For some people it was 9/11. For me it was Hurricane Katrina. "It" is the moment when you realize that the safety net you thought was beneath you has been shredded, the implicit promise of the American dream shattered.
One image that haunts me is a starving dog I tossed a sandwich during my reporting in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. I can remember the look on her face, the way she tried to separate the food from the toxic silt it landed in, the horrifying curve of her caramel fur over her protruding ribs.
By the time my producer and I got to New Orleans, the residents (including one of my uncles) had been evacuated from places like the Superdome or were dead or had hunkered down with private stores of food and water, determined not to leave the city. People became irrational, like one journalist I saw waving a gun around a makeshift newsroom, bragging about self-protection.
More insidious was the blocking of a bridge out of New Orleans by Gretna police, and the killings and shootings of innocent men by New Orleans police. The government devolved; the lawlessness of looters paled in comparison with officers killing citizens; and briefly, the military took control.
The primal fear of societal collapse, as happened for a time in New Orleans, can throw us into a state where only the most extreme options seem palatable. During the most recent Republican debate, each candidate was eager to paint him- or herself as a budget-slashing fiscal warrior. But none adequately addressed the core questions of how to dig ourselves out of the federal-debt hole without annihilating public education, infrastructure and safety.
The degradation that happened overnight when the levees broke in New Orleans is unfolding slowly in communities across America, where joblessness and housing crises have turned neighborhoods into miniature failed states. Despite saying we don't like government, America's nightmare — the one echoed in pop-culture phenoms like the zombie series The Walking Dead — is a nation where government ceases to exist.
Mitt Romney's $10,000 wager during a Dec. 10 debate may have gotten the most ink of the night, as a symbol of a callous 1 percent seeking to govern the nation. But of course, some of the richest Americans are the most proactive in rebuilding physical and civic infrastructure. And within the so-called 99 percent, a group whose annual income ranges from zero to $500,000, there is no shared identity, and there is no plan.
The men killed by police were part of the 99 percent, as were the officers who shot them and in one case burned a body to cover up a killing. And the same is true for both the people who tried to cross the bridge to Gretna and the ones who blocked them with cars and shotguns. Even under much less fraught circumstances, if you put demographically and ideologically diverse members of the 99 percent into a room together, you'd have something closer to a cage-fighting match than an economic summit.
For reasons of fear — plus identity politics driven by ideology, income and demographics — the 99 percent championed by the Occupy movement is a mythical cohort. That does not mean growing income inequality and shrinking social mobility don't matter — they do, and deeply. But the weakness of the entire Occupy movement and meme is the effort to label the majority without fully exploring our nation's fault lines and how to bridge them.
So where do we begin? We begin by searching our souls, extending ourselves to those different from us, and telling our stories. During this election year and beyond, we need social reporting tools that bring more American voices into the current debates.
Mobile Commons, for example, uses SMS text messaging to drive participatory reporting and engagement. The slashing of news budgets and infrastructure means it's less likely that reporters can physically reach a wide cross section of America, but a combination of field reporting and technological tools can bolster reach.
And just as there is retail politics, with candidates crisscrossing the country for votes, there has to be retail civic bridge building. Platforms like Meetup were used powerfully by the Tea Party as well as progressives to reach their base. Now we must find ways to foster more cross-ideological convenings. So much good can happen when you look your neighbor in the face and decide, despite your differences, to help rebuild your community and nation.
And despite my critique of the 99 percent meme, myths have power. That's why people put their bodies on the line during Occupy, suffering everything from skull fractures to teargassing. These were real actions with real meaning.
But if there is no bridge between those protesting income inequality and those mired in it but clinging to trickle-down dreams, there is little chance of change. Now is the moment to turn from slogans toward a deeper relationship with the complexities of our own nation, and begin to build again.
Farai Chideya is an author and journalist who blogs at Farai.com and contributes to WNYC's live events and political coverage.