A Defense of the 99%

This past weekend I got to partake in Occupy MN for a few hours. I personally was pretty moved by the protest, but in the days since I’ve been reading opinions from friends and acquaintances that all they see when they look at the Occupy protesters is a bunch of whiny brats with no real solutions and too many complaints. I’ve heard people say that protesters are lying about their situations, that they should realize they’re the 1% compared to the rest of the world, or that they should actually take action instead of passively occupying. I’d like to give a defense of the 99% and the Wall Street protesters as well as those involved in Occupy movements across the country. While I’m not qualified to speak for the entire movement, I’m just going to give a defense based upon how I see the movement, its aims and its methods.

The biggest problem I see people having with the Occupy protests is that people are whiny, that these people are spoiled, that they’re lazy and would get out of their situation if they just worked harder. This is presenting itself in the form of the 53% counterprotest, as well as a number of people I’ve seen describing them as “annoying” and “brats”. I have a serious problem with these criticisms. Unless EVERYONE occupying Wall Street is lying, then there are serious economic problems that need to be addressed. These are people who are homeless or on the verge of losing their homes. These are people living paycheck to paycheck, despite having what we think of as stable or decent paying jobs. These are people struggling to put food on their tables. These are people with illnesses that have destroyed their lives. I don’t understand how anyone can look at a group of people who are desperate, whose lives are falling apart, and say that those people are selfish and whiny when they demand a change.

In relation to this idea, many opponents of the movement say that the protesters should just get a job or work harder. This is laughable. Many of these people work multiple jobs or have been trying for years to get a job. The simple fact of the matter is that a job today does not guarantee living standards. There are numbers and facts to back up the fact that the middle and lower classes have been getting less and less while the top 1% have been getting more and more. The 1% currently gets more of the GDP than they ever have before while paying less taxes than they have for years. This is a SYSTEMATIC FAILURE for those people who are struggling to make ends meet and to help this country grow and flourish. The government has given tax breaks to the highest 1% and has given nothing to the rest of us. It has cut social spending as it does this. And everyone in this country has realized that health care is not functioning the way it should, which means that many of these people who have done everything they were “supposed” to are struggling because their health got in the way of their jobs or sapped their money.

While some people may think it is not the government’s place to take care of those who are struggling, I do think we can all agree that it should give them a decent chance to help themselves. If the government both stacks the deck for the rich and then refuses to take care of the poor, there is a significant problem, one which people have a right to speak about. This is their lives. This is their children’s lives. The future of this country is important to a lot of us, and we want to see it moving in a direction where people legitimately do have opportunities instead of it moving in a direction where the rich gain more and more wealth while the poor take on more and more of the tax burden and are given less opportunities to work and lower wages. Right now it looks as if we’re moving towards option #2, and I think it is a perfectly legitimate complaint to point that out.

This also points to another criticism of OWS. Who are the REAL American people? What is the real American dream? Are these 53% protesters really part of the 99%? While I realize that I cannot speak for the 53% and they have every right to differentiate themselves if they feel like it, I have to say that when you look at their situations, it looks a lot like the 99%. And of the two groups, it looks a lot more like the 53% are deluding themselves about whether the American Dream is still viable or not. Many of the signs I see from the 53% look exactly like a 99% sign. Essentially the message is “my life has been very, very hard, but I have worked incredibly hard and acted sensibly and so I am ok”. I don’t understand how this message is contradictory to the 99% message.

OWS is not trying to say that it is impossible to succeed, rather that the average person has to work much too hard for too little success. It is NOT the American Dream to work 3 jobs in order to barely make ends meet. The American Dream is that if you work hard, get ahead in school, and don’t take huge risks, you will be able to live in a comfortable middle class. That dream no longer exists. While it is still propagated by the government, it is not a reality. Instead of a comfortable and stable life, you will be able to keep a roof over your head and food on your table…if you don’t get sick and if your company doesn’t downsize. This seems to be where a great deal of the anger from OWS is coming from, and is one of the aspects that the 53% are not understanding. All of us were told that there were certain ways, a prescribed path to follow and that if we followed the rules, we would be ok. That was a lie. The 53% has not put together the fact that they have not gotten what they were promised. While not all Americans agree with how to respond to this situation, all the evidence seems to suggest that the majority of Americans are living this same experience.

One of the responses to OWS that I’ve heard that really gives me pause is that all Americans are the 1% compared to the rest of the world. It’s true. Americans have it damn good compared to a lot of people. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say we’re the 1% seeing as there are MANY countries that take care of the majority of their citizens better than America does (see: all countries that do not have a paranoid terror of anything remotely socialist, e.g. Norway, Sweden, etc.), however I do understand some people who think we should focus our efforts on those people that have it really bad. There are a couple responses to this though: 1.if the 99% can’t get their government to listen to them about taking care of its own citizens, what’s the likelihood we can get our gov to help OTHER countries? 2.if our country continues along the path it is moving right now, there is every possibility we will fall into a double dip recession which could permanently damage our economy. This means that living standards would fall far out of the range of 1st world. Equalizing the world does not mean we should all be living in bad conditions, but rather that we should help 3rd world countries to gain access to the privileges we have. 3.An extension of 2, if our economy collapses, the world economy would be damaged as well. We would not be able to help any of the rest of the 99%. America can only help other countries if it is not in need of help itself.

For me this criticism comes down to a false dichotomy. Those who are making the criticism seem to think that either Americans can fight for their own rights or they can fight for other people’s rights. These two things are not mutually exclusive. It’s like saying that we should not fight for women’s rights because we need to feed starving children in Africa. The two things are not really related, and we can just do both. Yes, we have finite resources, but we can’t completely give up on one or the other. This is a problem. It is not a trite or trivial problem. It’s not that we are complaining that we can’t buy iPhones and we’re ignoring true plights elsewhere. We are worried about having homes and food. At the same time we realize that we are to some extent lucky. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. We are aware that we are the (relatively) lucky ones. We are afraid that that will mean nothing soon. As one of my favorite bloggers abaldwin360 puts it “Someone, somewhere has it worse than you so you’re not allowed to complain. Ever.”

This criticism also touches on the fact that many of these people use products from the system that they are criticizing. While this may be true, there is a question of how much choice they really have (unless they can become entirely self-sufficient they can’t really opt out of the system and being self-sufficient requires a decent amount of money). Additionally, a lot of the technology that these people are using is necessary for getting and finding jobs or is provided by their jobs. Simply because a person has a cell phone does not mean they’re wealthy. It means they chose to spend their money on one of the most useful inventions of the last century.

The final large criticism of OWS that I have heard is that they are unfocused. They occupy, but they do not act. They don’t know what their goals are and they will accomplish nothing with their current methods. To some extent this is true. The 99% don’t have a plan to fix this country. While I think it unnecessary to point out that this isn’t their job (that’s actually what we elected our government for), I think there are some deeper issues to touch on here.

First, we have decided that unless a movement has a plan with numbers and figures, it is not a true goal. Occupy MN has some very specific goals, although none of them involve numbers. A number of unions have added particular goals as well. But because there is not a single manifesto that involves facts and figures we do not take the movement seriously. I think this shows a lack of understanding that the movement calls for a structural shift, and even an ethical shift as well. Ethics are hardly taken seriously in politics. But that is a conversation for another day.

But more than being unfocused, I see the people of the Occupy movement being portrayed as lazy. I had one friend point out to me that he has a hard time taking the movement seriously because he sees it as inherently passive: where the civil rights movement actively rode busses and used “white only” services, while the women’s rights movement illegally voted, these citizens are only existing in public space. One of the most important things to take out of this criticism is that THAT IS THE POINT. The idea that American citizens gathering and speaking in a democratic fashion in a public place is considered radical or whiny says a lot about where our country is today. Speech is incredibly important in democracy, and one of the things the movement wants to say is that democratic speech has been disappearing from our country for some time. In that way they are actively working against what they see as the problem. They are engaging a democratic process that they believe is broken.

At the same time though, this is not a rights movement. The protesters are not asking for a specific right that they can simply take. The problems are BIGGER than a few simple actions (e.g. equal school opportunities or voting rights). This is a structural problem. That makes it incredibly difficult to act towards the root of the problem. I think the protesters are doing everything they can to address this in that they are occupying those spaces that are made for and by the system that has oppressed them. They are disrupting as best they can the everyday activities of the institutions that have made their lives difficult.

Finally, and I think just as importantly, protesting is not a passive action. I have been to one of these protests, and there was more going on than people standing around. Protesting takes energy, time, space, money…simply moving yourself into a particular place and being visibly present is an action, although to many it seems like a weak one. We have seen how important presence can be though. When women finally gained a presence in government or when minorities finally gained a presence in well paying jobs, we saw changes because it forces people to question the status quo.

For these reasons I believe that Occupy Wall Street is an important and valid movement. I am not trying to say that it is flawless (see: minority problems) or that it will solve all our problems. But it is a step in the right direction. It is a step that should and hopefully will cause our elected officials to sit up and pay attention.

And for a humorous finale to this overly long post, I give you Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart on Occupy Wall Street

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. October 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm —

    I think my fundamental problem with the Occupy movement is more the sense of entitlement I get from the way they phrase things than the actual goals. Am I for less wealth disparity and better social programs (eg healthcare)? Yes. Am I for more living-wage jobs? Yes.

    But do I think that because someone told you going college would get you a job and a nice life you are entitled to that? No. That’s not the way to convince me, and it is the way to make me consider you a “whiny brat.”

    I believe we are only entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Should our government be of, for, and by the people? Yes. Should its policies help stabilize the economy and minimize crazy bank and trade practices, tax discretionary dollars more, and support the group needs of all society (education, healthcare, transit, infrastructure, etc)? Yes.

    Are you, personally, entitled to a nice job, nice house, etc? No. Should the economic policy of the country be developed so there are many opportunities for nice jobs and nice lives? Yes.

    • October 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm —

      I can certainly understand where you’re coming from in this complaint, but I suppose I see their “whining” in a different way. They’re not complaining because they were told they could get a job and so now they feel entitled to one. They’re complaining because they’ve worked incredibly hard and done everything that they could (everything they were told and led to believe would work) and now they’ve had the results pulled out from under them. They feel they are entitled to have some pay off for their hard work and for following the rules.

  2. October 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm —

    The OWS is a diverse group – they are not all saying the same thing. Something is wrong, and something could be done by policymakers. But perhaps part of the criticism about the OWS is due to those people who have attached themselves to the cause without perhaps understanding the root problems (e.g., protesters using their iPad 2’s,buying Starbucks and using their toilets!)

    Nenfea – you mention The American Dream but the protest seems to have forgotten that capitalism is at the very core of this Dream. The fear of socialism (a throwback to the Cold War and the McCarthy era?) is a reflection of the thinking of the 99% themselves. Is anyone really going to argue that America as a nation would welcome universal health care, welfare etc? I doubt it. The 53% are already annoyed with having to pay taxes for the other 47%.

    I am Canadian and have always thought Americans were crazy in their zealous hatred of Medicare. But most of the problems the 99% have are related to medical bills. I bet about 90% of the 99% would not be in the positions they are currently in without these extortionate bills.

    But it’s not going to happen. Seeing how unpopular Obama’s health bill was is an indicator that America is not ready for this yet.

    Entitlement is a complex issue. My students are always querying their grades using the ‘But I worked really hard’ argument. How do I explain to them – you worked really hard and made a lot of crap? We are not all awesome at everything we work hard at. Unfortunately some of us get useless degrees we worked really hard at, or start businesses that fail. Some things are just life, and it can be wildly unfair.

    If the 99% really understand what they are asking for, then the Social Democrats would be re-established and a candidate put forward in the upcoming presidential election. But this is just not going to happen. Bachmann was vilified in a debate that showed her family farm received federal aid. Americans want the benefits of capitalism, and those that want the benefits of socialism do not want it to be called socialism. And *no one* wants to have to pay for it.

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