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Wednesday, Nov 2, 2011, 4:49 pm

The Steady Occupation: Banks Drop Debit Fees, Credit Union Accounts Swell in Signs of Occupy Impact

By Miles Kampf-Lassin

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Protesters demonstrate near the Chicago Board of Trade on Oct. 26th, 2011. Credit: peoplesworld via flickr

Can victories be declared in a movement without clear demands?

This week, a number of developments in the U.S. banking industry along with judicial rulings on rights to free speech and assembly have signaled that the messages and actions of Occupy movements across the country are beginning to affect policy in these areas in concrete ways.

In a major policy shift, Bank of America announced on Tuesday that it will be abandoning its highly contested plans to institute a monthly $5 debit card fee. As reported by the LA Times in early October, the proposal has become "a focal point for anger and frustration about the flailing economy and Washington's attempts to help the nation recover from the financial crisis." The Occupy demonstrations have been primary stages for this growing frustration, and protesters have consistently directed actions at Bank of America as a principal agent of corporate malfeasance.

The decision by Bank of America coincided with similar announcements by other major banks that had either planned or already instituted such fees, including Chase, Wells Fargo, SunTrust Banks, and Regions Financial Corp.

While it is impossible to prove direct causality between the Occupy protests and the reneging of policies by these big banks, as Greg Sargent reports for the Washington Post, the public pressure created through swelling criticism by the customers of these banks, some of whom are participants in Occupy protests, certainly played a central role. Powerful banking institutions would never abnegate policies designed to bring in billions of dollars in absence of strong public backlash. This backlash has been acutely articulated through the Occupy protests, both through messaging as well as actions targeting big banks in cities across the country including Detroit, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, and Chicago.    

Another point of pressure on these banks has been even more salient: Over the past month, tens of thousands of Americans across the country have been closing their accounts with major banks and moving their money to local credit unions and community banks. A number of credit unions have reported that their business has increased five-fold with customers flocking from major banks not only to avoid fee hikes but also to protest bailouts and send a clear message that they will not support institutions that are 'too big to fail'.

This spike in interest and support of smaller, non-profit, co-operative banks can certainly not be attributed solely to the Occupy protests. The Bank Transfer Day campaign, culminating on Saturday, Nov. 5th, was announced on Facebook independently of the Occupy movement and follows the Move Your Money project launched in 2009 and the Move Our Money campaign established by New Bottom Line. Nonetheless, many Occupy protests have endorsed these campaigns and amplified their calls to a growing audience. Moreover, Occupy protesters have led targeted actions across the country involving public acts of closing accounts with big banks, including a highly publicized action at a Citibank location in New York City on Oct. 15th where over a dozen protesters were arrested.

In another sign of the Occupy movement affecting policy on a major scale, rulings in a number of cities over the past week have granted protesters the right to demonstrate in public spaces without curfew, in many cases overturning previously held ordinances.

This past Tuesday, the Irvine City Council approved Occupy Orange County protesters' request to keep an overnight encampment in the city's Civic Center lawn. The Mayor Sukhee Kang defended the ruling, saying,

It is important as a city to respect and facilitate free speech rights for everyone and that is exactly what the city has done on Tuesday night after listening to over 60 people speak. It wasn't about politics, it wasn't about partisanship, it was about respecting their voice.

On Wednesday, a judge in Cleveland ruled that Occupy Cleveland protesters have the right to demonstrate on the city's Public Square 24 hours a day, although they are still prohibited from camping and the ruling only lasts through the end of November. Lawyers for the protesters plan to meet with U.S. Judge Dan Aaron Polster again on Nov. 9th to extend the ruling.

And in Tennessee, a federal judge ordered on Monday that police refrain from arresting Occupy Nashville protesters from the city's Legislative Plaza where 50 people had been arrested on Friday and Saturday mornings.

These developments go to show the power and influence of a sustained and broad-based movement for change. No single protester, or encampment, or action led to big banks overturning debit fee hikes, or a swelling of business for credit unions, or judges ruling on rights of assembly. There are many disparate factors that contributed to these various policy reversals, but it is no coincidence that the Occupy movement's calls for reining in an out of control monopolized banking system and protecting rights to free speech have in small but important ways been answered by these recent developments. As winter sets in, Occupy protesters will have their challenge set out for them, but through building support and networking with other movements for social and economic justice, further and more significant progress will likely be in store. 

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University's Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. @MilesKLassin

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