by Carol Harvey
West Coast social justice groups from San Francisco, Portland and Los Angeles rallied with New York and Chicago allies at Union Square in a protest led by poor and working-class people on Friday, August 5, 2011. The demonstrators angrily protested Big Finance’s theft of billions of tax dollars, nationwide home foreclosures, attacks on workers’ unions, and record rates of criminalization and incarceration of poor and homeless people.
This protest, organized by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), was part of a two-day Community Congress of civil rights and housing workshops held on August 5 and 6 at SEUI offices, 350 Rhode Island in San Francisco.
The Great American TARP Tour featuring the exuberant “Bad Hotel” dancers. Video by Bill Carpenter.
The goal of the Community Congress was to broaden state, regional and national coalitions working for economic justice by laying the groundwork for a growing popular movement of immigrants, unions, homeless and housing groups made up of impoverished, marginalized and homeless people.
WRAP Director Paul Boden said that this movement will address “the corporate gluttony and political corruption” “pitting us against each other to the point where we are all drowning in the sea of trickle-down economics.”
At Friday’s protest, Boden spoke to energetic crowds, including tourists, “We have destroyed 600,000 units of affordable housing and built 800,000 jail cells.” He pointed an accusing finger at corporate offices. “There’s your answer!”
From Union Square, hundreds of chanting marchers took part in what organizers labeled “The Great American TARP Tour,” demonstrating loudly outside the offices of the “biggest culprits.” The fired-up marchers proceeded from the union-squashing Hyatt Hotel, to the brokerage office of corporate financier Charles Schwab, then on to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Montgomery Street office, finally ending at “Well$ Fargo,” where masses of protesters successfully shut down the bank.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, is a federal government program which, after the sub-prime mortgage crisis, purchased assets and equity from the financial sector to bail out banks. According to polls, repeated bailouts to the biggest players on Wall Street have rendered American taxpayers ever poorer and more enraged.
Boden said, “While Washington was engaged in a manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling, some 40 million people are living in a real crisis, facing a choice between buying groceries or paying the rent.”
“The spirit is here, and it’s angry!” said marcher Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee, a San Francisco-based renters’ group. “People are angry at the banks. They are taking everything and leaving people homeless.”
At the first stop, Mike Casey of UNITE HERE Local 2 indicted the Hyatt Corporation as the same corporate interests “driving this country into the ditch.” He charged the Hyatt Hotel with forcing non-union immigrant workers to clean “as many as 30 rooms a day.”
Casey reported that, a year ago, after forcing these workers to train their replacements, Hyatt’s Boston branch fired 100 workers en masse. Replacements came in at minimum wage without health care.
At the next stop, Hyatt Plaza, The Brass Liberation Orchestra (BLO) rocked a spirited flashmob performance of “This Is A Bad Hotel,” a parody of Lady Gaga’s song, “Bad Romance.”
Next stop, Charles Schwab.
Bob Offer-Westort, a civil rights organizer with the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness, cited San Francisco’s new sit/lie law which bans sitting or lying on sidewalks, making it a crime “to sit down for a moment’s rest.” Loud, sustained, “boos” echoed off skyscrapers.
“The campaign to pass that law spent 412,000 dollars to ram (it) down poor San Franciscans’ throats,” he said, reporting that Charles Schwab himself invested $30,000, and his co-CEO $25,000 dollars, constituting an eighth of the campaign.
He added that the financial sector as a whole paid 72 percent of the $400,000 to get the sit/lie law passed.
“What they think they’ve learned from that is that money can buy our city. Can Money buy our city?” he asked.
“No!” shouted the crowd.
In Portland, sit/lie laws were twice passed. Homeless activists fought it and won, Offer-Westort observed.
At the next stop on the TARP Tour, Dianne Feinstein’s office, Chicago activist, Willie J.R Fleming, joined with Boden in pointing out that “politicians have made some mistakes,” divesting from the nation’s commitment to public housing at the same moment when millions of Americans are undergoing foreclosure.
“These banks and senators like ‘What’s Her Name’ behind us, Feinstein, forgot about the people and bailed out the banks,” Fleming told the marchers.
Fleming reported that Chicagoans recognized that all those bank-owned foreclosed properties, paid for by taxpayers’ money, belonged to the people.
They decided, therefore, to take back, “what was rightfully ours – the houses and the land,” he said. “We want the world to know: If you won’t house the homeless, and you can’t pay your rent, we’ll create a public housing system on our own for the people.”
The Brass Liberation Orchestra plays rebellious rhapsodies. Video by Carol Harvey.
His message to all politicians, especially Feinstein, is that the land belongs to the people who worked it, “and we the people are taking what’s rightfully ours right now!”
Booming boisterous chants, Portland’s Sisters of the Road led protesters to the final destination, Wells Fargo’s Market Street entrance. There, SFPD officers stoically guarded the doors while protesters enjoyed New Orleans-style music as the Brass Liberation Orchestra backed the enthusiastic crowd in yet another spirited people’s flashmob. “We’re fired up! Can’t take it no more!” One woman held her sign two inches from an officer’s face as she gracefully undulated in her dance.
The protesters forced Wells Fargo to close its doors a half-hour early, shutting down its corporate profiteering for the day. There were no arrests. This nonviolent, yet action-packed protest renewed peoples’ spirits and commitment, and it was thoroughly enjoyed by all.