OWS and Responsible Banking

Since its beginnings in September, much commentary on Occupy Wall Street has focused on what, if any, coherent political platforms its participants espouse and on whether the movement will a) flame out, or b) get co-opted by the political establishment. But because the Occupy Wall Street protests remain pointedly non-programmatic and non-hierarchical, commentators have been able (or forced?) to treat them as a cipher with which to forward their own political agendas. As a result, there has been an inordinate amount of commentary telling the movement what it is, where it comes from, and what it should be doing. That said, one theme running through the Occupy protests has been a critique of the close relationships between the financial industry and government which, given the continuing foreclosure crisis across the country, has provided a potential object of attention for protestors, activists, and policy-makers to work together.

An example of this are the ‘responsible banking ordinances’ currently being debated in a number of cities. Such a municipal ordinance would evaluate financial institutions doing business with a city on a set of ‘social responsibility’ standards such as community development activity, foreclosure mitigation, minority in low-income and minority communities, and small business lending. The city would then use the data provided to evaluate or rank banks, and shift its business away from poorly-rated banks. While some cities such as Cleveland or Philadelphia already have this type of law on the books, policy debates are now underway in other cities as well, including Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

The links between Occupy protestors and policy-makers have been especially close in Los Angeles, where Council Member Richard Alarcón, who introduced a Responsible Banking Ordinance two years ago, has credited the Occupy L.A. movement with prodding the Council into active debate on a bill which had been stuck in committees. Alarcón, along with council member Bill Rosendahl, has directly linked the protests to the ordinance by introducing a resolution in October supporting the Occupy Los Angeles protests and recommending the Responsible Lending Ordinance be called up for a final Council vote.

Rosa Gudiel, a Los Angeles homeowner facing foreclosure and eviction, has been credited as a catalyst for local action. In fighting foreclosure proceedings started by OneWest Bank, the servicer of her loan, activists kept a vigil outside of the bank president’s home, protested in front of Fannie Mae’s Pasadena office, and surrounded Guidel’s house in an effort to stave off eviction. Soon after Guidel and others (including her 63-year old mother) were arrested at the Fannie Mae offices, she received notice from OneWest and Fannie Mae that eviction proceedings were being called off and that her loan terms would be modified.

This may be an example of how the Occupy protests have the potential to develop into a national movement with specific policy aims. Peter Dreier argues that the joining of Occupy protesters with unions and community organizations may point the way to the potential for a national movement for economic justice. Of course, some of the infrastructure for that movement already exists: Dreier notes that Guidel is a member both of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE, formed in the aftermath of ACORN’s collapse) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). To take one other (related) example: PICO National Network, made up of faith-based community organizations, has promoted responsible banking ordinances, and is a member of The New Bottom Line Coalition, a “a national campaign fueled by a coalition of community organizations, congregations, labor unions, and individuals working together to build a movement that challenges established big bank interests on behalf of struggling and middle-class communities” and which provides materials to those interested in organizing divestment campaigns in their communities. As 2011 ends and we slip into a presidential election year, there will undoubtedly be much more ink spilled on the ramifications of Occupy Wall Street on national electoral politics, but at the moment its political potency may be as much because it provides a frame within national networks can engage in local action.

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