The first thing that strikes you when you listen to George Goehl’s voice is its bass timbre. It’s a large voice, deep, resonant. It’s a voice one can imagine belting out opera arias. The owner of such a voice, one divines, has heft. Perhaps he is even slightly corpulent.
But Goehl, the 43-year-old executive director of the direct-action organizing group National People’s Action (NPA), doesn’t fit that profile. Medium-height and rake-thin, his hair a mussed dark brown, skin creases just starting to stretch down from nose to mouth, skinny legs highlighted by tight blue jeans, he seems disconcertingly fragile. This apparent fragility makes his voice stand out all the more. Only his eyes, steely gray, unblinking, match the intensity. He looks, in many ways, like a young Mick Jagger. (Perhaps appropriately, he plays bluegrass on his banjo to relax.)
Goehl is as comfortable talking to small, informal gatherings as he is revving up large, agitated crowds. When he speaks, people describe him as compelling, even hypnotic. Des Moines activist Hugh Espey, who first met Goehl at an organizing event on foreclosures in Chicago, recalls that “he communicated electricity; he had everybody’s attention.” Goehl’s friend Ai-Jen Poo, who directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance and has emerged as one of the highest-profile organizers in the country, calls him a “visionary” with a stirring ability to explain to ordinary people the parameters of “the corporate takeover of our lives.”
When he starts talking about corporate power, Goehl can get mad as hell. He doesn’t like the fact that banks screwed millions of homeowners by hawking bad loans and then turned a portion of their “toxic” profits around by spending the money to buy ever more political influence. He doesn’t like the fact that the banks got bailed out by taxpayers without being required to modify large numbers of loans or work out ways to protect communities from tsunamis of foreclosures and evictions. And he doesn’t like the fact that in the worst economic crisis in more than three-quarters of a century, the wealthy continue to accumulate wealth while services for the poor continue to deteriorate.
He’s not merely angry, though. Thinking big to tackle such deeply entrenched problems, Goehl continually urges transformative change even when there’s no easy way to finance or staff the campaigns. “He’s able to look over the horizon to where we need to get to, and he doesn’t just focus on what’s doable right now,” explains Stephen Lerner, a longtime union organizer with Justice for Janitors. There’s an optimism to Goehl’s politics, an inherent belief that if his ideas are good enough, a strategy will emerge to bring them to the fore.
It’s for that reason that NPA punches above its weight. The group has established affiliates in fourteen states, but it remains a small organization with a minuscule budget. Nevertheless, it has become a powerful force for economic justice in America. Since the calamitous events of 2008, Goehl has pushed the group to the forefront of national discussions about how to hold corporations accountable for the foreclosure crisis, how to regulate banks, how to restructure tax codes to promote fairness, how to put the long-term unemployed back to work. He hopes that NPA and other like-minded groups can serve as a necessary voice of conscience during Obama’s second term. “We do our values and quite likely do him [Obama] a favor if we hold him accountable,” explains Goehl. “Hopefully in a much different way than we did the last four years.”
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George Goehl grew up in rural southern Indiana. In his teens, he moved to Bloomington, talented but alienated. He played a lot of basketball, pissed around enough to reduce his high school GPA to 1.8, and ended up homeless and eating meals at a soup kitchen. A friend of his killed himself and left a suicide note for George. As George recalls it, the friend told him, “You’re talented; do something.” It was a wakeup call.
Shortly afterward, while washing dishes at a food pantry and living in a trailer with two electric outlets and no running water, he met an Armenian theater director. He accepted an invitation to join the man’s amateur acting company and found himself looking to move his life in a more productive direction. “Long story short, I got my act together in this kitchen,” Goehl says. He began working on poverty issues, read Saul Alinsky and, within a few years, became a full-time organizer in Indianapolis.
In the late 1990s Goehl attended a conference arranged by National People’s Action, where he talked powerfully about his work in Indianapolis. Afterward he immediately found himself being wooed by an NPA member from Chicago. Before the conference was over, the organizer told Goehl that NPA was interested in hiring him. Sure enough, a few days later the young man was doing organizing work on Chicago’s tough West Side. “The first door I knocked on, she said, ‘Oh, my brother just got killed last week in a drive-by shooting,’” he recalls. “No amount of training can prepare you for that.”
Talk to people in the know about the Occupy movement, and they will tell you that Goehl is one of its intellectual gurus. Years before Occupiers took over public spaces in cities across America, Goehl was organizing direct actions against banks through his New Bottom Line campaign. And at the start of the Occupy era, when the Mortgage Bankers Association met in Chicago in October 2011, Goehl mobilized people from around the country, many of them farmers, to come and voice their anger. NPA supporters have bought shares in companies so that they can legitimately turn up at shareholder meetings, where they confront CEOs such as JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan. They have accused Bank of America of operating 371 tax shelters, and they have asked why the bank finances predatory payday lending companies.
Likewise, people affiliated with the 99 Percent Spring will tell you that Goehl was one of the four or five people who made it happen. Launched in April to protest economic injustice in America, the civil disobedience movement has trained tens of thousands of Americans in nonviolent, direct-action responses to corporate power, as well as in how to talk to neighbors and friends about economic inequality and a new economic vision for the country. Goehl’s guiding principle: “People in, and money out.” It is, he told PBS’s Bill Moyers in March, “a movement of truth-tellers,” people who are “going out and putting their bodies on the line in the name of a new economy.”
True to his word, Goehl is not afraid to get arrested. Last April, when he and others showed up to speak about foreclosures at a Wells Fargo shareholder meeting in Des Moines, they were locked out of the building. When they tried to hold an impromptu rally outside, they were arrested and carted off to jail. On another occasion, when Goehl and fellow activists protested outside the JPMorgan Chase headquarters, mounted police broke up the crowd.
“We ask to meet with people like Jamie Dimon,” explains Barb Kalbach, an Iowa farmer-cum-activist. “They ignore us, like we are riffraff. That’s when we go forward.”
An array of progressive groups—including the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees International Union, Progressive Democrats of America and Greenpeace—joined with NPA in the 99 Percent Spring actions. Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party did not explicitly endorse the campaign, even though many of its legislators sympathized with the strategy. Perhaps more surprisingly, a columnist for the radical journal Counterpunch denounced the movement as “another calculated and carefully planned MoveOn.org front group” set up to co-opt and denude the energy of a growing left-wing economic radicalism in the country.
That sort of critique may resonate with a certain set of leftists who have become disenchanted with mainstream progressivism, but when it’s aimed at Goehl it simply doesn’t line up with the facts. Over the past four years, he has become increasingly suspicious of band-aid reforms and has laid out a comprehensive agenda for transformational change.
One of the most promising reforms Goehl is pushing for is a financial transaction tax, ranging from 0.25 percent to 2 percent, which could bring in several hundred billion dollars per year in revenue and could serve as the basis for massive investments to improve the lives of millions of insecure Americans. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” he argues, one he hopes will become so popular on Main Street that politicians in hock to big business will have an increasingly hard time justifying their opposition to it.
The tax would be levied on all financial trades–stock purchases, bond buying and so on. The idea has the support of many progressive economists and a growing number of progressive politicians. In Congress, Oregon’s Pete DeFazio has been pushing such a measure in recent years. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has also been extolling its benefits.
In addition to a financial transaction tax, Goehl is advocating for an increased emphasis on worker-owned companies as an alternative to layoffs and bankruptcies. He also wants government to nurture local, small-scale businesses. And he believes more states should develop state banks (modeled on the one in North Dakota), which could invest in vital infrastructure projects.
“What’s below the iceberg?” he asks audiences. By which he means: Consider how much rot we see in the business and political worlds these days, and imagine how much more is hidden from view.
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Goehl is sitting at a Formica table in the conference room of his poky office on Milwaukee Avenue, just north of Chicago’s Loop. The walls are crammed with organizing posters. Political democracy and economic democracy go hand in hand, he explains. As Sinatra sang, you simply can’t have one without the other.
That’s why NPA is pushing for systemic changes in the housing market, advocating for more “social housing,” for the “right of return” of residents from urban redevelopment projects who have been ousted from homes because of foreclosures and evictions. It’s why the group advocates for immigration reform and for dramatically ramped-up enforcement actions against employers who steal wages from workers or otherwise abuse their employees. It’s why NPA urges an “offensive position,” in place of a continually defensive posture from progressives, on revenue raising to fund basic public sector services.
What would constitute success? “Taking over!” Goehl’s friend Hugh Espey says with a laugh. It sounds either naïve or power hungry. Then again, somebody’s got to be the big kahuna.
Goehl himself wants his ideas to circulate widely, but he has no ambitions to run for elected office. Rather, he wants the values and ideas developed by groups such as NPA to be taken seriously in the nation’s political debates. Why not fight for an “economy that works for a lot more people, where there’s more locally owned, democratically owned capital, broad distribution of ownership?” he asks. “That means more people are making decisions that make the economy go forward. Much less income inequality. A democracy truly by, of and for the people, where more people are sharing in the wealth we are creating. We want to get as close to the Promised Land as we can: justice for all.”
Goehl smiles, a curling, big-lip smile that, again, brings to mind Mick Jagger. “I’ve got pretty big dreams,” he says. “I can’t imagine not figuring out how to fix things.”
In the current issue of The Nation, John Cavanagh and Robin Broad advocate for a new, progressive economy.