Financial reform activists lobby the lobbyists

WASHINGTON– On Monday, with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promising a final vote on financial regulatory reform in the next few days, rather than weeks, thousands descended on K Street in Washington, D.C., to lobby the lobbyists.

Showdown on K Street protesters in New York (showdowninamerica.org)

The union giants SEIU and AFL-CIO as well as community organizing umbrella group National People’s Action held a “Showdown on K Street,” bringing around two thousand workers and organizers to protest against big Wall Street banks, the lobbyists they have hired to attempt to water down the Senate bill and continued economic strife more generally. Indeed, the event ended up more of an expression of sustained populist anger at the sour economy and banks’ $1.4 million-a-day lobbying effort than a protest against specific practices or provisions in the bill.

It started on Sunday when more than a hundred activists protested on the front lawns of two executives: Bank of America’s Gregory Baer, the company’s counsel for regulatory policy, and Peter Scher, J.P. Morgan Chase’s executive for government relations. At Baer’s home, NPA noted that Bank of America — after requiring a $45 billion taxpayer bailout — has spent $16 million lobbying against Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) regulatory reform bill.

Adolfo Abreu, an organizer for NPA who came down for the events from his home in the Bronx, noted that Baer came home while organizers were occupying his front doorstep, with one woman describing how Bank of America continued to attempt to collect payment from her on a phone call 30 minutes after she learned of the death of her son. Abreu said that Baer “started yelling at us, like, ‘Get out of here!’”

“These banks are way too involved in the economy, and they have been way too involved in protesting this bill,” Abreu said. “We are focusing on people, not people with privilege. We need these rights.”

At 11 a.m. on Monday morning, dozens held a vocal protest outside of the downtown offices of the Podesta Group, the powerful Democratic lobbying shop headed by Tony Podesta, who worked in the Clinton administration and has earned the left’s ire for lobbying against Democratic priorities. Protesters shouted, “Tony Podesta is hurting America!”

And at noon, the protest started in full, with approximately 2,000 gathering in McPherson Square. They held bright hand-painted signs and shut down traffic, as they did when protesting on Wall Street itself last week. Joel Hershey, a middle-school science teacher in Syracuse, N.Y., took to the microphone to fire the crowd up. He said he had taught for four years, and three weeks ago heard that he “would not be going back to school” — one victim of municipal layoffs due to budget cutting. He noted that his wife and he are “just two of the 300,000 teachers that could lose their jobs in the next year….devastating news for America’s children.”

The crowd then marched to and occupied the busy intersection at 14th and K Streets — “lobbyist central,” as one SEIU volunteer put it. The protesters, soaked by pouring rain at that point, had set up a 20-foot-tall paper-and-wood pulling the marionette strings of Congress and passed around whistles and drums.

Al Marshall of Oakland, Calif., took to the loudspeaker as the protesters engaged in a “sit in.” (The actual sitting part did not happen, with the pavement soaked.) With tears rolling down his cheeks, the construction inspector explained that he had purchased a “fixer-upper” but that he and his wife had struggled to make payments to Wells Fargo after she lost her job. The bank reclaimed the home as a foreclosure after “laughing” at him when he asked for a loan modification. “There shouldn’t be a homeless person anywhere in America,” Marshall said.

Ed Whalen, a member of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association Local 100 in Baltimore, affiliated with the AFL-CIO said he was there to protest such “financial anarchy.”

“The downturn has affected everybody, but it has proportionately affected the construction industry and my line of work because every part of the business relies on financing,” Whalen said. “There’s no getting around it. I’m at a loss for words to described what’s wrong here.”

Later on, the protest split up with smaller groups visiting the Hill and even interrupting goings-on at local bank branches. SEIU protesters, for instance, flooded a Bank of America branch on Capitol Hill, shouting “Bank of America — Bad for America!”

Another group of 100 protesters — many part of the Alliance to Develop Power, a Massachusetts group — showed up unannounced at the Russell Senate Office Building offices of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). The protesters complained that Brown had campaigned against the Troubled Asset Relief Program and contended that he now “does big banks’ bidding in the Senate.” The protesters brought a “big tent” into the cramped space (and then asked staffers “Who’s in your big tent!”) and eventually convinced office members to arrange a meeting between the senator and protesters.

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