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Where the 99% Get Their Power

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Young people locking arms, facing arrest on a cold, wet Seattle street -- it could have been the WTO protests that rocked the city more than ten years ago. Only this time, Seattle is just one of dozens of places where the movement for the 99 percent is taking hold.

And, unlike the WTO protests -- whose motivation was unclear to many Americans -- the demonstrations now spreading virally from Wall Street immediately strike a chord: we all know that neither our economy nor our government is working for the benefit of the 99 percent.

Whatever issue you care to name, from childhood obesity (linked to agribusiness subsidies) to war (linked to the power of the military-industrial complex), from a watered-down health care bill (linked big pharma and health insurance corporations), to a failing economy (which Wall Street and corporations have depleted in favor of global speculation), the power of the one percent is at the root of the problem. And the power of the 99 percent is key to the solution.

We've watched as urgent matters, like climate change, go unaddressed -- in large part because powerful corporations fund think tanks, lobbyists, and Astroturf campaigns that spread confusion about the science and threaten the political fortunes of those who take leadership.

The OccupyWallStreet movement is powerful because it is naming the source of the crisis, something that the political establishment had been unwilling to do.

The protests are giving the unemployed, the uninsured, the evicted, indebted students, homeless veterans, and would-be retirees a place to break out of their isolation. OccupyWallStreet shows that millions share their hardships and are standing up. Transforming shame, self-doubt, and isolation into solidarity unleashes enormous power.

But there's more that makes OccupyWallStreet powerful. It is respectful, inclusive, and egalitarian. Protesters invite police to join them, noting that they, too, are part of the 99 percent. When Troy Davis was executed, a rally of supporters marched to lower Manhattan to a warm welcome by the OccupyWallStreet protesters. Even former tea party members have gotten involved.

The scene in Zuccotti Square is radically democratic -- different teams have autonomy to manage food, sanitation, media, comfort, and other tasks necessary for a protracted stay. But no one directs the whole group. Instead, decisions are made by consensus at General Assemblies. Cornel West, Michael Moore, and other celebrities show up to speak, and their words are appreciated. But at the General Assemblies, each person who wishes to speak has a turn, and each one can help shape events.

I did not witness a single incident of violence in the three sites I visited: Zuccotti Park on Wall Street, McPherson Square in Washington, DC, and Westlake Plaza in Seattle. Nor have I read any accounts of protester violence. Only the police have resorted to violence, using pepper spray and, during arrests, bloodying the mostly young protesters.

Some have criticized the occupiers for failing to come up with a list of demands. But demands can be easily co-opted and endlessly debated.

Instead, OccupyWallStreet is holding out principles and values that are widely viewed as just -- and this is already shifting the political debate. Just in the last few days, the president and vice president of the United States and the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank all acknowledged that the protesters had a point.

Powerful movements build not on a laundry list of policy demands, but on principles and values. OccupyWallStreet has a moral force that speaks to the urgency of the times. The 99 percent, and our future descendants, are losing out in a world dominated by the 1 percent.

Powerful movements create their own spaces where they can shift the debate, and the culture, to one that better serves. That's why showing up in person at the occupy sites is so critical to this movement's success. In hundreds of communities around North America, people are showing up to make a statement and to listen to each other. They are also teaching one another to facilitate meetings, to take nonviolent direct action, to make their own media. They are taking care of each other, gathering food supplies, blankets, and clothes that can allow people to remain outdoors even as the weather gets wetter and colder.

Like the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are using social media, and getting out their own story, even when the corporate media chooses to distort or ignore their message. And they are growing. According to the Personal Democracy Forum, the numbers "liking" a Facebook Occupy site for the 54 cities now listed is growing at the rate of more than 25 percent per day.

The OccupyWallStreet movement, the clarity of their demand for change, and their growing power may be the most important news of our time.

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and executive editor of YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

More of YES! Magazine's coverage of the growing movement of the 99 percent.

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