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Main Street vs. Wall Street

by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 28, 2011

As I write this Monday evening, the occupation of Wall Street by people representing the 99 percent of us whose interests are not served by privileging a bloated, predatory financial system over the real economy is entering its 11th day.

It is terribly exciting to see people taking charge of the conversation that we need to be having in this country, not styling themselves in reaction to the “Tea Party,” but setting the terms of the debate where they belong: Bailing out speculative financial firms who add no real value to the economy, and then imposing austerity—unemployment, foreclosure, poverty—on the victims of the banks’ addictive gambling (i.e. the rest of us) is unsustainable.

For those of us who participated in the protests against the WTO, IMF, and World Bank a decade ago, there is much that is familiar, in a positive way, about this occupation: The deep belief in true democracy, and the skill to wield it under the most challenging circumstances. The courage to face illegal violence nonviolently. The conscious efforts to befriend rank and file cops rather than make them the enemy.

The differences are also interesting. A decade ago, the protests were aimed mostly outward, at international institutions. Though some unions were involved to protest the exporting of jobs, and some connections were made to local struggles in the cities the protests visited, much of the concern was the effect of trade agreements, “structural adjustment,” and debt on the people and environments of poor countries far away. It was a period of relative prosperity at home; it was hard for many in the country to associate those causes with their own lives.

Not so, obviously, today. Today what was happening to those far away countries is happening to us—we are being called upon to sacrifice our well-being and the chance to invest in a strong, healthy economy in order to repay a “debt” that has arisen through war, tax evasion by the wealthy, and criminal fraud and gambling of the financial sector.

I think the country—and the world—is ready to have this conversation, and I am grateful for the occupiers for helping to force it to the fore, even though it is a crying shame that they had to get pepper sprayed point blank in order to get into the mainstream media.

But I also think it’s important to point out that this is not the first protest of this sort in response to the current mess by far.

In Boston, the Bank Tenant Association has been holding eviction blockades to keep victimized foreclosed owners and their tenants from being evicted—and often winning. Across California members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment have shut down bank branches, turned back sheriffs, and forced banks to reverse criminally negligent foreclosures on people who never missed a payment. Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition in Minneapolis and many others are doing the same. In Seattle just last week, 11 people were arrested shutting down an intersection by a Chase branch. And they are all pushing regulation and accountability at the state level at the same time.

These groups have concrete demands, targets, and years of collective organizing experience behind them. A coalition of them, calling itself the New Bottom Line, is coalescing. It has made its way into the shareholder meetings of all the major banks using shareholder proxies to challenge the CEOs directly on their refusal to renegotiate mortgage debt like corporate debt is renegotiated all the time, and they have a series of actions going on across the country at the same time as the occupation on the theme of “Pay U.S. Back.” Their demands are that banks: pay their fair share of taxes; stabilize the housing market and revitalize the economy by reducing principal for all underwater homeowners to current-market value; and invest in American jobs rather than hoarding cash reserves. (See: newbottomline.com.)

I have been heartened by descriptions of a fairly diverse group of people coming together for the occupation actions, from students to firefighters to former bankers, but I think the community organizing networks, drawing from congregations, unions, and other networks that reach deep into communities of color and working class and poor communities, reach a different demographic mix, age, class, and race wise. Together these two movements would really represent the 99 percent.

When the occupiers go home, they should keep the bigger conversation they’ve been having going, but they should bring their experience and talent and energy to join these other actions—turning the minions of Wall Street away from their neighbors’ front porches and getting their hands dirty in the work of bringing about specific change.