02.15.12

Occupy Wall Street Breaks Up With Bank of America on Valentine’s Day

Occupy Wall Street’s numbers may be down, its members concentrating on ‘working groups,’ but the movement managed to stage a ‘breakup’ with Bank of America on Valentine’s Day. Josh Dzieza reports.

Like many people Tuesday afternoon, those gathered in Washington Square Park were busy scrawling last-minute Valentine’s Day notes. Except these notes were on blue construction-paper hearts, and they bore bad news.

“It’s not me, it’s you,” read one. “Just kidding, it’s you.”

“I’m not falling for ‘phase out’ again.”

“Who’s too big to fail?”

“It’s over, BofA.”

The cards were addressed to Bank of America, and the writers were members of Occupy Wall Street. As with any Occupy event, this one was composed of several factions with messages of varying specificity, but the day’s central action was organized by the Environmental Solidarity Working Group, which was protesting the bank’s investment in coal companies. Protesters were to gather in the park, write breakup notes, and deliver them to a nearby Bank of America branch.

“The same bank that’s foreclosing on our homes is foreclosing on the planet,” said Russell Lum, an organizer for the working group. Lum is a fresh-faced recent graduate of Loyola Marymount, with dreadlocks and a tweed jacket. He was at the first Occupy protest in September but didn’t become fully involved until after police tore down the encampment on Nov. 15—or N15, as everyone at the rally called it.

It’s a tricky time for the movement. “People are getting deep into their working groups,” Lum said. “Ask anyone about Occupy and they’ll say what their group is doing.” Lum said the groups are getting good work done—Occupy the SEC's massive comment letter on the Volcker Rule, submitted the day before, is one such example—but he acknowledged that Occupy has lost some of the drawing power it had at its peak. “The movement is in its corner, working to get to the point where it can rally five, ten thousand people.”

There were about 30 people at the park, and most of them were milling around a mattress near the central fountain on which nine protesters and a puppy lay sprawled. Initially the mattress was in the fountain, but when a protester showed up in a wheelchair with “The Revolution Will Be Wheelchair Accessible” painted on the back, Melissa Shaw, who came up with the mattress idea, decided to relocate.

Shaw was also trying to get back some of the Zuccotti magic. She came back to New York after filming a documentary in New Mexico, and saw how shaken everyone was from the eviction. “One thing people kept saying was how important the physical place was, how important it was to meet people and make connections,” said Shaw, reclining on the mattress. “Twitter and Facebook are great, but it’s just not the same.”

“This is our bank. We bailed you out!” he yelled through the glass, then apologized to the somewhat frightened-looking tellers: “This isn’t about you—you’re the 99 percent.”

Thinking back to Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s protest of the Vietnam War, she decided to transfer their bed-in method to a public space. Washington Square closes at midnight, so the protesters won’t be sleeping there, but Shaw hopes that the protest will continue online via a Tumblr, Who Are You in Bed With. “It’s a way of using the phrase, which has a nasty turn to it, and making it about simple human connection, something that’s been lost in the corporate drive,” she said. After a pause, she added, “The idea that corporations think they’re people is horrifying. These are people.”

Jessica, a recent graduate of Brooklyn College with oversize hundred-dollar bills in her hair, lay next to Shaw. “I came here for peace and love and cuddling,” she said. Does she know anyone here? “I do now,” she laughed, looking over her shoulder at her bedmates. She found out about the rally on Facebook. “It’s very revolutionary,” she joked.

Just then a column of protesters entered the park with more immediate political objectives. They carried signs opposing hydraulic fracturing and tar sands, and were in high spirits after Sen. Charles Schumer’s announcement that he would oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which had been attached as a rider to a transportation bill.

“He heard I was coming and rolled over like a 2-month-old baby,” said Richard, a gray-bearded botanist from Staten Island. He carried a sign reading “Angry Pacifist” and wore a USS Staten Island naval cap with a Guy Fawkes mask strapped on backward. Richard joined up with Occupy after the mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge, and he’s been with it ever since. He was arrested during the attempt to shut down the stock exchange on Nov. 17, which was also his birthday. “Fifty guys singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you in a jail cell, you don’t forget that,” he said. “If you aren’t having fun, you aren’t doing it right.”

A young man who goes by the name Echo was responsible for bringing the disparate groups together. The permit was in his name. He had a feather in his hair and a conch in his hand. He joked that he’s a member of the cross-pollination working group.

Echo blew the conch and people gathered round. Channeling the disparate factions in the park, Echo gave a rallying speech that moved quickly between a wonkish list of the coal companies funded by Bank of America—Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, Edison—and more amorphous goals, such as reevaluating what it means to love. Echo started to speak about mythology and astrology, and instructed the protesters in a walking meditation. Pete Rugh, another organizer with the environmental working group, jumped in with more specifics about Bank of America, its foreclosure policy, the coal companies it funds, and the mountain-top removal those companies practice.

With another blast of the conch and chants of “We are the 99 percent,” the crowd, now about 50 strong, marched through the archway at the entrance of the park. Richard and Russell were near the front, just behind a large yellow banner reading Occupy Wall Street. There were about a dozen police on motorcycles and a convoy of police vans following along in the street, but the marchers stuck to the sidewalk.

They marched across Waverly, south on Broadway, and east on Fourth Street, chanting “Fight, fight, fight, housing is a right,” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Startled passersby stopped to look. Many were carrying roses, holding up phones, and many were giving thumbs up. A man in a pea coat walked by and held up a laptop with a giant Ron Paul sticker across the top. At this point there were as many police as protesters.

The group gathered outside the Bank of America on Second Avenue, chanting. Richard was the first person to go inside, and he found the doors to the bank were locked. “This is our bank. We bailed you out!” he yelled through the glass, then apologized to the somewhat frightened-looking tellers: “This isn’t about you—you’re the 99 percent.” He slid his construction-paper heart through the doors and went back outside. The rest of the group followed suit, sliding their hearts under the door and leaving.

Back in front of the bank, Echo convened the group, which was back down to about 20 people. “Maybe we could make a little heart shape, holding hands,” he said, “but move in a little on one side, like a real heart, to make room for pedestrians.” He declared the day a success, a testament to “the general principle of Occupy, love, and radical inclusion for all people and species—while they’re still around.”

“And we shut down a bank!” shouted Pete, to cheers.