fri, 14 Oct 2011 22:36:45 -0400

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[To see the gallery of '99 percent' photos, go to
http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/ -- moderator]

'We Are the 99 Percent' Creators Revealed

By Adam Weinstein | 
Oct. 7, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/we-are-the-99-percent-creators

EXCLUSIVE: MoJo interviews the two activists behind Occupy Wall Street's poignant Tumblr sensation.[1]

It began as a simple little idea, just another blog
among millions. The Occupy Wall Street protest was
scheduled to begin on September 17, and launching We Are
the 99 Percent [2] on Tumblr seemed like a good way to
promote it. Its creator had no clue that it would go
viral and become a touchstone for a protest movement
soon to spread nationwide. [3]

This week, Mother Jones tracked down and spoke with the
two activists behind the 99 Percent sensation, whose
identities have remained unknown until now. The blog is
the creation of a tenacious 28-year-old New York
activist named Chris. (He asked that his last name not
be published because he works full time for a small
media outlet.) Chris has also been busy managing
logistics, including food drives, for Occupy Wall Street
in Lower Manhattan-so about two weeks ago, he started
sharing the blog's increasingly demanding curation
duties with a friend in the cause, Brooklyn-based
nonprofit worker and independent media maven Priscilla
Grim.

On August 23, Chris put the idea in motion: "Get a bunch
of people to submit their pictures with a hand-written
sign explaining how these harsh financial times have
been affecting them, have them identify themselves as
the '99 percent', and then write 'occupywallst.org' at
the end."

On September 8, the first day he started publishing
submissions, there were five posts. Less than a month
later, the blog was posting nearly 100 pieces a day:
from the 61-year-old [5] who lost her job and moved in
with her kids, to the husband of a college professor [6]
on WIC and Medicaid to support an infant daughter, to
the fiftysomething couple [7] living on tossed-out KFC,
to a bevy of youths pummeled by student debt and too
poor to visit a dentist.

"I submitted one of the first photos on the site, and I
chose to obscure my face because I did not want to be
recognized," co-editor Grim told MoJo when we caught up
with her and Chris for interviews on Wednesday. "I saw
it as a way to anonymize myself: I am only one of many."

Many of the submissions posted are poignant and
heartbreaking. They have freaked [8] out [9] some
conservatives, but they have also galvanized [10]
progressives, lit a fire under Occupy Wall Street, and
attracted contributors from many walks of life. And
there is a powerful undercurrent that's anything but
gloom and doom. "Despite the economic hardships many in
the 99 percent are experiencing," Chris says, "it's an
empowering message, letting people know that they are
not alone."

Mother Jones: What is your background, and your role in
the Occupy movement?

Chris: I am 28 years old, college educated, full-time
job, part-time freelance job, and I volunteer to feed
the hungry and needy every Sunday. I live in New York
City. I wear a tie to work, unless it's Friday. I am an
anarchist, though my belief is that anarchism should be
more about building things up than tearing things down.
I am a dedicated pacifist. I drink too much coffee. My
favorite band is Sleater Kinney, and I think their best
album is Dig Me Out, followed closely by One Beat. I've
read Infinite Jest twice, and I'm fully aware of how
pretentious that makes me sound, and I'm really, really
sorry.

Priscilla Grim: I worked for nonprofits for 10 years,
have studied online media in school, and I am currently
in grad school studying information science. I helped to
organize online actions pre-MoveOn. I love serving
people and improving the world, firstly for my kid and
secondly for the rest of us. I worked in a lot of
different realms [11] and know how to build
organizations and make them sustainable, if I am working
with like-minded, determined individuals.

MJ: What is the origin of the 99 Percent idea, and how
did you decide to present it on the Tumblr blog, using
submissions?

C: Well, from doing a little bit of research on
occupywallst.org [12], the earliest mention I can find
of "99 percent" is this flyer [13], which was made to
inform people of the second General Assembly, which
functioned as, essentially, our planning meetings during
the buildup to all of this. As for the blog, I really
wish I had a cool story to tell, maybe something
involving ninjas and running down a tunnel with a
fireball chasing after me, but the truth is that it was
just one of those random thoughts you get throughout
your day that make you go, "Huh, I should write this
down," before going on with whatever it is you're doing.
Except in this case I actually wrote it down. It didn't
require a lot of tweaking since the idea itself is quite
simple: Get a bunch of people to submit their pictures
with a hand-written sign explaining how these harsh
financial times have been affecting them, have them
identify themselves as the 99 percent, and then write
"occupywallst.org" at the end. It was something simple
that most anyone with a computer could do, so that even
if they couldn't make it to the occupation, they could
at least help build its narrative.

MJ: What was your motivation for the presentation, the
idea of people posing with their stories, and with most
obscuring their faces?

C: My original intention was to have a very uniform
format:

One-sentence statement I am the 99 Percent
OccupyWallSt.org

And the person's face would have been fully revealed.

However, as it's progressed, I've seen stories that
can't be told in just a sentence. It also occurred to me
that people may not be comfortable showing their full
faces. So, we've come to be a lot more flexible when it
comes to things like that. And, in all honesty, I think
the blog has benefited. With hindsight, it occurs to me
that demanding conformity with this strict uniform
format would have made all the stories start to sound
the same, smoothing out the diversity and making it much
more bland. So, thank goodness for rule-breaking!

Right now, we only ask that you do your best to keep it
concise, that the sign be hand-written, and that some
part of your face be visible, though we'd still prefer
whole faces. Also, we delete entries that are too
blurry, have text that isn't legible, or are upside down
or backwards. (People, remember that if you take a
picture in a mirror, your text will be reversed!)

MJ: How does the Tumblr work, practically speaking?
There seems to be a narrative rhythm to it.

"I have read many long letters about the hard choices
that people have to face every day." PG: We post almost
all of the submissions. It's really hard because so many
of our fellow citizens have such remarkable stories, and
they write more of a letter than a simple fact. For many
of these entries it feels like this is the first time
anyone has asked them to articulate exactly what about
the system in which they live is not working.

C: We try to post as many as we can, but when the inbox
fills up literally while you are working through it, and
you're only doing this during the little free time you
have, this can be quite difficult. I think I cleared the
inbox once during the entire time I've been doing this,
and then the next morning there were tons more.

There's not much to curating it. I go through and read
the submissions that, from the outset, look ideal:
simple format, full face, hand-written. After that, I
comb through the ones that may not entirely fit the
format (the really long ones, for example) but still
look okay, and publish them. After that, I delete any
that are illegible or too blurry to read.

MJ: Have submissions been steady? Did you notice a real
turning point in volume?

C: We get more than 100 a day. I just logged on now to
check, and I have 106 new messages. And it's only 9:49
a.m.

PG: It did start as a handful.suffice to say that I have
read many long letters about medical and student debt,
abusive families inside which people are trapped, and
the hard choices that people have to face every day,
choices that I am sure they thought they were the only
ones making-until this Tumblr.

MJ: Why do you think it is connecting so strongly?

PG: Because we all have a story, and the conversation
about social safety nets has been lessened to that of
accounting and not of the day-to-day realities. It is
one thing for me to tell people that I have not been to
a dentist in five years; it is another to confess that I
deal with frequent wisdom tooth pain with ill-gotten
muscle relaxers and ice pops, and this has been my
reality for at least two years.

C: I think they want to let others know that they're out
there, that they exist, that their problems exist. That
they're not just some statistic compiled in a
spreadsheet, that they're real human beings with real
human challenges. That they won't be an abstraction, a
walking political cartoon for people to argue and debate
over while nothing gets done in the end. They're not
just "indebted students," "the uninsured," "the
foreclosed." They're THIS indebted student, they're THIS
uninsured person, they're THIS person whose home was
foreclosed. Specificity has great power.

On the reader side, I think people look for connection,
some escape from solipsism, to know that they're not the
only ones scared for the future, that they're not the
only ones who do everything they're supposed to do and
still fall down, that they're not the only ones who are
starting to wonder whether their individual suffering is
indicative of a much deeper, much more fundamental
sickness in our society. Struggling with money, you
focus so much on your own survival that you can feel
very isolated and alone. Knowing others have the same
struggle, and that they too are scared, can do much to
ameliorate this isolation.

Though, this is all speculation. For all I know, there's
a lot more hand-written sign fetishists out there than I
thought.

MJ: Priscilla, do you have a link to your own 99 Percent
submission?

PG: I do, but this is not about me.this is about the 99
percent.

MJ: Have you gotten many inquiries about the Tumblr, or
any interesting messages of support or criticism?

PG: The Huffington Post has dedicated serious resources
to the blog, calling it a populist call to action, which
is pretty amazing. I am amazed that the response has
been so overwhelmingly positive. Seriously, out of all
of the contact that we have gotten with the press and
citizens I have received two negative comments. Try to
find that reality anywhere on the internets. Finally, we
have all found something that we agree on.

MJ: How important, in your mind, has social media been
to getting Occupy Wall Street to where it is? There's
probably gonna be a lot of hype, in hindsight, about the
role of social media.

PG: I don't think this could have been possible without
social media to link people to real information on
wealth inequality [14], and to possible solutions that
are on the table to help balance the power structure.
Every time we go on the web, it is to learn something.
Right now Occupy Wall Street is part of an essential
education and conversation on wealth inequality so that
people can bring their own demands and solutions to the
table. It is an education that we all should have and a
conversation that is vital to the future of this
country.

MJ: What are you currently doing beyond the Tumblr? Are
you on the ramparts?

PG: My neighbors rounded up a carload of supplies for
the campers which I have brought. I have been sleeping
in the park on and off, much to the amazement of my
friends and family. I am on the edge of 40 and such
behavior is seen as a little extreme, but we are
fighting an extreme system, and if sleeping in a park
will bring attention to it, then put down some cardboard
and I will bring my sleeping bag. Other than that I am
around, doing what I can, lending professional consult
when asked.

This is an occupation, and we are not leaving until
there is systemic change. We have no choice, it is time
to shift power away from the corporations and into the
hands of the people whom they should be serving.

C: I helped spearhead the food committee during the
planning stages, which involved fundraising and securing
material donations to get the initial supply of food,
and helped get the main food station going when the
occupation formally began. I say "I helped" instead of
"I did" because none of what we have could be possible
without the assistance of many dedicated and passionate
people who also realized that the boring stuff is going
to have to be taken care of if we expect this thing to
have any legs. For the first few days, I was at the food
station pretty much all day, every day, even sleeping
beside it when I was camping out in the park, and got
people to help me mostly on an ad hoc basis. Now I go to
the camp right after work, changing in the bathroom, to
find five or six experienced people already at the
station and keeping things under control. At this point,
I mainly play a support role, helping prep food, going
on supply runs, organizing food donations, and keeping
people informed of what the food station needs.

Incidentally, the way the food station has evolved is
pretty much nothing like how I initially imagined it
would be. This is a good thing: It means that it can,
theoretically, go on without me. We want to avoid
concentrations of power as much as we can. If the entire
thing collapses if one person happens to leave, we know
we've failed. As it is right now, amazing things are
happening there, and it's all because of the ideas of
people who've volunteered their time and efforts to
making sure everyone is fed.

MJ: Where do things go from here?

C: Truthfully, I don't know. I don't think anyone really
knows. What I'd like to see is something that gets
people to question some of the fundamental assumptions
that they make about the way the economic system works,
and to take action when those assumptions no longer
satisfy. Whether this takes the form of global non-
violent revolution, or just something that gets people
to challenge their worldview, the important thing is to
go as far as we can for as long as we can, and to try as
hard as we can. Because that means the next time someone
else is going to try harder. And then, someone else will
try harder than that. Until, eventually, we win.

All photos courtesy of We Are the 99 Percent [2].

Links:
[1] http://motherjones.com/authors/adam-weinstein
[2] http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/
[3] http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-protest-map
[4] http://motherjones.com/category/secondary-tags/ows
[5] http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/post/10799407101/i-am-61-lost-my-job-my-place-to-live-over-a-year
[6] http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/post/10848155412
[7] http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/post/10831308379
[8] http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/279319/we-are-99-percent-even-rich-people-josh-barro
[9] http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/10/most-americans-arent-occupy-wall-streets-99-percent/246196/
[10] http://www.good.is/post/we-are-the-99-percent-is-the-best-populist-message-we-ve-had-in-years/
[11] http://gothamist.com/2004/08/23/priscilla_grim_membership_advocacy_director_aivf.php
[12] http://occupywallst.org/
[13] http://2439-occupywallst-com.voxcdn.com/media/img/aug9_flyer.png
[14] http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph

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