Welcome Greg Basta (Deputy Director, NY Communities For Change) (Home Defenders League) (Occupy The Boardroom) and Host Sarah Jaffe (Alternet.org) (author, The 99%: How the Occupy Wall Street Movement is Changing America )
Honestly, I don’t really like what you’ve done with the place (America that is).”
A year ago this week, the original Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park was evicted. The camps served as a focal point for a vibrant protest movement that shook up the country, but they galvanized the anger and fear of working people around the country, struggling to make it through the Great Recession.
The mainstream press often did its best to portray the movement as simply a bunch of unwashed kids without a message, without demands. Yet if one ever doubted that the movement’s message got through, the collection of letters in The Trouble is the Banks, from Occupy the Boardroom and n+1 serves as proof.
Occupy the Boardroom began as a website, a place for people to submit letters to the 1% from the 99%. (Those numbers have become so ubiquitous over the last year that it can be hard to remember just how striking the simple formulation, a calling to class consciousness for millions who had thought they lived in a classless society, was when first heard.) People from across the country wrote letters that were published on the website and delivered to the bank executives of their choice—in one memorable case, a group sent letters up on 99 red balloons, bobbing on strings outside of Goldman Sachs’ 200 West Street headquarters in New York.
Who wrote letters? There’s Ilene S., from New York City, who introduced herself as “A civil servant with a professional title,” who told Bank of America “I’m not fringe. I’m just mad as hell.” There’s the unsigned letter from a woman who shared with JP Morgan Chase’s Heidi Miller her story of being “groped” as a waitress, who sympathizes with the sexism Miller probably had to face to become an executive at the megabank. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a feminist all the way,” she wrote, “it’s just usually companies that screw the poor aren’t usually all about gender equality.”
Dave McGee, address unknown, wrote to JP Morgan’s David M. Cote in search of his missing democracy—and his realization that it had been purchased, and another Dave, no last name given, asked then-Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit if he really works 415 times harder than Citi bank tellers, since that’s how much bigger his $10 million and change salary was that year than their base rate of $26,000.
The letters often have familiar themes; writers had expectations of a middle-class life but have watched it slip away, and often a personal experience with a bank (or two) led them to direct their letter its way. N+1 and Occupy the Boardroom selected letters for content and style, to represent the breadth of the stories they received. Some are heartbreaking. Some are witty. Between the lines of all of them you can feel the anger, the hurt, the long hours and sleepless nights.
While debates in the occupations around the country centered on process and representation, direct democracy, food and shelter, this book is the distilled anger of those who saw the lives they expected to have go up in smoke–or rather, disappear into a banker’s pocket. Anarchists and horizontalists may have sparked the movement and created the public spaces, but Occupy was inspired too by the good old American Populist tradition, the anger of working people who see all their hard work turned to surplus profits by the ultra-rich banking elite. That’s the thread running through this book. The Founding Fathers make more than one appearance, proving that it’s not just the Tea Party that knows its American history.
These people aren’t looking to overthrow the government or dismantle capitalism (though one “longtime customer” warns John Stumpf of Wells Fargo, “Ignore or dismiss this movement if you will, but then, isn’t that what the British did for decades before the American Revolution?”). Some of them want the rich to pay their “fair share” in taxes, others, like a longtime Republican and former Reagan voter, want the bankers in jail.
They take solace in their families and the support they do have with one another; the website and now the book allow people to see that they are not alone. Lynn Giglio, a UAW member from Pavilion, NY making $14 an hour, thanks her union for giving her “everything you don’t want me to have,” dignity, friends, a roof over her head.
Greg Basta helped create Occupy the Boardroom and The Trouble is the Banks. He’s also one of the founders of the Home Defenders League and a community organizer in New York. He hears stories like these every day, and helped put together this book to share them with the world. Because now, a year after Zuccotti Park was cleared of occupiers, as Occupy organizers expand daily a mutual aid system helping thousands of New Yorkers recover from Superstorm Sandy, their problems haven’t been fixed or gone away, and Goldman Sachs’ 200 West Street headquarters never lost power during the storm. People are still angry. And they’re still organizing.
Because, in the words of Pamila Payne of Los Angeles, California, “We will create change because we’re not just disaffected hippies. We’re the disaffected middle class. And we’re huge.”
Join Greg and I to discuss this book, Occupy the Boardroom, and the long slow work of recovering from the financial crisis.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]