Go on. Tell me you know somebody who isn’t pissed at the big banks. Even many of the tea partyers hate them. It doesn’t matter which side of the spectrum people are on; they’d like to see those bloodsuckers at Wells Fargo and Bank of America hung naked by their toenails over a bonfire.
Unfortunately, the financial environment that bred the current crisis was also bipartisan. Oh sure, we could blame Republicans Phil Gramm, Texas, and Jim Leach, Iowa, for introducing in 1999 the bill that repealed the Glass Steagall Act of 1933, an act which kept speculation tamped down. But those two Republicans only led the charge. In their wake was a 90-8 vote in the Senate, a 362-57 vote in the House, and a signature–as if it were needed–by Bill Clinton.
Not until January of 2010, a year and a half after the global economy wobbled on the edge of a chasm, only to be pulled back from the brink by almost a trillion bucks loaned to the very villains who caused the wipe-out, did Obama, with Paul Volcker at his side, propose reinstating many of the Glass-Steagall regulations. What took you so long?! And anyway, it’s not as if a proposal strong enough to do the job will survive the butchering, compromising, and selling out that will go on during markup. If such a miracle did occur, Congress would freeze in a bi-partisan iceberg (real Dems vs. Rs and Blue Dogs) when it came time to vote on actual reform.
Part of the reason adequate reform isn’t likely to pass is the banks themselves. They used taxpayer money from the bailouts to lobby against reform–and, they know how to spread the moolah to the right campaign coffers. Meanwhile, in 2009 the top five banks made their highest profits ever. And they paid bonuses amounting to $140 billion–about the amount of money it would take to cover the shortfalls in fifty states from the Great Recession that the banks caused.
Damn straight we’re pissed.
The banks “have their boot on the neck of the American Dream.” It’s time to take it to the streets. At least that’s part of the strategy that National People’s Action has mapped out for pressuring the banks to stop ripping people off and start lending to small businesses and investing in communities. Last October, NPA led a coalition of groups that turned out thousands of protesters at the annual American Bankers Association convention in Chicago. They called it Showdown in Chicago, and now every time a TV station wants to illustrate the anger of the populace at the banks, they dredge some video of those protests out of the archives.
It’s time to give MSNBC and CNN new footage. NPA plans to double down, triple down, quadruple down on the protests. There will be regional demonstrations in late April through mid-May. The plan is to focus on the two worst offenders and to turn the clubby atmosphere of their annual stockholders’ meetings into circuses. All the members of last October’s coalition–SEIU, for example, and the AFL/CIO–are itching to get going. Each march will involve at least a thousand, maybe far more–a flood of loud, angry and yet articulate protesters.
The NPA strategy is two pronged.
First, progressives can accomplish a lot by focusing their energy on regulators rather than on legislators: Ben Bernanke at the Fed, Sheila Bair at the FDIC, and John C. Dugan at the OCC (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency). In Mexico, MO, Jordan Estevao, an NPA organizer, recently explained the strategy to activists at GRO, one of the members of the Showdown in Chicago coalition.
He asked how many of us had been to Bernanke’s house to discuss the banking problem. Lotsa laughter. But, referring to the protests against Bernanke’s nomination, Estevao said that “because we ‘went to his house,’ he’s now … afraid of us.” NPA is scheduled to meet with Bernanke on March 9th to discuss the actions they feel the Fed needs to be taking. For example, NPA will urge Bernanke to see that the Community Reinvestment Act is enforced.
Sheila Bair at the FDIC is even more on board. She showed that she supports NPA’s goals when she spoke at the Showdown in Chicago in support of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency:
“In looking at indecipherable credit card statements and documents, mortgages you can’t understand and APRs from payday loans and high overdraft fees, I don’t see how anyone can say we’ve done a good job protecting consumers from financial services.”
And here’s a sentiment to endear her to us: “‘It’s time to put an end to the ‘too big to fail’ doctrine… Yes, no more bailouts, no more bailouts!'”
That leaves John C. Dugan at the OCC. Estevao shrugged and opined:
“We’ve met with him before, but we don’t know if he’s quite there yet. What that means is that, with the first two, we can negotiate. With the third one, we can act, we can do action. It’s how, you know, how do we bring people to the negotiating table? We hit ’em. And when we hit him, it sends a signal to the other two that they should stay at the table. And then eventually this guy will crack when he’s the odd one out that isn’t working with the community. And, you know, these two [Bernanke and Bair] both have something to protect, they both have something to lose: both of them are under, you know, scrutiny, and are facing the prospect of their powers being rolled back. So we can weigh in on either side of that fight, either help those changes happen or stop them from happening.”
On the Big Banks, it’s ACTION, ACTION, ACTION.
And that’s the second prong of the plan. The coalition will focus on Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Not that it won’t go after, say, Chase Manhattan if its CEO gets an outrageous pay package, but the main idea is to make the other big banks sweat that they could be next when they see how NPA keeps hammering the two worst.
As for what makes Bank of America and Wells Fargo the worst, B of A is the biggest bank and it has the most foreclosures. Wells Fargo has a lot of lawsuits against it for discriminatory practices in lending. The other factor that determined NPA to focus on these two entities is that they are accessible. Bank of America is in every area where NPA affiliates operate, and Wells Fargo is in most of them.
So protesters are going to shine a media glare on the annual stockholder meetings of these two banks on April 27th and 28th. Crowds of demonstrators will show up for the Wells Fargo meeting–Showdown in San Francisco–and for the Bank of America meeting–Showdown in Charlotte. GRO (Grass Roots Organizing) is considering organizing a Heartland Showdown in the Kansas City financial district. That one is still iffy. But there will be a Showdown on Wall Street in early May.
Estevao explained why such actions work:
“If we focus on these two and make them the bad guys of the financial collapse, and every time that we do a protest we’re naming them as the ones that collapsed our economy, eventually that’s gonna be bad for business. And, you know, we don’t even have to like really … they’ll start to lose a little bit of money, but what’s worse is that their stock prices will go down.
So when we were fighting Wal-Mart in Chicago, you know, we wanted them to pay a living wage and we wanted them to pay health insurance because they would have put a lot of other businesses out of business that were paying health insurance in Chicago. That’s the problem with them. And, so we introduced this ordinance that would force them to do those two things, to pay a living wage and pay health benefits. And, you know, at the same time all over the country a lot of other organizations were going after Wal-Mart too, particularly in urban areas. Wal-Mart’s expansion strategy right now, because they’re already all over the suburbs and rural areas … they’ve saturated that market, so they’re trying to get into the cities. And we were stopping them from getting into the city, and it was hurting their stock prices. Their worst nightmare is that a protest would actually start to hurt their stock prices.
We can totally do that with Bank of America and Wells if we’re relentless and if we do big enough … big enough actions that they get a media profile.”
Oh yeah? Like that skinny guy in blue jeans is seriously going to harass the suits at Wells Fargo? It can happen. This is the most unifying issue of our time. Like I said, you don’t know anybody that doesn’t hate the big banks. And if you get enough skinny guys in blue jeans together, suddenly Clark Kent is Superthrong. I own blue jeans. And if GRO gets that K.C. action off the ground, I’m buying an AMTRAC ticket out of St. Louis.