Occupy Wall St – The Power of the "99 Percent" Stories

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.










5 thoughts on “Occupy Wall St – The Power of the "99 Percent" Stories

  1. Thanks for this post! I was thinking about the power of the “99 percent” title as part of the Occupy movement, and how much impact it has had, although as you noted the movement certainly has communications elements to work out.

    One other fascinating thing about this story is how the title of the “99 percent” has become a sort of online phenomenon via the Tumblr blog and spread to other online communities such as Reddit and thus became a sort of secondary title for the movement via online traction. And now we have seen more and more protestors on the streets with 99 percent signs. It shows something of an important interaction between online and offline action in modern day protest movements; I think that is different from just the online organizing aspect of social networks, but instead is about the power of communications materials and collective development in both realms.


  2. Very interesting post. I’ve noticed that everyone who has critiqued OWS has pointed out that in order to be a more effective movement, they need leaders or spokespeople to guide them. Often, organizations/movements adopt a horizontal structure for political means because they feel it is more democratic and participatory. I suspect that the 99% has taken on this structure because it would seem, by appearance, to flow well with the narrative – i.e. if there is only one person saying “We the 99% are tired of living by the whims of Wall St” it doesn’t feel as powerful as a multitude of people decrying the ill effects of capitalism. Still, as said, this structure has been critiqued heavily by the media. So, I wonder what would be the communication advantages and disadvantages of remaining leaderless? Are there any well-known horizontal organizations that seem to excel in their communication strategies?

    Also, I found this interesting picture of Cornel West holding a sign that says, “If only the war on poverty was a real war, then we would actually be putting money into it.”


  3. I really appreciate the nods to social movements theory in this post. FrameWorks has long employed social movements work in our theory of social change, but this is a new application of this important body of scholarship.
    To me, it demonstrates quite clearly the importance of re-visiting this work–something that I know my sociologist colleagues at FrameWorks are in the process of doing as we speak. Up to this point FrameWorks has primarily relied on this theory and some of the scholars quoted in the post as a way to shore up a fundamental proposition in our approach to communications for social change–the notion that changing social realities starts with changing how the public thinks about and understands the issues that require changing. To many reading this blog, this will sound like a good old dose of “common sense”– of course changing the way that people think about social issues will change the reality of social issues–or maybe it doesn’t sound like common sense, in which case the onus is on us to strength this link in the chain of our logic. From having presenting FrameWorks research to many people who think about communication, let me tell you that there are many people out there who work on communications and knowledge translation who neither share nor adhere to this cornerstone belief about where social change starts. To these communicators the public and their understanding of issues can be bypassed by focusing squarely and narrowly on those who make policy and have the power to affect institutional structures and practices. To me the power of the social movements literature lies in its refutation of this bypass approach to social change. At the heart of the social movements work lies a vital nugget of knowledge, changing social issues requires more than affecting isolated decisions of those in power–it requires creating a foundation of understanding at the widest level possible, that over time will support demands for a different social reality.


  4. As we all know, sometimes the spokesperson can be as, if not more, powerful than the sign. Check out these military vets, (including a World War II vet!) marching at Occupy Wall Street.


    While it necessarily lacks some focus, the “We are the 99%” campaign has attracted a big crowd under a big tent, and may even have the potential to allow progressives to retry values like “Freedom” and “Patriotism” which had by and large been abandoned as viable communications strategies.


  5. Pingback: Occupy Movement Media Success: Staying on Frame

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