In a brightly lit basement room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago tonight, Angel Seda was leading seven hundred people in a chant. "Tell me what you want, what you really want," he called. Hundreds of voices shouted back, "Our homes back!" "Tell me what you need, what you really need." "CFPA!"
Yep, you heard right, hundreds of people were chanting for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, a new oversight body Barack Obama has proposed that could ban such disastrous practices as no-doc mortgages, payday loans, and no-warning overdraft fees on checking accounts. (A bill to create the agency made it through the House Financial Services Committee last week). Wonky, sure, but vital, too, and it was both hilarious and inspiring to see a roomful of Iowa farmers and Kansas retirees and preachers and teachers and utility workers jumping to their feet at the sound of those magic letters. One woman from Wichita, Arnetta Jefferson, told me she herself was facing the loss of her home and described "house after house after house empty" in her community, all from foreclosures. "I'm tired of it," she said. CFPA! CFPA! CFPA!
It's been a year since the stock market crashed and Congress approved a $700 billion bailout for the very banks that made it happen, but populist anger has finally found its expression this week in Chicago.
"We had this image of big bankers sipping martinis and saying, 'Did we really get away with this?'" said lead organizer George Goehl, director of National People's Action. "Then two months ago we found out the American Bankers Association was having its annual meeting here in Chicago." The ABA, not so incidentally, has fiercely fought against new regulations on the banking industry, and is lobbying hard now against the CFPA. But National People's Action has been fighting predatory lending for decades, mostly recently busing in 400 people to ABA headquarters in Washington. Once NPA called the protest, dubbed The Showdown in Chicago, the labor movement quickly got on board, including rival factions Change to Win and the AFL-CIO. For the centerpiece action, a Tuesday march, Goehl says he's expecting at least 5,000. (Monday the protesters have planned a visit to Goldman Sachs.)
Rev. Eugene Barnes of Bloomington, Illinois, offered an emotional prayer against "money changers" and for the "ragtag band" before him. Farmer activist Larry Ginter of Des Moines, Iowa, got the crowd back on its feet with, "I know you can't raise corn on the streets of Chicago--but can you raise a little hell?" Even Senator Dick Durban stirred the crowd as he railed against loans with "tricks and traps that even a Wall Street lawyer can't explain." And the crowd clearly moved him, too. "One of the newsmen asked, 'Why are you here?'" he said quietly. "And I told him, 'I'm here because they're here.'"
Across the Chicago River at the Sheraton, the cocktails were flowing, but the mood was a little edgy. Security guards were checking badges with an ultraviolet light before letting anyone upstairs to the opening reception; imposing men from a private security firm roamed the lobby and the bar. John Hall, an ABA spokesman, told me the association's president had received death threats. I wandered about a bit with a Nation photographer, approaching a few bankers at the bar for a chat, reporters' notebook in hand, as we waited around for a rumored protest. Suddenly, we were surrounded by three large guards and an officer with the Chicago Police Department. Taking notes, they said, was a "suspicious activity." We might be scouting their security system for the activists or planning to "throw paint." We were held on one of the Sheraton's artfully upholstered couches until our press registration with the ABA was confirmed; the police officer demanded our IDs for an incident report. What, exactly, we wondered, was the incident?
Suddenly, outside, the sound of whistles. It was the protesters from the Hyatt, who'd showed up en masse, just outside the Sheraton entrance, holding up oversized effigies of Jamie Dimon (the CEO of JPMorgan Chase), John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) and Ken Lewis (Bank of America). While bankers and their wives drifted out of the hotel to waiting Lincoln Town Cars and the protesters boomed out more spirited and acronym-laden rhymes, I sidled up to one conference participant, Steve Mattingly of Wichita, Kansas, who makes and sells loans to small community banks. He was watching the festivities, cocktail glass in hand. "They told us to hide our badges when we went outside," he said, shrugging. "They're protesting the wrong people. Ninety percent of the banks in there are worth less than $500 million. These folks haven't been bailed out." But when I asked if these small bankers resented the too-big-to-fail banks and their high-flying CEOs, he demurred. The ABA represents large and small alike. Solidarity forever.