Nomi Prins on 'Black Tuesday' and Occupy Wall Street

Nomi Prins' new novel is about the 99 percent of us who get screwed by the big boys, and about the kind of courage it will take to reclaim our country.

When Nomi Prins bursts into the room, you feel enormous energy and the fresh air of freedom. When her feisty spirit runs up against injustice, you immediately feel the power of her outrage. And these days, like the rest of us, her outrage is directed against Wall Street, a place she knows all too well, having worked for over a decade in global investment banking, including as a managing director at Goldman Sachs, before quitting to make a more honest living. 

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In her 2009 book, It Takes a Pillage, Nomi Prins skewered the Wall Street practices that took down our economy. Unlike so many unfocused accounts, she helped us understand that Wall Street, and no one else, caused the crash and continues to cripple our economy.  

But in her new work of fiction, Black Tuesday, Prins chooses a different mode of expression to deepen her critique. She dives into the eternal verities – love, power and money -- to build the core of the story. She chooses the 1929 stock market crash as a backdrop to an improbable romance between a Wall Street banker and a Russian-Jewish immigrant young woman, who, like Prins, is bursting with talent and courage. As Prins moves us from the Lower East Side to Park Avenue and back again, we feel the tensions of class and the ways our humanity can break through them. But these are not cardboard characters. Nor is this novel a rerun of agit-prop novels from the 1930s. Rather, the characters are alive with contradictions, weaknesses and valor. I’m not going to give away the plot, but rest assured, there are plenty of thrilling twists that will prevent you from putting the book down.  

Just as she pointed out that the CDO and credit derivatives markets were time bombs in her first book, Other People’s Money, and argued for Glass-Steagall to prevent the combination of bank speculation with commercial activities, she appears equally prescient now. When Prins starting writing Black Tuesday, nothing much was happening in terms of taming Wall Street. It was business as usual for the elites who were again raking in billions. Meanwhile the nation was arguing about what we should sacrifice in order to pay for the gigantic debts created by the Wall Street crash.

Politically, the country seemed to be suffering form financial Alzheimer’s as we forgot about how the Wall Street casino caused both our mass unemployment and our debt problems. Yet, as Black Tuesday is published, all hell breaks out in the streets as Occupy Wall Street takes off. It’s a perfect match. More importantly, the book lends crucial spiritual support to the occupying young folks who know something is rotten in finance and refuse to buy mealymouthed political excuses for doing nothing about it.   

At its core, Black Tuesday is about the 99 percent of us who get screwed by the big boys, and about the kind of courage it will take to reclaim our country and our own humanity. Prins doesn’t give us any elaborate blueprints or phony cheerleading. Rather she conveys the essence of what she has to give – the spirit of defiance. The people who are currently lighting the fires of resistance will love reading about another time and place where a similar outrage took place and about how leadership set a new course.  

AlterNet caught up with Prins to hear what she has to say about her novel and what’s happening in the streets: 

Les Leopold: It seems amazing that Black Tuesday is coming out just as Occupy Wall Street is emerging. Is there any connection between your novel and what's happening on the streets right now?  

Nomi Prins: After It Takes a Pillage came out, I became increasingly convinced that we were on the brink of a Second Great Depression. Perhaps some of the comparative statistics were different, the kind that economists cite, but the downward spiral caused by the shady, fraudulent, self-serving financial chicanery driving the most powerful Wall Street banks and their leaders, is the same. I questioned why, with such obvious devastation, and such a mammoth opportunity to rein in the banks, that chance devolved into the whisper of the absolutely useless Dodd-Frank Bill. I realize this is rhetorical -- after all, we have a dangerous, symbiotic relationship between Washington and Wall Street -- but nonetheless, the question nags at me.  

After 10 years of talking about the need to isolate banks into commercial vs. speculative activities ala Glass Steagall, I was mentally hoarse and emotionally spent. So I researched the historical conditions leading up to the 1929 crash which led to that 1933 act, specifically the dislocation between how financiers were being viewed and lauded vs. the actual effects of the “boom” on ordinary U.S. citizens, who weren’t living anywhere near the bankers’ high life.  

Serendipitously, I walked into this magnificent public invention called the local library in West Hollywood during Great Gatsby month – which entailed among other things, readings of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic at various locales in Los Angeles. I went to one at a senior citizens home and discovered the most wonderful people bursting with stories of the Great Depression. One woman’s story, in particular, became the inspiration for the character arc of Leila’s Uncle Joseph, precocious little sister, Rachel, and worker-activist boyfriend, Nelson. 

When I see the Occupy Movement, I see people from every background compelled to be involved, not only for personal reasons, but for a shared purpose – to alter the tide of economic injustice and corporate favoritism. I don’t think all of them are born activists, yet collectively they are creating an active, necessary national and global counter movement to the federal nepotism toward financial criminality. 

LL: When you were writing the book, did you imagine that perhaps the country might actually rise up a bit more to tackle the Wall Street casino?  Did you hope the courage of your main characters would perhaps inspire us a bit? 

NP: I did envision a closer look at the past as being an inspiration for rising up in the present, without banging that notion over the reader’s head. My favorite line in the book is when Leila’s frail Aunt Rosa says to her, “Sometimes your cause finds you. There is a fight buried in us all.” Because, it’s true, not everyone is compelled to fight against injustice in the same way. People get there from different starting points, and the path isn't always clear and easy. And that's okay. 

Leila’s boyfriend, Nelson embodies more visibly, the spirit of injustice and protest at a time when union battles with increasingly wealthy bosses were relegated to the back pages of the major newspapers that I examined, while stories of Wall Street boom took the headlines. Joseph embodies the man who strived to be financially prudent, but gets caught up in the bank hysteria. Rachel is a little girl growing up fast and aware of the basics that her family cannot afford, like the latest Winnie the Pooh book. 

As the main protagonist, Leila herself is a reluctant heroine, she is an imperfect person trying to figure out her place in that turbulent world. Having survived tremendous violence at the hands of the Cossacks in her home country, she doesn’t at first believe that demonstrations and fist-pumping marches will change anything. But her heart draws her into a truth that she cannot ignore, despite trying, which propels her forward. Her inner conflict is as much a battle cry within her heart and head, as is the certainty of her boyfriend’s rabblerousing. 

LL: When you chose to write a novel, rather than another dynamic expose of finance, were you trying to escape from what seemed like the futility of making change, or were you finding another way to embrace it? 

NP: A bit of both. On the one hand, my imagination took me to an alternate view of the past and the characters began to write themselves, as flawed, emotional individuals, living through and dealing with, situations that may fuel action for our present. That is the impetus for the court scene toward the end of Black Tuesday. It’s so exasperating that we just haven't learned much from history and still allow these powerful banks and bankers to control our destinies.  

For example, as I depict in the novel, there was a meeting of the most powerful bankers at the Morgan Bank that took place on Black Thursday, five days before the big crash on Black Tuesday. One of the men in that room, who was later influential in creating the Bank for International Settlements in Europe was Albert Wiggins, the CEO of Chase Bank. While he was conspiring with those bankers to pump money into stocks (depositors’ money) he was shorting his own bank's stock, even as he was trying to get the market to buy it. And that is very reminiscent of today where companies like Goldman Sachs were shorting against their clients and making fraudulent representations with relative impunity. It is tragic that this crime continues unabated and our government enables it.  

Black Tuesday offers a unique story that centers around real people caught up in the real financial dealings of that day, without the dispersion of the kinds of general statistics and numbers that I put into my non-fiction work. At the end of the day, the book depicts humanity in all its glory and despair, and lives are mortally impacted. Black Tuesday, as a novel, provides a way of looking at similar financial times and the devastation of mismanagement and greed on everyone in society. It is also a story. And I hope in that way, it is enjoyed as an eye opening tale, as well as a call to embrace the notion that each of us can make a difference, even when we least expect we can.

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).