Protesting Inequalities across America

This week in North Philly Notes, Heather McKee Hurwitz, author of Are We the 99%?, reveals her findings about the Occupy movement and lessons for contemporary activists:

The nearly constant activism of the 2010’s is one indication that more Americans recognize how profoundly inequalities shape our society. Their protests demonstrate frustration about inequalities and demand social change.

The #MeToo movement exposed the hushed experiences of women in the entertainment and media industries and a range of other contexts. Women tweeted en masse to reveal the harassment they endured, which harmed them and stunted their career advancement.

The Black Lives Matter movement has made undeniable Black persons’ disproportionate experiences of hardship and violence. In neighborhoods across the country, groups are marching against police brutality. They are confronting the racism interwoven in their organizations in order to pursue racial justice.

The Occupy movement, which started in 2011, kicked off widespread conversation about class inequality when people left their houses and camped overnight in their town squares—some for months—to demonstrate for economic change. They revealed how the 1% thrived while the majority of families were suffering from the Great Recession. The movement argued that anyone who was not the 1% had a reason to come together. They advocated stricter banking regulations. They argued for taxing the 1%. They protested for relief from student debt. They popularized universal health care. Striving to create changes toward greater economic justice, they called themselves, “We are the 99%.”

Looking back on the last ten years of activism, and nearing the 10-year anniversary of the Occupy movement in 2021, Are We the 99%? examines the diversity of experiences in the movement by analyzing the stories of especially brave women and genderqueer persons from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. By studying dozens of protests and meetings, and reviewing movement newspapers, flyers, blogs, and other archival materials, Are We the 99%? synthesizes lessons from which anyone concerned about inequalities can learn.

While “the 99%” sought to be an innovative inclusive frame to unify a wide range of people, Are We the 99%? reveals the infighting about this 99% identity. By lumping everyone into one big class, some participants argued that the 99% framing erased the particular experiences of women of color, indigenous persons, and other groups with a history of enduring many kinds of inequality (not just based on class) and who had long been advocating for social change.

When the movement’s message focused on a gender-blind and color-blind definition of class inequality, individuals left the main movement organizations. They formed separate subcommittees to address a more holistic view of class as grounded in and inseparable from other forms of inequality – especially sexism and racism. Groups like Women Occupying Wall Street, Decolonize, Safer Spaces, and Occupy the Hood put forward ways of understanding economic inequality as intrinsically intertwined with racism and sexism. Detailed in the book, they created unique protests and brought Occupy to new communities. These and other groups that emerged from within the movement—and supported Occupy—but also critiqued and opposed aspects of the movement – advocated feminist and racial justice-oriented changes to the main movement and society broadly.

Even in Occupy, a progressive social movement, activists themselves recreated some of the gender, race, and class disparities that they were seeking to change. Yet, especially feminists acted quickly and used a new (at the time) tool—Facebook and Twitter—to address the disparities.

Although years before #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, some Occupy activists called for an excavation of racism and sexism from within the Occupy movement itself.

As seemingly more Americans than ever before evaluate how inequalities profoundly shape our society, Are We the 99%? and its free companion instructor’s guide and student study guide open up conversations about activism against disparities, when that activism falls short of addressing complex and intersectional forms of inequality, and suggests ways to improve inclusivity and diversity in activist and other organizations.

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