Wanda Hernandez of NYC AIDS Housing Network was on the podium at the 10,000-strong march on Wall Street April 29 saying, “We didn’t screw up the economy – they did. But me and my community have to pay the consequences. Some don’t so that’s why we demand that Wall Street pay their fair share in taxes!” The people were crowded in City Hall Park under the shadow of the financial district not just to chant down Babylon, but also to demand that Congress not bow to Wall Street pressure and instead enact strong regulations of Wall Street so that it can’t wantonly destroy jobs.
Because that is what just happened, as AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka, along with his fellow speakers, made clear:
“Our lives and our livelihoods are all bound together,” he said. “We are one country! When greed runs amok on Wall Street it means lost jobs and shut stores on Main Street. We need to go back to basics where good jobs, not bad debts drive our growth, an economy where Wall Street is the servant, not the master of Main Street.”
He put a number on the carnage. “Eight million jobs destroyed and 3 million more never created – that’s the price of greed.”
White and black electrical and construction workers “benched” by the economic crisis, sometimes accompanied by their wives, walked side by side with African-American and Latino tenants fighting against the speculative Milbank company, which, backed by loans from Wells Fargo, tried to push them out of their apartments, and then went belly up when it couldn’t go on burdened by huge debt. An architect and mother, who hadn’t had a client in months, marched next to union teachers facing layoffs since their states won’t raise taxes on the wealthy to make up the hole created by the drop in tax revenues caused by the economic crisis. The wide-ranging coalition, including not just AFL-CIO unions and SEIU, but community organizations, National People’s Action, the NAACP and congregations, gave face to all the ways the speculative frenzy driven by inadequate regulation destroyed people’s homes and jobs.
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Brooklyn’s Kolot Chayeinu recounted the demands made on the congregation’s self-help fund, contributing to the rent of one unemployed congregant, and the school fees of another. But such aid, she said, cannot handle the scale of the crisis.
As all speakers made clear, the solution is not to go back to the way it was before the crash. The economy must be remade so that the balance between Wall Street and the rest of the economy is recast, the wealthy pay at least the same proportion of their income in taxes as the rest of America, destabilizing speculation gets dampened down with a tax that helps rebuild the economy so that it rests on green technologies and gives the chance of middle class – union – jobs for all. Those leftover TARP bailout funds should go to community banks that actually loan to businesses, Trumka said.
The traces of a grand, new, populist coalition were visible on Wall Street. The rally gives organizers nationwide their political marching orders, to move beyond their own community struggles to weave a common understanding and program to, as one poster read, “reclaim our democracy” from the present day robber barons.
The first populist coalition, bringing together farmers devastated by the banking system of the 1880s and ’90s and workers struggling for an eight-hour day and living wages, sent 35,000 speakers to travel the country and educate Americans about economic alternatives. The system can change, they said, and Kansas’ populists sent a senator and five out of a seven-person Congressional delegation to Washington to try to wrestle the economy to some sanity. While their most radical proposals – to wipe out the foreclosure system, nationalize the railroads, dismantle national banks and have government provide direct loans – did not succeed, the next generation embraced their demands for a progressive income tax and a more rational regulation of the money supply. And they created a language of hope to carry on even though the political system is broken.
“The divine right of capital will fade away like the mists of the morning when the Angel of Liberty shall kindle the fires of justice in the hearts of men,” said Mary Elizabeth Lease in 1890. “No more millionaires and no more paupers; no more gold kings, silver kings, and oil kings and no more little waifs of humanity starving for a crust of bread.”
Trumka did not issue a call to dismantle national banks and dissolve the power of Wall Street. His goals for reform seem modest. Our fates are tied with Wall Street, he said. Yet, even so, the challenge to achieve even these modest changes feel insurmountable in an increasingly financialized economy, where Wall Street captures the lion’s share of America’s profits and uses them to ensure Washington keeps it that way.
“Forty years ago, our real economy grew better with a financial sector that received one-twentieth as large a percentage of total profits (2%) than does the current financial sector (40%),” wrote economist William K. Black.
Can we change this scenario? While people were marching down Broadway, the US Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had just interrogated Goldman Sach’s chief executive. But as a new study by the Center for Responsive Politics shows, the committee’s ten senators “have together received more than a half-million dollars in total campaign contributions from a combination of Goldman Sachs’ political action committee and its employees and their families.”
Ben Jealous, the new president of the NAACP, assured the marchers, “They think that they can buy our country because they have the most organized money. But we have the most organized people.”
Not yet, but we do have a blueprint for action. Let’s use it.