This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement – A Book Review

Mic check. The “people’s mic” is a tactic used by the 99% Movement to relay messages from a speaker to a vast crowd. This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement is Occupy Wall Street’s mic check to the “increasingly interested masses.” Unfortunately, the book’s message is more boastful volume than critical content.

The book is a collection of sixteen articles by eleven different authors, edited by the staff at YES! Magazine. Although it is an overwhelmingly positive depiction of Occupy Wall Street, it mischaracterizes what is ultimately common-sense populism as “revolutionary.”

The book itself is short – 84 pages. On the first page, it gets right to the point: writers for Yes! Magazine felt a book was necessary to counteract the frequently “confusing or dismissive” media coverage of Occupy Wall Street and stress the importance of the movement.

I understand how easy it is to be critical – especially if one is not actively participating in a movement. But this book seems too congratulatory. It was published in November in the same month the NYPD evacuated Liberty Square, only two months after the initial encampment began. Together, the articles in the book give the impression of preemptive praise for unharnessed potential.

My main objection is that the book lacks critical reflection. Four of the 16 articles fall in the section entitled “What Needs to Change,” but this section primarily outlines goals for OWS without discussing strategies for achieving them. Chuck Collins writes “A Fair Tax System: Three Places to Start,” and his first two suggestions include joining a local occupation and visiting a website devoted to tax haven abuse. He concludes with: “support a financial speculation tax.” What does support mean? How might I, an interested member of the masses, actually support a financial speculation tax? Is it pending legislation? Are there direct actions being organized? Is Occupy Wall Street the most effective forum to begin organizing around fair tax systems? The only clue is found in the short bio at the end of the article, where I see that Collins first wrote it in April 2010, long before OWS began.

One of the glaring omissions from “What Needs to Change” is a critical examination of the United States’ trade policy and its role in perpetuating global economic inequality. To my mind, this book highlights the populism of the 99% Movement. The specific changes designed to shift “our society’s wealth back to the 99%” address domestic policies with no recognition of the interconnections between international trade agreements – such as NAFTA – and domestic financial and monetary policy. This book celebrates populism, and the missing link between populism and revolution is that outward focus. How can I, a United States citizen, act in solidarity with the global 99 percent? This book has no answer, and avoids the question.

Independent film maker Hena Ashraf wrote the only article in the book with a critical lens focused on her experience with racial tensions in the encampment. “Claiming Space for Diversity at Occupy Wall Street” was the best article in the book. She neatly recounts her experience blocking the proposed Declaration of the Occupation of New York City because the language in the document erased histories of racial oppression.  She discusses a difficult moment, and its positive resolution, and concludes with a short snapshot of her continued involvement in OWS. Additionally, she mentions the blog she and her friends started:

This blog is the best part of the book, and not even a part of the book. The website is devoted to spotlighting “critical voices of the 99%.” On the “About” page, they write: “As participants of this occupation, we also believe that solidarity and criticism go together.” This is exactly what This Changes Everything lacks: a healthy dose of criticism, with eyes on the long, global struggle to overhaul a system that benefits the 1%.

Avery Pittman is a recent graduate from the University of Vermont. She is currently working with Global Justice Ecology Project and the Climate Justice Alignment to cover the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June.