News & Politics

Showdown in Chicago: Protesters Rally Against Big Banks' Anti-Reform Lobbying

As businesspeople wandered by, protesters young and old aired their disgust with financial institutions.

Though the stretch of South Wacker Drive is more Wall Street than it is Wild West, this week it is the scene of what is billed as a "Showdown in Chicago." Monday morning, a large group of protesters crowded the block surrounding the downtown Chicago headquarters of Goldman Sachs.

"Bust up big banks! Bailout? No thanks!" they screamed in unison. Their target was the American Bankers Association (ABA), the largest lobby group for financial institutions, holding their annual convention in Chicago this week.

The protest was organized by National People's Action, a Chicago-based network of metropolitan, regional, and statewide organizations working to "build grassroots power." Despite their recruitment of local heavy-hitters including the Service Employees International Union and Action Now, with cross-promotion from national groups such as MoveOn.org to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, there was a genuine grassroots feel to the event.

As businessmen and women in suits skirting the crowd had to walk in front of a cordon of Chicago cops in the street in order to get by, protesters young and old held a combination of signs registering their disgust with financial institutions. One grandmotherly-looking woman held a sign that said "Kidz say Goldman sux." Another sign reached back to the language of Reaganomics, complaining of being "pissed" after "being trickled down on" for so long.

Not that the mass-produced signs didn't have flair to them as well. Oversized "warrants" called for the arrest offormer Bank of America Chair Ken Lewis as well as Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf and others. The "superhero" known as Downsized Man was there with a sign that shouted "Reclaim America!"

Other protesters had personal stories to tell.

Keith Scribner, president of UE local 1174, was in Chicago representing his fellow union members from Quad City Die Casting in Moline, IL. Back in May, the factory owners told the workers there that they were going to have to close down, not because they were out of money, but because Wells Fargo wouldn't lend the 60-year-old company the money it needed to continue doing business. When they finally closed the doors Sept. 4, all 100 employees became unemployed, and none were compensated for their lost vacation time, nor their health benefits, which the bank had stopped paying out way back in May. Scribner said the total owed to the union members is $220,000.

"That's why were here. We're protesting because they owe us money," he said.

Now Scribner is fighting two banks, because as Wells Fargo denies his benefits, Bank of America is foreclosing on his house.

"This guy got a double whammy. His business closed even though it could have stayed open another 50 years. And he's losing his house and the bank won't even talk to him about how to stay in it. They just don't care," said Leah Fried, an organizer with UE. "They don't care about rising unemployment, they don't care about people losing their homes, they don't care about homelessness. They don't care. So unless we force the issue, it will not change."

Organizers of Monday's protest picked Goldman at least partially because of their profit margins. They called protesters to come out and stand in the drizzle to "ask Goldman Sachs to donate its entire projected $23 billion dollar bonus pool to prevent every foreclosure in America in 2010 and lift one million families out of the poverty and joblessness that was caused by Goldman Sachs' gambling with our economy."

But it's more than simple payback motivating protesters; the heavy resistance being put up by banks to new regulatory reforms designed to keep the country from getting into this mess again plays a significant role, too. In fact, the annual ABA meeting that protesters are attempting to disrupt specifically focuses on teaching bankers how to help derail progress in the arena.

While the excess symbolized by the ABA conference's "Roaring ’20s dance party" has gotten a good deal of attention (AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, "Why wouldn’t they celebrate the era of wild money and hot times (which slid into the Great Depression)? After all, the bankers are doing well these days"), other ABA events  have earned the ire of Chicagoans.

The ABA schedule includes "special strategic sessions" concentrating on a variety of accredited classes, including one on acquiring other failing banks, another on dealing with changes in executive pay and a third targeted at "unwinding government intervention." Regarding the proposed regulations working through Congress, the ABA says it is the "elimination of the thrift charter and creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, that ABA found extremely troublesome."

Another focus of the event is halfway across the country in Washington. Organizers say that the six largest banks have spent more than $35 million fighting congressional action on financial reform this year alone. And if the constant weakening of regulatory reform legislation on the Hill is any indication, it was money well spent.

"We're pushing the banks to do what's right... And more importantly, we're going to force elected officials to act more swiftly to rein in these practices that are so abusive," Fried said. "The American people have to force our government to act. We know that they act in the interests of whoever is paying them the most money in their campaign funds. And so what we need to do is just flex our muscle. And that's the bottom line, we have to force the government to do the right thing just like we have to force banks to do the right thing."  

Monday's protest and accompanying march are part of a three-day event that ends in a rally Tuesday. While the healthcare debate winds down, the attempt to switch popular anger from insurance lobbyists to financial ones may prove difficult. But Fried isn't worried about keeping people engaged, insisting that this is only the beginning of what is becoming for more and more people a very personal fight.

"If you're losing your home, or your business closed because a bank wouldn't give it credit, it's not esoteric at all. It's your life," Fried said. "There's nothing more concrete that eating and having a place to live. And that's what this is about."