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Thousands March in 3-Day Showdown with Banking Industry

Tired of bailouts and fat paychecks for those that created the economic catastrophe, marchers made clear demands to tame an out-of-control financial system.

by Kari Lydersen

Workers gave pink slips to the country's top bankers Tuesday morning to culminate three days of protests, billed as the Showdown in Chicago, during the American Bankers' Association's annual meeting.

The march aimed "to enact significant financial reform to protect consumers and strengthen the American economy," according to the Showdown's Web site. ((Photo by Michael Juliano)) Bbefore a jeering and cheering crowd of 5,000 union members and activists, Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110 and a leader of the Republic Windows factory occupation last year, attached big, fluorescent pink slips to larger-than-life cutouts of retiring Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf and JP Morgan Chase CEO James Dimon.

The three CEOs were probably among the bank officials meeting in the Sheraton behind the stage that featured speeches by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Change to Win Chairwoman Anna Burger, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and workers and community leaders.

After "firing" the bank CEOs, Adam Kader of the workers group Arise Chicago presented a notice that the banks' $17.8 trillion "loan" in taxpayer-bailout funds is due since, he said, banks have not complied with the conditions placed on the handout by the people.

Tuesday's march and rally, like the previous two days of protest, featured individual stories of families and communities impacted by foreclosures, high interest rates and frozen credit markets sparked by the economic crisis and unrelieved by the various bank bailouts.

Along with decrying the financial deregulation that facilitated the economic crisis and the "corporate greed" exhibited in exorbitant bonuses and salaries for industry executives even after the bailout, protesters made several concrete demands.

They want a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), as proposed by the Obama administration, which would cover bank and non-bank financial services. They want financial industry regulation -- especially of the "shadow markets" largely blamed for causing the economic crisis -- and limits on executive compensation.

They want a moratorium on foreclosures and the loosening of credit at low interest rates to help pay student loans, let people stay in their homes and protect small businesses and the jobs they offer. And they want banks to extend credit and lower interest rates to help ease the crunches in state budgets that have led to social programs being slashed and jobs gutted nationwide.

On Monday, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairwoman Sheila Bair addressed protesters and voiced support for the CFPA.

"I strongly support this agency, yes I do; we need it," she said. "Looking at indecipherable credit card statements and documents and mortgages you can't understand and APRs and payday loans and high overdraft fees, I don't see how anybody can say we've done a good job of protecting consumers of financial services ... we need this new agency.

"The absence of a national standard was a contributing factor to our current economic turmoil," she said and promised the CFPA would for the first time examine the non-bank "shadow sector" of the financial services industry. She also called for doing away with the "too-big-to-fail doctrine," saying "no more bailouts, no more bailouts."

The ABA's Web site says that since the fall of 2008 it has also supported stepped-up financial regulation, including the regulation of non-banks, the revision of "too-big-to-fail" policies and the development of a systemic risk regulator. But regardless of its promises for the future, protesters said the banking industry needs to take action now to help solve the problems they have created.

Child care provider Angenita Tanner told the crowd how she's in danger of losing her business and her livelihood, and her clients losing their child care, because of state budget cuts endangering the subsidized program.

"Families have asked me to barter, and now they pay me in food instead of money," she said.

An SEIU janitor, Maria Guerra, told the crowd how she has felt squeezed from both ends by JP Morgan Chase bank -- blaming it for helping cause the economic crisis, then refusing to help her family even after it received $45 billion in bailout funds.

"My job is not the best, but I used to feel lucky because I could save enough to buy a house," she said.

Guerra cosigned her brother-in-law's mortgage with Chase, and after he lost his job, and then his unemployment benefits ran out, his house went into foreclosure.

"Chase didn't want to help us," she said. "They always had an excuse. After months of paperwork, they told us we didn't qualify for help. How could we not qualify? My brother (in law) lost his job because of the bad economy caused by the banks."

They tried to sell the home, but couldn't find a buyer. "Now we have filled out paperwork to voluntarily give the house to Chase," she said.

Now her own credit is shot, and she worries about losing her home, which she bought with a $50,000 down-payment but has now plummeted in value.

"I don't know what will happen to my family," she said.

Denise Dixon, executive director of the group Action Now, noted that the crisis has disproportionately affected urban communities of color already stressed by violence, poverty and disinvestment. She said the crisis has "caused the largest transfer of wealth the African American community has ever seen," and described families all over the country sitting on eggshells knowing any knock at the door could be an eviction notice.

She read off a "roll call" of Chicago neighborhoods slammed by foreclosures, with nearly a thousand since 2007 in even upscale neighborhoods like Near North and 1,500 to more than 2,000 in largely African American south and west side neighborhoods. In all, Chicago has suffered 44,091 foreclosures and the nation more than 5 million since the economic crisis began.

Protest leaders also noted that every 13 seconds a home goes into foreclosure; that 6 million jobs have been lost since the beginning of the crisis; that homeowners have lost $6 trillion in home value and local governments up to $58 billion in property taxes, thanks to plummeting home values. Not to mention "skyrocketing bank and credit card fees" and "vanishing pensions and 401(k)s

Trumka called for "cleaning up Wall Street's reeking garbage that is contaminating Main Street," in part by reforming the Federal Reserve or "asking the Federal Reserve to step aside to have a real public agency to protect the public from the banks and the bankers."

"We didn't put you back in business so you could pay billions in bonuses to the suits," said Trumka. "Or to lobby on Capitol Hill to fight the financial reforms we so badly need ... you treated the money we worked so hard to earn like Monopoly money."

Marchers seemed to all have personal stories of foreclosure, job loss or struggling to pay for health care. Helen Scott Owens, an 80-year-old home-care worker and SEIU member, said she fears for her job because of state budget cuts and her clients have trouble affording medical co-payments.

Pastor John Kyles said his south side parishioners live in constant fear of foreclosure.

Joe Losbaker, chief steward for the SEIU local at the University of Illinois at Chicago, placed the blame on the government more than banks.

"The bankers can't really do anything," he said. "I want to see the government stop bailing them out. They've given trillions to the banks and the war in Iraq. How about a trillion for jobs, food, schools and a moratorium on foreclosures."

Protesters hung banners off bridges and out a window of the Sheraton hotel. They crashed a "Roaring '20s" cocktail party and the ABA ball, calling the Roaring '20s theme especially ironic. Speakers and marchers decried the luxurious food and accommodations they are sure the bankers were enjoying during the conference.

"Before they got here, they spent $35 million lobbying Congress to protect life the way it is, where they take everything and we get the crumbs," said Change to Win Chairwoman Anna Burger. "Then they come to Chicago to celebrate what a good job they did."

Marchers had mixed opinions on whether the bankers inside the conference were actually listening to the demands outside. Owens, the home-care worker, thought so.

"They don't want to listen to us, but they have to," she said. "We're too loud."

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