Last weekend, I joined more than 30 people who braved blizzard-like conditions to assemble in a square across from Occupy Wall Street’s encampment at Zucotti Park to speak up about connections between big food and the Occupy movement. There was a food activist from Iowa, a farmer from upstate New York, students and professors from NYU, a union electrician, a nutritionist (who said she was there because “if the food system isn’t working, I can’t do my job”) and more.
Many carried plastic-covered signs with slogans like “Beat the System” and, my favorite, a line from Tom Philpott’s excellent article: “Our Food System is a Big Fat Monopoly.” As the rally ended—cut short by 30-degree temperatures, blinding snow, and 30-mile-an-hour wind gusts—I shared my commitment to do one, easy thing this week in support of the 99 percent: To move my money out of the hands of Citibank.
This week, tens of thousands of people are pledging to move their money out of the pockets of the financial institutions that got us into this mess and into the hands of credit unions and banks we can believe in.
When I first heard about this campaign, spearheaded by grassroots activists along with national groups ranging from the Rainforest Action Network (where I’m on the board of directors) to MoveOn.org, I thought—and I admit this with a good dose of embarrassment—“Good idea, but what a pain. I mean, I’d have to change all my automatic bill payments and open new accounts.”
But, of course, it’s probably a bit more than a pain to spend cold, wet nights—like last Saturday—sleeping on the hard cement of outdoor parks. If hundreds of people can make that sacrifice—all day, all week, for weeks—I think I can handle doing some busywork to move my money. And so I am. On Saturday, November 5, the national day of action to move your money, I’m closing my Citibank account, the one I opened 15 years ago on the same block as my first Brooklyn sublet. And I’m joining tens thousands of others when I do.
And it’s going to feel good. See, I’ve had twinges of regret for years, every time I heard about some new act of egregious Big Bank behavior. I just got used to turning a blind eye. But then the financial meltdown, the Big Bank bailout, and now this collective call to action and my attitude started to change and my eyes started opening.
Consider, for instance, that Citibank just agreed to pay $285 million to settle a lawsuit, essentially admitting to misleading investors about toxic mortgage-backed securities, although the bank officially neither admitted nor denied that it had done anything wrong. How convenient. Meanwhile, ProPublica, which has been digging into the machinations of Citi and other Big Banks, argues that the bank is on the line for much more and much worse.
But also keep in mind what Citibank has been doing with my, and our, money all these years and what it has to do with the food movement that turned out at Occupy Wall Street this past weekend. Turns out, Citibank has been busy. Here’s a taste. The bank has been:
- Investing in major agricultural projects in developing countries, what many critics call a modern-day land grab;
- Underwriting $300 million to finance expansion of “land grabs” in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia for agricultural commodities and livestock production.
Bank of America customer? Keep in mind the bank is one of the lead underwriters of the coal industry. Rainforest Action Network is encouraging people to close their accounts and let BofA know that the bank should be moving its investment dollars away from dirty coal and toward clean, green renewable energy. Says RAN:
The bank routinely underwrites hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to…two of the biggest coal mining companies in the Powder River Basin that are desperately trying to secure a… facility to ship coal overseas…
As if all this weren’t enough to push us over the edge, I got a letter from Citibank several weeks ago—maybe you got a similar one from your Big Bank?—in which the bank informed me that clients who keep less than a $6,000 account balance—that’s me—would start seeing a monthly $15 fee on their statements. In other words, if you’re not rich enough to keep a big balance, you have to pay Citibank to keep your money while they spend it in their bailout-resulting, environment-destroying financial decisions.
I haven’t even been giving $15 a month to my favorite social action organization, yet I was sitting quietly while Citibank informed me they were going to take it from me and my captive bank account? (If you think Citibank’s policy was egregious, Bank of America announced it would start charging $60 a year to use its ATMs, a policy, which, thanks to public outcry, the bank just reversed).
Enough. I am done. Done with Citibank, done with feeling guilty when I get my monthly statements in the mail; done with feeling bad when I see my ATM card in my wallet. So on November 5, I plan to join with others across the country as I walk into my local Citi branch and close my account. I’ll tell them why, add my voice to the pledges here, and cut up my card. Then, I’ll head home to check out my new bank accounts online at Amalgamated Bank, the bank of the labor union movement. (You can find community-oriented banks and credit unions near you here and tips about how to move your money and not mess up your finances here.)
Finally, I’ll commit to giving that $15 a month (which, mind you, Citibank was going to take from me) to one of my favorite groups working on behalf of the 99 percent. All this will take a little paperwork and a little time, but nothing I can’t handle. And then, I’ll be free—and it’ll feel great. I hope you’ll join me.