The other day my wife and I were at Planet Organic (a health food supermarket) when I grabbed a hemp bag off the rack, began dancing comically to an imaginary bongo drum, and chanting “We are the 99 percent.” It was then, in that moment of candor and mockery, that I realized the Occupy Wall Street movement had failed critically to brand its message. After all, when Randal, a self-styled progressive granola-crunching inactive social activist starts mocking the movement with which I should be in deep sympathy, something has gone critically wrong.
Most of us know there is something fundamentally dysfunctional in western developed societies. We see a growing disparity of social inequality, even though many at the bottom end of society are working harder than ever. (Read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed.) At the other end of the social strata we see people getting stupid rich but not contributing a thing to the commonweal in the process. Henry Ford got stupid rich but along the way he revolutionized the manufacturing landscape and put a Tin Lizzie in middle class driveways across North America. But today people make economic decisions with numbers on a screen, numbers that represent the savings of other people. When things go well the person trading gets rich. When things don’t go well, the person who was supposed to have the money gets poor. And when things get bad for the 1 percent, the government swoops in obligingly because of 50,000 lobbyists and, under the guise of a shock doctrine narrative, they save the 1 percent’s golf vacation while the 99 percent watch their salaries, benefits, and vacations evaporate. Capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich. We get it.
So why did the message fail to take hold?
One reason is the sheer enormity of the problem. We don’t know where to begin. It’s like when I tried to leash train my lhasa apso. I seemed to be making headway for about half an hour until a rabbit appeared on the horizon. Now we’re back to him straining and choking against the tether as I stumble along behind because the prospect of training that dog is just too insurmountable. Of course many things in history seemed insurmountable in this way. The communist bloc, for instance. Perhaps we are not yet desperate enough.
Another big problem is with branding. Some media outlets conveyed the stories of real average people involved with the Occupy movement. But most of the media images consisted of dreadlocks and nose rings with Soul Asylum’s “Summer of Drugs” the accompanying soundtrack. That’s not the 99 percent I know.
So we need to rebrand Occupy. One way to begin this process is by telling the narratives of real people. Here is just such a story.
The other day my sister-in-law in Colorado pulled into a grocery store when she noticed an old Volkswagen idling beside her. Nothing particularly unusual. However, when she emerged a half hour later the car was still idling. She looked in the driver’s seat and recognized the lady who she’d seen before offering samples at “Sam’s Club.” Intrigued, she tapped on the window. As she did she could see the woman in the car bundled up with layers of clothes with her daughter. The car was also filled to the hilt with stuff.
You can see where this is going.
It turns out that the woman first lost her job. And then, unable to pay both for rent and her daughter’s medicine for lupus, found herself and her daughter homeless. No bongo drums. No nose rings. And not a dreadlock to be seen. Only two scared, hopeless people who are waiting to be pulled into a real narrative of long-lasting social reform.