It turns out that I should have stayed put in Los Angeles rather than gone out to Washington for a liberal activist conference if I wanted to stay on the pulse of the accountability movement sweeping the country. The New Bottom Line, the coalition of bank accountability groups, chose LA as the launch pad for a new wave of anti-bank direct actions that have been playing out all week (even despite some rainy weather today). Officially known as the Refund California campaign, local LA community organizers, homeowners and activists have put on public pressure in street actions this week aimed at making the banks pay for the wreckage they’ve caused to the economy.
On Monday, activists with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment held a teach-in on the extent of damage caused by Wall Street banks, with about 70 attendees – in the lobby of a Chase Bank downtown. On Tuesday, the California Bankers Association met in Los Angeles, and over 100 activists crashed the meeting. They took to the stage and rattled off a list of demands to make banks pay for the crisis and provide relief to homeowners and a rebirth to blighted neighborhoods. Yes, there are actual demands here:
Fix Housing to Fix the Economy Enact a widespread mortgage principal reduction program, creating 300,000 California jobs and injecting over $20 billion into the economy.
Pay Fair Share Close property tax loopholes, increase taxes on top 1% and corporations, stop ripping off taxpayers with financial schemes like interest rate swaps
Stop Destroying Neighborhoods Stop foreclosure blight, support small business lending and create jobs. Reinvest profits into putting people back to work and rebuilding our economy.
They also camped out in front of the home of Steve Mnuchin, the CEO of OneWest Bank, in the tony neighborhood of Bel-Air. Mnuchin is being targeted in particular because OneWest holds the mortgage of Rose Mary Gudiel, a La Puente resident who has refused to leave her home after a dodgy eviction based on her being two weeks late with one mortgage payment (the bank refused subsequent payments). The plan was to demand a stop to the eviction, or they would move Rose Mary and all her furniture into Mnunchin’s $26 million house. Twenty police officers and a helicopter met the hundred-odd activists.
Today, more direct actions are planned, with home visits to executives included. This culminates tomorrow with a big march at the California Plaza downtown. Over 1,000 activists are expected. The organizers have been in touch with the Occupy LA movement, and there’s a possibility that the two groups will march together tomorrow.
Even if they don’t, the vibrant spirit that characterizes the #Occupy protests is animating the bank accountability movement, you can definitely see that. The left has finally begun to mobilize and engage with a multiplicity of voices and strategies. And when facing as powerful a force as the finance lobby, there are advantages to that. As Peggy Mears, one of the leaders of Refund California, said in a statement, “Like the people occupying Wall Street right this minute, we all know that we have to stand up to the power of the Wall Street bankers with the power of the people.”
The anti-bank campaign has in fact been incubating for years — a “seed beneath the snow,” as the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone once termed the slow-to-arrive left. The sit-ins, teach-ins and street demonstrations popping up in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are formally the handiwork of a coalition of community groups that recently gathered together as the New Bottom Line. Many of these groups have focused on immediate goals — such as stopping particular banks from foreclosing on more homes. They, along with unions, have demonstrated on Wall Street many times since the 2008 financial crisis. But only now, as Occupy Wall Street — an organization that they didn’t create — has grabbed the public imagination the past few weeks, are the myriad mobilizations commanding the media’s attention.
“It’s a confluence of planned and unplanned demonstrations,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime organizer for the Service Employees International Union who once spearheaded the union’s successful campaign to organize big-city janitors and today helps guide the groups in New Bottom Line. “We build on each other. We go ping-ponging back and forth.”
The New Bottom Line is only in the second of a ten-city campaign of protests against Wall Street Banks. For example, next week, in Chicago, there will be a major event as the Mortgage Bankers Association meets.
This is nothing less than a street-to-street battle to wrest back control of the country from the corporate sector, particularly the financial giants.