Back at You, Glenn Beck

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The Nation

Back at You, Glenn Beck

As an organizer, I go to a lot of meetings, panels and discussions and often leave feeling like I’m caught in the movie Groundhog Day, where I am reliving the same discussions and debates over and over again, and wondering if they hold any relevance for anyone else. That’s why I was so surprised when my secretly taped comments about the need to challenge Wall Street and corporate power using direct action, delivered on March 19 at the Left Forum in New York City, set off a right-wing firestorm.

A funny thing happened on the way home from the forum. Overnight I was transformed by Glenn Beck into an all-powerful agent of “economic terrorism.” Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz called for a federal investigation of me, and right-wing blogs claimed that my comments revealed a vast conspiracy to take over the country and the economy.

What did I say that led Beck to spend two nights attacking me and defending big banks and Wall Street CEOs?

I think I may have found part of the answer in what disgraced former Wall Street stock analyst Henry Blodget admitted when he echoed Beck’s wild theories on Business Insider. Describing my remarks, he wrote, “Many Americans will undoubtedly sympathize with and support them.”

So that was it: Beck, right-wingers and Wall Street sympathizers went ballistic because they knew the ideas I talked about are far from being a secret leftist conspiracy; in fact, they’re in sync with the thinking of most Americans. In my talk, I raised a very simple yet powerful idea: that homeowners, students, citizens and workers should make the same practical decisions Wall Street and corporate CEOs make every day—they should reject bad financial deals.

Beck and Wall Street are terrified that regular Americans will begin to challenge the double standard that allows one set of rules for the rich and another for the rest of us. They are petrified of the growing understanding, among people of diverse political backgrounds, that our country isn’t broke; that the tiny elite at the top has manipulated the economic crisis it created to grow even richer and more powerful while the rest of us suffer the consequences; and that Wall Street and corporations, sitting on record profits, are holding the country hostage, essentially threatening a capital strike if they don’t get further tax and regulatory breaks.

As long as Wall Street and the superrich feel secure and confident, they have no reason to negotiate a fair deal with the rest of us. Only by creating uncertainty and instability for them—by disrupting unfair business as usual—can we build the strength to challenge their stranglehold on our economy and our democracy.

But I don’t think it was just my theorizing about power relationships and the economy that set off such a frenzy. It was the prospect that average Americans could take a series of concrete and practical steps, including direct action and civil disobedience, to make Wall Street pay for the trillions it stole from us. Ordinary Americans have the power and the opportunity to go on offense right now—with the immediate goals of keeping millions of people in their homes and raising revenue for cities and states to save jobs and critical services.

Here’s how we can start:

  • Homeowners and students can stop paying unfair debt. If growing numbers of homeowners and students organize toward a loan strike—threatening to refuse to pay their toxic mortgages and student loans unless banks agree to negotiate lower rates—it could force banks to modify loans and provide relief to our families.
     
  • Citizens can demand that our governments stop doing business with bandit banks. Local governments conduct trilliions in business with Wall Street banks. That leverage can be used to force the banks to pay their fair share in taxes, renegotiate high-cost deals that are bankrupting taxpayers with astronomical interest rates, and stop foreclosures by reducing mortgage principals.
     
  • Public employees can use their collective bargaining power to protect taxpayer dollars. Teachers, nurses and other public employees can go to the bargaining table armed with solutions that would save billions, like renegotiating the toxic interest rate swaps that are costing taxpayers at least $1.8 billion a year nationally. Swaps were supposed to save taxpayers money, but they backfired when the Federal Reserve cut interest rates after the financial crash to help the banks. Now, as taxpayers deal with devastating cuts, the banks are using these swaps to suck millions out of government coffers. Imagine public employees voting to strike in order to pressure the city or state to use its power to protect taxpayers and critical services while also stopping foreclosures and stabilizing the housing market and tax base.

So let’s give Wall Street, Glenn Beck and the right something to be scared about. It’s time to use our collective power to challenge the economic and political stranglehold they have on our country.

Join thousands of Americans on April 4 in cities across the country for a dramatic series of actions to stand up for the middle class. On April 5, join the national teach-in with Frances Piven and Cornel West. Or start organizing in your own community to challenge the power of Wall Street and corporate CEOs.

Stephen Lerner

Stephen Lerner serves on the Service Employees International Union’s International Executive Board and is the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign.

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