On Bank of America, Occupy Wall Street Has Told You So

“What’s going on today, guys?” asked Detective Rick Lee, or, as he’s more widely known, Hipster Cop. I was standing outside the World Financial Center with Allison Kilkenny of Citizen Radio, The Nation and In These Times, and we had just been hoping he could answer the same question. There, behind us, stood roughly one hundred protesters with placards condemning Bank of America; behind him, there stood nearly fifty police officers. I asked him just how many cops the department had deployed. “The usual,” Lee responded. “Got to prepare for the worst.”

Oddly, that is also what the protesters had come to communicate. “The worst,” in Lee’s mind, was probably riots. In the occupiers’ minds, “the worst” was another financial meltdown, triggering another bailout, triggering more austerity, triggering worse conditions – this time instigated by Bank of America becoming insolvent. Occupy Wall Street has shown absolutely no interest in rioting, but big banks have definitely run out of money in the recent past, and all indications are that Bank of America threatens to join them soon.

Still, everyone in a position of authority regarded the protesters as the suspicious party, the World Financial Center shutting down all its bathrooms. Asked why, a high-ranking security guard responded, “The pipes. They’re working on it right now.” I’m no plumber, but this struck me as dubious. Closer to my expectations were the confessions of another security guard. “Emergency lockdown,” he told me. The occupiers, he was told, were “going to come in and destroy the place.”

In fact, the protesters had gathered Thursday to “Fight BAC,” the letters representing Bank of America on stock tickers. The flier organizers distributed mirrored many of the points raised in Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article “Bank of America: Too Crooked to Fail,” published the day before the protest. According to the flier:

“There are two things every American needs to know about Bank of America (BAC). The first is that it’s corrupt. The bank has systematically defrauded almost everyone with whom it has a significant business relationship, cheating investors, insurers, homeowners, shareholders, depositors, and the state. It is a giant, raging hurricane of theft and fraud, spinning its way through America and leaving a massive trail of wiped-out retirees and foreclosed-upon families in its wake.

“The second is that all of us, as taxpayers, are keeping that hurricane raging. Bank of America is not just a private company that systematically steals from American citizens, it’s a de facto ward of the state that depends heavily upon public support to stay in business. In fact, without the continued generosity of us taxpayers, and the extraordinary indulgence of our regulators and elected officials, this company long ago would have been swallowed up by scandal, mismanagement, prosecution and litigation, and gone out of business.”

As much as Occupy Wall Street has been portrayed as a response to the last financial crisis, it was clear Thursday that the group’s goal now was to warn against the problems likely to spark the next one. “Section 121 [of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act] gives the Federal Reserve the power to break up any systemically risky institution,” said Alexis Goldstein, a former Wall Street employee and member of the Occupy The SEC Working Group. Public Citizen has issued a formal petition to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), asking that this power be applied to Bank of America.

Frequently, over the course of Thursday’s action, protesters reminded the cops that they were themselves advocating for heavy policing, just of fraud and corruption, rather than dissent. “I’ve had enough of this shit,” one cop, in a suit, said to another, in his blues. “I’ve really had enough. Should have been done September 18th.”

The police were very careful to block all entrances to Goldman Sachs’ global headquarters, which the march’s route passed. As always, they caught an earful from the protesters whose point they were demonstrating. “Your back is turned to the real crooks,” one protester harangued. Another piped up, “You should be protecting us from them, not protecting them from us.”

But, of course, Goldman Sachs was under no threat from the protesters, who were headed, as all their signage indicated, to Bank of America. There, occupiers unloaded dozens of pieces of furniture from trucks they’d rented in New Jersey – couches, a desk, a flat-screen television. The same group had previously set up a living room in a Bank of America lobby, but this time, they could only set it up outside the branch, as the police were already descending on the group. Capt. Edward Winski barked, “Grab the driver of that truck!” and officers moved in to clear out the protest, shoving a woman with an expensive video camera to the ground – the woman asked not to be identified.

Around one hundred protesters danced and chanted, separated by a police line of 47 officers, from the handful who were placed under arrest for sitting on the couches. I shouted over the police line to ask Max Berger, one of those arrested, if he’d like to comment. He shook his head, but then grinned and shouted back, “It’s bullshit.”

The group departed for Zuccotti Park, where chants of “Spring is coming” rang out a warning. NATO and G8 summits (now separate), May Day, the potential rollout of indictments by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of the financial sector, a shaky outlook for Greece and the euro and ominous signs for Bank of America – that is the spring the occupiers were chanting about.

A girl of maybe 11 exclaimed to her family as they passed, “Occupy Wall Street! I did an essay on that!”