Rage, rage against the financial sector fuels protest

Michelle Singletary
Columnist October 8, 2011

When I first watched the Occupy Wall Street rallies in New York and around the country, I wondered whether folks carrying signs, camping out, holding up traffic and boycotting financial institutions could really make a difference.

The jaded part of me didn’t think the protesters could accomplish much, other than some media coverage. There wasn’t a clear leader for the movement. Their demands weren’t specific enough.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Yet the Occupy Wall Street campaign isn’t abating, and for good reason.

“The protests represent people’s frustration in dealing with big government, politics and big corporations that aren’t providing jobs, aren’t listening to us and who are nickel-and-diming us,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has expressed sympathy with those on the streets.

“They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington, and at some level I can’t blame them,” Bernanke told Congress’s Joint Economic Committee on Tuesday when he was asked what he thought of the movement.

President Obama also weighed in on the protests during his news conference Thursday.

There’s been “huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street,” he said.

Although some have criticized the movement for its lack of leadership and clear agenda, the protests do have a purpose, said Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine.

It was the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine that spurred the Occupy Wall Street campaign. It urged people to show up on Wall Street starting Sept. 17 and set up tents, kitchens and peaceful barricades and to stay for a few months.

“This movement at the moment is all about being angry and having rage,” Lasn said in an interview. “But in the next few weeks, as it is grows, it will become clear it’s a positive program about political and social change.”

Lasn said he hopes the next big protest will happen Oct. 29. The magazine is encouraging people to stage protests in capitals in the United States and cities abroad the weekend before the G-20 summit. The summit, a gathering of finance ministers and central bank governors from the 20 largest economies, is being held Nov. 3-4 in France. Lasn said that one demand protesters can unite behind is a global financial transaction levy dubbed the Robin Hood tax, which is intended to make the financial sector contribute to fixing the economic crisis it helped create.

“We want to get millions marching on Oct. 29,” Lasn said. “This could be the beginning of a whole new global future where we the people call the shots. I just hope it doesn’t align itself with the Democratic Party. I hope it stays aloof from the U.S. two-party system. It should become a real people’s movement.”

Throughout history, great change has evolved from small civil protests.

It took a Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man, to inspire the Montgomery bus boycott that eventually resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional.

Go even further back to the origins of the word boycott, and you’ll find the story of Irish tenant farmers who got tired of being taken advantage of by rich landowners. Charles C. Boycott, an English estate manager in Ireland, found himself in the middle of a game-changing protest. Despite a poor harvest, Boycott had refused to lower rents for the farmers. So local laborers in turn refused to work the land that Boycott was managing. Leading that protest was Charles Parnell, an Irish politician, who fought for the rights of the tenant farmers. Parnell advocated for peaceful protest, one in which workers ostracized the people behind unfair business practices.

Jean Ann Fox, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, said, “Policymakers are at risk of underestimating how fed up and angry consumers are with practices they think are unfair.”

Are you fed up? If so, you can find local Occupy Wall Street events at www.occupytogether.org, which says it’s the unofficial hub for those who want to take action against corporate greed.

Even if the protests wane, it’s still the beginning of something great, Lasn said.

I’m no longer jaded.

I’m excited that those most hurt by the dismal economy — the young, old, employed and unemployed — are marching, picketing and raising a ruckus against the financial sector that has morphed into too-big-to-fail institutions that have given little thought to how their actions could wreak havoc in people’s lives.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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