New Orleans The New York Times zinged out a righteous editorial today to my shock and awe about the fact that something should mitigate the arbitrary and capricious power of banks to unilaterally determine whose business they will take and whose they will not take. In this case they were talking about the way Wikileaks was left out there in banking Siberia when various big US-based banks bumped their business essentially because they didn’t want to be seen in their company, even though the organization still has not been charged with any crime, violation, or experienced much of anything other than bad press.
The Times draws a line around the fact that the banks may have done this because of concerns that Wikileaks might drop some leaks on the way they do business. Possibly? From my personal and organizational experience I would say it is just as likely that they just didn’t want to be seen as associated with Wikileaks if there was a mess, so they were in full run and hide mode.
When the right wing went wild about ACORN and my name became a ping pong ball out there, I found myself caught in the same catch 22 in 2008 and 2009 in the banking world. I had had a bank account personally and organizationally with Whitney National Bank in New Orleans since 1978. My banking had been in Little Rock but we were opening operations in New Orleans and banks were putting a 10-day hold on access to funds because the checks were not local. My dad was working for a local oil company in the city in their bookkeeping department, and when I told him about the problem, he had me meet him and we walked across the street, met the local Whitney branch manager, opened the accounts, and away we went. Whitney ended up handling all of the centralized banking for ACORN for more than 30 years from that time on.
In the middle of the press storm of anti-ACORN business around the country, I got a series of letters without explanation for every account of every organization I directed after resigning from ACORN in mid-2008 giving us 30 days to find alternative banking arrangements. Some months later I received a note about my personal account as well. There was never any explanation. Local bank officers whose careers had been welded to us and our business simply answered that they were unavailable and sorry. The letters said nothing other than “move. So we moved, and were glad to do so, just as Wikileaks probably will be more comfortable finding a financial institution that is unfair rather than one that runs like a rabbit in the weeds, but there’s no doubt that it is a hassle, inconvenient, and interrupts funds and business – and costs money.
Nor is there any question that it is unjust, though evidence is everywhere on a daily basis proving that banks, fairness, and justice simply don’t fit together in any sentence or any world we might recognize. There should be laws that provide safe havens for critics and the controversial, rather than allowing the optics of business and the conflict adverse nature of modern society to prevent and stifle anything that seems different or oppositional. Whitney, the largest bank in Louisiana, went under this week, bought by a bank from Mississippi, so there’s some justice in the dog-eat-dog world, but that’s not sufficient to solve the problem of allowing all of us to play on a flat, despite uneven playing field.