Bringing Down Bank of America: Social Media or Social Movement?

New Obank-transfer-dayrleans The queue to “count coup” on Bank of America and its decision to step back from stealing debit card fees from its customers is almost unseemly.  We expect it from politicians, and props to Senator Durbin, VP Joe Biden, and the rest of the DC gang for the pile-on, which in fact was about damn time and very helpful, but at another level it’s the old story of defeat being an unwanted child and victory having a thousand fathers, but the self-aggrandizement is particularly stark in the face of community organizations, unions, and now social movements through the Occupy forces that have made Bank of America and its corporate confederates like Chase and Wells Fargo the largest corporate targets of direct action activity.

The Times post-mortem for the business readers continued with their usual theme of trying to manage protest by promoting social media (remember Egypt which they immediately had to retract with the “real” story?) as the “organizing tool” for change with the enthusiastic, over-the-top help of www.change.org, which is a great outfit, but seems to have had no boundaries in their personal congratulations on this one.

“But those customers may have found their voice, which has been amplified by social media. “People can now use tools like Change.org, Facebook and Twitter to rapidly organize and collectively act to influence the policies of even the largest companies,” said Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, which allows consumers to start grass-roots campaigns using its online platform.

He pointed to Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old woman from Washington who collected more than 300,000 signatures opposing the fee by using his company’s platform. And then there is the grass-roots effort that is calling for this coming Saturday to be “Bank Transfer Day,” where customers of big banks move their accounts to community banks and credit unions.

Mr. Rattray and other consumer advocates said the outcry was about much more than fees. “Bank of America’s new debit card fee was the last straw for many consumers who are tired of banks that got bailed out that are now turning around and hiking fees,” said Norma Garcia, manager of Consumer Union’s financial services program. “There was this phenomenon with banks and others confusing passivity with loyalty. And consumers are saying, ‘You can’t take us for granted anymore.’ ”

To be fair the “powers that be” want to make sure that protest continues to operate between the straight lines, so ample praise of course in the same piece by Tara Bernard (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/business/bank-of-america-drops-plan-for-debit-card-fee.html?scp=1&sq=social%20media%20and%20bank%20fees&st=cse) :

Lawmakers also openly criticized Bank of America’s planned fee. Days after the bank announced that it would charge the fee, President Obama said customers should not be “mistreated” in pursuit of profit, while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called the move “incredibly tone deaf.” And Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, spoke out on the Senate floor, urging consumers to vote with their feet. He had sponsored the rule, known as the Durbin amendment, that limited the amount banks could charge for debit card transactions.

On Tuesday, he took to the floor again. “What we have at work here is a very fundamental principle of our economy, the free market economy, transparency,” he said. “So people know what they are being charged. So they have a choice.””

But, speaking of “tone deaf,” how is it possible not to mention the daily protests around the country and the world around banks and the admitted traction that Occupy has picked up in hitting Bank of America hard where previous large protests by community organization networks and unions had failed to gain traction?

I don’t mind being manipulated by the media anymore than the next person, but, gee, can’t they be a little more slick about it?  I know we are not supposed to believe that direct action, social movements, and mass protests make a difference as we parse the new tools that focus on a “theory of change,” but it takes people to use tools, and when the people are in motion, as they are now, let’s at least be clear about stating the obvious no matter how much credit some might want to claim or how much others might want to deny.

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Tea Party, Occupy, Movements and Organizations

Kingstonoccupy-wall-street-4 I love reading about the pinch in the shoes of the Tea-people as they try to scurry about and disclaim similarities to the Occupy forces that are springing up everywhere around the USA and the world.  The cultural complaints are the most absurd, since that is mostly the differences in the ages of the faces capturing the camera time on the small and wide screens.  The lack of leaders, the anger at the bailout, the Federal Reserve, and the banks are all common themes in both nascent movements.  And, no matter what some of the Tea-people are trying to claim in today’s papers, my own personal experience with many of them around the country is that many do share the alienated frustration of unemployment, underemployment, foreclosures, and a sense that there is no better dream in their future, and they are both looking for a voice and real answers.

The real cinch in their belts making some supports and even allies of both of these efforts uncomfortable is the fact that movements, even small and short lived ones, are messy affairs that move more quickly than many people can easily follow.  I thought of this as I read some of Myles Horton’s autobiography, Long Haul, after leaving Highlander.  Horton knows something about all of this because as he says he was “lucky” to have “guessed right” two times in connecting Highlander and its educational activities to both the emerging labor movement through the rush of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 30’s and 40’s, and then the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s.  His recollections are valuable for many of us to remember in these times:

The best educational work at Highlander has always been when there is a social movement….  During movement times, the people involved have the same problems and can go from one community to the next, start a conversation in one place and finish it in another.  Now …in what I call an organizational period, which has limited objectives, doesn’t spread very rapidly and has a lot of paid people and bureaucracy.  It’s completely different from what takes place when there is a social movement.  During organization times you try to anticipate a social movement, and if it turns out that you’ve guessed right, then you’ll be on the inside of a movement helping with the mobilization and strategies, instead of on the outside jumping on the bandwagon and never being an important part of it.  You try to figure out what’s going to happen so that you can position yourself in such a way as to become part of it:  you do things in advance to prepare the groundwork for a larger movement.  That way, you’re built into it when the momentum begins. It’s like learning to ride freight trains.”

Horton’s remarks there are excellent advice for any organizers and for many progressive organizations.   Let the Tea-people squirm as their movement is eclipsed, and for the rest of us, it’s time to make hay while the sun shines.  These moments are brief, and they do not last.

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