Last September, I was at some off-the-record Washington dinner and happened to be at the table of a Democratic Congressman. He'd just gotten back from recess in his district, where he'd been subjected to the full Tea Party treatment. As he described the rage he'd witnessed, it was clear he was spooked. I remember thinking he was more scared of voting for the healthcare bill than he was of voting against it, and that was going to be a problem.
I thought about that Congressman this past Sunday as I watched more than 700 protesters from National People's Action gather on the front lawn at the home of Gregory Baer, deputy counsel for the Bank Regulatory and Public Policy Group at Bank of America. NPA was coming from the other end of the spectrum from the Tea Party, and was there to demand a meeting with Baer's boss, the bank's CEO, Brian Moynihan. They were black and brown and white, senior citizens and little kids sitting on shoulders and lots of teenagers. They had bullhorns and signs and chanted "Bank of America! Bad for America!" (which, I promise, sounds better as a chant than it reads on the page). To hush the crowd, organizers would raise their clenched fists, and instantly it would fall silent. This was disciplined bedlam: like some crazy hybrid of a hip-hop show and a picket line.
At first, it appeared that Baer was not home. But then one of his neighbors pointed him out, sitting in his car anonymously watching the proceedings. Once identified, Baer darted up his driveway and into his house, as the crowd chanted, "Shame! Shame!" He refused to meet or speak with the small leadership team or to call his boss to ask for a meeting.
I'm dispositionally inclined to cringe at actions like this: I don't like conflict; I feel bad for the dude who's having his Sunday ruined. But I got over that real quick when Trenda Kennedy of Springfield, Illinois, took the bullhorn on Baer's steps. "In America, every seven seconds one of our homes goes into foreclosure," she said. "My home is one of those!"
After losing her job in 2008, Kennedy fell behind on her payments, and last summer Bank of America foreclosed on her home. "Last November," Kennedy said, "my 20-year-old son died...tragically in a car accident. Thirty minutes after the coroner left, I got a phone call from Annette at Bank of America. I told her about the tragedy that had just happened to our family. Annette did not offer her condolences. Instead she said, This call is from a debt collector, and it may be recorded or monitored."
Sunday wasn't the first direct action NPA and its allies have undertaken, and it wasn't the last. The next day, as part of the "Showdown on K Street," activists stalled traffic on K Street and entered the office of Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta. A hundred people from a Massachusetts group called the Alliance to Develop Power occupied Senator Scott Brown's office after his staffers had ignored repeated requests for a meeting to discuss foreclosures and financial reform. All of this is part of a nationwide series of direct actions called "Showdown in America," spearheaded by NPA, the People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) network and the Service Employees International (SEIU). The campaign aims to dismantle the entire Wall Street–Washington corporatist axis, which gave us the financial crisis, the bailouts and 7 million foreclosures since 2008, a million of which have ended in repossession.
It's about damn time. We have witnessed the greatest implosion of American capitalism in nearly a century, and the only grassroots movement the cataclysm seems to have birthed is a right-wing populist backlash. When the country suffered a trauma that massively discredited the establishment rulers, the Democratic Party became the establishment. And progressive groups in DC, under stern White House orders not to cause trouble (don't show up at his door! he's a donor! we might nominate him for something!), descended into what one organizer calls "grotesque transactionalism."
"Showdown in America" is a rebuke to that tactic. Choosing direct action does not mean abandoning legislative mobilization, but it articulates a broader vision than just support for this or that amendment. "Now is not a time for tinkering," said NPA's executive director, George Goehl, at the organization's conference earlier that day. "We're not here to eke out a few victories along the margins. To make suffering a little less worse for people.... The brutal facts are that we cannot begin to build an economy for all of us when we have a democracy that works only for corporations and members of Congress."
If we're going to get reform on the scale we need, bank lobbyists and members of Congress alike have to be confronted with the terrifying thought that the system from which they profit might just be run over—that 700 angry protesters might show up on their lawn any given Sunday.