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New York Banks Get a Citizen Audit

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When New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams visited a branch of Chase bank recently, it wasn’t business as usual. The bank locked its doors and refused to let him in. Then again, Council Member Williams did have a crowd of protesters with him and had just called JP Morgan Chase a group of "bloodsuckers."

After chants of "open the door" convinced bank officials to let the prominent member of city council’s Progressive Caucus inside, Williams closed his account. He was acting in solidarity with the New York Communities for Change "Not The Way Forward Campaign,"an effort to engage New Yorkers in actions directed at the city's big banks.

The criminality of the financial industry is on the public’s mind. The trial of Raj Rajartnam, which begins today, will put a hedge fund billionaire on the hook for insider trading, fraud and conspiracy in what is considered "the biggest insider trading case for at least a decade." 

Meanwhile, the 50 state attorneys general are pursuing a resolution in the foreclosure fraud scandal, in which unscrupulous mortgage services and their accessories in the banking industry systematically bilked working Americans out of their homes.

However, even in the foreclosure fraud case, the AGs are not pursuing criminal penalties. And as Charles Ferguson, director of "Inside Job," famously intoned last week as he accepted his Academy Award for Best Documentary, "Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong." 

Far from going to jail, banks are seeing big profits and bonuses are bouncing back in the financial industry. At the same time, the major banks are skipping out on their share of taxes, one of the many reasons why governors and legislators are facing budget crunches they are then taking out on working families. At Wisconsin solidarity rallies, signs frequently made this connection: "The bankers broke the country, why make the teachers pay?" Or, more provocatively: "My teacher taught me to read – what did your banker do to you?"

Groups like US Uncut, which illustrates who benefits financially as we cut classrooms, arts funding, heating subsidies and student aid, have been urging actions across the country. Calling the big banks "tax dodgers," their activists launched a first day of action in late February.

This national fight is now in NYC. And it's not just Council Member Williams who is moving his money. Major unions are asking their pension trustees to shift funds away from Chase. The reason? Chase's CEO received a $17 million bonus while Chase was foreclosing on New Yorkers. Not The Way Forward argues that only six percent of New Yorkers who sought a mortgage modification got the help they needed. And New Yorkers are pissed.

While the crisis is national, as is the anti-bank anger, New York is an important center for bank accountability actions. The Martin Act grants the New York Attorney General sweeping power to investigate fraud, and much of the national mess was orchestrated by companies rooted here in our city. If our progressive elected officials can’t lead the way on holding them accountable, who can?

This is also more than a theoretical principle that "crime shouldn't pay." People are losing their homes because of actions by banks and mortgage servicers. Teachers are being laid off because of the way gamblers in the financial industry treated our economy as a casino. Real people are suffering – and will continue to suffer – if we don’t readjust how our economy works. And that requires changing how the big banks relate to our society.

This morning, US Uncut is conducting its latest action: attending the Bank of America Investor Conference to ask for "insider advice" from the billionaire bank that pays no federal taxes. It’s a fun stunt. But more than all of us getting advice from them, it's time they get public pressure, regulatory supervision and an overdue invoice from all of us.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."