How Activists Score Wins Taking On The Banks

There is some good news in the fight for homeowners and against the big banks. Homeowners who are facing foreclosures because of unfair and often illegal practices by the major financial Goliaths are learning how to organize, how to shame bank executives and how to get local media attention.

But a panel of activists at Netroots Nation also expressed disappointment that there has not yet been any prosecutions of banking industry executives for any of the wrongdoing that led to the financial crisis and the millions of home foreclosures that followed.

That disappointment will greet Eric Schneiderman, the New York state attorney general who is also the head of an investigative task force on the financial crisis commissioned by President Obama, when he speaks tonight at a Netroots Nation plenary session.

Tracy Van Slyke, the director of New Bottom Line, one of the progressive grassroots organization leading the effort to break up the big banks and hold them accountable for causing the financial crisis, reflected the mood of the panel when she said that she was viewing the work of Schneiderman and the task force “with growing disappointment and growing anger” because of its slow progress.

Matt Browner-Hamlin, senior economic strategist at the Citizen Engagement Lab, said that top banking executives have already testified to actions before Congress that should lead to indictments, but so far they have not. There is a need for some real heroes in the fight against the big banks, Browner-Hamlin said, and “I had hoped that Schneiderman would be one of those heroes. Unfortunately, that’s not going to be the case.”

The heroes instead have been ordinary homeowners facing the threat of losing their homes who have found that by banding together with community activists and other homeowners they can often curb the big banks’ worst behavior and begin to move public opinion on such issues as whether the big banks should be broken up.

“Those victories happen dramatically more often when homeowners organize and make their fight public,” Browner-Hamlin said. Groups such as Occupy Our Homes have been able to win settlements for homeowners facing foreclosure by publicizing their plight, conducting defense actions that attract media attention, and ultimately embarrassing local bank executives into either working with the homeowner or have the bank’s reputation further tarnished.

That’s the principle behind such groups as the Home Defenders League, represented on the panel by Peggy Mears, an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. That’s one answer to the question of how to scale up such local actions so they begin to have a larger political impact, particularly on state legislatures, Congress and the White House.

Mears is part of an effort to get the California state legislature to pass a “homeowners’ bill of rights” that would among other things make it easier for state regulators of homeowners themselves to pursue legal action against banks that use illicit means to push foreclosures.

“We have to fight the banks on every level, in every state,” Mears said. But while Chase, Bank of America and their ilk are Goliaths, she said that progressives should remember that they are David, and “we have a slingshot, and that is the people.”

There will be a session on “taking on the banks” at the Take Back the American Dream conference that will build upon the dialogue at Netroots Nation. Schneiderman is scheduled to appear at the conference, and there will be an opportunity to focus on the national-level political strategy for breaking up the banks, bringing wrong-doers to justice and restoring banking to its proper role of serving the financial needs of the Main Street economy.


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