In Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, gangster Mack the Knife pleads his case to the audience, asking, “What is burgling a bank compared to founding a bank?” When weighed next to the massive expropriations perpetrated by the banking industry, Mack suggests, a few pilfered cash boxes are insignificant.
Yet, as we have seen time and time again, outrage stands in inverse proportion to the scale of the crime.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when protesters staged sit-ins at U.S. Bank, bystanders immediately complained they were an awful inconvenience. By preventing people from accessing their full range of financial services, they argued, the protesters horribly alienated the student body.
These naysayers fail to see the bigger picture. As tuition rises, students are forced to supplement their already massive student loans (now over $1 trillion nationwide) with additional debt. That’s where U.S. Bank steps in, with its wide array of credit cards.
According to a Sallie Mae study, one-third of undergraduates will put tuition on a credit card. And, of course, student indebtedness spiked after the financial crisis: In 2004, 69 percent of graduating seniors had paid off their credit cards but, by 2009, that number dropped to a mere 15 percent. The average senior will leave owing $4,100 on their cards.
Burdened with debt and facing grim job prospects, this generation of students goes forth into a bleak future.
But, there’s money to be made for the top one percent! Seeing our misery as a business opportunity, UC Davis struck a sweet deal with U.S. Bank. Now UC Davis gets a royalty for every new university account the bank opens and, in return, U.S. Bank receives perks like free advertising, exclusive access to campus events and space on our AggieCards. After 10 years, UC Davis hopes to bring in nearly $3 million from the program.
It’s a win-win for administrators and bankers, who both go home with loads of cash from impoverished students.
So, U.S. Bank exploits students through exorbitant interests on their tuition payments and everyday expenses, profiting off economic ruin, and that’s just ducky. But, if student protesters delay a bank customer for an hour, by God, we should get our ire up. The nerve of some people!
It’s a very old argument. Any action a social movement undertakes will be criticized as annoying, disruptive and rude. For many, the right to go about one’s daily business speedily and undisturbed is more sacred than the right to economic security and justice.
Whenever there is a strike, we’re told it frustrates the public. Whenever there’s a demonstration, it’s said to hinder traffic and commerce. Whenever an activist delivers an impassioned speech, the critics demand they tone it down so as not to offend the moderate and the apathetic.
But protests always bother someone. I imagine that many busy individuals had to readjust their schedules when civil rights activists occupied Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, or when Egyptians took back Tahrir Square. Luckily, protesters passed over these minor concerns and dealt with more pressing matters.
This tired complaint is usually followed by a bit of meta-criticism: How does this help get protesters’ message across? If I don’t understand what is happening, the argument goes, then nobody will.
It could very well be true that Occupy UC Davis needs more explanatory literature for the uninformed. They have offered countless teach-ins and discussions to explain their position, including at the initial U.S. Bank occupation, but they might not have reached out to all passersby.
Nevertheless, this critique betrays a misunderstanding about the purpose of direct action. Occupying a bank is not a form of outreach or a publicity stunt. The primary goal of the action isn’t to raise awareness among students, because students have no say in what U.S. Bank does. Even if campus opinion was squarely against the bank, it wouldn’t make a difference as long as no one acted.
The only opinion that matters to U.S. Bank is that of its shareholders and the only thing shareholders care about is their bottom line. The occupation strikes at the bank’s profits, forcing them to pay attention to the protest’s demand: banks off campus.
Certainly, the Occupy movement should hold every direct action up to careful, collective scrutiny. Some forms of protest are counterproductive or politically retrograde. But, when they do, they would do well to ignore the idle carping of complacent onlookers.
JORDAN S. CARROLL is a PhD student in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.