Hey, remember last year’s Rally to Restore Sanity? That Jon Stewart, Emmy-nominated, government-permitted, Comedy Central media spectacle?
In case you don’t, here’s a recap: more than 200,000 people flooded the National Mall; two million tuned in to Comedy Central; and another half a million tuned in online to watch Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and a laundry list of celebrities from Ozzy Osbourne to R2-D2 do a three-hour stage show. Its goal was to wrest the national conversation from the extremists (read: Tea Party) and find a middle ground where the right and the left could have a dialogue, before the 2010 mid-term elections.
The rally tap-danced around overtly political content. People made nicely lettered signs announcing, “Say no to hate, say yes to pancakes”, and “Meh”, which was about as outraged as it got. The event was orderly and obedient, the turnout was far larger than anticipated, and the crowd was spirited and happy.
Three days later, the Tea Party swept the mid-term elections, galvanizing far-right rhetoric, destroying the Democratic majority in the House and reducing the majority in the Senate, effectively arming members of the Republican party to dig in their heels and keep meaningful legislation in limbo.
Fast forward a year. The polished media of Rally to Restore Sanity had little after-effect beyond preaching politically-tinged entertainment to the choir. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring demonstrations across the Middle East showed the world how a group of tenacious and idealistic people can change the course of a nation’s history.
For those of us in the US, the economy and unemployment situation continues to stall while the two parties in power lock horns over every bill. In September, a small group of people, without permits, without a media sponsor, and initially without any big names, held a protest at Wall Street, set up tents in nearby Zucotti Park, and spawned a worldwide movement that gave voice to the anger at the skyrocketing levels of inequality and debt.
The protestors claim to be representative of the 99 percent of Americans that are not wealthy, watching helplessly as the one percent gain tax breaks and increased political influence through issues like lobbyist power and the deregulation of campaign finance while their debt rises, their jobs disappear, and their ability to have say in a democracy dwindles.
As I write this, a couple hundred people are entering their sixth week of occupation Occupy Wall Street in New York, and Occupy Everything protests are being held in almost 700 places around the US, and in more than 80 countries.
Why has the Occupy Wall Street moment taken off, whereas the Rally to Restore Sanity lived and died in the same day?
The Occupy movement is an open system, to the Rally to Restore Sanity’s closed system. Rather than a singular message under the control of a political party, a media outlet, or an organization, the Occupy movement and the “99%” positioning have functioned as memes, with thousands of people making them their own. Both the “99%” and the “Occupy” phrases have been widely adopted, proliferated and parodied, becoming part of the cultural fabric in a way that isn’t reversible or erasable.
The “99%” started on Tumblr, whose infrastructure is designed to spread what its users find interesting. The original Tumblr log We Are the 99% started a month before anyone hit the streets, as an outlet for the everyday frustrations of dealing with debt, medical care, unemployment and underemployment. People photographed themselves with their stories scribbled on notepads, painting a grim picture of present-day survival in America.
So what about the other one percent? Resource Generation, an organization that helps organize people with wealth to give back to social change, started We Stand with the 99 Percent to give voice to people who aren’t struggling but want to show their support, using the same visual, photos of hand-written stories.
And what about people who disagree? Conservative blogger Erick Erickson adopted the same format for The 53%, which alleges that only 53 percent of Americans pay taxes, and invites those taxpayers to write and photograph their stories. Like a hand-written, Tumblr-fueled flame war, the stories can hit below the belt, accusing the “99%” of being lazy or whiners, while the “53%” work hard towards the American Dream. In spite of the opposition and the incoherent math, the “53%” has helped to perpetuate the “99%” story by tapping into the meme – an iconic percentage of the population and hand-written hard luck stories.
The “99%” has also caught on with number-crunchers. A number like that is irresistible, and charts and graphs like this one, illustrating the rise of income inequality and supporting the underpinnings of the Occupy Wall Street / Occupy Everything movements, have been making the rounds on major news outlets and Facebook walls.
Movements in and of themselves need to be viral in order to be successful. Pre-internet, for example, protest songs were learned, passed along and localized to help spread movements. And the more customizable elements of a movement are to what’s happening in a locality, the more likely people are to adopt the movement as their own.
The Occupy movement has lent itself to mass adoption and customization across the world. Occupy Together gives instruction and support to anyone making their own local occupation. Besides the thousands of cities that have set up occupations around the world, the concept of occupy continues to seep into culture, like the lone woman who decided to occupy the tundra. There’s room for parody as well, with posters about occupying, say, Mordor, Sesame Street, and more.
The sense of being able to hack into the movement and make it one’s own is as true at the Occupy Wall Street site as it is online. The occupation feels very different from the Rally to Restore Sanity, or even from the anti-war protests of the early 2000s, some of which swelled to near seven figures without making a dent in policy.
It’s a mashup of low-fi and high-tech. In one section of Zuccotti Park, young people sprawl on the ground, turning pizza boxes into protest placards. Hand-painted and earnest, many of the signs bear messages of hope as well as of critique, but few have the well-crafted snark that this generation is known for, and that characterized the posters at the Rally to Restore Sanity. In another section, under a Marimekko umbrella, people are working on computers, updating Occupy websites, editing videos and connecting the movement in the park to the rest of the world.
There is camaraderie and conversation, with union members talking to the young people who have served as the most prominent face of the movement, and the occasional guys in nice suits who look like they just got off of work at Wall Street, carrying signs and speaking knowledgeably about the economic situation with guys who look like they just got off work selling bootleg handbags on Broadway. Anyone can show up and pick up a sign, or volunteer at the info booth, or speak at the General Assembly, the daily convention for collective decision-making.
The media likes to cite the movement’s leaderlessness and lack of concrete demands as its weakness, but this is the very reason that it’s continued. The polished message and delivery of the Rally to Restore Sanity made it harder to adopt and recreate in the messy, back-of-pizza-box sincerity of the Occupy movement.
As Joshua Holland of Alternet has pointed out, the Occupy movement has “shifted the conversation away from what the ‘1 percent,’ the corporate right and its dedicated media, network of think tanks and PR shops… pay good money to get us to talk about” to the very real concerns about the economy and employment. The very amorphousness, the lack of immediately actionable, or refutable, demands, has sparked a national conversation, and is doing what top-down efforts like the Rally to Restore Sanity haven’t been able to do: start to make change.