Austin Continues On With Too-Big-To-Fail Banks

This week the Austin City Council voted unanimously to move city banking from Bank of America to Chase, just three weeks after voting unanimously to investigate responsible banking options. What is clear now is that this move to Chase Bank was already decided even before the March 1st vote on the responsible banking resolution, since the city had sent out a request to 112 financial institutions in August 2011 and received exactly three replies – Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Chase Bank – institutions that made good use of their bailout money to position themselves as collateralized enough to handle the city’s finances.

Since this move by the city was sparsely covered by the local news outlets (YNN, KUT), here’s a little of what you missed if you did not attend the March 22nd meeting:

The city’s Interim Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart read from her four-page memo, reiterating Austin’s financial needs and how only the largest banks can provide for them. When questioned by Council Member Bill Spelman about whether the city’s contracts could be split between several smaller institutions, the response was no, because making sure that the financial arrangements were being followed by the banks would be a nightmare for city staff. There were, however, no concerns as to whether the contract with Chase Bank would be in the city’s best interest. The contract was awarded despite JPMorgan Chase’s settlement in July of last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission over the rigging of the municipal bond market. Chase has also settled lawsuits dealing with excessive overdraft fees, cheating veterans and defrauding the federal government, among other egregious activities. When questioned by Council Member Kathie Tovo as to whether the Chase contract could be limited to one year while the city gathered more information,  city staff responded that no bank would enter into a one-year contract, that the shortest contract could be 36 months, and that reopening the bidding would be a logistical nightmare for city staff.

And of course, there was the mention of those other cities – San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle, Philadelphia, all with responsible banking resolutions, and all still tied to contracts with Bank of America or Wells Fargo. Since those cities couldn’t make the move, why should Austin try to change anything.

Several citizens spoke at the meeting, reminding the Council of Chase Bank’s horrible treatment of its customers and of its settlements with the federal government, not to mention the bailouts. But when Claire Hirschkind spoke, she noted that at least one credit union, Members’ Trust FSB, was interested in a contract with the city, but was never contacted. While not a local institution, it is a credit union that might have a better record with its clients than Chase Bank.

One of the more surreal moments was the discussion about which of the three finalists, now famous for ripping off their customers, including governments both federal and local, was best able to handle Austin’s finances for the lowest price. Chase was deemed the winner of that sweepstakes, having scored the highest on the city’s grading system.

So now Austin will bank with another too-big-to-fail institution for at least the next three years. While Occupy Austin and others tried to stop this fiasco from occurring, it is now incumbent on all of us to keep the pressure on the City Council, to push them to work with responsible banking institutions. The contract we are now stuck with has a two-year renewal option. Let’s make sure the City Council understands that this three-year contract is the most we will grudgingly accept.

 

UPDATE (March 26th):

Today a member of Occupy Austin’s Bank Action Committee spoke with Council Member Bill Spelman concerning the City of Austin’s vote awarding a banking contract to Chase Bank. The following statement/questions were sent to Mr. Spelman, indicating Occupy Austin’s continued work on this issue.

Thank you for taking a moment out of your breakfast time this morning to speak with me. While we are collecting information from various member trusts operated on behalf of local and regional credit unions, we want to make sure that you, your colleagues, and staff have a clear understanding of the questions we’d like answered. These questions are attached and pasted and the bottom of this message.

Our folks look forward to your response. Thanks again.
There are over 30 days left for the City Manager Office to examine the city’s banking contracts.  We are asking you to get answers to the following questions:

  •  Were you, or someone from your staff given a copy of the RFA issued in August of 2011? If so, we are asking you for a copy, as well as a list of the 112 banks it was distributed to.
  • What criteria were used to determine which banks would receive the RFA?
  • After multiple requests for information regarding city financial contracts dating from October to February, we were never told about the already-issued RFA. Why did members of City Council and staff withhold this information?
  • Why were responsible banking criteria like foreclosure rates, payday lending, etc not included in the RFA?
  • Has the contract with JP Morgan Chase already been signed?
  • What is the history of the city’s relationship with JP Morgan Chase? How many contracts have been signed between the City and JPMC, and what caused the city to change banks in previous years?
  • Why didn’t the Deputy Chief Financial Officers and the City Manager consider  extending the current depository contract with Bank of America for one year in order to reopen the RFA and include responsible banking criteria?
  • If the city signs with JPMC, are you willing to push the City Manager to leverage this new relationship by requiring that JPMC invest a certain percentage of the city’s assets in the local economy? Are you willing to push for a moratorium on foreclosures by JPMC in the Austin/Travis County area?

 

 

 

 

Austin’s Banking – Too Big to Fail?

On March 1st the Austin City Council charged City Manager Marc Ott with investigating the possibility of removing the city’s money from Bank of America and moving it to a local bank or credit union. They gave the him sixty days to complete the task. Now, a mere three weeks later the city manager has apparently completed his investigation and is ready to award a new banking contract.

But this is no victory for the citizens of Austin. The city’s financial office is suggesting that Austin move its money from too-big-to-fail Bank of America to too-big-to fail Chase Bank, and a vote will be taken (it’s agenda item #56) at the March 22nd City Council meeting. We now know that Austin had initiated a Request for Application in the Summer of 2011 because its five-year contract with Bank of America was coming to an end. So even before Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Austin had begun, before the generalized public outrage which led to the removal of more than $1.6 million from Austin branches of Wall Street banks and into local banks/credit unions, the city had started its search for a new banking contract. It appears that  city government is having a good laugh at the expense of Occupy Austin, all the way to the too-big-to-fail bank.

A memo from Austin’s Interim Chief Financial Officer notes that 112 Requests for Application were sent out in August and only three banks replied – Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo. It’s a good thing that BOA didn’t have the highest score on the RFAs or the city would have even more explaining to do. The memo notes that requests were sent to three  local banks. Those banks are not mentioned by name in the memo, but they apparently did not respond:

In October 2011, after discussing this issue with the City Council, staff began to informally assess the capabilities of alternative banks, such as credit unions to manage the city’s banking needs. This assessment began by evaluating the responses to the RFA, which detailed the City’s specific depository needs. The RFA was sent to three banks that can be considered regional/local. THE RFA was also published in the local Austin American Statesman. None of these three local/regional banks submitted an application to be considered for this contract. None of these three, nor any other financial institution that can be considered regional/local participated in the pre-bid opening that occurred on August 11, 2011. Staff can infer from receiving no responses from any regional/local bank that they were unable to m eet the requirements set out in the RFA.

It is true, as I noted in an earlier post on this subject, that credit unions would need to jump through some hoops in order to accept the city’s money. Section 701.32 of Title 12 of the Code of Federal Regulations  (Banks and Banking) notes:

b) Limitations. (1) Unless a greater amount has been approved by the Regional Director, the maximum amount of all public unit and nonmember shares shall not, at any given time, exceed 20% of the total shares of the federal credit union or $1.5 million, whichever is greater.

(2) Before accepting any public unit or nonmember shares in excess of 20% of total shares, the board of directors must adopt a specific written plan concerning the intended use of these shares and forward a copy of the plan to the Regional Director.

It includes details of the planning and reporting that needs to be done before a credit union can accept funds in excess of the limits described above. It’s a lot of work and in the pre-Occupy Wall Street era, probably too much work. But given the current public outrage over the complicity of these too-big-to-fail banks in the mortgage meltdown and ensuing financial crisis,  isn’t it possible that now some of the local banks or credit unions might be able to find a way to accommodate the city’s finances.

Please consider attending the March 22nd Austin City Council meeting and speaking out against this proposed move.

Austin’s First Steps Towards Divesting from Bank of America

On March 1st the Austin City Council voted unanimously to investigate what it will take to move its money from Bank of America to a local bank/credit union. When the vote was finally taken at 10:45 pm after testimony from half a dozen Austinites including several from Occupy Austin, the room erupted in cheers.  This move by the city is a response to activism by Occupy Austin and its Bank Action Committee which brought the egregious and criminal conduct of too-big-to-fail banks like Bank of America as well as the city’s relationship with BOA to the public via  move-your-money marches and petition drives.

As it was sparsely reported by a couple of news outlets (KUT Radio and YNN) the council tasked the City Manager to study how to accomplish the move and to report back in sixty days. So on May 1st we should have some idea of how the city will proceed.  In order to accomplish this move, the City of Austin and its future financial institution will have to navigate a jumble of state and federal rules and regulations

Here are some of the statutory issues Austin and its prospective credit union will have to work with:

The Texas Finance Code notes that credit unions can accept  municipal funds. But the National Credit Union Administration rules and regulations place a  limit on the amount of money a credit union can automatically take in  from public entities:

(b) Limitations. (1) Unless a greater amount has been approved by the Regional Director, the maximum amount of all public unit and nonmember shares shall not, at any given time, exceed 20% of the total shares of the federal credit union or $1.5 million, whichever is greater.

Any credit union responding to a Request for Proposal from the City of Austin will need to submit a plan as stipulated in section 701.32 of the NCUA rules and regulations (part of Title 12 of the Code of Federal Regulations).

The Texas Government Code lists the type of institutions that can accept public securities, and credit unions are not specifically mentioned, though the state Comptroller can designate institutions as “custodians”  as explained in section (iii) below:

Instead of depositing pledged securities with the comptroller, a depository may deposit them with a custodian.  The custodian may be the (i) Texas Treasury Safekeeping Trust Company, (ii) a state or national bank that has a capital stock and permanent surplus of not less than $5 million, is a state depository, and has been designated as a custodian by the comptroller, or (iii) a financial institution authorized to exercise fiduciary powers that has a capital stock and permanent surplus of not less than $5 million, has its main office, branch office, or a trust office in this state, and has been designated as a custodian by the comptroller.  For purposes of this subsection, “financial institution” has the meaning assigned by Section 201.101(1), Finance Code.  The comptroller may designate those custodial applicants that are acceptable and may reject those whose management or condition, in the opinion of the comptroller, do not warrant the placing of securities pledged by state depositories.

There are obviously some hoops to jump through in order for the Austin to move its money out of Bank of America and into a credit union, but judging from the response I got from an official at my credit union at the idea of doing business with the City of Austin, the interest is definitely there, and the obstacles are not insurmountable.

Please take action and let your local credit union/banking institution know how important it is to you that the city sever its financial relationship with Bank of America and request that they help facilitate the city’s divestment from a too-big-to-fail bank to a responsible local option.

Texas, Austin and Bank of America

In Texas banking news, while the state is expanding its relationship with Bank of America, the City of Austin is exploring the feasibility of severing its ties to the bank.

You would think that Bank of America’s recent mortgage fraud settlement with the state Attorneys General and its settlement of a discrimination lawsuit late last year might prompt one of the states involved in the fraud  settlement to avoid doing business with the bank. Despite the record fines imposed on the banks, these settlements are viewed as toothless to keep Bank of America and the other too-big-to-fail banks from repeating their fraudulent activity. But Texas is poised to deliver any number of its almost 400 thousand state employees to BOA by offering the TexPayCard, a debit card linked to the bank which would contain the employees’ paycheck on a monthly or bi-weekly basis. The state Comptroller’s Office no longer wants to issue checks and has turned to one of the banks implicated in serious mortgage fraud to manage state employees’  money through this pre-paid debit card.  Just the juxtaposition of Bank of America and debit cards should raise red flags with state officials; instead state agencies are now notifying their staff as in this week’s reminder from the Health and Human Services Commission:

Enrollment has begun for the TexPayCard program, which allows state employees to receive their pay on a prepaid payment card rather than by paper warrant or by direct deposit to a bank or credit union.

A picture of the debit card accompanies the flier describing this “service” which is billed as a convenience for employees who do not currently have direct deposit or even a bank account as a way to avoid check cashing fees. But it also being marketed to workers who currently have accounts with a financial institution:

While the card may appeal most to employees who receive their pay by warrant, the program also is available to employees who have direct deposit to a bank account.

Prominently missing on this graphic depiction of the TexPayCard is any mention of Bank of America. True, these cards aren’t necessarily ready, and they may yet be embossed with the bank’s name, that remains to be seen. The fees are listed on the back of the flier and include a $15 emergency cash transfer fee, $1.50 for use at non Bank of America ATM, and $3.50 for international ATM withdrawals, and 50 cents each time a transaction is declined at an ATM.

While the state is willing to overlook Bank of America’s dismal record, the City of Austin, under pressure from Occupy Austin and the 1.5 million dollars Austin-area residents have removed from the large mega-banks that tanked the economy, is considering the possibility of moving its money out of the bank. Agenda item #48 at the March 1st City Council meeting calls on  the Austin City Council to discuss and  vote on a resolution sponsored by Council members Morrison, Tovo and Mayor Leffingwell, to study how to move its funds:

WHEREAS, investment practices and subprime lending policies by major national banks led to a global downturn in the economy and influenced a massive wave of foreclosures throughout the country, including Austin; and

WHEREAS, foreclosures affect the stability of Austin’s neighborhoods and place strain on a student’s opportunity for academic success when families are forced to move throughout the school year; and

WHEREAS, it is in the interest of the City of Austin to ensure public funds are invested in financial institutions that support our local community; and

WHEREAS, the City of Austin has a long-standing tradition of supporting local businesses, which fosters sustainability of our economy; NOW THEREFORE

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF AUSTIN

That the City Manager is directed evaluate and report back to the City Council within 60 days regarding the following:

1. The current status of the city’s depository contract, including information on renewal options and the timing for the solicitation process; and

2. Fiscal and operational impacts of terminating the current depository contract and contracting with an alternative local or regional bank, including the feasibility of a credit union; and

3. A comprehensive analysis of the capacity of alternative banks, such as credit unions, to maintain and manage the city’s banking needs.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED

The City Manager is directed to review the city’s current banking policies and make recommendations on changes to give preference to banks that support community reinvestment goals, such as the stabilization of the housing market, provision of loans to local homeowners and businesses, establishment of local branches in low- income communities, and opportunities for local employment.

Needless to say, a large presence at the March 1st  City Council meeting, or outside at City Hall Plaza at 1st and Lavaca, will go a long way towards moving the Austin City Council in the right direction. The Council meeting starts at 10 am. Please consider attending.

Occupy Austin Tries the Banks

This past weekend, on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Occupy Austin tried, convicted, and sentenced three too-big-to-fail banks to punishments that essentially destroyed them. Occupy Austin, in a fine bit of street theater with a serious message, conducted a trial of the  CEOs of three very large corporate persons – Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Chase Manhattan – with the CEOs appearing in stocks, and the corporate persons they represented in grave danger of the “ultimate punishment”.

Standing behind a banner that reminded passers-by that more than $1.5 million had been moved out of Austin branches of megabanks since Occupy Austin began on October 6th, the trial proceeded on the sidewalk in front of City Hall.

 

 

Bank of America was sentenced to corporate death, because of its continued abuses despite numerous monetary penalties, illegal foreclosures, tax evasion, and putting all citizens at risk for financial ruin by shifting 53 trillion in derivatives from its bank holding company to its FDIC insured retail bank. Wells Fargo, for steering borrowers with good credit into subprime mortgages for the sake of lucrative fees, and investing in for profit prisons and especially immigration prisons, was sentenced to life in prison. And Chase was sentenced to “corporate dissolution” for hawking crappy mortgages to vulnerable Americans. The result of this dissolution:

You must break yourself up into local banks, which do not pressure personal bankers to sell products they know their customers do not need, in order to meet sales quotas or risk losing their livelihood. Instead, your local bankers will be paid a fair and equitable wage, and will help their customers to engage in safe and healthy banking practices.

OA also reminded the American public that our continued patronage of these institutions helped the perpetrators, but our  sentence was lenient, compared to that of the corporate person malefactors – three months of community service with Occupy Austin (helping with the occupation, participating in demonstrations, etc.), and six months with Bank Action (the amount of time it may take to move one’s money to a local credit union). Also implicated was the US government, including the Supreme Court, with its egregious Citizens United decision allowing corporate entities already too big to fail to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns in an effort to perpetuate their status quo, and the Federal Reserve, which has added to the bank bailout funds to the tune of trillions of dollars, while those  bailed-out institutions left distressed homeowners with no recourse and no real help modifying their mortgages.

Occupy Austin’s trial reminds us all that the call for real accountability has gone unheeded in Washington. The federal government seems intent on extending leniency to the banks: the Obama administration is pushing a settlement between the state Attorneys General and banks involved in illegal foreclosures, which would immunize the banks from any further liability before the investigation has even concluded. A group of AGs, including New York’s Eric Schneiderman, objected to any settlement with the banks until all of the foreclosure irregularities had been investigated and revealed:

Brokered by a 50-state panel of Attorneys General, the robosigning settlement talks ground to a halt when Schneiderman objected to the immunity provisions, seeking to reserve NY’s rights to investigate and prosecute fraud. This could best reduce the chances of future economic catastrophe, strongly dissuading criminal or reckless activity, seeking full reparations for victims instead of partial reimbursements and restore the rule of law to an industry plagued by government-industry incest and pay-for-play at the highest levels.

This settlement now appears imminent, just in time for the President’s State of the Union address, and includes $19 billion in loan write-downs for 1 million borrowers. The banks will be shielded from future liability, and will shell out what amounts to “pennies on the dollar”.

Mock trials may be the only way we can get our voices heard, and Occupy Austin’s trial, conviction, sentencing and punishment of the banks, and its symbolic destruction of corporate personhood, are a reminder that the majority of Americans want the banks held accountable in a way that will actually stop their egregious behavior.

Right to Work?

Yet another state is struggling to fend off anti-union legislation, this time a Midwestern industrial state moving directly to implement “right-to-work” status rather than piece-meal dismantling union rights. Unlike Wisconsin, where the attack was on public sector unions, Indiana, which already bans public sector collective bargaining, has decided to attack private sector unions and, as the state’s right-to-work legislation indicates, to allow workers to opt out of paying fees even when there is a union representing them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes the number of non-union employees covered by a union contract in its Union Members Summary:

In 2010, 16.3 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union. This group includes both union members (14.7 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1..6 million).  (See table 1.) Government employees (783,000) comprised about half of the 1.6 million workers who were covered by a union contract but were not members of a union. (See Table 3.)

As a state employee and a union member in a right-to-work state I can describe what happens when public employees are stripped of collective bargaining rights.  We do have a right to free association, even in union-hating Texas, but since 1993 state employees here have had no right to strike, and no right to bargain. Politicians couch this in term of freedom – to join or not join a union, to not be forced to pay union dues or representation fees. They note that workers here are free to join the union without fear of retaliation, but the language in the state’s codes and statutes is very heavily weighted towards the freedom to be free of unions.

Unions in right -to-work states are a collection of like-minded individuals with little power, yet despite these limitations, we continue to score victories for working people: my union, the Texas State Employees Union, has fought attempts to privatize a state psychiatric hospital, and opposed the transformation of the state’s defined benefits pension plan into a defined contribution plan and the health insurance plan into a high-deductible health savings account, and has continued to win those battles through lobbying efforts with the Texas legislature. Despite the clear attempts to render unions irrelevant to employees who wonder why they should part with ten or fifteen or twenty dollars of their already meager salary every month, we still gain membership, and we still win battles.

So when Scott Walker, the union-bashing Governor of Wisconsin,  appeared in Austin last week, a gathering of about 100 members of various private and public sector unions and Occupy Austin  rallied outside the venue, reminding Walker that supporters of his recall are everywhere.

 

Walker spoke to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose executive director, Arlene Wohlgemuth, was once a state legislator and authored the bill consolidating the state’s health and human services departments, leading to the layoffs of many employees and to privatization schemes that would later have to be reversed because the contractor, Accenture, did a shoddy job with such essential state function as signing up children for health insurance and ensuring that the poor could access food stamps in a timely manner.  Accenture did such a horrible job that Texas became the example to the country of how not to sign people up for food stamps, with the Department of Agriculture warning states not to follow the Texas model:

The message from federal officials to the states: We know these are tough times, but privatization isn’t the answer.

The TPPF is also looking to privatize the state’s Medicaid program, delivering poor and disabled Texans to the insurance market, where, the policy statement notes, they can learn personal responsibility for their healthcare choices. The program would, of course, be exempt from federal regulations:

including the minimum coverage requirements under the new federal law. The private insurers should be given the opportunity to offer customized plans that offer additional benefits in addition to the minimum requirements. These insurers should likewise have the freedom to set the deductible amount, copayments, and coinsurance to the extent they do so for the non-Medicaid population.

As the non-Medicaid population already knows, the private insurance market is interested in profit above all else, which is why we needed health care reform in the first place.

These policy objectives of privatization, weakening of unions into irrelevance, creating a paradise for business profiteering fit nicely with Scott Walker’s agenda, though he did note that he was hoping to poach jobs away from Texas with his unionbusting bill. And why not, since he admitted that he stole the “open for business” motto from Texas as well. But Scott Walker, and other union-busting state officials should know that while they may find an ear from business interests and their policy lackeys in right-to-work states, they will also never be free of a union presence calling them to account.

 

 

 

 

Occupy Austin at 3 months

January 6th marked the three-month anniversary of Occupy Austin, and parties and festivities are scheduled at City Hall throughout this weekend. Here are some thoughts and observations about OA’s trajectory since October 6th.

Occupy Austin began in early October when more than 1000 people attended a rally at City Hall. People were invited to speak up and give testimonials as to why they were participating in the movement.


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The strength of Occupy Wall Street

As cities around the country send their police forces to dismantle Occupy encampments,  it might be interesting to revisit some of the language opponents have used to belittle the movement, because that language speaks to the strength of Occupy Wall Street and the fear it engenders in opponents in both major political parties.

First, “get a job” is the command often hurled at Occupy protesters. The current Republican frontrunner got plenty of applause for suggesting just such a thing at one of the myriad of debates/candidate forums. There’s a certain arrogance in the assumption that Occupy is peopled only by the unemployed. Many Occupy protesters already have jobs. I stood in front of City Hall in Austin Texas on a Friday morning before I went to work when an individual rolled down his car window and  instructed me to get a job and stop stealing other people’s money. The following sign seen at an Occupy demonstrations in Austin is a response to the “get a job” crowd:

There are unemployed people at Occupy encampments, and with five job seekers for every available position that makes a lot of sense. But it’s probably not wise to hurl insults at the unemployed. Just recently, a Republican pollster suggested that  candidates replace the antagonistic “get a job” language with the more conciliatory “I get it” statement. Apparently Frank Luntz realized that many Americans are out of work right now, many more than actually attend Occupy demonstrations, and that Americans support Occupy Wall Street and see capitalism as immoral:

The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.

Another complaint about Occupy Wall Street is that the protesters don’t have any political demands, and refuse to endorse candidates.  This strikes fear into the Democratic Party which would dearly like to co-opt the movement . But why should Occupy endorse anyone?  Many of the people who participate in Occupy encampments were supporters of the current President, and they watched as the reformer they voted for reformed very little and rewarded his Wall Street contributors by choosing an economic team that had their interests at heart; he also continued some of the most egregious foreign policies of the Bush Administration.

Our political system is so dysfunctional that, as Paul Krugman notes in a recent column, there are only two ways for a Republican to win the presidential nominating process:

Think about what it takes to be a viable Republican candidate today. You have to denounce Big Government and high taxes without alienating the older voters who were the key to G.O.P. victories last year — and who, even as they declare their hatred of government, will balk at any hint of cuts to Social Security and Medicare (death panels!).

And you also have to denounce President Obama, who enacted a Republican-designed health reform and killed Osama bin Laden, as a radical socialist who is undermining American security.

So what kind of politician can meet these basic G.O.P. requirements? There are only two ways to make the cut: to be totally cynical or totally clueless.

And that’s just the Republicans. We all know what Democratic voters, or progressive voters in general, are ordered to do. Bite the bullet and vote for the lesser of two evils, the more acceptable corporate candidate, because at least that person might throw a bone to the base, repeal egregious anti-gay legislation. If that doesn’t push people to vote for the Democratic candidate, the party entreats progressives to think of the makeup of the Supreme Court! When the choice is between today’s Republican candidates and the Republican-light Democratic candidate, asking the Occupy movement, which has condemned corporate greed and the corporate takeover of our government, to vote for a candidate funded by Wall Street is ludicrous.

So while camps are dismantled and activists are arrested and the occupations move indoors to keep people from losing their homes to foreclosure, the political parties, especially the one supposedly on the left might do well to review their business-as-usual campaigning. Running for office by collecting money from corporate special interests and then doing their bidding is no longer cutting it with the American electorate, whether voters are involved with Occupy Wall Street or not.

 

 

Free speech in Texas: Money Talks, Occupy Walks

Occupy Austin’s attempts to expand to the State Capitol were upended  the day it began when several dozen protesters were escorted off the state Capitol grounds by Texas State Troopers because they had exceeded their three-hour maximum time for free speech activity. The Texas Administrative Code section dealing with General use of the Capitol and its grounds does not mention a three-hour time limit but in a move reminiscent of the city of Austin’s sudden rule changes concerning food tables and sleeping spaces, the three-hour limit suddenly appeared after Occupy Austin arrived at the Capitol.

Texas, a state with a Constitution that is amended almost every time there is a statewide election, has a multitude of codes and statutes. The Texas Government Code section 443.018 establishes the Texas Preservation Board’s authority to create rules governing such things as signs, furniture, tents, blocking of doorways, pets on a leash and skateboards at the Capitol, and also notes the following:

This section may not be applied in a manner that violates a person’s rights under the Texas Constitution or the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, including the right of persons peaceably to assemble.

The Preservation Board moved quickly to curtail Occupy Austin’s right to peacefully assemble, despite the above stipulation. But its enforcement of other rules seems somewhat lax. For example, in the same section of the code that discusses furniture, signs, pets on a leash, etc., is a rule pertaining to using the Capitol for material gain:

The buildings and grounds under the authority of the board shall not be used for the commercial benefit of any individual, business, corporation, special interest group or other entity.

But as Matt Taibbi has recently pointed out, the Governor of Texas has turned the state Capitol into a moneymaking machine for his friends and supporters exchanging political support for seats on boards and commissions and lucrative state projects.

Perry’s great triumph as governor has been the construction of an elaborate political machine, one that operates according to its own separate dynamic, using donations, appointments and favors as currency.

Rick Perry’s office in the State Insurance Building is part of the Capitol complex, according to this Preservation Board map. So when the board makes a rule about a three-hour time limit for constitutionally protected speech, but disregards the rule about use of the grounds for the commercial benefit of individuals, corporations or other entities, it is making a clear statement about the kind of speech that really counts in the state, and mirrors the national prominence given to money as speech – the very thing the Occupy movement has denounced from the start.

 

 

 

 

Occupy Austin’s Free Speech Rights

While we have witnessed some excessively violent and uncalled for attacks on Occupy encampments around the country, not every attempt to dismantle an occupation comes in the form of pepper spray and police beatings. Two protesters from Occupy Austin filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court challenging the City of Austin’s practice of banning protesters from City Hall if they are labeled “unreasonably disruptive” and arrested, a move that subjects them to further arrest for criminal trespass should they subsequently step foot on City Hall property. More than 90 individuals have been banned from City Hall in this manner since the mass arrests of October 30th, when protesters refused to dismantle a food table. The bans have diluted the activist base at Occupy Austin but people continue to assemble daily. undeterred. Rules about the food table, as well as other newly-promulgated regulations represent a death by a thousand administrative cuts strategy to end Occupy Austin altogether despite official protestations to the contrary.

As noted in the lawsuit, throughout the month of  October the city made it more and more difficult for the encampment to continue:

City staff imposed policies on the protetsers’ use of the plaza — thrice-weekly power washings that require relocation of every portion of the Occupy base camp, micromanagement of which portions of the plaza could be used for what activities, and others — that appeared to the protesters to have been deliberately designed to make the expressive conduct of occupation intolerable, in direct contravention of the city’s stated policy of encouraging the use of the plaza for free speech and assembly purposes.

The people thus banned from City Hall and the sidewalk adjacent to it have a new title: exiles. The exiles have assembled on a stretch of land directly across the street, in Margaret Hoffman Oak Park, which they have named Exile Island. This existence of exiled protesters has necessitated that General Assemblies be held alternately at City Hall or across the street so that those who were banned could participate. It has so galvanized the occupiers that during a march from the state Capitol to City Hall on November 17th, during which hundreds of people marched in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and against the violent militarized eviction they suffered, Austin’s exiles were placed in the middle of the crowd and brought to City Hall shielded from police view  and protected from arrest, to participate in a General Assembly. Still, one exile named James decided to express his disapproval of the banning of protesters by chaining himself to a tree on City Hall Plaza, something the Austin paper erroneously described as a protest against the now ubiquitous power-washers.

James explains his actions

Photo by Kit O'Connell

James and Police Chief Art Acevedo prior to trespassing arrests

Photo courtesy of FlashOccupyATX

James and four others were eventually arrested for that act of civil disobedience, but not until after he had discussed the reason for his actions with the police chief.

When the police arrested the two plaintiffs in this case on October 30th, neither one of them resisted, neither was “unreasonably disruptive.”  They had, however either documented the mass arrests or given statements to the media about it. Apparently none of the other individuals arrested that night were combative either.  Here’s what Police Chief Art Acevedo had to say:

“I’m proud of the fact that we were able to take them into custody without anyone getting hurt, without excessive force, tear gas or batons like other cities around the country,” he said.

But even if the police had been forced to carry forty people off the property, banning people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience from a public space, especially one that represents the power center of a municipality, is unacceptable.

 

Update: From tonight’s Occupy Austin General Assembly. Some of the criminal trespass bans have been lifted, but too many remain in force.

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