By Judith Scherr
A movement to fight corporate power that began with Occupy Wall Street reached Berkeley Saturday with some 200 people converging around noon outside the downtown Bank of America to plan an October 15 “occupation” of a site in Berkeley.
Students piling up debt, retirees on fixed income, homeless people, the unemployed and underemployed were among those in the crowd. Diane Tober had a particular reason to be there. Her home in Lafayette is in foreclosure, with an auction date slated for October 21. Tober holds a PhD from UC Berkeley, but lost the job she needed to make her mortgage payments. She said Countrywide was the original lender, but now the Bank of America holds the loan.
“The whole process is torture,” said Tober, who moved her family to Berkeley while continuing efforts to save her house. “It’s torture on me. It’s torture on my children. It’s torture on 4.5 million Americans.”
Francis Grinnon is a retired telephone worker with the Communications of America Retired Members Council. “Our priorities are all messed up,” said Grinnon. “We’re spending trillions of dollars on wars, trillions of dollars for bank bailouts, when they gambled and they cheated and they speculated, and we’re supposed to pay for this at the same time they want to cut one-to-two trillion dollars of Medicare, MediCal, Social Security, teachers… All the money going to the 1 percent and not the 99 percent is unsustainable.”
Much of the noontime meeting was taken up with a lively discussion about whether the “occupation” should begin immediately or if it should wait until October 15 – and where it should be held. The group voted to compromise: plan the October 15 occupation, but support the handful of people who wanted to begin camping at the Bank of America immediately. The site of the larger occupation is still to be determined, with some believing that the B of A is an appropriate target, but others arguing that a park would allow for more people.
The group adopted the process similar to that used by Occupy Wall Street, which allows everyone to give input, but keeps the discussion on point and discourages lengthy speeches. Speakers’ words are repeated by the crowd, so that people a distance from the speaker know what the speaker said.
The work continued at a 6 p.m. General Assembly, when some 50 people reassembled to hammer out a committee structure that would support the growth of the movement and direct the October 15 action. A General Assembly is to be held daily at 6 p.m. at the bank plaza at Center Street and Shattuck Avenue.
No one could be reached at Bank of America headquarters for a reaction. A statement on the bank’s website says: “The progress reflected in our new CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] report demonstrates our commitment to creating opportunities that help the economy move forward through responsible business practices, lending, investing and charitable giving.”
Occupy Wall Street started about three weeks ago in New York City, and has subsequently spread to more than 30 cities around the country, including San Francisco. Oakland will launch its protest this week. Some have characterized the movement as loose and inchoate. Last week, however, numerous labor unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers and the Amalgamated Transit Union, among others, threw their support behind the protests.
The participants are protesting against social and economic inequality, huge corporate payouts, and the influence of the insurance, defense, banking, pharmaceutical, oil, finance and other industries on government policy. Protestors say these industries prevent the US government from formulating rational policy in the public interest.
One of the central tenets of the movement — that 1% of the country has a disproportionate share of capital compared to the other 99% — was articulated at UC Berkeley by Emmanuel Saez, who heads up the newly created Center for Economic Growth, a think tank funded in part by a $1 million a year donation from Herb and Marion Sandler, the former owners of World Savings Bank.
Saez’s research in 2008 determined that the top 1% of American households accounted for about two-thirds of all income gains. “In that time period, the top 1% saw their incomes increase more than 10% a year when adjusted for inflation, while the rest of the households – the 99% – had much more modest income increases of 1.3% a year,” according to an article from UC Berkeley News.
For more information about the protests, visit Occupy Berkeley’s Facebook page.