Protesters marched up Broadway on Tuesday. Photo: Jacob BlickenstaffAt 7 a.m. tomorrow, Occupy Wall Street will attempt to live up to its name. Hundreds of activists will converge upon the Street's most famous address—the New York Stock Exchange—in a coordinated attempt to shut it down. The blockade will be the first protest in a long day of carefully planned demonstrations to mark what would have been the two-month anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park.
"Most of the focus has been to figure out how to take this pretty radical action and figure out how it can help us build our movement and make OWS more accessible," says Logan Price, a protest organizer. In particular, organizers want to make sure that lingering outrage over the eviction of the occupiers doesn't lead to violent confrontations with police. "If we aren't careful those actions can undermine the 99 percent thing."
To keep that from happening, experts in nonviolent protest techniques held trainings this evening in a nurses' union office a few blocks from the park. Lisa Fithian, who helped organize the 1999 WTO protests, kicked things off with a series of role playing games. People pretending to be NYSE workers, police, and members of the media offered challenges. The group practiced ways to block off streets and gracefully get arrested.
"Does somebody want to be a cop and come get me?" asked Fithian, who wore a black T-shirt and sneakers. A young woman with curly red hair chased her around the room. Then she demonstrated another approach: As a big guy in dreadlocks rushed her, she slowly backed up and said, "Officer, I'm cooperating!" What was demonstrated by running away? she asked. "Guilt. We are doing something wrong."
If everything goes according to plan tomorrow, the protesters will sit down, lock arms, and keep enough people out of the NYSE to stop the morning bell. Of course, mass arrests are all but inevitable. Fithian and a representative of the National Lawyers Guild went through how to deal with tear gas, what not to say to police, and how to dress for jail. (Layers. "It could be hot or it could be cold," she said.)
Practically speaking, protesters expect that the police will do most of the work of blockading the NYSE for them by setting up barricades all over lower Manhattan. A cat-and-mouse game may emerge as police shift choke points in response to new blockades.
The NYSE shutdown is far from the only protest planned for tomorrow. At 3 p.m., protesters will gather at 16 different subway stations throughout NYC's five boroughs to "listen to a singular story from one of our hardest-hit and most inspirational neighbors," according to a flyer handed out at the training this evening. Then at Foley Square, just north of Zuccotti, a celebration will kick off at 5 p.m. followed by a "march to our bridges, where we will demand that we get back to work rebuilding our country's infrastructure," the flyer explains.
During the training session, Fithian put the protest in context. "Everything that we do is part of patterning a new world," she said. "When perestroika happened, when the Soviet Union turned to Russia, people said, 'What did it look like?' A man went to his wall, took his painting off, turned it upside down, and put it back on the wall. He said, 'That's what it was like.'
"And the truth is, we need to do the same thing right now."
By about 4 a.m. today, New York City police had pushed the media out of Zuccotti Park and were preparing to evict the few dozen protesters who remained. Yet there I was, standing in the park amid a gaggle of high-ranking officers, quietly watching the whole thing unfold.
"You gonna occupy awhile?" one officer cracked to another.
"Yeah," the other guy smiled.
I stood next to them against a short granite wall, trying to avoid notice.
Like the other reporters who'd swarmed to Lower Manhattan to cover the eviction, I'd quickly discovered that the media was not allowed here. The police had created a one-block buffer zone around the park—in some areas two or three blocks—and were refusing to admit even the most credentialed members of the press. A New York Times reporter had already been arrested, a member of the National Lawyers Guild told me. I feared that Occupy Wall Street's big day was being censored.
Why would I want to move my money out of my existing bank?
You'll probably save money in the long run. According to a 2009 year study by the Filene Research Institute, the average credit union account holder paid $71.47 in annual fees, compared to $183.14 paid by the typical bank customer. And new restrictions on debit card fees imposed last month by the Dodd-Frank Act have sent banks scrambling for even more ways to nickel and dime their customers in pursuit of profits. Nonprofit credit unions, on the other hand, only need to break even. They also tend to plow their money back into basic loans in their own communities, instead of dabbling in the kind of complex and risky securitized investments that caused large banks to go bust and drag down the economy. It's important to note that credit unions and small local banks aren't recession-proof: a striking 17 percent of Florida's bank failures since 2008 were community banks.
What's the process?
Don’t expect to be able to open a credit union account and close your old bank account in one day. You'll need to receive new checks and a debit card in the mail, switch over any automated deposits and electronic bill paying services, and wait for pending financial transactions to clear. Only then should you give your old bank the boot. Here's a searchable map that locates credit unions near you.
How long does it take?
You'll probably need to wait one or two weeks to get a debit card and checks in the mail, though some credit unions will issue you temporary versions. Besides that, it's just a matter of finding the time to switch over your bills.
Aren't credit unions less convenient than big banks?
Not necessarily. While individual credit unions typically have fewer branches than corporate banks, many participate in "shared branching," allowing customers to make a deposit or withdrawal at other participating credit unions. Also, many credit unions have implemented advanced online banking options including direct deposit, online bill-pay, and mobile banking using your cell phone.
What about ATMs?
Ask your local credit union if it's a member of the Co-op Network. Customers at credit unions in the network can use a smart phone app to find any one of 24,000 fee-free ATMs across the country. "You actually get access to more fee-free ATMs than if you were at Bank of America," says Ben Rogers, research director for the Filene Research Institute, a think tank that studies credit unions. Some credit unions will even refund any fees that you rack up using other banks' ATMs.
If everyone moves their money out of big banks, how much money do the banks stand to lose?
Currently, total deposits for all banks and savings and loans, including personal and business accounts, come to $7.5 trillion.
Are big banks freaking out over this?
Most big banks rely on their vast numbers of personal checking and savings accounts to shore up their cash reserves and make lucrative investments. "If everybody moved their money, it would make a huge difference," Rogers says. Still, the nearly 80,000 people who've made online pledges to join Bank Transfer Day probably won't cause bankers to break a sweat—at least not yet. Add another 400,000 of them, and "you'd get not just frowns, but maybe gasps in the boardroom."
How are credit unions benefiting from this?
Credit unions across the country have added upwards of 650,000 new customers since September 29 (the day Bank of America unveiled its now-defunct $5 monthly fee for debit cards), according to a survey of 5,000 credit unions by the Credit Union National Association. The group also estimates that credit unions have added $4.5 billion in new savings since then, likely from these new members and transfers from other banks. But CUNA spokesman Patrick Keefe says these numbers barely move the needle for big banks: "It's actually a drop in the ocean for them. They are huge."
Is there any scenario in which my big bank actually benefits if I do this?
Yes and no. If you have about $400 in a savings account and average about $1,000 in a checking account and have nothing else with your bank, then you're probably what your bank would call an "unprofitable customer." But most banks want to keep unprofitable customers onboard in hopes of later cross-selling them on credit cards and loans. "I don"t think that there's a ton of banks actively smiling and smirking because they are scaring away all these unprofitable customers," Rogers says. "Nobody really wants to lose customers."
Looking back on my 10 years with Wells Fargo, I'll always remember the time that a banker gave my 18-month-old son a stuffed horse. After my son gleefully embraced it—"Horsie!"—I was told that taking it home would require signing up for a second checking account that I didn't need. Not to worry, the friendly banker explained: He'd cancel the new account a few weeks later. I thanked him and went home feeling glad to know the guy.
The following month, my wife and I suddenly ran out of money, which seemed impossible given that I'd recently deposited a check. Wells Fargo's hefty overdraft fees kicked in. I was freaking out, thinking somebody had gone on a shopping spree with our debit card number—until I realized that the check had somehow ended up in the still-active horsie account.
Enter Bank Transfer Day, the campaign to get people to move their money from large banks into small community credit unions. According to their main trade association, credit unions have signed up 650,000 new customers since the concept was announced on September 29—double their normal rate. But if credit unions really are so much better than big banks, why haven't even more people switched over? Did the activists know something I didn't—or were credit unions just peddling their own version of the free horsie?
Zuccotti Park, like most public places in New York City, can be dangerous late at night. Midnight attacks by street people, stolen laptops, dozing women who've been groped or propositioned: Sesame Streetit is not. But with a little bit of coordinated self-policing, Occupy Wall Street can be a safe place to bed down for anyone. That, at least, was the idea on Friday night when 68 families with young children showed up at the park, blankets and cupcakes in tow, for a sleepover.
"The idea is to let parents have a voice in Occupy Wall Street, because normally they cannot be here and also be at home taking care of their families," says Kirby Desmarais, a record label owner from Brooklyn who founded the Parents for Occupy Wall Street Facebook group a few weeks ago. She was standing inside a roped-off area near the park steps—a cardboard sign dubbed it a "Child Safe Zone"—where her 18-month-old daughter and dozens of other children played with comics, alphabet blocks, and glow sticks.
"I hope that the nation will see that the movement is not only the radical, the young, and the unemployed," Desmarais went on. "It's regular citizens like us, and it's time that our voices be heard."