I’ve been following the Occupy movement with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s the first thing in a very long time that’s given me any hope for this country. It’s high time that we start focusing on economic injustice and the damage done by the greed of the mega rich and the corruption of those who do their bidding. The system is badly broken, as evidenced by the fact that politicians of both major parties are talking austerity and cuts to safety net programs at a time of record unemployment, growing poverty, and economic inequality comparable to the developing world. Clearly there’s a desperate need for a movement that raises awareness of the class war the wealthy have been waging on the rest of us.
Which brings me to my first issue with Occupy Wall Street. Who exactly are “the rest of us”? From a branding perspective, the 99% versus the 1% is very appealing. But is it accurate? Clearly not. If your household income is half a million a year, I’d say the system has been working very well for you. You may even be part of the problem if you outsource jobs or pay workers less than a living wage. But you’re still part of the 99%.
At the same time, “the 99%” has become synonymous with the downtrodden, debt-ridden, and dispossessed. I remember a Tumblr entry written from the perspective of a small child who’d witnessed her mom cry because she was unable to buy her kid a birthday present. It ended with the words, “My mom doesn’t know that I know we’re part of the 99%.” Huh? The mom doesn’t realize her kid knows she makes less than $590,000 a year? No wonder people are confused. I’ve seen numerous blog posts and comments by individuals with low six-figure incomes stating that they “stand with the 99%.” No, actually, if you have a low six-figure income, you are the 99%. In fact, if your household income totals $190,000, it could triple and you would still be part of the 99%.
So. Not very useful, is it? The bottom 90%, on the other hand, have an average household income of $31,244, which is probably more like what people have in mind when discussing the economic difficulties experienced by “the 99%.”
Okay, so maybe the focus is on the top 1% because they’ve been gobbling up a disproportionate share of income and productivity gains and wield a toxic amount of political influence. But then, why stop at the 1% mark (average annual income $1,137,684)? The top 0.1% (average annual income $3,238,386) are even more culpable and the top 0.01% (average annual income $27,342,212) are the most culpable of all.
Ultimately the 99% is more about branding than reality. Which, I suppose, is okay, as long as we don’t forget that there are HUGE differences among the 99% and that we are NOT all in the same boat. Even if we ignore the 99 percenters with household incomes topping $200k, there’s an enormous difference between a family making $160,000 and a family making $60,000 a year. And there’s an even bigger difference between a $60,000 household and a $16,000 household.
If the power elites had half a brain, they would have been content with exploiting and oppressing the people at the bottom, while continuing to provide economic opportunities for those in the middle. Most 99 percenters were just fine with a system in which the disproportionately black, brown, and female folks at the bottom of the income pyramid were paid so little for their labor that an entire lifetime of hard work was insufficient to escape poverty. And even the ones who saw the injustice and had a problem with it weren’t about to take to the streets to protest the exploitation of the working poor.
Alas, the greed of the power elites knows no bounds and they began outsourcing middle class jobs and cutting middle class pay and benefits. So here we are. We’ve now got the beginnings of an economic justice movement. People are starting to wake up to what those of us at the bottom of the pile have known for a long time: The system is rigged. Hard work and skill are not enough. The rules that apply to most of us don’t apply to the people at the top. And these people have been waging war on workers for over three decades. Their greed commodifies and destroys everything in its path.
So, yeah, I realize that this newfound solidarity with workers came about only because those who grew up expecting to live a middle class life with decent pay, home ownership, vacation time, health care access, and savings accounts are seeing their prospects evaporate. But you know what? I’ll take it.
As for the much-discussed demographics of the Occupy movement, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that white dudes with middle class upbringings are disproportionately represented among the “full-time” occupiers. With the exception of those currently unemployed, the working poor are typically too busy working two or three jobs to keep a roof over their head to occupy stuff. If we don’t show up for work, we don’t get paid, and if we don’t get paid, we can’t make the rent. The Occupy movement doesn’t just protest the economic realities in this country, it also reflects them.
Women are not only more likely to be poor and underpaid (roughly two-thirds of all minimum wage workers are women), but with all the unpaid domestic work and caretaking we are saddled with, we’re going to have far less time to join protests. On top of that, the ever-present threat of rape serves as a powerful deterrent against overnight stays in tents surrounded by dudes.
It’s absolutely critical that the white male protesters who are in the majority at every “occupation” understand *why* they outnumber female activists. I’ve seen some pretty disturbing statements from dudes who clearly don’t. Suggesting that those present 24/7 at Occupied sites are more committed to the movement’s goals than those who are able to stay only a short time demonstrates a stunning lack of awareness of male, white, ableist, and class privilege.
Unfortunately there seems to be quite a bit of that going around. There have been reports of general sexism (lots of it), sexual harassment, and even a couple of sexual assaults. While that’s no different than what happens outside of the Occupy movement’s encampments every minute of every day (don’t get me started on the hypocrisy of right-wing blogs who have seized on these incidents as supposed evidence that OWS represents the end of Western civilization), male OWS protesters are supposedly trying to fight injustice and inequality. That, my brothers, will require tearing down patriarchy, male privilege, as well as porn and rape culture.
It probably won’t come as a shock that many lefty men have no intention of abandoning male supremacy. That became, once again, abundantly clear during the Occupy Wall Street Perv Project fiasco (otherwise known as “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street”). Women can be objectified, dehumanized, and used as perv bait without their knowledge or consent, and, judging from blog comments, about half the pro-Occupy dudes think that’s a-okay. Oh, and feminists are overreacting, of course. Perv project creator Steven Greenstreet is actually helping the movement by getting more
people dudes to show up at the protest, so it’s all good! Who cares that he’s creating an unsafe and oppressive environment for women in the process.
The absolute lowest point, however, came when Occupy London Stock Exchange invited probable rapist and definite sexist sleazoid Julian Assange to speak at the LSX protest. While there were some boos and a few people left, the vast majority of the crowd cheered for this piece of shit. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. LSX sent a clear message that day to women and rape survivors that we’re not part of their “justice” movement.
So I understand why most radfem blogs have concluded that Occupy Wall Street is a men’s movement in which dudes set the agenda and women clean, cook, and look pretty. Same as it ever was.
And yet. Linking to right-wing blogs that claim to be outraged about sexual assaults occurring at OWS encampments while they support candidates and policies that make women even more vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment? If you must link to them, it would be nice to at least call out their breathtaking hypocrisy. But then, just like left-wing dude politics have a blind spot where women’s oppression is concerned, feminism can be amazingly oblivious to class-based (and race-based) oppression.
While pointing out that “we” are not the 99%, that the 99% are made up of predominantly women and children, all women are presumed to be in the same boat. In fact, I’ve even seen statements to the effect that low income women have more in common with women in the 1% than with low income men. There are indeed experiences women share across class or race. But there are also important differences, and in some instances, poor women and women of color are going to have more in common with men of their class or race than with rich white women. The point is, we shouldn’t have to choose. We shouldn’t have to ignore one form of oppression to focus on another.
Some of the most troubling comments I’ve seen on feminist blogs question the Occupy movement’s legitimacy because “worldwide, the 99% are the 1%.” Apart from the fact that this statement is untrue (Western industrialized nations are home to substantially more than 1% of the world’s population, and not everyone in the so-called developing world is poor), it comes perilously close to the right-wing talking point that poor people in the US have nothing to complain about because we have it so much better than poor people in the developing world. Sort of like feminists have no business complaining about sexism and misogyny in the US, because, hey, women here are so much better off than women in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.
Let me be clear. Being poor in the US of A is not just about not being able to “buy stuff.” Being poor frequently means going to bed hungry. It means watching your partner collapse after a day of hard physical labor in 100+ degree heat for which he was paid $5 an hour. It means walking home seven miles in icy cold wind and rain because you can’t afford a car and public transportation is extremely limited. It means cops automatically regarding you with suspicion, and courts locking you up for minor offenses. Most of all, being poor in the US means suffering, and possibly dying, because you can’t afford medical, dental, or psychiatric care–and being forced to stand by helplessly as your friends and loved ones suffer.
For women, being poor also means that you are more likely to be raped and less likely to see your rapist brought to justice. It means you are more likely to be sexually harassed on the street and at work, and less likely to have recourse against employment-based harassment and exploitation because you really need that job. It means you’re more likely to become a victim of domestic violence and less likely to be able to escape because you’re not paid enough to live alone. And yes, being a poor woman also means that you’re more likely to turn to prostitution or other sex work–either as a “career choice” because that’s the one form of employment open to you that pays enough to possibly escape poverty, or as something you do occasionally to make ends meet.
This is why, despite all the problems, I support the Occupy movement. No, it’s not a radical movement (at this point), and yes, it’s far from perfect, but it’s still the best thing that has happened in this country in a long time. Unfettered capitalism is killing us and the planet. Hell, it may already be too late. But maybe, just maybe, we can still turn this thing around. People are finally waking up and figuring out that something has gone very, very wrong. Our elected representatives don’t represent us; they’re on the payroll of massive corporations intent on devouring everything they can turn into profits–human beings, animals, natural resources, social programs. I’m not going to turn my back on the first (and possibly the last) inkling of a chance to change course because some of the dudes involved are fauxgressive douchenozzles.
Get involved in the Occupy movement and point out how unbridled capitalism, environmental destruction, and patriarchy are inextricably linked? I’m all for it. But not support the movement at all? I don’t have that luxury. I need this movement to succeed. And, really, so do you.