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The Occupy Wall Street Moment: Broadening the Voice of a Longstanding Movement of Bank Accountability

I think at least some media figures have started to figure out the “meaning” of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and for me the idea that it took very long at all is absurd.  They are protests on Wall Street. Do you need anything more?

If you’re lived in this country for the next decade, the meaning underlying a sit-in on Wall Street would be fairly obvious to you. It would mean you’ve lived through the housing bubble, the financial crisis, the bailout, and the Great Recession, with millions of people desperate and out of work and the bailed out finance industry bouncing back almost immediately. Really, you need to figure out the “meaning” of a demonstration on Wall Street? Really?

The truth, which Stephen Lerner explained well at a panel here at the Take Back the American Dream conference, is that bank accountability campaigns have been happening throughout the country on a rolling basis over the last couple years. Bank branches have been occupied in Los Angeles by groups like Refund California. Ten thousand activists staged a “Showdown in America” at the American Bankers Association conference in Chicago in 2009. Protesters in Seattle went to jail for demonstrating in front of a JPMorgan Chase office. At the Chase campus in Ohio, one of the largest non-high rise buildings in the US, protesters put down a makeshift bridge and crossed the moat that surrounds the building to engage in protest.

On May 12 of this year, 20,000 protesters were on Wall Street as part of a week-long series of events called We Found the Money. At least a few of the May 12 protesters are “leaders” in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In Take Back Boston, protesters wrapped up bus shelters to make them look like foreclosed homes. Activists entered a BofA meeting dressed as waiters (Lerner said on the panel, “If you dress like servants, the elites let you into their meetings”).

There have been organized protests at foreclosed homes, where homeowners refused to be evicted. Activists are moving families back into vacant homes. These things have been happening for a long time, just check out my archives; I wrote about almost all of them at the time. You can add in the protests in Wisconsin or even the 1999 Battle in Seattle. The same spirit is animating the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“The press reported [Take Back Boston, which occurred over the weekend] as growing spontaneously out of Occupy Wall Street,” said Lerner, an SEIU organizer most well-known for the Justice for Janitors campaign. “And that’s fine with us, that’s what we want. We planned it, but it grew to 3,000 protesters as a result.”

The point is that the groups who have organized direct actions and battled the elites who have impoverished the nation to enrich themselves have no designs to co-opt Occupy Wall Street; they want to connect with its energy to support the work they’re doing, work with specific goals and agenda items. As Lerner told Ezra Klein, “We haven’t had a shortage of demands and solutions. We’ve had a shortage of mass movements.” He elaborated on this: “Occupy Wall Street speaks to what is in the air. A lot of people are talking about the same things.”

The activists at Occupy Wall Street, along with the bank accountability activists working on a parallel track, believe that the only way to properly adjust the economy is to go toe to toe with the forces of the status quo, which includes the corporate sector, and particularly the finance sector. The goal is to shift the conversation in the country, to force a reckoning with the realities of an economy that only works for the privileged few. And it’s one that is mutually reinforcing across different groups, said George Goehl of National People’s Action. “[Progressive groups] got obsessed with credit, control and money,” Goehl said. “We can put aside our differences for our common goal, capture the attention of the public and change the limits of what’s possible.”

And guess what, that’s already been done! The foreclosure fraud movement stopped a bad deal from getting done, against the wishes of the powerful finance lobby AND the Obama Administration! And direct action played a major role in that. There’s a model for success.

Further, this is resonating strongly with attendees at an energized Take Back America conference. At the bank accountability panel, which Zach Carter also talked about, attendees expressed their enthusiasm for direct action. Sharon from Phoenix related it to the energy that came from the Obama campaign in 2008, as did Guido Girgenti, a student organizer from Occidental College, who described it in a very interesting way. “Young people like me have felt politically powerless for most of their lives,” he told the panel. “We came of age during the Obama campaign and we were fed the idea that the campaign represented the peak of progressive organizing. Now, my Facebook feed is full of 18 and 20 year-olds who all want to go to an occupation.”

“How many people think it’s important to risk arrest,” asked Lerner to the attendees at the bank accountability panel. Everyone raised their hands. People are ready for action. Occupy Wall Street sparked a fire with kindling that has been laid down for years.

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David Dayen

David Dayen