We Are the 99 Percent

The message of the demonstrators is populist and passionate: “We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.”

by Carol Harvey


For years, pundits wondered when this simmering social cauldron would boil over. On Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, random forces touched off a new American uprising.

When Adbusters, a Canadian culture-jamming magazine, called for people to occupy Wall Street, political organizers set up camp to test sleeping in the street as a form of social expression and protest. On Monday, Sept. 19, the people occupied Wall Street, successfully blocking work in New York’s financial district, and causing the market to drop.

“Make Banks Pay.” Marchers carry their message to “Wall Street West” -- the San Francisco financial district. Carol Harvey photo

This spontaneous direct action spread immediately to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Kansas, Chicago, Tampa, and San Francisco. Occupy San Francisco shares Wall Street occupiers’ key demand: An end to corporate personhood and greed. The group is committed to peaceful, non-confrontational actions.

The occupation’s structure is loose, leaderless, democratic, bottom-up and consensus-based. General Assemblies are held at 6:00 p.m. outdoors in the Embarcadero, with a larger Union Square meeting at noon on Saturdays.

Meetings break into working groups, trainings or committees. In the daytime, the demonstrators do public outreach at the Federal Reserve Building, while others walk the Embarcadero with signs. Night camp beds down two blocks away at Steuart and Embarcadero.

The first camp began on Sept. 17 at 555 California, and had only six to 10 full-time campers. At Justin Herman Plaza, the core group numbered 15 to 20 people, sleeping, eating and protesting. The meeting on Sept. 30, numbered 50.

A profile of two occupiers

Robb Benson relocated from Arcata to join OccupySF. Some occupiers are college grads angered by an economy that provides no jobs. That’s not Robb.

Watching corporations gobbling up mom-and-pop shops as a child drove him outside that system. Since 1992, Benson has been a Deadhead roadie and pad thai vendor. He admits working for corporations — but only rarely. In 1992 he accepted emergency food stamps. His lifestyle doesn’t require much. He communicates via computer and drives a van.

If he stayed in one place, it might have been harder to survive. But moving around in a gypsy lifestyle, it’s not.

Searching for a law library to defend his First Amendment rights, Benson found Occupy San Francisco. On the road in Arcata, a small town where police do whatever businesses demand, he campaigned for Ron Paul in front of a restaurant. They had him arrested for standing on the sidewalk. He believes this is classist discrimination against poor people. Would he have the same problem in a suit, clean-shaven, with short hair?

After BART cops shot and killed a homeless man, Charles Hill, Robb  joined the protests. Offended by California abusing poor people, he suggested the Board of Supervisors draft a declaration recognizing poor peoples’ equal rights.

Benson is primarily concerned about people’s sovereignty, and said that sovereignty has been transferred from people to corporations. After the Civil War, he explained, industrialists and bankers opened the door with the 1871 Organic Act, establishing the United States as a federal corporation. “That’s how they got our sovereignty,” he said. “They regulate us like commercial entities.”

Others believe that the U.S. Supreme Court wrongly conferred the rights of persons to abstract corporate entities.

Some OccupySF campers are scrutinizing built-in constitutional corruption. “Everyone agrees our government doesn’t follow constitutional law,” Benson said. “Opinions differ on how to redress it. The Constitution is explicit. If, for any reason, the government doesn’t follow its strictures, we, as sovereigns, have the power — no, the duty — to enforce or change it.”

Mike Clift, 44, is an artist from Sacramento. He bounced with his Air Force father from Maryland to Virginia, and then to Southern California.

“Heavy stuff” affected his generation, he said, citing Vietnam, the Jonestown massacre, Charles Manson, the moon landing, the Iran hostage crisis. Inept presidents, drugs and news of official corruption jump-started his high-school, punk-rock rebellion and his political awareness.

While stationed in an artillery unit in Germany from 18 to 20, his eyes opened to U.S. foreign policy and corporate influence on military structure.

Unlike certain of his “successful, shining” relatives who work at Exxon, Jet Propulsion Labs, and Microsoft, Clift said he walked away from a corporate artist’s salary which purchased useless “shiny garbage.” He believes that every level of society’s problems ties into corporate manipulation and wealth addiction. People become conditioned to accept things that upset them, he said.

Empathy with others is disintegrating, and even the interface between neighbors and family is recast in corporate terms by the ever-present question: “What is your practical value in this economic unit? If none, we’ll dispose of you.”

“If it’s poor or homeless people, it’s jail,” Clift said. “With mental illness or drug problems, it’s mental hospitals. Funding cuts leave dispossessed people walking around.”

Clift believes it’s crucial to help youth keep their idealism and desire for a better world. If forced to keep a job, they can lose touch with their younger self, let the world walk all over them, grow old and despairing. He said it is important for people to see others joining the movement. A person going to work in the morning may pass five people talking. Then, on his way home, if 20 more are sitting around, engaged in the occupation, it draws new people to participate.

“A guy came by,” Clift said, “dropped a $40 donation, and said, ‘My job is on the line. I can’t hang out with you guys because Upstairs is probably watching. If I lose my job and end up here, remember I was a nice guy.’ He looked like a total millionaire.”

Clift thinks about this and says, “We don’t want you to quit your job. Question whether it fulfills you. Is it worth laboring for something you don’t believe in?”


To see the Occupy SF website click here

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