Hundreds of protesters turned out to the “Sounds of Resistance” rally held in New York City’s Union Square Park today. Fifteen groups, including Veterans for Peace, ItsOurEconomy.us, and US Uncut, organized the rally in order to bring attention to the economy, housing, healthcare, social justice and opposition to war, previously stalwart issues of the left that have now slipped from President Obama’s radar, according to the protest’s organizers.
Kevin Zeese, director of ItsOurEconomy.us, says the groups gathered to make three demands: corporations must pay their fair share in taxes, home foreclosures should be stopped immediately and the big banks must be broken up. While President Obama has at least paid lip service to the idea of rich people paying their fair share in taxes, the issue of home foreclosures has appeared to slip onto the backburners.
I asked Zeese why he thought Obama had stopped talking about foreclosures. “The banks own the place,” he says. “Going into an election year, you don’t want to have big finance and big banks against you.” President Obama’s re-election campaign is expected to cost $1 billion, and the president has a long tradition of accepting lavish donations from Wall Street.
Zeese believes the solution to the foreclosures could be as easy to implement for Congress as it was for representatives to approve shelling out tens of billions of dollars accountability-free to banks and financial firms. First, refinance mortgages so homeowners can slowly pay off their mortgages instead of paying nothing and then becoming destitute. Second, reconsider the values of homes in order to properly reflect their value and eliminate the problem of mortgages that cost more than the house.
“We’re not going to have a stable economy until we have a housing market that’s not ripping apart neighborhoods…. Every time a house is foreclosed on…it pulls down the property values further. We’ve got to get a floor on the housing market and the way to do that is to face up to the foreclosure issue, but I don’t see President Obama or the Republicans and Democrats in Congress doing that because big finance is too powerful,” says Zeese.
Dave Petrovich, executive director of the Society For Preservation of Continued Homeownership, agrees with that sentiment. “The president, and most of our lapdog Congress, are employees of the banking industry, so they’re not going to really discuss this unless it’s in their own financial self-interest.”
Bank of America was once again a central target of the protest since the company hasn’t paid a nickel in federal income taxes in the past two years and received a “income tax refund from hell” of $666 million for 2010. The protesters demand to know why a company that received $45 billion in taxpayer money during the bailout now gets to play by a different set of tax rules, while simultaneously paying out obscene bonuses to its CEO and kicking hardworking Americans out of their homes.
John Bales, a homeowner struggling paying his mortgage, is the victim of a Kafkaesque nightmare ordeal involving Bank of America. “About eighteen months ago, we called them up and asked to start the HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program, process.” It took the bank over six months to get the paperwork to Bales. He called them every two weeks to check on the status of the papers, and Bank of America representatives kept telling he had been added to the program. Finally, when Bales received the paperwork (over 100 pages), he was told he had a month to fill out and return them to the bank by fax. He filled out the papers, returned them to the bank, and ten days later was told he’d have to fill out more because some paperwork “went missing.”
In May, he submitted the same paperwork again, and in June the bank contacted him to say all of his papers were in order and they’d get back to him no later than July of 2010. Bales never heard back from BoA. He called the bank, and was told his name was still in the system, and he continued calling BoA to check on his status until October 2010 when an official called his home and said, “We’ve lost the paperwork. You need to resubmit it.” With Zen-like patience, Bales resubmitted the 100+ pages of paperwork, and was told he’d have his answer by December.
In February, a man named Freddy called him who Bales claims, “clearly had no idea what he was talking about.” Freddy demanded more paperwork, and Bales obliged, although the more he started to question the process, the more he realized "[Freddy] didn’t even know what he was receiving. He couldn’t even interpret it.” Hiring inexperienced lackeys to kick people out of their homes is a thoroughly documented tradition of the big banks who have used hair stylists, teens and Wal-Mart workers as “robo-signers” to rush through thousands of home foreclosures since 2007.
Finally, eighteen excruciating months after the process began, Bank of America called Bales to let him know he’d been rejected from HAMP. He had until April 10 to get in touch with a BoA official by phone, and thirty days to launch an appeal. It was then that Bales found out BoA was basing their approval or decline on a gross amount of income for Bales that was almost half of what he actually earns. Not that such details seem to matter. The bank decided Bales needed to be kicked out of his home, and so he was doomed to that fate from the beginning.
“There’s no one who takes seriously that this is your house,” says Bales. “You’ve lived here for fifteen or sixteen, years.… No one has that capacity. Everyone is anonymous."
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges also spoke at the rally. Beforehand, I asked him if he thinks acts of civil disobedience such as the Wisconsin union protests are the only paths of recourse Americans have left to fight for change. “There’s a moral imperative to carry them out,” says Hedges. “[I]f we don’t begin to physically defend the civil society, all resistance will be ceded to very proto-fascist movements such as the Tea Party that celebrate the gun culture, the language of violence, seek scapegoats for their misery.”
He calls the state of America an “anemic democracy,” and says it’s time for citizens to get off the Internet and occupy the streets because their leaders no longer represent them. Politicians have spoken incessantly about the need for shared sacrifice, when in fact they’re guarding a plutocracy that levies the burden of budget cuts on the shoulders of the poor. This is a system in which Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan gets a $9 million bonus while one in four American children survives on food stamps.
Hedges calls the idea of shared sacrifice farcical. “[Bank of America] sends out home invasion teams to throw Americans out of their homes through bank repossessions or foreclosures, and of course many of these people were given loans that the lenders knew they could never repay often under fraudulent conditions…and yet there has been absolutely no investigation—no criminal charges—brought against these corporations.”
We live in a corporate state, Hedges stresses, both in our interview and later when he takes the stage. “Not only the money but the wages and retirement benefits, $17 trillion worth have been robbed by these financial institutions. It’s repugnant.”
And the one in six Americans without a job aren’t the ones going to raise money to get President Obama re-elected. The money, Hedges says, will come from the corporate state, what he calls the “predators.” Hedges says President Obama serves their—not our—interests.
Obama’s most recent budget speech, in which he adopted some of the populist rhetoric about raising taxes on the wealthy, didn’t impress Hedges. After all, it was Obama who extended the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy. “To watch him sort of talk out of both sides of his mouth is a little disconcerting,” says Hedges. “I fear, like most people, that not only are we going to see an extension of those cuts, but they’ll be cemented into place permanently.” Like many in the liberal class, Hedges says, Obama “speaks in the rhetoric of traditional liberalism, but every action he takes defies the core values of the liberal tradition.”