While the Occupy Wall Street protests started with calls for an American Day of Rage, a more subtle and gentle call to action went out on the Tumblr, “We are the 99 percent.” In my Sunday column, I wrote, “The Tumblr grasps the confessional and collaborative urges of these times... During the Arab Spring and, further back, the Iranian protests, videos were instrumental in passing information out of tightly controlled regimes. Videos were a way for protesters to show that they were being attacked and brutalized in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
“For the U.S. protests, however, photographs have been the rallying point online. ‘We are the 99 percent’ helped create a cohesive narrative for folks to rally around far outside Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and far before any specific demands could be made from the loosely associated groups.”
I reached the founder of the site by e-mail who gave only his first name as Chris and asked him about the Tumblr’s success. Here are his edited replies:
How did you first hear about Occupy Wall Street?
I first heard about it through the Internet, I believe by reading the AdBusters article this past July. I probably got the link off Reddit (Hi, Reddit! Narwhals, bacon, midnight, etc.). I remember thinking it was an interesting article, but not much would come of it. In August I found out, again through the Internet, that some people in New York City were going to get together and try to plan this thing out. They needed people to take care of not only doing things like contacting media and figuring out tactics, but working through the large logistical issues that would come with such an event.
I have experience preparing and serving meals to large groups of people (I volunteer on Sundays), so I thought maybe I could contribute my skills in this area, if this thing gets off the ground. I had my concerns that this might just be all sound and fury signifying nothing, like a whole lot of other protests I've gone to, but I thought that, at the very least, I could check out one meeting and see what it was all about.
The first meeting was, well, interesting. I had come for a planning meeting, but it seemed like some groups had made it into a rally. I gave a lengthy sigh. Other people who felt the same way I did announced that all the people interested in having a general assembly, rather than a rally, should come to the other side of the park and sit down. And I did. And as time passed, more and more did too. Then we got to talking. Four hours later, I ended up primed and ready to make this happen.
What made you think the 99 percent would be a good way to get people talking? Did you want to advertise for the protests?
I conceived of the blog as a way to promote the event. I felt it would be a good way to illustrate the specific circumstances that have led people to stage this occupation: whether you've been directly affected by the financial crisis, whether you've been struggling even when times were supposedly good, or whether you're one of the lucky ones untouched by these harsh economic times,
We can all agree there is a deep sickness, both economic and spiritual, within our society that must be addressed. It's easy to abstract this problem and turn it into some distant intellectual exercise. Behind every part of that 9.1 percent unemployment figure, behind every part of stagnant real income, behind every part of soaring non-farm productivity, there is an actual human being who struggles.
It's one thing to say “those people are hurting.” It's another to say “this person is hurting. And here is how they are hurting. And here is what they are doing to stop that hurting. And here's how it didn't work, despite their best efforts.” I see people who have done everything people say they're supposed to do: they live within their means, they cut back on even basic necessities, they take classes to improve themselves, they get degrees in in-demand fields, they work multiple jobs. Some even start their own businesses. And yet it's still not enough.
Meanwhile, life has been getting better for a very small segment of society. Of the real income growth that has happened over the last 30 years, the majority of that has been in the top tier of society. This increased wealth has been used to expand the influence of this top tier to maintain its position. This is what the occupations are trying to voice: it's not that certain people have more, it’s the fact that people who do have more often use it to take control of a system that was really meant for everyone.
Do you consider yourself an anarchist? If so, how does that play into the protests and the Tumblr?
I count myself as an anarcho-pacifist. I believe that violence is the ultimate foundation upon which the state rests, as the state is simply any organization which holds the monopoly on legitimate uses of force. By reducing violence in any way I can, I reduce the power of the state as well. I count violence as the ultimate expression of authority and, therefore, will not partake in it. I am of the thought that anarchism should be more about building things up, in a way that can act as an example of what society ought to be and provide an escape exit for those who can't or won't partake in authoritarian society, than taking things down. Much like how people turned a rally into a general assembly on the first day by simply sitting down and starting a general assembly, a compelling vision will naturally attract people until even the elements of the old society sit down to join you.
The criticism of the protests have been that there seems to be no real direction. Is this a fair assessment?
I think that the protests do have a real direction, and that direction is onwards and outwards. Our direction is to grow as large as possible as fast as possible and get as many people with a dog in this fight as possible to come over and voice their views. I think a big misconception is to think of this like a typical protest. In a typical protest, you have a small group of people who set the agenda and, after that point, their job is to find enough people to support that agenda. I think Occupy Wall Street takes this model and turns it on its head: get the people there first and then set the agenda, because we want to include as many voices and be as representative as we can. Think of it less like a protest and more like a constitutional convention, where people gather together to hash out the details of a better world.
Still, direction, focus, demands: these are live discussions within the community right now. As you can imagine, we're a diverse bunch, and since we want to be as inclusive as we can, we don't want to agree to something that shuts out a large portion of people involved in this.
Many people do not trust that governmental policy is the answer to this, and so don't see much point in demanding policy changes. There are others who think that policies like returning the Glass-Steagal Act (or, at the very least, closing some of the loopholes in the Volcker Rule, like the market-making exception) are what we should focus upon.
Even without specific demands, I think what we're protesting is quite clear: the top tier of society and the institutions which support them are above the law and above accountability, and this is not how a just society should be run.
Why do you think the Tumblr took hold?
It let people know that they are not alone, that there are others out there feeling the same way that you do. It can be very lonely, very isolating, to deal with financial difficulties. Survival itself can be isolating. To see these blog entries, to read these stories, to be able to relate to the fears and frustrations articulated, breaks people out of their solipsism and lets people know that people understand and that they're not the only ones with these challenges.
Anything you wish you could do differently with the Tumblr?
I get a few joke ones that are pretty funny, and I really like them, but I can't publish them.
What do you think the media is missing in the story about the protests?
I think the media has done a good job lately in covering the protests — a lot of the critiques I may have had were more toward the beginning, when we were stereotyped as a bunch of out-of-work hippies who don't know what they're doing. As it is now, though, I see more diverse voices being paid attention to. Still many in the media still approach it as a traditional protest. It's more than that: it's a community that is being shaped in the vision of those who want to lay the groundwork to create a new and more just society.
Do you worry that the protests are in danger of not getting bigger numbers because people in the Internet age see a few minutes spent on a quick handwritten page and a photograph as doing their part?
I literally did not think of this possibility until you just posed it to me. I really don't think so. I think that we all do that which we can do for this movement — no more, no less. If people want to help by making a hand-written sign, and no more, that's still more than people who opted to not make a sign at all. By contributing their stories, they are reminding people specifically why it is we're occupying, why it is we're doing this, and that is a valuable thing. Additionally, some people support us, but can't be there due to, well, working. Further, our numbers have been doing pretty well so far as it is, so growth is not a concern for me at this moment.