My guest today is Peter Dreier, professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of the new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, published by Nation Books. Welcome to OpEdNews, Peter. You recently wrote a piece for AlterNet, Meet the Bank CFO Fighting to Foreclose on a Wheelchair-Bound Cancer Patient. The headline neatly captures the economic rift tearing our country apart. What can you tell us about this story?
photo credit: Ed Honowitz
I've been writing about community organizing -- including the battle over banks' abusive practices -- for many years. The battle started in the 1970s over the issue of "redlining" -- banks' racial discrimination in lending, particularly its bias against minority communities. The struggles to hold Wall Street accountable have heated up in the last few years -- even before the Occupy Wall Street movement. Groups like National Peoples Action, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and others have been on the front lines, helping people facing foreclosure, or finding themselves with "under water" mortgages (paying more than the value of their homes). So I'm always looking for opportunities to write about the courageous individuals who stand up for themselves and others, often taking risks to help their families, their neighborhoods, and their communities. The article I just wrote -- which was originally published in Truth Out and then reposted on Huffington Post and elsewhere -- is just one example of the burgeoning grassroots movement.
To dramatize the widening gap between the 1% and the 99% I focused on two people. One is Timothy J. Sloan. He has spent 25 years working his way up the Wells Fargo corporate hierarchy. After heading the bank's commercial real estate and securitization business, in March 2011 he was named Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. Sloan lives in a 5,804 square foot, 8-bedroom Spanish-style mansion at 1320 Woodstock Road on a cul-de-sac without sidewalks in upscale San Marino. He purchased the home in 2007 for $5.15 million. Last year, Sloan made $8.4 million, according to Wells Fargo's proxy statement.
The other is Ana Wilson, a 49-year old working class woman who has terminal breast cancer, has celebral palsy, and is wheelchair-bound. For several years, Sloan's bank has been trying to kick Wilson out of her modest home. Wilson is a court interpreter who lives with her husband (a school janitor), her mother (a retired factory worker who now works as a home health aide), and her 17 year old son in the gritty working class city of South Gate, only 10 miles away - but worlds apart - from tony San Marino. The family has lived in their tiny 949 square foot house since 1975 which, thanks to plummeting housing prices brought about by the Wall Street mortgage collapse, is now worth no more than $175,000.
In 2009, Wilson's husband James quit his night job as a security guard - and reduced the family's income - to tend to her. While Wilson was in the hospital and undergoing chemotherapy, the family fell behind on its mortgage payments and the bank started to foreclosure on their property. Once the family's financial situation stabilized, they sought to resume making payments and asked Wells Fargo to renegotiate their mortgage. But the bank refused to accept the Wilsons' checks and pursued legal proceedings to foreclose on the house and evict the family from their home.
Last October, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE, a community organizing group), the Service Employees International Union and other activist groups showed up in front of Sloan's mansion to protest Wells Fargo's predatory lending practices. In response, the five-member San Marino City Council adopted a new law, requiring protesters to keep 150 feet from a target residence, or 75 feet from the curb adjacent to the home, whichever is farther. And when Wilson showed at Sloan's house with about 100 other protesters, the San Marino cops arrested her.
In my article, I ask "who is the real criminal here?" Yes, Wilson broke the law. But Wells Fargo has a long record of illegal and abusive activities, which I itemize in my article. Wells Fargo has lots of resources -- including campaign contributions and lobbying -- to get its voice heard and wield political influence. But people like Wilson have to resort to protest to get their voices heard. That's the point of my article.
The laws protect those in power and increase the powerlessness of those victimized by the System - who have to either go along passively or risk getting arrested, more legal fees, etc. Hardly a fair fight. Can poignant stories like this one ignite the imagination of the public and cause a groundswell of support?
In general, America operates by the Golden Rule -- those who own the gold make the rules. But of course that's not always true. Throughout American history, grassroots movements have won significant victories that have made the country more humane, equal, fair and livable. The labor, women's suffrage, environmental, consumer, feminist, and gay rights movement made great strides. As I write about in my book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, the radical ideas of one generation are often the common sense of the next generation. Social Security, the graduated income tax, the 8 hour day, consumer and environmental protection laws, workplace safety laws, voting rights for African Americans, women's suffrage, and many other progressive reforms were won over the opposition of big business and conservatives.
Today's battles against Wall Street banks and big business are gaining momentum. Community organizing groups like National Peoples Action, PICO, ACCE, and many others, along with their allies among unions and faith-based organizations, are building a powerful movement to challenge the 1%. Across the country, these activist groups are winning victories at the local and state level, like California's Homeowners Bill of Rights, which was passed after a hard-fought grassroots campaign waged by different groups I mentioned in my Huffington Post article. The stories of individuals who join this battle -- like Ana Wilson -- can help inspire others to join the crusade in many ways, including voting for progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and others. The big banks and their corporate allies fought the Dodd-Frank bill tooth and nail. They weakened the original bill but they didn't kill it. It is an important reform, a stepping stone to even more progressive regulation of banks down the road. Likewise with the Affordable Care Act -- a major milestone, but a compromise. The key lesson is this: organized people can beat organized money.
That's encouraging. We live in interesting times. You're teaching politics during a presidential election year and the incumbent is an alum of your school. Has the Obama/Oxy connection enhanced your students' interest and involvement in the political process?
In 2008, I started a program at Oxy called Campaign Semester, which is like a "study abroad" program, except that instead of going to Guatemala, France, or South Africa, students went to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, among other states, to be full-time volunteers with a Presidential, U.S. Senate, or House campaign. They get a full semester's credit. The only restriction was that it had to be in a "swing" state or district, a close race. We had 20 students who signed up. After Election Day, they came back to campus for an intensive five-week seminar where they read books and articles, reflected on their experiences, and wrote a paper.
Since lots of Oxy students were excited about Obama's election, half of the Campaign Semester students worked on his campaign in a key swing state. Two years later, in 2010, 10 students worked on Congressional campaigns during the mid-year election. This year, 32 Oxy are working on Presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns in key swing states, including Florida, Hawaii, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Wisconsin, Montana, Massachusetts, and Virginia. In Hawaii, we have Oxy students working on both sides of the U.S. Senate race. Campaign Semester program/. Their weekly emails about their experiences are inspiring to read. They are learning a great deal about the real world of politics and about themselves. As far as I know, it is the only program of its kind anywhere in the country.
That was you? Fabulous! I remember reading about this program in the Occidental newsletter [I'm an alum] and I thought it a simple but revolutionary concept. These kids are getting an education in the best sense of the word: amazing, invaluable hands-on experience they couldn't get anywhere else. I believe it will change their lives. I hope the program spreads like wildfire to campuses everywhere. Tell us a little about your new book, Peter. Where did it come from?