Robyn Gee on Wednesday, Nov. 9th
“We are the 99 percent” is now a household phrase.
Once the Occupy Wall Street movement gained steam, the slogan was everywhere: in headlines, embedded in our social networks and plastered on our sidewalks. But where did the phrase come from? And how did it catch on?
Following the trail is complicated– it’s hard to pinpoint where it began. After all, the Occupy movement is intentionally leaderless and decentralized.
Some credit Anonymous, the hacking group that is known for disrupting PayPal and organizing protests against Bay Area Rapid Transit. Some people say the term came from Adbusters, the non-profit “culture-jamming” magazine that initiates activist campaigns. The magazine put out the call to occupy Liberty Plaza in Manhattan on September 17, and is credited with generally raising the profile of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some refer to academics, like David Graeber, author of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” and instructor at Goldsmiths, University of London who was among the earliest group of protesters in Zucotti Park.
And then there’s David DeGraw.
DeGraw released a report on AmpedStatus.com on September 29, 2011 called, “A Report from the Frontlines: The Long Road to #OccupyWallStreet and the Origins of the 99% Movement.”
DeGraw is an independent journalist who lives on Long Island, New York. He’s the editor of AmpedStatus.com. He claims he was talking about “the 99 percent” long before other journalists and activists were was paying attention. “I consulted on a film called ‘America Before the Bubble Burst,’ in 2006 which dealt with sub-prime lending and all the mortgage-backed securities… I’ve been investigating it, I’ve written hundreds of detailed reports on it,” he said.
In February 2010, DeGraw published a book called “The Economic Elite Vs. The People of the United States of America.” He says the last section of the book was a call to action, using the concept of 99 percent of American income earners.
“In the course of my research I realized that the 400 richest Americans had as much wealth as half of the population combined… The inequality of wealth between the top one percent and the remaining 99 percent was at an all time high,” said DeGraw.
“So what I did was I called for 99 percent of us, whether you are a liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian, independent — whatever your political leanings are — there were core common sense common ground issues we could come together and agree on. This 99 percent platform came about and it was really about uniting Americans against what we consider a system of political bribery, which was campaign finance, the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, and lobbying,” said DeGraw.
DeGraw’s writings didn’t immediately take off, until, through a series of random circumstances, he hooked up with Anonymous.
“[AmpedStatus] started a collaborative effort where the 99 percent movement kind of merged with this subgroup within Anonymous– we called it A99-- which is basically the 99 percent movement and Anonymous mixed together,” said DeGraw.
The newly formed A99 group began releasing videos and calling their mission Operation Empire State Rebellion” (#OpESR). They released their first one on March 12 of this year, and called for Ben Bernanke to step down as Federal Reserve Chairman. On June 14, A99 led an operation to occupy Liberty Park, but only 14 people showed up, and only four of them were willing to camp out over night. “It was a failed attempt,” said DeGraw. But, it was a failed attempt with a fortuitous side effect.
Enter Gary Roland.
Roland didn’t always view the banks as the bad guys; in fact, he worked alongside them, as a construction manager for Blackrock’s Granite, Diamond, and CDF Real Estate Funds. “I was working on 45th Street in Midtown Manhattan, flanked by the likes of AIG and BEAR Sterns, and to see these big firms collapse around me, I realized that there had to be something more, so I started on this journey,” said Roland.
Roland was one of the four protesters who stayed overnight on June 14th.
“I had advocated for the use of the camp-style general assembly sort of protest, and not enough people showed up,” Roland said. He ended up walking over to “Bloombergville” – a group of activists protesting the state budget cuts that was using the General Assembly format for meetings.
OPESR, A99, Bloombergville, and the NYV General Assembly were now connected in one network.
The parties within the network brainstormed about when to return to Liberty Park, according to DeGraw, but nothing took hold until Adbusters came into the picture calling for an occupation on September 17th. All parties jumped on board. Adbusters was able to rally their network of magazine subscribers consisting of “artists, writers, and cultural dissidents” that totals 94,739, according to their website, in a way that the network couldn’t up until that point.
One of the main criticisms of the Occupy movement is that there are no specific demands. DeGraw pointed out that to an extent, that’s by design; Adbusters wanted the movement to crowdsource its ideas. “We had set demands that we tried to rally people on, and the fact that Adbusters phrased it as a question, ‘What are your demands?’ That was really key,” he said. “Even going into September 17 there was a group of us that was like, ‘Look, we need to have set demands.’ But we respected the Adbusters call,” he said.
“Looking back, I think it was pure genius not to have demands going in. It really made people feel like… they will have their own voice.” said DeGraw.
Not only is Occupy Wall Street without specific demands, but without specific leaders. Or rather, named leaders. Anonymous’s role in helping the movement to take off is essential, according to both DeGraw and Roland. “I even look at the Occupy Wall Street movement as an offline version of Anonymous. It’s so decentralized … it’s almost like a survival of the fittest of ideas, so whoever puts forth the best ideas it tends to become the reality of the movement,” said DeGraw.
And as for that 99 percent idea?
We first noticed the “We Are The 99 Percent” slogan on the Tumblr page that started publishing in early September. The “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr page consists of photo-postcard submissions from people explaining why they are victims of the economic system, with the statement, “I am the 99 percent” at the bottom. Within weeks of the launch, the site was posting over a hundred photo submissions each day.
DeGraw’s back story was lost somewhere in the hype of the Tumblr page going viral, the growing support for the movement and the adoption of the slogan by the Wall Street campers.
DeGraw had nothing to do with the Tumblr page, but said he loves it.
Read the rest
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published on Turnstyle June 17, 2011, when Saudi Arabian women were demonstrating for the right to drive. We have concealed the identity of “Nikki” to protect her privacy.
Amid a sea of traffic that relentlessly fills the streets of Tehran, Iran, women are seizing an economic opportunity they never had before—an opportunity similar to one for which their counterparts in Saudi Arabia are now fighting. After the government started issuing taxi licenses to women, women are slowly but surely getting behind the wheel and experiencing the advantages of this potentially lucrative profession.
Following several months of being away from Iran, I visited its capital Tehran, eagerly anticipating the hustle and bustle of the sprawling city. Hopping in a taxi one day, I looked at the traffic around me and was quietly shocked at the number of green taxis navigating the roads. I thought the color green, made famous by the 2009 presidential campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi and the ensuing post-election protests, imparted a political statement. The driver corrected my misunderstanding and pointed out that the rise in number of green taxis had nothing to do with politics, and that the only rebellion happening in the Iranian taxi culture is that women are now becoming paid drivers.
Until the moment I saw a taxi that read “Women’s Taxi” on its door, I realized this evolution is not readily apparent at first sight. After all, in contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia that prohibit women from obtaining drivers’ licenses—an issue which is again being challenged by women there—women in Iran have been driving for many years. In a major city like Tehran, where the population—and number of cars on the road—continually increases, and where some commutes within the boundaries of the city itself can take up to two hours each way, the use of taxis is an integral part of the city’s transportation system. And now women are benefiting from the potential profits in this sector of the economy.
The Taxi Transportation Agency, supervised by each municipality, began granting taxi licenses to women in Tehran in 2006, though the prevalence of women taxi drivers has become apparent only within the last couple years. Tehran was not the first city to make this change in policy, however. The holy city of Mashhad may have been the first, possibly as early as the late nineties, followed by the holy city of Qom.
I was riveted as I bore witness to this evolution in women’s rights in Iran and women pursuing the right to become more financially independent. Iranian women occupy roles in a variety of professions and are collectively highly educated, comprising the majority of the student population in Iran’s universities. But, for some women—who may not have had certain opportunities—access to even one more profession is critical. And in an economy in which your next taxi driver may be an engineer or scientist, driving part-time to make ends meet, every opportunity counts.
Stuck in traffic on my way to do window shopping in Vanak Square one day, I asked my male taxi driver what he thought of the rise in women taking to the road professionally. “Women taxi drivers?” he said, chuckling a bit. “Well, Miss, yes, women are starting to be taxi drivers, but they are still very few.” After tangentially explaining to me that an even fewer number of women are also now becoming bus drivers—which he asserted takes considerable physical strength and dexterity – he returned to my original question. Then, in a tone of admission, he said, “Miss, women taxi drivers are few now, but before long, they will probably overtake the males in this profession.”
After hearing others’ accounts of encounters with female taxi drivers, I had to meet one of these trailblazing women myself.
I chose a special day to call the women’s taxi service for a ride. My destination was Beheshteh Zahra, Tehran’s main cemetery, a place that all Iranians know too well. I was going to visit the gravesite of a woman named Jaleh, a relative, who, like my own mother and aunt, opened the doors of Iran to me. She showed me the city of Esfahan “nesfeh jahan,” or “Esfahan, half the world” as Iranians say. This woman, with mischievous blue-green eyes, taught me the words “love,” “poem,” and “feeling” in Farsi, and she marveled at how I, as an American girl, lived in my own apartment and could go to the movies by myself if I wanted to. Jaleh eventually came to America and experienced the same freedoms I had enjoyed my whole life. To me, though, her authentic independent spirit was born and flourished in her homeland.
My aunt and I called the Women’s Taxi service and asked for a car to take us to the cemetery. The operator sought confirmation that we had no male passengers with us before sending the car. We saw a green taxi approach with the words “Women’s Taxi” written in both English and Farsi on the side. A woman in her fifties, whom I will call “Nikki,” greeted us. She was dressed in what appeared to be a uniform that met the Islamic Republic’s standard of dress—a maghnayeh head-covering which revealed no hair and a manteau, or long jacket, over pants.
The drive to Beheshteh Zahra is a long one, as it lies outside the ever-expanding capital city, just past the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. I sat in the backseat and observed Nikki’s every move, as if driving a car was a novel enterprise. She started the drive differently than I was accustomed to—she explained which routes we could take and then let us choose. She offered us water and snacks along the way, which she kept on hand for her long days of driving.
As we got onto the main road, Nikki and I began talking about how she became a taxi driver. After being a housewife and stay at home mother, her oldest son was preparing to leave home to serve in the military. “I knew I would go crazy being at home, alone in the empty house, with my son so far away,” she said. The prospect of that overwhelming loneliness pushed her to find a job. “At my age, I was too old to work in an office – after all, who would hire me?” But driving was something she could do. “I’m happy with my work,” she confirmed.
Hearing that women were now allowed to drive taxis, she applied for a license and found an opportunity with the Women’s Taxi, a company dedicated to providing rides only to women and children. She had one hurdle to overcome though—a woman is required to show proof that her husband has given his permission for her to drive taxis, much like how, under Iranian law, a woman must get her husband’s permission to obtain a passport to travel outside of the country. Nikki’s husband was hesitant at first but, upon her insistence, ultimately gave his permission. She joked, lovingly, that although he is comfortable with her being outside of the house for work now, he still hasn’t allowed her to get her own passport.
Before we knew it, we had arrived at Beheshteh Zahra. The rows and rows of graves brought back memories of my earlier trips to Iran when I would visit the resting place of family members I had never met. This time, I was there to visit someone whom I had known very well. My aunt and I paid our respects to Jaleh, and then to my grandparents and other important loved ones. Before our last stop, I noticed Nikki had come out of the car and joined us by one of the gravesites. She read a poem, or a prayer—I’m still not sure exactly which it was—but it was fitting and kind.
Back in the car, we continued to talk about women who drive taxis. Nikki admitted that she didn’t initially become a taxi driver because of financial need. But as she began to earn more, she helped enable her family to buy a home, and the cost of maintaining that home now requires her to continue working. Unlike some women who have had the capital to outright buy the cars they drive for work, Nikki rents the car she drives. She has built up her schedule and now works 12 hours a day, every day, taking off just one day a month. She has a good income to show for all her hard work, though, earning the equivalent of about US $800-to-$900 per month, approximately two-to-three times an Iranian’s average monthly salary.
I came to find out that, as compelling as Nikki’s story was, hers was different than that of most of the other women who drive taxis. Unlike Nikki, most of her co-workers became taxi drivers because they had to. Many, she said, are divorced or widowed, and driving a taxi has given them the opportunity to support their families and provide for their children. Despite their individual reasons for becoming taxi drivers and despite differences in their ages—the youngest of her co-workers is studying for her masters degree—these women, Nikki said, have great camaraderie. “I come into work and sometimes we sit around and talk, tell stories and laugh, and for that moment, I forget about the sadness I feel because my son is so far from me,” she told me. Her relationship with the other women drivers isn’t the only reason Nikki loves her work. “If I had stayed home, if I had never become a taxi driver, there are so many people I would have never met. Like you. Do you see how much we have to talk about? Because I am a taxi driver, I meet different people everyday and I have such interesting interactions,” she added.
Reflecting on her words, it seemed to me that there were many reasons why a woman would use the women’s taxi service. I asked Nikki if Iranian women realize they have the ability to help women drivers become more financially independent simply by choosing to drive with them. “Yes,” she said, “they take the women’s taxi because they are more comfortable being among just women, and some women do understand they are also helping us succeed.” “But not all women think this way.” She continued, “some women prefer not to have a female driver because they think it is not right, that it is not traditional. And, when they are coming or going to the airport, they think we cannot handle lifting suitcases, that only men can.” Women taxi drivers at times face opposition on the road as well. On the ride back home, a large commercial truck rapidly approached our car, getting uncomfortably close to the back of Nikki’s car, and honking loudly even until after it passed us. I hadn’t experienced that on the roads before and I asked Nikki if she thought it was because she was a woman driving a taxi. “Oh yes,” she said, laughing, “they like to try to intimidate us women drivers sometimes.”
Our morning excursion to Beheshteh Zahra came to an end as Nikki pulled up in front of our building. When I asked what the rest of her day would be like, I realized for her it was just beginning. She would attend to calls for rides throughout the day until the evening when, she pointed out, more work awaits. “When my day here is done, I will go home and prepare for my second job—being a mother and wife. I will make dinner for my husband and daughter and then before I know it, it will be time to prepare for the next day.”
Read the rest
Making a feature film with a war zone as its setting, but not its plot, complicates logistics, to say the least. B-roll can’t be collected without official approval of the filming, and shoots must be rescheduled or redone according to the vagaries of the conflict. Add on scripting advice from a family who endures the daily indignities of occupation, and a professional background in documentary production that makes verite precepts irresistible, and you have the storyboard for the making of “Valley of Saints.”
“It was a difficult trip for me,” said the film’s director, American-born Kashmiri Musa Syeed, of one of his first research trips to the region, “trying to get my work done, but trying to also spend time with my family and understand their perspective. I was never really able to wrap my head around the political situation or economic situation there. I feel like I got a much better grasp of it (while there) but it also made the process of creating the story much more confusing. Everyone was like, ‘You could just put this in there, or write a scene about this, or that.’ ”
As he wrestled with his family’s expectations, Syeed said, he began to feel like he was losing his original concept. “I tried to assure myself that as long as I told a good story, that people would be happy.”
The story he’s written is centered on Dal Lake, the crown jewel in the center of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-occupied Kashmir. Producer Nicholas Bruckman said the lake is the only completely aquatic community in the world where residents live full time on the water — rowing to work and school, trading vegetables, and in “Valley of Saints,” falling in love. “The environment, of course, has taken a back burner to the political conflict (in Kashmir), for better or for worse. This is a unique living lake, and in the middle there’s an artificial island that people have constructed. This beautiful way of life is endangered because the lake is shrinking.” Bruckman said many Kashmiri experts think the lake will be extinct this century, with plans already in place to relocate many of the people who call it home. “People on the lake blame deforestation,” Bruckman said, which allows toxins to stream in that add to the weeds and plastic already choking the lake.
For Syeed, the environmental issue, and not the conflict, drew him to writing about Kashmir in the first place. But the first draft script, heavy on conservation issues, needed to be grounded in human stories, and his months spent in Kashmir helped him find his protagonist, a boatman named Gulzar.
Syeed returned to the U.S. after writing the script, but when the crew was getting ready to return to Kashmir to film in the summer of 2010, the latent conflict re-ignited, and a military curfew was imposed throughout Kashmir. “We had already had trouble coordinating things in Kashmir,” Syeed said, “and this meant we would have very restricted movements; we didn’t want to attract a lot of attention from military or police. Before we left we realized we couldn’t shoot the story I had written.” So Syeed went back to the storyboard, writing an outline of a film that incorporated the curfew and was feasible given the political eruption. “I didn’t feel safe bringing an American cast, so we had to cast entirely locally,” which meant that the film had to be in Kashmiri, a language Syeed doesn’t speak. This hitch turned out to be a boon to the recomposed cast and the adaptive production process. “We would translate the dialogue every night, working from an outline, developing the story as we were shooting. It helped the actors put the dialogue in their own terms in language they were comfortable with , rather than making the leap to English.”
The film is one of the few to be shot entirely in the Kashmiri language, which, like its prized lake, is under threat as the number of speakers dwindles. Syeed and Bruckman, despite having South Asian roots, are outsiders, and allegations of bias are par for the course in making films about Kashmir. Given this, Bruckman (whose mother is Bengali) said, “It was extremely important to us that the story could be embraced by Kashmiris and South Asians of all faiths. We tried to transcend this very deep division (of the conflict) in part by focusing on the human aspect, the love story, the environment — which is really a unifying point for people in Kashmir, in South Asia and for people all over the world.”
Bruckman said Kashmiri culture is deeply embedded into the film, which includes scenes of Sufi culture, which has survived in Kashmir for centuries, and of the Waswan, the 36-course traveling wedding feast.*
The team is now in post-production on the film and just received a notable grant to help complete it.
*Amended at the request of the interviewee.
Read the rest
A forthcoming film with an unexpected angle on Kashmir’s beauty and decline has won the 4th annual Sloan Producers Grant from the producer of the Spirit Awards.
Film Independent awarded Nicholas Bruckman the $25,000 grant for post-production of Valley of the Saints, a feature film depicting a love story between a Kashmiri boatman and an environmental scientist.
Bruckman teamed up with Kashmiri American director Musa Syeed, who wrote the script that’s centered on the world’s only entirely aquatic society, the people of Kashmir’s famed Dal Lake.
“People row themselves to school, row themselves to work, and conduct all of their business on boats…they trade vegetables on small boats in the morning. There’s beautiful houseboats there, which tourists have come from all over the world to see. But it’s also a very devastated place, both from conflict and from environmental neglect,” Bruckman said. He said though the film isn’t focused on the country’s political conflict, the process of making it helped him understand what it’s like to live in Kashmir. Their cast and crew wasn’t untouched by conflict, of course, especially since part of the shooting happened during the most recent curfew imposed by India last fall. Stones were thrown at cast members, and the producers had to dole out bribes to keep the production moving forward. “What I have really discovered through this film is the real important of trying to go behind the headlines and trying to understand what it’s like to live in Kashmir,” Bruckman said.
We’ll be bringing you more from the producer and director soon. In the meantime, they sent us these stills from the film.
Read the rest