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Letters From Occupied Wall Street

Tiny Money

For two months, critics of Occupy Wall Street have complained that the group has no recognizable demands, no plan for reforms. But that’s not the point. They don’t want to reform the system. They want a new one.

Tom Sanford, Dollar Straw, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Allegra LaViola.

In mid-October, I walked into the Chase Bank branch on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, approached the customer service desk and told a smiling woman sitting behind it that I wanted to close my account. She frowned, and said, “I’m sorry,” the way people do when the misfortune is not their fault and there’s pretty much nothing they can do about it.

She then directed me to a man who appeared to be the only banker on duty.

“I’d like to close my account,” I repeated. I was nervous all of the sudden. I hate confrontation with strangers. This was not the arrogant, oppressive Chase banker of my fantasy; this was a guy working on a Saturday at a small bank branch in Brooklyn.

“I’m sorry to hear that, can I ask why?”

I took a deep breath; this speech wasn’t going to be eloquent as the one I’d prepared in my head.

“As a member of Chase Bank, you’re investing my money in ways I don’t approve of. Also, I object to your lending practices, and I believe Chase bank to be partly responsible for a foreclosure crisis that’s left hundreds of thousands of people bankrupt and without their homes.”

“Well, you’re certainly entitled to your point of view.” He was shifting in his seat, eyes darting around the room. This was as awkward for him as it was for me.

“Also, sometime in the past year your bank started charging me a fee for not maintaining a minimum balance of $1,500 in my checking account or having a direct deposit of at least $500. I feel like this is punishment for not having wealth. It feels extremely unfair.”

His eyes lit up, and he turned to his computer. He confirmed my account history before picking up a laminated placemat.

“Maybe there’s an account alternative for you without the fee.”

“No, no. You’re not hearing me. It’s too late. Even if you stopped charging me this fee, I don’t like what you’re doing with my money. I know it’s tiny money, but I can’t be a part of this bank anymore.”

“OK. Well, you’re entitled to your opinion.” This was more discomfort than condescension. Since this errand had never been about changing anyone’s mind, I just wanted to get out of there with my envelope of cash.

 

I actually never opened that Chase Bank Account. My first bank account was with Bank One, and I opened it shortly after the bank absorbed First Chicago Bank. When I moved to New York, I opened a second account with Amalgamated, a local labor bank, but kept bouncing checks because it took non-cash deposits five days to clear. At the time, Washington Mutual offered a free checking account and didn’t charge you for using another bank’s ATM, so I closed my Bank One account opened a second account with WaMu; I did most of my banking there for about six years until sometime in the year after they merged with Chase in 2008.

The same day I closed my Chase account, a group of at least 24 people were arrested at a Citibank near New York University while closing their accounts. A protester at the scene told the New York Observer that the protesters had agreed to leave when asked but then were locked in the lobby by bank security guards until the police showed up. Later that evening, I was with thousands of New Yorkers crowded into six penned-in blocks of Times Square in support of Occupy Wall Street. Surrounded by hundred-foot-tall LED screens broadcasting underwear ads and news updates, dozens of police carrying batons, pepper spray, orange crowd control nets, some on horseback, marched inches away from us, separated only by metal barricades.

The rash of people moving their money from big corporate banks into smaller local banks and credit unions is one of the more impressive indirect results of the Occupy Wall Street political movement. During the month of October, 650,000 people joined credit unions—that’s more than the number of people who joined during all of 2010. And the rejection continues. Over 85,000 people “attended” a Facebook event called Bank Transfer Day on Nov. 5. The event was created in large part as a response to Bank of America’s announcement that they would begin charging most smaller customers $5 a month to use their debit cards.  

The rash of people moving their money from big corporate banks into smaller local banks and credit unions is one of the more impressive indirect results of the Occupy Wall Street political movement.

As a result of public outrage, Bank of America rescinded the threat of a fee, though investor pressure for profits remains. The New York Times reported last week on a number of quieter charges and fees that big banks have levied on their customers.

Though I didn’t go to the bank and close my account with a group of protesters, Occupy Wall Street is a big part of the reason I got rid of my account when I did. The protests have shed light on predatory-lending practices and high-risk investments made by huge banks that have barely been subjected to further regulation despite the financial crisis.

On a given day in the park, during the protests that occur alongside the occupation, or on Facebook, where participants around the world share photos and stories, there’s a never-ending stream of anti-bank and anti-corporate slogans and signs.

I’ve heard banks claim they are losing money because of regulations, but I’ve also heard a number of people suggest that the real reason for these fees is that banks like Chase and Bank of America don’t want you to have only a checking account with them. Yes, they want you to move your money from a small, local retail bank (First Chicago); they also want to absorb that bank and consolidate their power and be the place you turn to for credit cards and mortgages. To really make a point people who are closing their accounts should also never take out a loan or have a credit card with a major bank.

No matter what’s behind it, the lending practices and the unequal distribution of wealth are maddening. Closing my bank account was a small thing. A tiny transaction, not any sort of massive, perceptible political shift. I just don’t want to be a customer of a bank anymore.

In the spirit of participation, I will move my money to a credit union, where I can be a member. If credit unions earn money through investments and mortgages, and many of them do, it goes back to the members, rather than to a small group of obscenely wealthy individuals. I’m still not really outside an exploitative system when it comes to my wages or use of currency, but at least my money won’t be generating profits for Chase bank.

 

Disgust with big banking isn’t the only reason I moved my money. I’d rather be a member than a customer. As a credit union member, no matter how tiny my money, I have the same vote as every other member in elections for the board of directors. My credit union isn’t turning a profit by throwing people out of their homes, manipulating low-income people into taking out subprime mortgages, or paying out millions of dollars in bonuses to corrupt executives. What’s bad for me, or for any other member, is bad for the institution.

This shift that hundreds of thousands of people made last month from consumerism to membership was sparked by frustrations with Wall Street, sure, but it also suggests that a different form of organizing and political participation is taking hold in the U.S.

Ever since occupiers moved into New York City’s financial center—laying out sleeping bags next to flower beds, pitching tents and hanging tarps from trees—people have been complaining that Occupy Wall Street is offering no cogent, recognizable demand. Many argue all this political energy and anger should be used to marshal some clear, direct, and concise reform angle. That we should be “doing” something with all the media attention and money. A lot of people I’ve talked to assume it’s little more than one big sit in, where aimless protesters have made only the point that for a little while they can be and are in a park next to Wall Street. But whether you choose to see it, validate it, or take part in it, something much bigger is happening. This protest is not—nor was it ever—a simple cry for policy reform, regulation, or accountability.

This protest is not—nor was it ever—a simple cry for policy reform, regulation, or accountability.

For weeks people have been saying that while a police raid of Occupy Wall Street would be devastating because of the number of people who live there, actively defending the space and benefitting from freely available medical care, food, warm clothing, library books, and camaraderie, it would not end this movement. The space is important, as essential as all the organizing done to make it healthy, sustainable, and safe. Still, without the space this need for alternatives and the work put into finding them is not going anywhere. I’ve witnessed the way that, over the course of a day, groups of protesters at Liberty Plaza make hundreds of decisions by consensus. This means that some previously determined majority (usually higher than 75 percent) of those present must consent to any given proposal that will affect the entire space and all occupiers. These decisions are often small and have short-term, immediate impact. But the choices and the values they represent are the same as those that led me to close my Chase account.

At the OWS General Assembly and in smaller working groups that have been organized to address particular issues or needs, each person speaks as an individual; people raise concerns, offer “friendly amendments” to others’ proposals, or signal their approval for an idea with “twinkle fingers”—finger wiggling recognized in some other contexts as jazz hands. Go to enough OWS meetings and when your friend asks if you’d like another beer, you’ll fight the impulse to twinkle in response.

The effort to create a space where people can live, organize, and interact free from hierarchies, without authority concentrated anywhere but in the consensus of a group, is not an act of reform and it never will be. Taking your money out of a big bank and putting it into a credit union is also not an act of reform. Small, immediate gestures that prioritize community participation and membership over consumerism have larger, transformative impacts. If hundreds of thousands of closed accounts scare government and banks into making reforms, great, but the fact remains that what we’ve been doing in Liberty Plaza and in Occupy protests elsewhere in the country and around the world is opting out of a very broken system, not trying to glue it back together.

 

At Occupy Wall Street I have been a part of several discussions about how to use non-violent communication and mediation to resolve conflicts in the park. These are difficult talks, and we struggle to keep occupiers safe without reproducing the repressive and authoritative behavior of law enforcement. Even in these moments, I can see that dumping my bank was consistent with the general search for new, less harmful, and more accountable ways to build community and care for one another.

That this approach is not particularly compatible with democracy as it currently functions in the U.S. was apparent early Tuesday morning when police locked down the area around Liberty Plaza and prevented reporters from observing the eviction. Josh Harkinson from Mother Jones was dragged across the street and at least six credentialed journalists were arrested. Police used bulldozers to plow down the encampment, they body checked people who tried to approach the park during the raid, and as of Wednesday afternoon many arrested were still being held in police custody.

Exactly two months ago a small but determined group of people began sleeping in this park because they wanted powerful banks to do something about the pain they’d caused.

November 15 wasn’t the first instance of police brutality in New York City. It has been going on without much media attention for as long as anyone living can remember. As this movement continues, the exploitation that has always existed is just getting more attention. Made more public is what so many people have always felt: Law enforcement protects property, not people. But it’s not just cops; I closed my bank account with Chase because I felt they valued property and wealth over the well being of citizens.

Zuccotti Park has been reopened, but is being tightly controlled by the NYPD and private security. I’m not going to ask their permission to enter the park—that makes it feel like every other public space in the city—but I am excited to be part of the citywide protest today. Exactly two months ago a small but determined group of people began sleeping in this park because they wanted powerful banks to do something about the pain they’d caused. I could never have predicted that this action would snowball into a global protest movement.

The crowds, the donations, and the sheer unbridled enthusiasm—the night Obama was elected president doesn’t come close—are proof that many people need and want this new participatory voice.

Closing a bank account is one of many small ways to reject the privileging of property over people. I’ll admit it’s kind of inconvenient not to use Chase anymore—this afternoon I had to roll my change before depositing it. But I’m optimistic. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, I closed my Chase account and opened something much more valuable.  

biopic

TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka

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