News & Politics

Biometric Door Locks and Bulletproof Windows: How Occupy Wall Street Is Scaring the Heck out of the 1%

Are the sustained protests in Manhattan's Financial District and around the country getting to the wealthy bankers who are being targeted?

A giant bunch of red balloons bob outside the glass windows of the tower at 200 West Street—the headquarters of mega-investment bank Goldman Sachs. Tied to each balloon is a letter, printed out from the site, being delivered to Goldman in rather spectacular fashion by the activists below, who are holding onto the balloons by a few balls of twine.

A small group of people, including a couple of police officers, huddle nearby. It's clear they don't like what's going on, but they can't seem to come up with a legal reason to stop it. The protesters tie more letters to more balloons and send them zipping up the string to join the others at the top, and a blonde woman mutters something like, “They want to occupy the boardroom,” into her her walkie-talkie. 

Clearly, someone at Goldman Sachs has heard of the site, and while their message might not be getting through, they're certainly unnerved at the willingness of activists to bring creative protest right to their door.

The response of the country's financial elites to the protests in Liberty Plaza and around the country seem not all that different from the police and security guards nervously watching outside the Goldman office. They don't want to overreact and show that the actions are working, but they clearly wish they had a way to shut them down.

It's been over a month since New York's financial district found a mini-society growing in one of its parks, a month of impromptu marches, organized bank withdrawals, teach-ins, arrests, and creative actions of all kinds. But aside from the snarled “Get a job!” from angry be-suited passersby, how have the financial elites who are the target of the protests reacted?

Are the occupiers, for lack of a better phrase, getting inside their heads?

A Boom for “Executive Protection”

Forbes magazine sent billionaire investor Jeff Greene, reportedly a Democratic candidate for the Senate in Florida last year, down to report on Occupy Wall Street, and he told them, “Right now it’s like a college sit-in, demonstrating middle-class frustration, but it could eventually lead to violence and that is the scary next step.”

This, from a man described as sympathetic to the protesters, and despite the movement's studied determination to remain nonviolent even in the face of police punching protesters, pepper-spraying penned-up women, riding horses through crowds and arresting 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge.

An internal “Protest Safety Handbook” from an unnamed bank leaked to reporter William Rivers Pitt warns, “While this group has not yet resorted to violence the possibility exists that they can.” The handbook's safety tips for bankers include keeping car doors locked when driving in the area of a “mob,” and not wearing bank-identified clothing outside of the office. Readers are advised, “Do not attempt to reason or argue with protesters.”

Another memo, leaked to Occupy Washington DC, from Fay Feeney, a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors, notes that “Protests can spin out of control, and with real time data processing from Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, getting a message across is now faster than ever.”

CNBC reported that Goldman Sachs staffers are being warned to avoid Liberty Plaza, and NPR's Marketplace notes that since the financial crisis, bankers have been laying low, going to work in jeans, and leaving offices unmarked so they are unidentifiable.

The occupiers haven't been content to remain in Liberty Plaza, either. As part of the movement's concerted outreach to organized labor, groups of protesters have disrupted auctions at the auction house Sotheby's, which despite reporting a net income of $127.2 million last quarter, has locked out its art handlers, who are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

An elderly woman, according to art blog Gallerist, said of the action “I was here at the last auction. They were activists. Young activists. They kept standing up. It was so scary. They couldn’t get them.”

Apparently young activists standing up and calling “Shame on the 1 percent!” is scary enough for Sotheby's to increase its security.

The New York occupiers followed Governor Andrew Cuomo to a party hosted by the Huffington Post, and community groups working in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street hosted a tour of millionaires' homes in the city.

But it seems laughable that protesters are actually planning a physical assault on the homes, offices and persons of the 1 percent. After all, they would not only have to contend with the NYPD, but with private security of all types—and the New York Times has reported that security is on the rise.

“'We expect to more than double our revenue in New York this year,' said Paul M. Viollis, a co-founder of Risk Control Strategies, a firm that protects some of the top executives on Wall Street.

“Another company, Insite Security, has gotten dozens of calls since the protests began and expects to increase its revenue at least 40 percent this year, according to Christopher Falkenberg, its chief executive.”

Companies that will replace the 1%'s windows with bulletproof glass, security firms that create a "risk profile" and install a variety of state-of-the-art gadgets like biometric door locks, infrared cameras that work in total darkness and in-ground motion sensors are all seeing their business--and profits--go up, and the Times notes also that devices that detect surveillance equipment are also moving, in part sold to hedge-funders who worry they might be under investigation.

wrote this summer about the boom in private security caused by the fear of the 1% of violence from below, of possible theft and attacks on their wealth, even before the U.S. had seen much in the way of uprising. Now that a movement has sprung up and spread at nearly the speed of the Internet, bankers and the rest of the wealthy appear to have kicked their fear into overdrive. The Times reports that “One executive contacted Insite requesting help planning his escape from the United States in the event the federal government was overthrown.”

The investment in private security could imply that the wealthy simply don't trust the police. After all, police and firefighters' unions marched with the working class in Wisconsin and Ohio earlier this year when union rights came under attack in those states. But the line between private security and public police departments, which have served in large part to protect the interests of the elite, is blurred, especially in New York, with paid detail police and what Pam Martens reports is a $150 million taxpayer-funded surveillance center in Lower Manhattan, where Wall Street employees sit alongside NYPD, MTA, and Port Authority police and track the comings and goings in the financial district.

Protesters for the most part are very aware of the need to not unnecessarily fight with the cops--even in Oakland, where there's a long, unpleasant history between protesters and police and a tradition of police brutality, occupiers have argued "Police are not the enemy!", though it's hard to make that point when a 24-year-old Iraq veteran, Scott Olsen, is in critical condition after the clash with police. Occupiers have noted that not all police are unsympathetic to their cause. 

The Hacker Threat and the Bottom Line

Sam Biddle at Gizmodo noted that the biggest threat to the 1 percent, especially from a determinedly nonviolent movement like Occupy Wall Street, is likely to come from a different source: hackers.

“If there's going to be an assault on the gilded gods of the financial sector, it'll more likely be a dump of someone's emails, not a bullet through their window. And there's no biometric door lock that can stop that.”

I wrote not long ago about the connection between the Occupy movements and Anonymous, the hacker collective. The involvement of Anonymous in a movement so determinedly based in physical space is notable for the willingness of at least some activists to get offline, but it's also true that Anonymous has been willing and able to take down the Web sites of some financial giants. While activists have shown a willingness to follow their targets offsite to protest, in today's networked world it is far more likely that attacks on their wealth would come from anti-authoritarian hackers who come from and have declared themselves solidly on the side of the 99 percent.

With the recent declaration that WikiLeaks, the site that has threatened corporate power and exposed plenty of the US government's dirty secrets, will stop publishing to focus on its money woes, it's more clear than ever that battle lines are drawn between Wall Street and the tech-activist crowd.

There's also the danger that the protests will hit bankers and the wealthy where it really hurts the most—their bottom lines. They're already on shaky ground despite the massive public bailouts of 2008--Goldman Sachs' profits are already set to drop 20 percent this year, according to one report, and bonuses could fall by 30 to 50 percent. Of course, that still won't put them on a level with most working Americans, half of whom make less than $26,363. (If you include the unemployed in that tabulation, it's even lower.) So executives won't get a lot of sympathy from protesters, many of whom are organizing ways to take money more directly out of bankers' pockets.

And as the "Move Your Money" movement heats up--November 5, this coming Saturday, is Move Your Money day--another psychological blow could be coming. Banks like Bank of America have already steadily been losing customers. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism noted months ago:

But BofA in particular has been suffering a slow bleed of depositors ... as angry consumers vote with their feet, making it more dependent on market funding than before. 

Bank of America's real financial troubles come from an ever-dropping stock price due to snowballing legal troubles, but the mass withdrawal of deposits won't exactly add to their public relations problems--even if they did just announce that they're reversing their plan to hit customers with a $5 monthly fee. 

And we've already seen 24 people arrested at a Citibank branch in New York City as they attempted to withdraw their money and close their accounts. November 5 has been called a “Move Your Money” day, when activists hope that people around the country will take their deposits out of the biggest banks and move them to local banks or credit unions. Of course, these banks have trillions at their disposal, so it'll take more than just people moving their money to really change them--but adding pressure from the consumer side to mounting pressure on politicians to actually pursue accountability could have some impact. 

All this anger at the banks has employees feeling the pressure; working for the financial industry is no longer seen as a career to brag about. "There was a period where you could put on the Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs sweatshirt and wear it to the beach," Brad Hintz, a bank analyst who previously worked at Lehman Brothers, the firm whose collapse kicked off the financial crisis several years ago, told the Chicago Tribune.

Now, of course, a Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs sweatshirt is something your bosses might warn you not to wear in public for fear of outrage.

Redefining the Terms of Debate

Executives like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, as well as politicians like House majority whip Eric Cantor, who have been solidly allied with the 1 percent, seem to be feeling enough fear to actually cause them to cancel public appearances.

Blankfein was scheduled to talk at Barnard College, the women's college associated with Columbia University in New York, as part of a lecture series called (no joke) “Power Talks.” But Blankfein canceled when Barnard students planned their own protests, according to the New York Times, called “School the Squid” (a reference to Matt Taibbi's now-infamous description of Goldman as a giant vampire squid). 

And Eric Cantor canceled an appearance at Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was scheduled (also no joke) to speak on the subject of income inequality. Cantor canceled when he learned the speech would be open to the public and that he might actually have to face some disagreement, rather than the “Wharton Community,” who later distinguished themselves by chanting “Get a job!” when the protest came to their campus despite Cantor's absence. Apparently business school isn't so good at explaining unemployment statistics.

While they still have power and influence far beyond that of the protesters in parks around the country, the wealthy and powerful are no longer able to completely control the terms of the debate. The media's normal ability to quote the powerful without feeling compelled to balance them with someone affected by their policies is negated somewhat by the power of a mass movement that provides all the quotes one could possibly need about the power of the wealthy and the impact of corporate greed.

Zaid Jilani at Think Progress noted that the occupiers seem to have successfully shifted the media narrative away from the Tea Party and Republican-determined obsession with deficits to the real economic crisis—jobs, jobs, unemployment, and jobs. He wrote, “It now appears that the resulting 99 Percent Movement has scored at least one victory: successfully re-framing media coverage onto the jobs crisis and real economy rather than trumped-up fears about the national debt or deficit.”

And bad publicity from police overreactions, from the Brooklyn Bridge arrests in New York to the rubber bullets and teargas used in Oakland, has led mayors and their police forces to promise to work with protesters rather than crack down on them, adding momentum to occupations and exercising some control over the police for the time being. From Albany to Cleveland, Oakland to New York, protesters are winning battles over their ability to claim and hold public space. 

Of course, the fear and pressure on the wealthy doesn't mean they're going to see reason--it's more likely that they'll double down,throwing more money at sympathetic politicians, investing more money in private security and public police departments, and fight back hard. 

Still, despite the fact that Goldman Sachs executives ignored the letters and the giant sign bobbing outside their window and are continuing business as usual, the occupiers appear to be winning the battle for the media, and as AlterNet's Lynn Parramore wrote, the battle for public opinion.

And the battle for public opinion, in a democracy, is still the most important one.

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Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.