Last Tuesday afternoon I sat in my apartment in Pune, India watching a live stream from Zuccotti Park as the NYPD closed in on Occupy Wall Street and cleared the park. The sounds of horns honking on the streets below mingled with the desperate cries for peace and justice that were being transmitted from New York City over the internet waves and into my home in Southeast Asia.
I’ve been in India since the middle of August and I’ve been following the Occupy Movement since it began. I’m fortunate to have many friends who are taking part in the movement so I have been able to get my news of Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Orlando/Oakland/San Francisco/Asheville/Tucson from various media sources as well as from my friends’ personal accounts.
I believe in Occupy Wall Street whole-heartedly. What does that even mean? How can I believe in something that hasn’t produced any concrete demands? How can I believe in something that I am so far away from and have not experienced first-hand? I believe in the essence of the movement—in community organizing and consensus. As Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics recently said, “Everybody wants to live a life of meaning. And today we live in a money economy where we don’t really depend on the gifts of anybody. But we buy everything. Therefore we don’t really need anybody. Because whoever grew my food or made my clothes or built my house, well, if they died or if I alienate them, if they don’t like me that’s ok. I can just pay somebody else to do it. And it’s really hard to create community if the underlying knowledge is we don’t need eachother…. So people consume together. But joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection.”
If I were in the United States right now, I’d like to believe that I would have figured out a way to get to New York City and participate in this movement. But I’m in India. I received a Fulbright-Nehru student research grant to research the modernization/commercialization of agriculture and its effects on farmers in India. More specifically, I am here to speak with small-scale cotton farmers in Maharashtra. You see, there is a disturbing number of cotton farmers who kill themselves every day because of the amount of debt that they have incurred in order to farm and compete on a global level. In 2010 alone, 15,964 farmer suicides across India were recorded. This number only accounts for the number of suicides officially recorded and research shows that there are many suicides that don’t meet the criteria for official government statistics. For instance, if the land title has not been transferred to a widow after her husband commits suicide and she subsequently commits suicide, her death is not counted in the official data. Research also shows that farmers commit suicide for two main reasons: 1. Crop failure and 2. Debt (taking out loans to purchase expensive genetically modified seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and other costly inputs).
So while people gather together to occupy public spaces in the USA, while their voices join together to shed light on the ever-growing gap between the 1% and the 99%, I sit in my apartment in Pune, India and ask, who is the 99%? While I’m sure that many of the organizers and activists who are participating in OWS are desparate, they aren’t commiting suicide by the thousands.
Ninety-nine percent is a pretty big blanket statistic. A lot of people fall into it. I fall into it. I will be paying off my student loans for many years to come. This year I’m getting paid about $13,000—a salary that puts me just above the poverty line of $10,890 and is not enough for me to continue to pay off my loans while I do my research (thanks Mom and Dad for covering for me while I’m gone and really Sallie Mae? I don’t qualify for an educational deferal because my Indian University that I’m affiliated with isn’t on your list of bonified institutions?!!!). At the same time, I’m living quite a comfortable life here in India. I eat out, I live in a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, I travel and I was able to be generous with my Christmas gifts this year.
So how about the subjects of my research, the farmers that are killing themselves out of desperation? They are part of the 99% too. I feel guilty being in the same bracket of statistics as them. The 99% includes a whole lot of people and a whole lot of different people at that, inducing conversations about race and gender and privilege. It includes US students with debt and cotton farmers in India with debt.
But the 1% remains the same. Just take a look at Monsanto, a corporation that has been profitting from the sales of their expensive genetically modified seeds here in India. Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant (no, not the charming British actor) received a compensation package of $12.4 million in 2010 and is ranked #9 among the top earning CEOs in the US.
So as you read the latest criticisms of the Occupy Movement and watch the latest horrifying video of policemen dousing students in pepper spray, keep this in mind:
The 99% is big and broad. The 99% probably includes you. It definitely includes cotton farmers in India. We are many. And we need each other.
I want to live in a world that cultivates creativity through community, that combats this mentality that I can just whip out my wallet and solve all my problems. In order to do that, I need to talk with the rest of the 99%. I need to acknowledge how my privilege adds to (or at least exempts me from) the burden of another person who is also in the 99%. I need to do my best to acknowledge and address the broad and diverse needs of the entire 99%. We all do.