The rise of the 99 percent

by Joshua J. McElwee

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A protester joins a demonstration against cuts to social programs. The demonstration, held Nov. 17 in front of the Chicago Board of Trade, was organized by a coalition of unions, community and religious groups, and Occupy Chicago. (Newscom/Reuters/Jim Young)

Long before it was a rallying cry, Catholic social justice groups were pointing fingers at the 1 percent.

In fact, just last May, the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic lobbying group NETWORK launched a new “Mind the Gap” program to address the growing wealth disparity in the United States.

Coupled with a congressional petition, a 90-minute educational workshop, and endorsements of dozens of partner organizations, the program was designed to call attention to the fact that the wealthiest 1 percent of the country’s population owns more than the bottom 90 percent combined.

No one at the group foresaw that just four months later a similar statistic would become first the calling card of protesters camped out in New York’s Zuccotti Park, and then of dozens of protests aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement in cities across the country.

In each of the protests the unifying cry would become “We are the 99 percent,” pointing to the percentage of the population who have not shared in the increased concentration of the country’s wealth.

While the coinciding of the protests with the “Mind the Gap” program caught NETWORK off-guard, executive director Sr. Simone Campbell said it pointed to the importance of the work of the group, which is celebrating in 2012 its 40th year of lobbying Congress to address social and economic inequalities.

But despite the importance of wealth disparity, the question echoed in NCR interviews with activists at several Catholic and faith-based social justice groups was: Why now? What touched off the sudden interest in economic inequality?

Campbell, who is a member of the Sisters of Social Service and has headed the Catholic lobbying group since 2004, said she thought the protests found success because they “touched that basic sense of fairness that is not being currently met in our country.”

Most in the country believed the notion “that if you play by the rules and you work hard, you will get ahead,” Campbell said. “That’s no longer necessarily true. And it’s that dislocation between what had become a nationally held mantra and reality that I think then created the opening for the Occupy movement.”

Even with that opening, another activist pointed to bigger questions underlining the continuing Occupy movement: How long will it last? And what effect will it have on national policy?

As Kim Bobo, the executive director of the organizing group Interfaith Worker Justice, put it: “How do we keep up the momentum?”

Pointing to the protesters’ encampments in public spaces across the country, Bobo said simply: “You can’t build a long-term movement that’s only based on people sleeping outside in tents.”

Another activist said the greatest impact of the Occupy movement goes beyond the encampments, in that the protests have “opened up a space” for people concerned about social justice issues to speak on a national scale.

Longer-term activists have “become sort of more reasonable and more understandable” amid the continuing Occupy protests, said David Kane, associate for Latin America and economic justice at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

“We become sort of more mainstream because the movement is showing what a huge percent of the country is really worried about and the issues they’re talking about,” said Kane, who served with Maryknoll as a lay missioner in Brazil before joining their Washington, D.C.-based ministry six years ago.

That move to the mainstream also means that the voice of Maryknollers, who are spread across the world working with local populations on social and economic issues, is getting a volume it hadn’t had before, he said.

That enthusiasm for the power of the Occupy movement was echoed by Sr. Kathleen Desautels, a member of Chicago’s 8th Day Center for Justice, which was founded in 1974 as a coalition of religious congregations working on social justice issues.

Desautels said her group has close ties with the Occupy movement in Chicago, joining the group at protests every Tuesday morning, and even serving as the protesters’ fiscal agent until they are able to obtain nonprofit tax status.

Staff members at the 8th Day Center, Desautels said, decided to provide that support because of the energy of the Occupy movement and “its ability to make the connections” between injustice in a range of economic issues.

“To have such a nationwide movement demonstrating in their signs and actions these interconnections is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” said Desautels, a member of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

Staff at the social justice center also found “refreshing” the Occupy protesters’ circular organizational structure, which is similar to 8th Day’s, where all major decisions are made with consensus, said Desautels, who has worked at the center since 1986.

“I’m sure there are bumps along the way, but they’re making clear that the top-down, hierarchical decision-making process is part of what got us to where we are in the first place.”

The key to whether innovations like the circular organizational structure of the Occupy movement catch on across the country, Bobo said, will be whether the protests are able to translate their momentum into political wins that continue to energize those interested in social justice.

“The challenge right now is to make some policy wins in the short term so that protesters do not become discouraged and let momentum dissipate,” said Bobo, who founded the worker justice group in 1996 to engage the religious community in low-wage worker campaigns.

She said protesters should look to recent wins for progressive goals at the state and local level to see that “there are optimistic signs of things that we can win.”

Among these, she said, are recent successes in paid sick-day campaigns, and in addressing wage theft through stricter enforcement of minimum wage and overtime regulations.

“We’ve got to find other ways to engage larger numbers and keep the momentum up” now that the Occupy groups have put these issues on the national agenda, Bobo said.

For her part, Campbell seemed to agree, saying the Occupy protesters need to outline their message in positive ways.

Pointing to some 14,000 signatures NETWORK had presented to the White House in support of mending wealth disparity in the country as part of their “Mind the Gap” program, Campbell said protesters need to call attention to specific proposals they might support to address inequality.

“Sometimes it’s easier for us progressives to be anti the current policies, than to be for something,” the lobbyist said. “I would hope that [Occupy protesters] would combine the message to we’re for the 99 and against the 1 percent, and that we’re for X policy.”

“I think that it’s really important to be imaginative in finding new ways of coming together and solving these problems so that they meet our current reality,” she said.

Asked what advice she would give to the protesters, Campbell said she would “just encourage them to dream.”

“Think big. Engage this thing. Pick what you want to change and do something.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is]

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