Every spring National People's Action brings hundreds of community organizers and grassroots leaders from across the country to Washington for its annual conference. And every year the event culminates in a hotly anticipated and meticulously planned direct action. In 2004 organizers bused hundreds of people to Karl Rove's Georgetown home, where they demanded he use his power to push Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to qualify for financial aid. George Goehl, who runs NPA, wasn't on staff at the time, but he describes the logic this way: "Rove was the most powerful person in the administration there was a way to get access to."
This year NPA opted to target someone you've almost certainly never heard of: Ed Yingling, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association. The ABA has been the chief obstacle to a proposed bankruptcy reform bill that would let judges modify mortgages, thereby allowing an estimated 600,000 people who face foreclosure to stay in their homes. The opposition from the banking lobby has been so fierce that the Senate's chief proponent of the bill, Dick Durbin, more or less gave up on negotiating with his colleagues across the aisle, opting instead to negotiate directly with representatives of the banks, as if they were some heretofore undiscovered fourth branch of government. (In April the bill went down to defeat, prompting Durbin to observe that the banks "frankly, own the place.")
"It was 600 people," says Goehl, describing the ABA action. "We had twelve or thirteen buses…. [We] went to the seventh floor where Ed Yingling is…. [And we said,] 'You guys have created the foreclosure crisis, sent the economy down the tubes and now you're preventing the number-one piece of legislation that would keep families in their home. You gotta back off.'"
This is Community Organizing 101: you figure out who's got the power; then you confront them. When the City of Chicago was failing to collect garbage properly in a poor neighborhood on the South Side, Saul Alinsky didn't have neighborhood residents protest the garbage men or the offices of Streets and Sanitation. He had residents collect their trash and dump it on the lawn of the local alderman. Services quickly improved.
It seems strange, almost surreal, to say this, but the Republican Party, and arguably the whole conservative movement, is not the left's biggest enemy at the moment. On keeping a public plan in healthcare reform; streamlining student lending; and passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), cap and trade, financial regulation and a host of other structural economic reforms progressives hope to enact, the GOP is more akin to the garbage men than the alderman.
"Most Republicans aren't waking up every day thinking, How do we kill banking regulation?" says Goehl. "Most people who listen to Rush Limbaugh aren't waking up thinking about how do we kill banking regulation. But the people with the deep pockets who have power in DC are thinking that.
"I sometimes get frustrated because it seems like the left isn't focused on corporate power. We like to talk about the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs, and meanwhile the American Bankers Association is one of the main entities running the country."