Social site ignites groundswell of support for the protest movement

October 21, 2011

More than three months ago, a campaign started spreading online.

One post implored people to “take the bull by the horns.”

“Occupy Wall Street,” another read, against the backdrop of an Art Deco, Soviet-style propaganda poster. “Let the U.S. Days of Rage begin.”

Perhaps it’s because, like the tendency to play with one’s food, public displays of anger are shamed out of most of us at an early age in the United States, but when the protests began Sept. 17, rage — and people — was largely absent from the streets.

Over five weeks, the ranks grew. Now, entering its sixth week, Occupy protests have sprung up in dozens of cities and countries, and hundreds camp out in the parks of Washington and New York.


Screengrab from ‘We Are The 99 Percent.’ (wearethe99percent.tumblr.com)

Still, true rage seems largely lacking from most on-the-ground reports. The tent cities have more the feel of folks camping out for a festival. Despite some protests being shut down by police, the public seems supportive of the movement, with a recent Quinnipiac University poll showing that more than 60 percent of New York City voters thought the protesters should be allowed to stay and speak their minds.

The groundswell can be credited in part to a second call-to-action that seems to have labeled this calm protest better than the words “occupy” or “rage”: “We are the 99 percent.”

The slogan started on a Tumblr account, the social media site driven by single images often accompanied by text. The Tumblr grasps the confessional and collaborative urges of these times. People photograph themselves with a sheet of paper that lists the reasons they fall into the 99 percent of the population — as opposed to the 1 percent that controls 40 percent of the wealth.

“My father works 120 hours a week to support a family of 5. Lives 4 hours away from home and is only able to see his family once every two months for a few days, ” writes one “99-percenter” in one of the many small biographies that make up the Tumblr. “ We’re great full [sic] he has a job at all though. Still we live week to week, paycheck to paycheck. College is too $$$, Food is too $$$!!! I’m unable to get a job to help pay bills. Nobody wants to hire an 18-year-old. We are the 99%.”

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. When the protests on Wall Street had only a few hundred attendees, hundreds more were photographing themselves and their handwritten lists of frustrations and posting them to Tumblr.

Now, the slogan has spread worldwide. Looking at the images of the protests that occurred in 81 countries around the world last Saturday, the visuals are strikingly similar. The tent cities look the same in London, Toronto and Washington. In Tokyo, cardboard signs read “We are the 99 percent,” and in Germany, spray-painted signs replaced the percentage points with hearts.

Instead of cataloguing violence, the photographs are turning the protests into instantly shareable memes.

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