On Sunday night, I found a link on Facebook to We Are the 99 Percent, a blog connected to the Occupy Wall Street movement and "brought to you by the people who occupy wall street." I had seen a few emails about the rapidly growing presence in New York sparked by a call from Adbusters on Sept. 17, 2011 and followed by occupations in other areas. I was curious to see how this group defined itself. Would it be black-clad activists raising vague manifestos, or anonymous photos of demonstrations?
I started to scroll past low-resolution and blurry photos of people holding mostly hand-written letters in front of their faces, many of which reminded me of the vulnerable and specific honesty on PostSecret. Typed copies of the text sit below most photos, sharing intimate details and exact dollar figures of debt, the kind that pin your heart like an insect and force you to imagine each burden as your own. I sat there and read and couldn't stop, and found myself crying -- not just tearing up, but the hard silent wet cry that makes a plop-plop sound as tears hit the desk and my lap.
What made me weep were the images of parents and the children whose lives have been ravaged by lack of access to healthcare, education, and decent jobs. None of these stories seems pathetic; each in its details has a resounding dignity because of its reference to things I have felt in times of need: a desire to help friends and family, and a gratitude when that help is returned. Each photo in its realness is a modern version of Walker Agee's photos in the James Agee classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which gave a face to anonymous impoverished sharecroppers of the South in the 1930s. What's so beautiful about these, I think, is that the photos are self-created and framed, the text composed by the author, with no need for a frame or a narrator. They hold together because they define a version of reality that can't be argued with.
Because I was a single parent scraping by at one point in my life, the posts from single mothers hit me hardest, including the picture of the hands of two children holding a note describing her student loan debt, $900 health insurance and $1200 monthly daycare costs. What makes me want to linger on this site are the small and sweet windows into real lives. Here: that particular brand of industrial carpeting on which the note rests, and the rounded fingernails of the two children, one of them with bitten red polish.
Each of these snapshots is a specific story, and the vulnerability of the details defies simple platitudes or easy solutions: "My mom works with a dislocated shoulder" and "My dad works 70 hours a week to pay the bills." I saw the shocking love of parents who are supporting adult children living with them, and adult children taking care of older and ill unemployed parents without insurance. A single mother with a four-year-old son tried to sell her eggs to make ends meet and endured complications as a result, but cannot get public assistance. I saw young kids helping their parents financially, and parents hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from paying for their childrens' college costs. Many, many of the posters mention struggling with depression as the result of their financial situations. The pieces of text tell stories that shine with specific agonies that should make us ashamed as a nation, like a veteran who went through two deployments who "would be homeless if I didn't have people who cared about me."
By the time I got to the mother who has cancer and Parkinson's but stopped treatment so she could send her children to college, I stopped clicking and just sat there and wept. There's something about the loneliness of the Internet late at night that mirrors the horrible loneliness of lying in bed, running the numbers, shouldering the unspeakable burden of not enough money and too much worry.
Images of protest and the specific timelines of struggle provide a convenient flashpoint for discussion and disagreement. At one point in my life, I was representing myself and others by holding signs in the streets and yelling. While I occasionally am able to do that in my current life, I feel a strong emotional connection today to those people in the photos, those holding places in a network of care who cannot take time off from their jobs and responsibilities to occupy a piece of blacktop. I am glad that both realities are being shared in this movement.
Depictions of activism against corporate injustice show the signs and police, and Tea Party rants describe "tax and spend" liberal elites. Anonymous images and cruel generalizations cannot show the love of families for one another, the specific humanity of people whose lives and burdens often make it impossible to go to a protest but who are there in spirit.
I had a thousand impulses for this piece. As a college teacher I wanted to rant about college costs. As a healthcare activist I wanted to rant about the need for national healthcare, to list the thousands of reasons why these mothers, fathers, and children should not be literally dying as unwilling sacrifices to the idea of profit. (I can't resist saying, however, that those who need healthcare can go to the hospital and walk directly to the billing office. Ask for a charity care application. You are not a burden. You are a tax write-off for the hospital. Apply for care.)
But instead, here, I just wanted to praise the families, of biology and choice and circumstance, who are pulling hard for each other, the ones who are living "family values" despite the fact that that phrase has been stolen and turned into its opposite. And to the kids in the street: Be safe. Be smart. Call home when you can. We'll be pulling for you.
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