This spring, in coordinated actions across the country, retirees who lost their pensions, families whose homes are underwater, students with impossible debt, the unemployed and underemployed, family farmers, immigrants, vets and more will be knocking on the doors of corporate boardrooms, holding CEOs of major American firms responsible for crashing the economy then turning their backs on their fellow Americans. With hundreds of shareholders on the inside and thousands of folks on the outside, the largest shareholder demonstrations in U.S. history are underway and spreading across the land.
Their goal is nothing short of transformational: to wrest control of our democracy back from the robber barons and CEOs that systematically block any effort to create an economy and a body politic that serves the needs of the vast majority of Americans and not the elite few.
Thousands Surround Wells Fargo and GE
To get things moving, National People’s Action (NPA) director George Goehl and nine other members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) went to a Wells Fargo office in downtown Des Moines with a simple, civilized request. They wanted to ask CEO John Stumpf to give a group of concerned shareholders a single hour of time at the annual shareholders meeting in San Francisco the next day.
Stumpf had no reply. Goehl and nine other peaceful protestors -- retirees, vets, and farmers -- refused to leave until they got one. All were arrested.
The next day, thousands of humans and one giant inflatable rat surrounded the Wells shareholder meeting in San Francisco. Shareholders had to be escorted in by police, hundreds of shareholders (including 100 clergy from across America) were barred from entry, but a few dozen representatives of the 99% got in. Occupy San Francisco played a major role in the effort and live-streamed the events all day long.
According to Maurice Weeks of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the protesters were asking Wells to increase principal forgiveness to aid families underwater or facing foreclosure; pay their fair share of taxes; stop financing payday lenders; stop all political lobbying; and divest stock in GEO Group Inc., a publicly-traded private-prison operation.
Ross Rhodes, 53, of San Francisco clutched his proxy shareholder letter with the hopes he could talk with Stumpf about his struggle to save his family's home of nearly 50 years from foreclosure, but hundreds were blocked from entering. Larry Ginter, who traveled all the way from Rhodes, Iowa, managed to get inside, but Stumpf would not yield.
Stumpf had the protesters arrested and carted away. Not a single remaining shareholder even squeaked as his $20 million dollar bonus package was approved. An estimated 24 people were arrested inside and outside the building.
The giant rat escaped the cuffs.
The next day, thousands arrived on the doorstep of General Electric to shine a light on the role GE has played in deepening the economic crisis for many by dodging its tax obligations. Shanie Smith from Chicago's south side said she was headed to Detroit because "GE is the biggest tax dodger in the United States," a claim supported by Citizens for Tax Justice data that pegs GE with an effective negative tax rate from 2008 through 2010. Because GE wasn’t paying its taxes, the state of Illinois was short some $200 million in revenue, says Smith, funds that could be used to put people to work or preserve critical public services in tough times.
Hundreds of shareholders on the inside had their say before they were escorted out by police.
Pulling Back the Curtain on Who Controls the Economy
According to Goehl, whose organization has been pounding the Obama administration for meaningful help for families in foreclosure, it's time to "scale up" to make the fight for a fair economy the mass movement it needs to be to get things done. "Government isn't the problem -- it's the prize. But right now it rests in the hands of corporations and it sits a trophy case down on Wall Street. We can go to the government and ask elected officials to address these issues or we can ask who is really in charge here? We think the corporations are in charge, so we need to go to the people behind the curtain, the people pulling the strings and tell them 'if you want to run our economy, if you want to run our democracy, you will need to deal with us directly.'"
Some 32 shareholder actions are planned. Next up: a diverse list of energy firms, banks and baddies like Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Sallie Mae (think student loans), Verizon, Wal-Mart, WellPoint, Occidental, Peabody Coal, and more. These and hundreds of smaller events scheduled for the coming weeks have been in planning for a year. Inspired by the Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy Wall Street actions, organizers have worked hard in an effort dubbed the "99% Spring" to train more than 45,000 people in America's long tradition of nonviolent direct action.
Trainings took place in church basements, community centers, big cities and small towns across America, and the focus was on direct action role-playing for the many who had never considered walking in Rosa Park's shoes. "There is no road to a fair economy and true democracy that does not include going toe to toe with abusive corporations," says Goehl.
Dupes for the Democrats?
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But the effort has generated a bit of controversy. While confronting corporate CEOs directly in boardrooms can be empowering for some, for others, a conspiracy lurks.
Anonymous bloggers and others have spent a lot of time detailing the "smoking gun" that the liberal online advocacy organization Move On provided internet support for the recent 99% Spring trainings, and tarred the entire 80 group coalition -- which includes small, feisty NOs as well as major unions and more mainstream groups -- as a front group for MoveOn.org and the Democratic Party. The raison d’etre of the spring actions, we are warned, is to "co-opt the Occupy movement and steal it as its own." The Nation magazine, Bill Moyers, Chris Hayes, and a raft of others are "in on the take."
The more likely -- and less interesting -- story is that these journalists had heard a lot about the planning for the shareholder actions over the course of the year and had long supported the groups involved.
Co-optation or Cross-Pollination?
For key groups like NPA and Iowa CCI, the "co-optation" critique is more than a bit ironic. The allied groups are made up of people on the front lines of the financial crisis, people facing foreclosure, immigrants fighting wage theft, and seniors fighting cuts in critical government services. In the early days of the financial crisis, they surrounded Ben Bernanke's house with hundreds of people, took over an American Bankers Association conference, organized a mass march on Wall Street, shut down K Street, crossed the moat at the JP Morgan Chase shareholder meeting, infiltrated the Mortgage Bankers Convention, and stood shoulder to shoulder with allies in the Occupy movement.
These groups don't have time for co-optation, but they are definitely interested in cross-pollination.
Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has been a leader in the 99% Spring actions, along with other groups specializing in direct action. RAN has worked well with Occupy forces in many cities on joint projects like "Occupy our Food Supply." What does RAN have to say about the critique that they are dupes for the Democrats?
RAN spokesperson Nell Greenberg just laughs, "People haven’t done their homework. Our message is about how our democracy has been bought and sold, so I don’t think the Democratic Party is going to pay for that one. In 26 years, RAN has never had any relationship with the Democratic Party. We are all about corporate campaigning."
The 99% Spring has many defenders in the Occupy movement. "These organizations are encouraging thousands of people to undergo direct action training, without any electioneering diluting that goal, despite the fact that we are six months out from a presidential election," Occupy the SEC's Alexis Goldstein told The Nation. "This is unprecedented, amazing, and shows that there is an important focus on trainings and education among groups that may have different strategies."
Sam Corbin has worked with Occupy since before it took Zucotti Park. She has also worked hard to make 99% Spring a success. As a trainer for the legendary Ruckus Society, her objective was to help people who were pissed off and fired up "access their own power and get involved in direct action." According to Sam, "a lot of Occupy folks facilitated spring trainings or were trained themselves." She found the trainings exciting because "people living in the same community got out of their silos and met each other for the first time." Because invitations went out from a broad array of groups, the result was "incredibly diverse groups of people eager to be trained" -- diverse racially, economically and age-wise. She thinks all the kibitzing "is irrelevant compared to thousands of people taking action."
In the trainings this reporter participated in, not a word was said about Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi, but a lot was said about the corporate capture of our democracy. An incredibly diverse crowd was inspired by a film showing many direct action triumphs through U.S. history, including the grape boycotts and farm worker marches of the 80's, the anti-globalization protests of the 90's, and the recent actions stopping the Keystone XL pipeline.
Long-time corporate campaigner John Sellers of "The Other 98%," who famously was held for $1 million in bail at the 2000 Republican National Convention, participated in many of the actions featured in the movie. He says the criticism of main stream groups like Move On is misplaced: "If we really want to be the 99%, we are going to need soccer moms out on the street taking action." From his perspective, "the fact that all these giant mainstream groups are now talking about how our democracy has been stolen from us is an incredible opportunity, not a problem." One wonders if there would be any controversy if it had been called the 98% Spring.
"Another World is Possible"
There are literally hundreds of grassroots anti-corporate actions planned for the spring, including General Strikes and May Day actions being planned by Occupy groups across the nation.
For those of us involved in the protests that brought the WTO to its knees in 1999 and stymied its expansion since, we are seeing something familiar and hopeful -- a remarkable convergence of diverse groups, who are borrowing language, tactics, strategies, targets, and inspiration from each other. The fact that labor and more main-stream groups are willing to learn something from today's young activists, shows that we have come a long way since Seattle.
Echoing through the urban canyons in San Francisco is a hopeful chant building on the "Another World is Possible" theme of the WTO protesters: "We are unstoppable, another world is possible."