This was originally written as my next editor’s letter for Letter Arts Review. I decided not to use it in LAR, but nothing should go to waste…
No matter what one’s political opinion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is undeniable that the demonstrations have had an impact on the way Americans talk about the state of the country and our economy. The term “the 99%” has entered our collective vocabulary, and for the first time since the Great Depression many Americans have actually begun to question the role of capitalism in shaping our financial affairs. Whether this success reflects wise strategy on the part of the Occupiers, or simply the fact that they have tapped into a widely shared spirit of discontent, there is no doubt that the visual spectacle of the protests has created a powerful populist image that millions of people have responded to.
Some of the most striking visuals of the Occupy movement have been among the most humble: hand-made signs made of recycled cardboard boxes.
I am guessing that he choice of the cardboard box was not entirely intentional. There were some simple reasons why it was adopted at the earliest protests. For one thing, the New York City Police Department forbids the use of sticks to support protest signs—sticks could be used as weapons against the cops’ batons. Early on in the protest, the NYPD began enforcing the no-stick rule, so the signs had to be held directly in the hands of the protesters. Another factor in the choice of cardboard may simply have been practical. As the encampment at Zuccotti Park took shape, sympathizers from around the country began ordering food for the Occupiers from local pizzerias, providing not only sustenance, but a ready source of used pizza boxes that could be transformed into signs.
Whatever the causes for the choice, the simple cardboard sign has become a fixture at Occupy events. As a way of projecting the goals of the movement, the choice is pitch-perfect. No material could better communicate Occupy’s message that the 99% have been dispossessed. Corrugated cardboard is cheap, ubiquitous, and disposable. It used by the homeless for bedding and shelter. We use it up and toss it away.
The contrast between these populist signs and the slick products of commercial design could not be more obvious. These cheap handmade messages are worlds away from the carefully crafted, mass-produced images of traditional political campaigns. One protester was photographed in Boston in October carrying a placard that read, “I can’t afford my own politician, so I made this sign.” The message is perfectly echoed by its medium. It’s not low budget. It’s no budget. And in its humility, it expresses clearly the idea that our politics are controlled by the image-makers, the media, and the plutocrats who manage them, while ordinary people struggle to have a voice.
That’s the rhetoric of cardboard. It’s a defiant statement by people who feel they’ve been dispossessed and excluded. But it’s also hopeful. As one protester’s sign read in October: “My cardboard can beat your billboard.”