Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It Isn't Nice to Block the Doorways

On Tuesday, April 24, several of us from Occupy Nevada County joined over 2000 protestors for the mass action in San Francisco against Wells Fargo Bank during its annual shareholders’ meeting.  Peter and I helped block one of the doorways, Sandy and Billi (who is facing eviction by Wells Fargo) marched with signs, and Guari talked with passers-by and passed out Occu-cards with information about Wells Fargo. 

It had been a long time since I had actually blocked a doorway.  In the Introduction to my book, Shaking the Gates of Hell, Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization, I tell about my experiences in Seattle in late 1999, when I joined in demonstrations to shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization, which was (and is) untouchable through normal democratic channels.  I quoted an old Malvina Reynolds’ song: 

It isn’t nice to block the doorways, it isn’t nice to go to jail.
There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice; they’ve told us once, they’ve told us twice,
But if that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind.

These days, normal democratic channels often fail when people seek redress for harm done by the big banks.  For this reason, people gathered to take nonviolent direct action to disrupt Wells Fargo’s annual shareholders meeting.  

On April 23, the day before the action, we drove to the City for a Teach-In organized by Occupy San Francisco and held in front of the Wells Fargo Bank on Montgomery Street.  We heard indebted students speak about the profits gained by Wells Fargo through the vicious cycle of student loan debt, which can’t be discharged in bankruptcy and which now amounts to more than consumer credit card debt.  We heard foreclosed homeowners speak about jumping through hoops for Wells Fargo in the loan modification process while their homes were being illegally foreclosed out from under them.  We heard from former prisoners about Wells Fargo’s investments in private prisons and immigrant detention centers, and about its lobbying to enact tough-on-crime laws.  We heard from others about Wells Fargo’s predatory lending practices, offshore tax havens, and off-balance-sheet accounting practices.   We sang songs, watched movies projected onto a portable screen, and ate a meal prepared and served by local supporters.  In addition, a Wells Fargo meeting had been cancelled, so the caterers came out and gave us the food that they had prepared for the meeting. 

The next day, my 22-year old grandson Jimmy, who lives in San Francisco, joined us for the action.   It began in Bradley Manning Plaza with an Interfaith service and blessing, in which I participated.  It was a diverse crowd, with people from faith communities, various unions, community organizations, and Occupy.  Our various contingents marched to the West Coast Wells Fargo headquarters at 465 California St.  Then we divided up and went to the various entrances.  Some of us went inside and tried to gain access to the meeting.  Others began blocking the doorways.  Both police and protestors stayed calm.

Hundreds of Wells Fargo stockholders, including many clergy, had come from around the country to challenge the bank’s practices inside the meeting.  Most were denied entry.  Only thirty got in.  Some spoke individually.  Others did a mic-check, calling on Wells Fargo to 1) end investment in private prisons, 2) give principal reduction to underwater homeowners, and 3) pay their fair share of taxes. They were handcuffed, cited, and released. 

Why did we take two days out of our very full schedules to drive to San Francisco and join this protest?  Why were we willing to go so far as to try to disrupt the shareholders meeting?  The short answer is:  We (the people) see and suffer the effects of the actions of Wells Fargo and other big banks.  We have used every approach possible within the normal channels of our current system, to no avail.  We have appealed to the banks directly, written and visited our elected officials, spent our scarce dollars on lawyers, and worked to change unjust laws, but the banks have outspent and outmaneuvered us at every turn.  They have used their political and economic power to game the system against us.  What recourse do we have?

We can attempt to enact a constitutional amendment that strips big banks and corporations of their constitutional rights by abolishing the legal fiction of corporate personhood and declaring that money is not the same as free speech.  Such an amendment would make clear that democracy is for people, not for corporations. 

This will take time.  Meanwhile, we the people do have options.  We can (and will) work within the system to bring about needed change, but when democracy fails and unelected, unaccountable, predatory, death-dealing institutions dominate social and economic policy, it is our duty to exercise our first amendment rights (not given to us by government, but our “inalienable rights,” given to us by our Creator), our rights to assemble, speak, and demonstrate our willingness to challenge the Powers that Be and to endure the consequences of our actions for the sake for the greater good.

Back in Seattle in 1999, while I was in Kings County Jail, I made up two new verses to the Malvina Reynolds song, based on my experiences of the WTO protests of the previous two days:

It isn’t nice to breathe in tear gas or be doused with pepper spray,
To be shot with rubber bullets or to hear their sound grenades.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice; we’ve told them once, we’ve told them twice,
But if that’s the price of justice, we don’t mind.

It isn’t nice to be beat up or be dragged away to jail,
To spend long hours in holding tanks or lockdown without bail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, but if that is the price
To save the earth from dying, we don’t mind.

Nonviolent direct action has a long and strong history, and has played a large (though often unreported) part in major social transformations.  When the “nice” ways fail to keep us as a species from hurtling toward disaster, some of us need to step up and be willing to pay the price for freedom, justice, peace, and a living earth.  The Occupy movement is a reminder that people really do have power, that we are responsible for the direction of society, and that there really is hope for the future if we join together in all our diversity and take nonviolent action based on the values of the world we want to see.