At a moment when political minds are fixed anxiously on Washington, it’s useful to remember where the real power resides. In this election, wealthy corporations and individuals have shown yet again how they can purchase politicians and pervert the democratic process. Progressives have no choice but to try to counter these forces through massive ground operations at election time, but that doesn’t always work—and even when it does, the rigged game always begins anew the day after, with corporate lobbyists working their magic on many of the same officials progressives just knocked themselves out to elect. So why not take the fight to the businesses and billionaires who are pulling the strings?
That was, after all, Occupy Wall Street’s stroke of brilliance: frustrated by the government’s failure to rein in the financial sector, it targeted the industry itself with nonviolent protests. While Occupy’s forces have dispersed, the lesson has not been lost; in fact, it has been absorbed by several ongoing campaigns.
The spreading movement of “home defenders” is one example. As Mitt Romney and Barack Obama faced off in three debates that barely touched on the national crisis of foreclosures, union and community activists in Los Angeles rallied around Ana Casas Wilson, a disabled 50-year-old with breast cancer facing eviction because of late payments on the mortgage for her tiny house. Wilson claims she repeatedly tried to get the bank to renegotiate the loan—serviced by Wells Fargo, one of the biggest foreclosing banks in the country—but it refused. So the community activists who took up her cause put a face on her problem, that of Wells Fargo CFO Tim Sloan, by protesting last spring outside his $5 million San Marino mansion. Wells Fargo has said Wilson’s eviction will proceed, but the movement she inspired is just getting warmed up.
The activists’ decision to target Sloan was no accident. It’s part of a strategic effort by a coalition of groups—spanning the Occupy, labor, immigrant and environmental movements—to identify and pressure the top one-tenth of 1 percent who increasingly dominate American political and economic life. The idea, according to veteran labor organizer Stephen Lerner, is to force this tiny elite to “bargain directly with the people impacted by their decisions and policies.” Also in this coalition’s sights would be Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, who happens to sit on the board of Chevron, one of the world’s biggest polluters. What’s more, Wells Fargo backs the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, private prison firms that profit from the mass detention of immigrants. Tapping into the energy of the Occupy, student and immigrant movements, the National Prison Divestment Campaign has been pressuring Wells Fargo to sell off these holdings. In a possible sign of success, the campaign reports that on September 30, Wells Fargo and its subsidiaries dumped 75 percent of their aggregate holdings in the GEO Group.
On another front, the Rainforest Action Network just won a huge victory when, after a two-year campaign involving high-profile direct actions, the Walt Disney Company agreed to eliminate paper connected to the destruction of endangered rainforests and animals from its entire supply chain—affecting the operation of 25,000 factories in more than 100 countries, including 10,000 in China alone.
While elected officials can certainly help, such struggles are waged and won far outside Washington.
Gary Younge this week highlights the point “Where Elections End and Politics Begins.”