Am I the 99 Percent?

I happened upon an episode of I Love Lucy yesterday afternoon while I was folding laundry. In it, Lucy finds herself frustrated by her banker, Mr. Mooney, who won’t lend her $50 because her credit is bad. He suggests, “If you can show me that you can save $25, then I will lend you $50.” She takes him up on it. “When have you ever saved $25?” Ethel asks her. “Just because I’ve never done it before . . . ” Lucy replies. Thankfully, hi-jinks ensue and Lucy accidentally locks herself in the bank vault with Meanie Mooney for the night; as she is the only one with food (uncooked pasta), she is able to extort the $50 she needs . Comedy!

On November 2, the 99% will “liberate Oakland and shut down the 1%,” it was decided by 1,484 protesters at the Occupy Oakland General Assembly for a city of 400,000 (decided, in other words, by the .3%). By calling for a general strike, they are really trying to shut down 100%, but they’re targeting the villains of 2011’s 19th-century melodrama: “All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.”

Despite my childhood adoration of Disney’s adaptation of the Robin Hood myth, I have been struggling with all of this. When my associate came into the office carrying an Occupy poster (having stopped off momentarily on her way to work), my audible groan prompted one of the many truly riveting conversations we’ve had about politics and social programming this past year. She plays the role of the fierce and passionate liberal while I play the wary moderate. Distilled, our debates look like this: “Dan, things are really bad and need to change!” “But how will you make it work given the limited resources of our country?” In the case of the Occupy movement, she’s made a valiant effort to educate me on the importance and power of symbolism, but I continue to get hung up two questions: Whom are the protesters against exactly? What do the protesters actually want to have happen?

The difficulty is, of course, when your movement is attempting to speak for 693 million people (today, ± six months, planet earth’s homo sapien sapien population will reach seven billion), there are bound to be any number of goals. “Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions,” explains occupywallst.org. So what unites them? “The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”

Lucy will no longer tolerate the greed of Meanie Mooney. We stand behind her when we laugh at this man wracked with hunger pangs. He had it coming. He was depriving money from our protagonist.

While fiscally (which is the measure they’re using, right?) I’m not one of the 1% of households that have 38.3% of all privately held stock, 60.6% of financial securities, and 62.4% of business equity (nor am I even close to the top 10% that in effect “owns the United States of America” by possessing  80% to 90% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate), do I fit into the narrative of the 99? Have I suffered enough under the tyranny of a broken system to qualify? “We are the 99 percent,” the We Are the 99 Percent website explains. “We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.” What percentage of the 99% actually looks like this truly tragic figure?

Having never been able to afford a house from which to be kicked and currently employed, I don’t fit into this definition. Moreover, while we’re defining terms, I am reluctant to believe that everyone who lives in the 1% got there by greed (which, while a cardinal sin, is not illegal) and corruption. As someone who works in nonprofit arts, my industry is dependent on the generosity of those with money.

Batman is the 1%. Occupy Gotham would be camped out in front of Wayne Enterprises. Why should this billionaire playboy enjoy the unearned wealth his parents and grandparents accumulated while those in the Narrows are suffering? Rather than spending all his money on gear to go in that nifty utility belt, maybe he should just pay more in taxes. Maybe then the city could pay their police force more so their cops don’t have to take bribes to feed their families. Maybe then the schools would be better, and kids would not see gang life as their only option. Of course, we wouldn’t have Batman . . . but would we need him? We’d still have the video game.

Green Arrow, “liberal politician and billionaire Oliver Queen, a hot-headed social activist and owner of Queen Industries,”  is also, financially speaking, in the 1%. But he is also the modern day Robin Hood and DC’s voice of progressive politics. Will Occupy Star City march on him? Where is the line drawn, and who draws it?

On Wednesday, the Triangle Lab will Occupy Theater at Occupy Oakland. In the spirit of the movement, they are having an open call for performers: “Performances will be on the street, brief, unamplified,  and various; based on tweets, videos, and other stories coming out of the Occupy movement, responding, specifically, to one of these three prompts: 1. Whose story do you most want to share? 2. What would you like to hear the crowd chanting? What would the world look like if it belonged to the 99%?” Undeniably, there are many stories to tell, and I am excited that purposeful theater will fuse with politics (as opposed the theatricality that is inherently a part of politics). But it’s interesting, this last question. What would the world look like if it belonged to the the 99%? When Lucy finds herself in a position of power (as one who possesses what another desires), she exploits someone’s suffering to increase her wealth. Are you more benevolent than Lucy? Or, when given the opportunity, will a member of the 99% become the one of the 1%?

“Why will YOU occupy?” the We Are the 99 website asks. My wife and I look at many of our coupled friends who are “making it” around here and note how they have smartly paired off artist and provider—the dramaturg whose spouse works at Google, the director who’s married to the banker (do we hiss?), the playwright whose boyfriend owns a condo in a high-rise downtown—then we look at each other, artist to artist, and sigh, “Remember 10 years ago when you were going to be a doctor?” Bay Area rents are climbing. Yesterday I investigated the cost of an open lot and the legality of living in a yurt. So, sure, we’re frustrated and confused about the future and looking for options. And if the Occupy movement presents any that seem moral and pragmatic, I’ll rally behind them. Until then

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4 thoughts on “Am I the 99 Percent?

  1. More to come later, but for now…

    2 points re. your defense of the 1%

    1) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/29/opinion/what-the-costumes-reveal.html?_r=1&scp=7&sq=halloween%20costume&st=cse

    2) To be fair, I’m also uncomfortable with the witch hunt-y tone the movement has taken on re. the 1%. I hate that Occupy Wall Street-ers have gone uptown to target individual executive’s houses. Any good Marxist knows :)…it’s the system that’s the problem, more than the individuals. CEOs have stockholders and boards to whom they have to be accountable– which means, for whom they need to make profits. Now, in some (many) cases, higher profits means making destructive choices like, say, using sweatshop labor. OK. So Executive X doesn’t like using sweatshop labor, so he doesn’t do it. So Executive X’s company does less well than some of the other companies in his field, because they *do* use sweatshop labor. Now, Executive X’s board is going to be unhappy with the loss in profits, and they are going to fire Executive X and replace him with Executive Z, who *is* willing to use sweatshop labor. The system creates the roles– people just fill them. And in the free market, it’s a race to the bottom– in search of higher and higher profits, businesses will behave more and more poorly. The market forces them to. That’s why we need REGULATION. So we don’t have to depend on the good will of Executive X alone.

    1. 1) A fantastic Halloween-time article, but the employees of a “foreclosure mill” firm who mockingly dress up like the down-trodden they trod upon, while callous jerks, aren’t the 1%, again fiscally speaking. The top lawyer salaries (which I doubt this repo firm’s employees make) in Buffalo, New York, is in the range of $114,000 a year; according to CNN money, “To make it into the 99th percent threshold, one would need an annual cash income of at least $506,552.” The firm, the corporation, didn’t dress up; the employees, members of the 99%, did. Unless we’re not defining the 99% by economics but by social philosophy. And if so, by what philosophy and who gets to decide?

      That’s not to say you shouldn’t march against Steven J. Baum’s firm for their policies (and perhaps for supporting an environment in which the dehumanization of the suffering is encouraged). Go camp outside their building and make their lives as miserable as you can while staying within the law. That’s your right, and it sounds like they probably deserve it. But the article points out that it is already “under investigation by the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. It recently agreed to pay $2 million to resolve an investigation by the Department of Justice into whether the firm had ‘filed misleading pleadings, affidavits, and mortgage assignments in the state and federal courts in New York.'” Will protesting gain a better result than this?

      2) In a world in which information is, at least in part, controlled by those with money and power, I do not disagree. If it were otherwise—and perhaps the internet is rectifying this to a certain extent; or perhaps not—I would ask if it is not the responsibility of the citizenry to ensure that such destructive choices prove unprofitable. For example: 2008 happened and my wife and I, disgusted by what we learned about BoA’s policies and treatment of people (and their treatment of us), pulled our money out of BoA and put it in a Credit Union. If enough people did that, BoA would collapse (if the government let it). But when corporations can hide practices that would, in the light of day, turn off their clientele, you’re right: it would be difficult.

      But if you don’t trust corporations, and you don’t trust banks, why do you trust a government beholden to corporations and banks enough to give it the power to regulate the corporations and the banks? It, too, hides information that it thinks the populace would find unfavorable, and who comprises the government other than the 1%? “The median estimated wealth for Senate freshmen,” the ones we just voted in, “is $3.96 million. For House freshmen, it’s $570,418.” The government is Executive X.

      Maybe I am frustrated with the 99 because in this assembled state with the attention of the world, they, (we?), truly are at their (our) most powerful. Unless you gain wealth or if you happen into office some other means, participating in the General Strike in Oakland—shutting down an entire city—will be the most powerfully act you, as an individual David in an army of Davids, you will probably ever commit. But in the end, by asking for more government regulation of corporations aren’t you simply choosing one Goliath over another?

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