The most provocative symbol from the Occupy Wall St protests thus far has been the proliferation of the “99 percent” signs. These signs are ubiquitous now – both on the streets and on the web (where anyone can upload a pic on the We Are the 99 percent blog).
Why have these signs become so popular? What is their power and what is their impact?
The standard structure for the 99 percent stories is as follows:
1- A description of a person’s personal economic situation
2- An description of an unfair economic system that contributes to the problem
3- A mention of an action to take, such as visit occupywallstreet.org or attend a protest
Many in the Occupy Wall St protests have been derided for not having a structured message, but the 99 percent stories come closest to some sort of common narrative that ties the protestors together.
The power of the 99 percent stories lies in their ability to create a collective identity. For a movement to gain traction, it needs to create a shared identity for people to relate to. This helps answer the three important questions that social movement scholars, like Chuck Tilly, state are key to forming a collective identity – “Who are we? Who are they? Who am I?”
“We are the 99 percent” does just that. If we follow the logic of this story, We refers to the the majority of Americans who are not wealthy. They refers to the top 1% of the wealthy population. I refers to the individual who is a part of the majority of Americans who are economically disadvantaged.
The 99 percent signs state the “I am” part. These signs are an opportunity for individuals to situate themselves in the movement. This storyline is “open” and “vague,” as many have noted, but this is not a weakness of the storyline. For an emerging movement, a storyline that has an element of interpretive flexibility can be a major strength. As Francesca Polletta notes, author of “It Was Like A Fever: Storytelling in Protests and Politics,” the openness to interpretation in a movement’s story allows “diverse groups to see their interests as alike enough to act collectively.”
Lastly, the power of these stories lies in their ability for people to see their personal situation as part of a larger political and economic circumstance. This is the heart of C. Wright Mill’s notion of the sociological imagination. This is what helps people to see themselves not just as an individual, but as a citizen with a “vivid awareness of the relationship between [their] experience and the wider society.”
The power of the “We are the 99 percent” story is what is fueling the spread of this movement beyond Wall St into cities across the U.S. and even in international regions. This is a story that people can relate to across party lines and across cultural lines. Even if one is not personally protesting on the streets, they can identify and become a part of the movement by making a sign (or sharing a sign) and sharing it in virtual solidarity in the online space. This helps to explain the “viral” nature of the spread of this message in the last week.
But is this a powerful enough statement to mobilize a full-fledged movement with specific goals and action for change? It is too early to tell, but Sidney Tarrow, another well-known social movement scholar, has some worthwhile insights on CNN.com in regards to the potential impact of these protests.
What we do know that can make this message stronger is to ground it in strategic framing. Where are the key values in this messaging? How can protestors explain the economic situation in a way that helps the public understand and support an appropriate solution? Furthermore, what are the specific solutions that this group would like to enact?
It’s clear this movement needs to think through the communications side a bit more…and I believe that the ground is fertile enough at the moment for some spokespeople to stand in and guide the movement in a more constructive direction. It is definitely worth looking into some of FrameWorks recommendations on framing Budgets and Taxes for creating a message that can lead to concrete action.
What are some of the most poignant signs you’ve seen? Which ones do you think are the most powerful? What are the ways in which this message can be strengthened? Link to the signs that have stood out most to you in the comments section below.