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Savaged: Brad Langerak Gives the 99% in Michigan A Digital Soapbox

By Chris Savage

It’s hard to view any sort of media at all these days without finding reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement. With its made-for-viral-media meme “We are the 99%”, this movement is one that’s beginning to resonate across the country. From giant encampments and marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. to smaller protests in places like humble Ann Arbor, the anger that the rich are getting massively richer while the rest of us stagnate and are left to bail their asses out when they get into trouble has people’s attention.


Occupy Ann Arbor

Think this movement doesn’t have anything to do with you? Consider this graphic:


Chart credit: Mother Jones

Chances are pretty good that you’re surfing on that red line at the bottom. If that’s the case, over the past 30+ years, you probably haven’t seen a hell of a lot of improvement in your income. But if you’re part of the elite, the proverbial “1%?” If that’s you, congratulations! Your situation has very likely improved very much.

When the economy crashed a few years back thanks to the failure or near-failure of our nation’s largest banks, American taxpayers ponied up to save the bankers’ asses. Think about this, too: whom do you think would have gotten hurt the worst if banks that were “too big to fail” had, in fact, failed? Not you and me down here in Ninety-Nine Percentville. The folks breathing the rarefied air of One-Percentville, however, would have felt it acutely. But, not to worry. Us ninety-nine percenters made sure they were fine.

And what did we get in return? Well, frankly, not a damn thing. Nothing has really changed. The banks remain unregulated. They haven’t so much as thanked American taxpayers for their largesse. Hell, Bank of America recently tried to put a five dollar monthly fee on debit card usage. I can just about guarantee you that most one-percenters don’t use debit cards – that was aimed straight at ninety-nine percenters like you and me. Only after massive push-back, motivated in part by the Occupy movement, did BofA back down.

And what about all those bankers that played roulette with other people’s money and nearly put our country into a depression? Not one of them has so much as gone to court much less jail for what they did to the global economy. Meanwhile, thousands of Occupy protesters surely have.

So, yeah, people are pissed and rightly so. Occupy Wall Street and Occupy [insert your town here] protesters around the country are a big part of that. Another major element of the Occupy movement is happening online. Early in the movement, the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr website was put up. It allowed people to tell their story by photographing themselves with a sign they had created, describing their situation.

In a twisted bit of retaliation, the owner of the far-right wing website RedState.com, Eric Erickson, created a Tumblr page called We are the 53%, referring to the 53% of Americans that he falsely claims are the only ones who pay taxes. The signs shown on his site tell tales of people holding down multiple jobs and working under tremendous hardship just to get by. These people have a message for the We Are the 99% people: “Suck it up, bub. We did it and so should you.” An eloquent rebuttal to this titled “Open Letter to that 53% Guy” was posted at Daily Kos and quickly became the most shared post ever on that site. Here’s a snippet:

First, let me say that I think it’s great that you have such a strong work ethic and I agree with you that you have much to be proud of. You seem like a good, hard-working, strong kid. I admire your dedication and determination. I worked my way through college too, mostly working graveyard shifts at hotels as a “night auditor.” For a time I worked at two hotels at once, but I don’t think I ever worked 60 hours in a week, and certainly not 70. I think I maxed out at 56. And that wasn’t something I could sustain for long, not while going to school. The problem was that I never got much sleep, and sleep deprivation would take its toll. I can’t imagine putting in 70 hours in a week while going to college at the same time. That’s impressive. [...]

I understand your pride in what you’ve accomplished, but I want to ask you something.

Do you really want the bar set this high? Do you really want to live in a society where just getting by requires a person to hold down two jobs and work 60 to 70 hours a week? Is that your idea of the American Dream?

Do you really want to spend the rest of your life working two jobs and 60 to 70 hours a week? Do you think you can? Because, let me tell you, kid, that’s not going to be as easy when you’re 50 as it was when you were 20.

And what happens if you get sick? You say you don’t have health insurance, but since you’re a veteran I assume you have some government-provided health care through the VA system. I know my father, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Air Force, still gets most of his medical needs met through the VA, but I don’t know what your situation is. But even if you have access to health care, it doesn’t mean disease or injury might not interfere with your ability to put in those 60- to 70-hour work weeks.

We haven’t heard much about the 53-percenter site since then.

One guy in Michigan who is angry about all of this is Brad Langerak. Brad started a Michigan-based Tumblr website called We are the 99% Michigan.

30 years old. Detroit, MI. I am a public school teacher. I go to work Everyday to educate the youth of America I am…

1 cut back

1 lay off

1 paycheck away from

Standing in the chow line.

I caught up with Brad this week for interview.

A2Politico: Brad, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Please tell us a bit about yourself, why you decided to get involved with the Occupy movement and what personally motivated you to start the We Are the 99% Michigan Tumblr page.

Brad Langerak: I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, MI. I have the fairly unique privilege of being both a combat veteran and a college graduate. Upon returning from my tour in Iraq, I learned that my education and veteran status was not good enough for me to be able to find decent employment in this economy. Being unemployed for a while, and watching many of my friends struggle with the same thing, I wondered why people were not taking action against a system slanted in the favor of the rich. I was overjoyed to see the Occupy movement take root and begin the needed discussions around the world. I saw the Occupy Wall Street Tumblr page and thought that Michigan really needed its own separate voice. We’ve been in a single-state recession for over 10 years and the economic, emotional, physical and psychological damage to our citizens has been profound. I just wanted a forum where people could share their stories individually and have it be a powerful statement collectively.

A2P: Tell us about the We are the 99% Michigan website, how it works and who your contributors are.

Langerak: Tumblr is a free service. The contributors come from all over – all walks of life. We’re getting submissions from the unemployed, people who are underemployed, people who are just fearful about losing their jobs, people who are struggling with student loan or medical debt, people who are literally making it from paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s a patchwork of what our state has become. And it’s a testament to the failure of our government, Wall Street, and the very safety nets we used to have.

A2P: This first came to my attention through an email from Progress Michigan. Is there are connection between your efforts and Progress Michigan? How about the Occupy Michigan group?

Langerak: Progress Michigan has been promoting it, much like they’ve been promoting many of the local Occupy events and actions. I think they see it as being in line with their values. I’m not sure who runs Occupy Michigan, but the Occupy Detroit media team reached out to me recently, inquiring about maybe integrating our Tumblr into their new website (www.occupy-detroit.us) and then soliciting submissions, so that may or may not happen.

A2P: Aside from Michigan Progress’s promotion of your page, how else are you getting the word out about your “We are the 99% Michigan” website?

Langerak: I really didn’t do a whole lot beyond letting people know on the various Michigan-specific Occupy pages. It’s amazing how many have sprouted up (BigRapids-MtPleasant, U.P., Macomb County, Downriver, Taylor, etc.). Some people from those posts have picked it up and run with it. I’ve seen tweets, retweets, Facebook wall postings … someone told me the other day they got an e-mail about it. It’s really a slow-building viral campaign.

A2P: How many submissions have you had so far? Are you still getting people submitting their photos & statements?

Langerak: At first it was one or two a day, but in the last week it’s really jumped to about 4-5 a day. We’ve had almost 100 submitted so far. Hopefully, with this interview, more people will hear about it and we can get that number up. If more folks would tag in the beginning where they’re from (i.e. “I’m 26 years old from Grand Rapids), then we might be able to figure out how to crowd-source this thing so you can search by geographic areas, too. That’s something I’d like to figure out if it takes off. That could be really powerful for people – sort of, a ‘hey, I’m not alone!’

A2P: I noticed that you don’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed. Have you considered using these types of social media outlets to spread the word?

Langerak: Like I said, others are spreading it that way.

A2P: Have you attended any of the Occupy events in Michigan or elsewhere? Have you been involved in the movement in other ways besides your website?

Langerak: I attended the initial Occupy Grand Rapids event and was impressed by the turnout and enthusiasm of many of the participants. It really showed me that I was not alone in Grand Rapids. Although I do not camp overnight, I do try to attend at least 5 or so General Assemblies each week and will continue to support them in any way I can and also bring an additional voice to the group.

A2P: The national Occupy movement has been criticized for not having a coherent message or any specific demands. What are your feelings about this? Do you think it’s possible or even necessary for the Occupy movement to formulate a list of specific demands?

Langerak: These kinds of criticisms are way off-base. The “demand” is pretty clear to our elected officials: “Actually represent the people that elected you to office. Refuse to be swayed by lobbyists that represent only the 1%. Refuse to vote for budgets that only cater to those at the top. And hold the banks and Wall Street brokers – the Gordon Geckos of this world – accountable. Turn this country around by investing in us again.” If the media can’t see that message shining through, then I have real concerns about whether they’re of any use anymore.

A2P: There is another Tumblr called “We are the 53%” that was started by Eric Erickson of the far-right RedState.org. It has a nearly identical layout to yours and contains messages from “the other 53%” of people who they say pay all the taxes in our country. How do you respond to their message that, “Hey, we did it, we worked hard to be successful. Buck up and do it yourself.”?

Langerak: That is, unfortunately, the same old divisive attitude that our movement stands against. How much longer are we going to let people drive us against each other? This is America – in addition to rugged individualism, it’s also always been about providing opportunity for people. Where are the opportunities now? Where are we supposed to look for inspiration now? People want to work. People want to pay taxes and be part of making 53% become 100%. Also, let’s be honest about something, while many American pay little or no income taxes they do pay sales taxes, property taxes and every other tax. I think the 53% should be mad at the fact that GE pays nothing in taxes. But, as long as we keep neglecting and denigrating our shrinking middle-class – creating historic income inequality in this country – we will never turn this country around.

A2P: Where do you see the Occupy movement going? Do you think that the movement will be successful in creating change?

Langerak: The fact that the country is talking about inequality is change in and of itself. But more importantly there’s a spark that’s been ignited. It’s gone out across the world and it won’t stop. In places like Michigan, I see it moving indoors over the winter and then coming back with a vengeance in the spring. I see neighborhood-based house parties where people are Occupying their minds, organizing, doing actions, keeping the issues visible. The other thing is that the Occupy folks all over, as far as I can tell from Facebook, have done a great job linking up with existing social change organizations, faith-based groups, small business people. That linkage alone is invaluable for creating lasting change.

A2P: At the end of the day, it can be argued that no significant change will come unless we put people into office that will enact that change. Do you think that the Occupy movement will become more politically involved next year when election time rolls around? If not, what other ways can they have a tangible impact?

Langerak: That will depend on each individual and each local Occupy movement. I think people understand that politicians hold a lot of the cards in terms of tangible, legislative change, but they’re also so disgusted with all politicians – local, state, federal – and they’ve lost all hope they can do more than tinker around the edges. What we really need in this state and everywhere is a People’s Ballot Initiative that would remove shady money completely from politics. No more lobbyist-funded trips, meals, tickets to sporting events, airfare … nothing. No more “soft money” contributions. No more.

A2P: The Occupy Oakland protests have recently become confrontational as Oakland police have used tear gas and other means to break up the protest. Scott Olsen, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran was critically injured when a police projectile fractured his skull during a peaceful protest. Do you think these things work in the movement’s favor or do they interfere with their message?

Langerak: This movement should be about civil disobedience and definitely not actual violence and vandalism.

A2P: Republicans (like Eric Cantor during his recent speech at the University of Michigan, for example) have said that they understand the frustration the Occupy protesters are feeling but that they should be turning that anger toward the Obama administration. Do you think there is truth to that? Is this movement a response, in part, to the Obama administration’s actions (or lack of action)?

Langerak: Eric Cantor may understand our frustrations but he hasn’t done anything to address them. This movement is a movement for all people, the 99%, that are tired of politics as usual. The massive income inequality has been over 30 years in the making. All politicians should be held accountable for addressing this issue.

A2P: If you were “in charge” of the Occupy movement, what would your demands be? What would you like to see happen in terms of government action, regulation or other things that could be done to help make things more fair for “the 99%”?

Langerak: It’s hard to say. The point of the movement is that everyone has a voice and a chance to be heard. Let’s start by getting money out of politics. If not, then anything the government does will just be the same lobbyist-driven, back room politics that does nothing for the 99%.

For more of Chris Savage’s writing, visit Eclectablog. 

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2 Comments for “Savaged: Brad Langerak Gives the 99% in Michigan A Digital Soapbox”

  1. @Aielman: Avoiding a worse outcome isn’t “getting” something. I don’t argue that bailing them out was the right thing to do. I argue that it should have come with consequences which it has not. There’s nothing in place now to prevent it from happening all over again. Do you know they are bundling sub-prime AUTO loans and trading them now? These banks are still “too big to fail” and the politicians, particularly the Republicans, are doing everything in their power to keep it that way. Hell, they won’t even allow a consumer protection agency move forward. At least THAT would have been “getting” something.

    And this: “You’re repeating this incorrect mantra, over and over again, that we bailed out the rich to no purpose to but to keep them rich” is a straw man and a mischaracterization of what I’ve been saying.

  2. You left out a few things. First “what did we get out of the bailout?”

    Well…just a small thing. We didn’t have a complete failure of our
    financial system and a descent into collapse and anarchy…which is
    what would have happened if we let even 2 more banks fail beyond
    Lehman. I’d strongly recommend you watch the documentary Inside Jobe
    and find out just how interdependent the banking system is on one
    another, and just what the bailout did to prevent total failure. Because
    you’re repeating this incorrect mantra, over and over again, that
    we bailed out the rich to no purpose to but to keep them rich. That’s just
    not the case.

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