This weekend, the New York Times told the story of a man named Charlie Engle who is in jail for being sold a bad loan. Engle did commit a crime by signing a so-called “liar loan,” in which he falsely stated his income to get a mortgage. But what is shocking is who got off scot-free: the financial executives who convinced millions of Americans like Engle to sign similar loans, helping to bring the economy to its knees.
I thought of this story when reading about the new campaign being waged by Fox News demagogue Glenn Beck to get a man who is trying to hold big banks accountable for their actions charged with “domestic terrorism.”
Stephen Lerner is a prominent figure in the labor movement. A former executive at the SEIU, he designed the Justice for Janitors organization, which has secured workers’ rights and living wages for thousands of janitors across the country. Recently, Lerner echoed the frustration of many in saying that big banks got off scot-free after their reckless lending procedures forced millions of Americans out of their homes and caused a major financial crisis. And he proposed a solution. Ezra Klein summarizes:
Like a lot of people, he feels the financial system got off too easy in the crisis. They created the mess, but unlike the millions of foreclosed homeowners and newly unemployed workers, they’ve come out mostly unscathed. It’s still very, very good to be a banker in this country. It’s not good at all to be underwater on your house. And he’s got a plan for changing that.
Union types are always looking for “leverage.” Leverage is what I have that gives me power over you. And Lerner thinks he’s identified the point of leverage that workers and homeowners and students have over the financial system. “What does the other side fear most?” Lerner asked. “They fear disruption, they fear uncertainty. Every article about Europe says a riot in Greece, the markets went down. The folks that control this country care about one thing: how the stock market does; how the bond market does; and what their bonus is. So I think we weed out a very simple strategy: how do we bring down the stock market, how do we bring down their bonuses, how do we interfere with their ability to, to be rich.” To do so, he wants to see a campaign of disruption and strategic default led by community-activist groups and aimed at J.P. Morgan Chase.
As Lerner sees it, once there’s leverage, once the banks are scared, there can be a settlement. What sort of settlement? Lerner gives a couple of examples in his talk. “You” — meaning banks in general, and J.P. Morgan Chase in particular — “reduce the price of our interest, since your interest rate is down; and second, you rewrite the mortgages for everybody in the community so they can stay in their homes. We could make them do that.”
You may or may not agree with the wisdom of Lerner’s idea. But would you call it “terrorism”? Glenn Beck would, and has now chosen Lerner to be the newest anchor point in his vast liberal conspiracy theory, saying that the labor leader is plotting to commit “economic terrorism” by “collaps[ing] the system.”
People For’s legal department looked into what our laws actually say about domestic terrorism and, needless to say, it’s not even a close question. There’s no danger to human life involved here. And there’s certainly no effort to intimidate the civilian population or the government.
In fact, under Beck’s definition of terrorism as advocating for peaceful economic disruption, he himself should be investigated. As Media Matters has pointed out, Beck himself has more than once advocated “taking down” or “resetting” our entire financial system—a much more sweeping economic action than the targeted protests Lerner is advocating.
The corporate-funded right wing has made it clear in the last few months that they will not tolerate working people who want to take on big corporations. In Wisconsin and Ohio, teachers and police officers and other public workers have been demonized for fighting to their right to organize, while corporations continue to get massive tax breaks and hold a huge amount of sway over elections.
In their world, the millions of Americans who suffered from the financial crisis—people like Charlie Engle—are the criminals, and the people who try to organize working Americans are “terrorists.” That topsy-turvy view of justice and power is unsettling, to say the least.
UPDATE: Lerner responds to Beck in The Nation:
So that was it: Beck, right-wingers and Wall Street sympathizers went ballistic because they knew the ideas I talked about are far from being a secret leftist conspiracy; in fact, they’re in sync with the thinking of most Americans. In my talk, I raised a very simple yet powerful idea: that homeowners, students, citizens and workers should make the same practical decisions Wall Street and corporate CEOs make every day—they should reject bad financial deals.