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Occupy Groups Reimagine The Bank

Occupy L.A. activists rally outside the Bank of America Plaza in Los Angeles in February. The Occupy protests around the country have inspired two working groups that are attempting to reform the banking system and create an alternative bank.
Damian Dovarganes

Groups within the Occupy Wall Street movement are trying to overhaul the banking system and even dream of creating a new kind of bank.

Occupy isn't in the headlines so much these days, but work continues behind the scenes. The Alternative Banking Group of Occupy Wall Street meets weekly in different places. Members are older than some might think — in their 30s, 40s and 50s — and many work or formerly worked in the financial industry.

"We have almost no consensus opinion, except that the system is not working," says Cathy O'Neil, who often facilitates the group that is working on legislation and regulation to reform the financial system. "A lot of these people are from finance or have a background in law or SEC regulation. There's lots of people from banks and hedge funds."

She herself was a quant — a quantitative analyst at a hedge fund. She even worked with former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers for a while, but she got disillusioned. Within the Alternative Banking Group are smaller groups working on specific projects. O'Neil talks about their plans for a mobile app to help people move their money away from large banks.

"It would show you which credit unions you're eligible for, which is a big obstacle for people," O'Neil explains, "where the ATMs are in your neighborhood, what kind of paperwork you would need, and what the investing philosophy of that credit union is and what their services are."

This group also wrote an article in the Financial Times about former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman's plan to deal with banks that were "too big to fail." The group members hope to get President Obama and the GOP candidates to take the issue seriously.

'Pretty Radical Stuff'

Another group wants to create a new kind of bank. One of the facilitators of the Occupy Bank Working Group is former British diplomat Carne Ross. He says it's amazing that the banking system is so broken that some people in finance share the concerns of people who were sleeping in New York City's Zuccotti Park — the heart of the Occupy movement.

"To the extent that actually we're talking about setting up an alternative system, that's pretty radical stuff," Ross says. "And the fact that you have Wall Street bankers, former regulators, hedge fund traders, as part of that project, I find pretty striking."

There is always lively discussion. Jerry Weinstein, a writer, wants the new bank to help educate people. "How do you get people to spend within their means, to save, to make better choices about not being surprised about a balloon loan?" he asks.

Elizabeth Friedrich works for a trade association of credit unions. "The communities I work in, low-income communities of color, [are] completely underserved and underbanked, and I think that's part of the target market we're looking for in this bank," she says.

A couple of times a week, Occupy Wall Street has a Spokes Council where decisions are made by consensus. Each working group sends a representative.

"I'm Carne from the Occupy Bank Working Group, greetings to you all," Ross says to a group of about 60 people in the room at one of the meetings. "We're not common attendees at Spokes."

A Democratic Bank

Ross makes a presentation about how this new bank, if it existed, would fulfill the values and ideals of Occupy Wall Street. "A bank that would be democratic, that would be owned by its employees and by its customers; it would be transparent, it would follow banking practices that did not expose the broader economy to systemic risk," he says.

And ultimately, the dream is a national bank. Ross believes that if you change banking, you change the whole nervous system of the economy. But he realizes it's a tall order to take on the banking system. The regulatory obstacles are huge, and failure is very possible.

The Occupy Bank Working Group is inspired by innovative financial institutions like the ShoreBank. Started in the 1970s, it was once the largest certified community development financial institution in the U.S., but it failed during the financial crisis.

At a weekly meeting, members of the group try to hammer out a news release. They want to acquire or partner with a bank. One of the founders of the ShoreBank, Mary Houghton, is on the phone from Chicago. "Is there a third option in which you buy a substantial stake, but you don't control the bank?" Houghton asks.

The group is looking to partner with or acquire an existing financial institution to create the Occupy Bank — democratic, transparent, accessible, competitive — but it shouldn't maximize profits over everything.

The group is now discussing structure, and a survey of what people in diverse communities want and need. But so far, no partner has knocked on the door.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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