When Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s bailout plan crashed to defeat Monday in the House of Representatives, many observers believed the flood of angry phone calls and e-mails from voters helped galvanize politicians from left and right to oppose the measure. What comes after this populist uprising, however, depends a great deal on just how voter anger will be mobilized.
A cluster of progressive organizations–ranging from Code Pink, whose members took to the steps of the Capitol, to ACORN, the low-income advocacy group, which is planning a national day of protest on October 1–have been working to channel voter discontent at the $700 billion Wall Street bailout into a progressive push for a bailout for Main Street.
This snowballing dissent has taken shape, in part, around the Wall Street Project of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coaliton. Jackson came to The Nation‘s offices September 22, as the financial crisis was unfolding, and called for a protest of "any plan to bail out Wall Street while not bailing urban America, rural America and the poor."
I followed Jackson that day to Broad Street and Exchange Place, the belly of the financial beast, for a press conference organized by the Wall Street Project. Joined by Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP, Danny Schechter, founder of Mediachannel.org and Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World, Jackson blasted any economic rescue plan that does not hold Wall Street moguls accountable and refuses to help ordinary families hurt by the mortgage crisis.
"We are going to march on Federal Reserve banks throughout the country," Jackson promised.
Speaking before the rally, Jackson acknowledged the haste with which progressives must bring together a collective voice as the financial crisis came to a head so suddenly. "This thing just really hit us on Saturday," he said. "We’ve had to act real fast to form leadership."
Jackson was back at that same lower Manhattan corner sooner than expected, on September 25, this time surrounded by a chanting throng of union members on their lunch break. The Central Labor Council (CLC) of New York City–representing 400 labor organizations, from the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)–put out a call to every local in the New York area.
"E-mail is a wonderful thing," said Nola Brooker, assistant director of the professional division of AFSCME’s District Council 37. "All fifty-six locals in our building got the message yesterday. We e-mailed it to all our staff. And look, it seems like 700 or 800 people out here."
After the protest, Carolyn Daly, a representative of the CLC said she was hearing it was more like 1,000 people. "And you’ve got to realize," she added. "We gave these workers only twenty-three hours notice."
Like Jackson, union organizers are trying to keep up with a fleeting window for protest. They see each new rally against the bailout proposal as a call for more national action.
"John Sweeny, national director of AFLCIO was at our rally today," said Ed Ott, the executive director of the NYC CLC. "You can’t believe the feedback we’ve gotten already from around the country. A guy from the San Francisco labor council happened to be in New York and he was calling back saying, ‘We gotta do the same thing.’"
Four hours later, beginning at Bowling Green Park and leading to a march on Wall Street, a group with far fewer hard hats staged their own impromptu rally, without the benefit of union chiefs or charismatic religious leaders. They relied instead on spirited signs like "Bailout shmailout, let’em rot!"
The "un-organizer" of this event was journalist Arun Gupta, of the New York Indypendent. He had watched TV coverage of Paulson asking for $700 billion and complete control of the economy, got mad and sent an e-mail out to some friends that included lines like: "They said providing healthcare for 9 million children, perhaps costing $6 billion a year, was too expensive, but there’s evidently no sum of money large enough to sate the Wall Street pigs."
As people sent Gupta’s fiery language around, larger progressive groups picked up on the message. Leaders from Code Pink, True Majority and United for Peace and Justice heeded the call and not only showed up at Bowling Green–with what Gupta estimated to be 2,000 others–but put the word out to members through their websites.
On September 25, David Elliot, communications director of US Action and True Majority, reported 251 protests in forty-two states. While the angry New Yorkers screamed, "Bailout, BS!" at stock brokers leaving work, people in places like Muskogee, Oklahoma, were out in the streets, too.
Gupta had tapped into a well of anger, but it was muddled anger–veteran protesters like Code Pink with their same signs, those masked "Ladies in Black" taking a break from calling for an unoccupied Palestine, that ubiquitous guy selling the Marxist newspapers. Perhaps that was all it could have been, spawning from an angry e-mail, sent through activist lists. This passionate moment held the same basic message of economic fairness as the union protest a few hours earlier, but you could not tell that from the guy shouting, "Lethal injections for Wall Street bankers–that’s what we need."
The only person I recognized at both Wall Street rallies was Clarence Thomas, an organizer with Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in San Francisco. He said that he felt a unity between all groups protesting was necessary and inevitable.
Bertha Lewis, executive director of the New York branch of ACORN, agreed. ACORN is part of the coalition that helped create the national day of protest, and Lewis also addressed the Union rally at noon.
"When you hear what folks are talking about–helping mortgages, regulations on the banks, protections–it’s all the same message," Lewis said afterwards. "You are going to see this every day, in every way, all over the country. People you would never think of as organizing are getting organized. I guess that’s one thing we have to thank George Bush for."
Now, as we enter another week of market tumult and no bailout agreement in Washington, activist organizations are ramping up efforts to continue to put pressure on Congress.
"ACORN is in the process of planning demonstrations for Wednesday, October 1, to bring attention to the homeowners," said Charles Jackson, ACORN’s communications director. "We’ve got a front-page story on our website about it. We will keep trying to get homeowners into this bailout talk."
Jackson said they were planning for thirty-five separate demonstrations, which they are referring to as "symbolic applications for assistance," in locations as varied as Pittsburgh and San Francisco, each calling for a bailout that addresses unnecessary home foreclosures as much as Wall Street woes.
"There’s only one program in the current proposed bailout that addresses homeowner issues, called the ‘FHA Hope for Homeowners’ program," Jackson pointed out. "Well, that’s a voluntary program. We are saying there’s no hope for homeowners in the current plan."
As ACORN calls for some relief of the foreclosure crisis, True Majority’s website is also showing continued life, with scores of events being organized by people around the country. The shouts against a corporate bailout, evidently, continue to rise. Now we must see if these shouts can form a cohesive voice to catch the ear of an increasingly unsure Congress.