March 29, 2012

by Sean Fahey (Director, “Bailout”)

“The problem with real democracies is that they’re likely to fall prey to the heresy that governments should respond to the needs of their own population, instead of those of US investors.”
--Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1992), p. 21.
It’s Saturday, 4:30 in the afternoon, and we’re scrambling to get our sound check at Off Broadway, the bar hosting the Occupy Midwest Conference [March 16, 17, & 18, 2012], nestled in the beautiful Marine Villa district of STL. We were invited to the Conference to screen “Bailout” before holding a teach-in concerning five fraudulent Wall Street financial practices, all covered by our documentary, that have fleeced Main Street.
We’ll never make the 7:00 pm scheduled screening time, I realize. Amid the sound and video equipment are scads of soaking wet Occupiers, a few sporting wounds from the latest state-sponsored broadside against Occupiers’ right to peaceably assemble. To anyone who’s followed Occupy demonstrations even casually on the Internet, today’s was a sadly familiar scene: a black-clad military-style police force amped up and waving black batons in pursuit of brassy Occupiers, on this occasion for the patently subversive attempt to… join a drunken St. Louis St-Paddy’s Day parade. Such is the fruit of the War on Terrorism.
This afternoon’s assault on Occupiers’ freedoms has ended the same way it has across the country over the last half-year: rather than discouragement, the mood in the bar is upbeat and growing jubilant as more and more domestic beers are emptied.
“It was really inspiring to be with so many Occupiers from around the country,” says Mike P. of Occupy Peoria, post screening. “When protesters arrived at the parade route after the rally outside Wells Fargo, a large roadblock had been placed at Jefferson Ave and Market Street to keep us from joining the parade.”
Mike P. is animated as he recants the days events.
“They stood behind the barricade staring at us while talking into their walkie-talkies. The parade was starting and stopping behind them. We talked about what to do and eventually decided to go down Chestnut Street, going around the barricades, and come out onto a Jefferson Bank parking lot that was adjacent to Market Street, leading us onto the parade route.”
A young guy with dreadlocks passes between us, limping slightly. I wonder if it’s temporary.
Mike P. continues without acknowledging Dreadlocks and without, it seems, even taking a breath.
“We marched down the alternate route led by a large cardboard snake that said ‘Wells Fargo’ in red letters. When we reached the parking lot, the marshals were waiting for us. They ordered us not to join the parade and we asked why but they didn’t give any reason, so we blew past them. From here, things quickly escalated. Four or more golf carts full of uniforms drove past us and attempted to form a moving barrier to keep us from progressing. A few protesters got in between the carts to keep them from closing any gaps. Others tried to get in the front and put their bodies in the way to force the carts to halt. This created a hostile situation where the drivers threatened us. Down the road, police were forming a horizontal line across Market Street and 20th Street while another group of police came up behind us.”
I start to interject with a question but Mike P.’s delivery has no seams.
“One of the street medics saw what was coming and told us to move quickly and stay close to another parade group in front of us (a group of people wearing green and carrying brooms) to avoid being herded like cattle. But it was too late, and it was clear that we weren’t going to finish our parade when a wall of blue started to come into focus and the partiers in green in front of us were allowed to pass through. At this point we came to a complete stop and police told us we’d be arrested if we didn’t leave.”
There it was. At any event or protest involving Occupiers, it seems, the threat of arrest is both inevitable and downright corny, as if to invite confrontation with police. Today’s offense was not wearing green.
Mike P.’s cadence slows.
“We started dispersing when we saw how out-numbered we were. But someone had pushed open the one of parade barriers that were lined up on each side of Market Street, and when we started passing through we ended up moving from one intense situation and into another since there was a crowd of people booing us. One man kept shouting, ‘Close the gates! Fuck them!’ But it wasn’t everyone. One woman seemed bothered by how the police were treating protesters. And other people supported us."
Kate of Occupy Champaign has a similarly detailed recollection. The insistence on facts and details sticks with me. I wonder if the Occupy Movement draws certain personality types.
“As we were cleared off Market Street, people began to cheer when colonial reenactors walked by, playing the fife and drums, with the police walking along side of them. The police had successfully ended our march and split us on two different sides of the street, making it impossible to reconnect until the entire parade had passed by. It was hectic not knowing what was happening to others who were being followed by police near Chestnut and 20th Street.”
Kate’s description of where and when the two groups of protesters moved with the parade becomes a whir of actors at points on a map: Maggie O’Brien’s (cops and parade marshals), Saint Louis Union Station (protesters and green parade people), Market Street (protesters on cell phones), 20th Street (parade and barriers). I wonder briefly if she does traffic for the local Champaign news. “In the end, no one I saw was arrested or injured,” she says quietly.
Then I meet a local Occupier, Chuck.
“They tried to pin us in so we all made a run for it, I mean everybody literally scattered! It was crazy! I had a cop on my tail and he was closing in fast but I got away.”
I look down at Chuck’s open hand. There is a large open and angry gash running from his thumb all the way to the meaty section of his palm, pinky side.
“Cut my hand jumping the fence,” he says.
I ask him if he wants medical attention or a ride to the hospital.
Chuck gives a wink.
“Superglue. No worries,” he says.
I swallow to make sure my lunch stays down, and then it dawns on me: this Occupier probably doesn’t have any health insurance. The risks he takes by protesting are very real.
After reliving the day’s events, everyone is in great spirits. People are hugging and laughing, oblivious to Kevin (the film’s producer) and me as we finally set up the projector to get the screening underway.
The activists who are present cover a very wide portion of the American social gamut, from an ultra-conservative teacher-retiree to a transgendered activist with a penchant for theatrics to a fidgety engineer. The crowd is also heavily populated with young people, which is not surprising when you consider who stands to lose the most in the large-scale looting operation being conducted by out-of-control banks.
When the lights go up, Kevin and I are excited by the crowd’s response to “Bailout.” The whole bar is buzzing with excited chatter and conversations. Our experience at every screening we’ve done since December has been the same in one regard: people want to talk about the issues.
The post-screening dialog tonight is particularly impressive. Everyone clearly understands the main points of the film. The questions tossed our way reflect a level of knowledge that was simply absent when we filmed the protest of JP Morgan’s shareholders meeting almost a year ago in Columbus, OH. When we spoke with protesters then, their anger at the mega-banks, while genuine, was largely directed at the enormous disparity in incomes—an outcome seen as particularly unjust since it was these banks that required government welfare in the form of a bailout.
That basic anger is still very much alive, but it’s clear from tonight’s screening that it has grown with knowledge. People aren’t just complaining about Wall Street bonuses any longer. They’re asking questions about how credit default swaps were ever allowed to exist in the first place. Viewer comments reflect the knowledge that 401(k) plans and pension funds have been robbed by fraud in the mortgage-backed securities arena. We’re hearing questions that should make the banksters very uncomfortable: how bad is the damage from trusts sitting on crappy MBS paper? How do pension plans continue making payouts if the MBS trusts are sitting on no paper at all?
While we can’t answer those questions, we’re not the ones who need to. The fact that people are asking the right kinds of questions means “Bailout” has done its job.
Today, slowly, people are extending their knowledge in the right direction. Where before an Occupier might be angry that Wall Street bankers got rich from the bailout while everyone else got crumbs and pink slips, the comments and questions now reflect knowledge of the critical connection: it’s not just that Wall Street is getting richer, it’s that the mega-bankers are getting richer—through criminal acts—at the expense of Main Street, that Wall Street is, in fact, actively ruining Main Street in pursuit of greed. The People are becoming more articulate in their grievances.
As Kevin and I mix with the crowd, it dawns on me that the media will soon need a new caricature of Occupiers. That of the student who doesn’t want to pay her loan, or of the deadbeat who doesn’t want to work, just isn’t going to cut it much longer. What kind of deadbeat talks about derivatives?
And Occupiers know what’s going on.
“The powers that be strain trying to figure out the Occupy movement,” says Mike from Occupy Chicago, sipping a PBR tall-boy in the beer garden. “They are terrified of the leaderless approach to social change, it’s bad for business, so they try hard to define the movement, to label it, assign an image to it.”
At the same time Occupiers are getting smarter, they’re also growing in diversity. The crowd is heavily populated with older people all too aware that their retirement funds are in danger from a banking culture that is not bound by the same laws that prevent you and me from stealing.
In reality, there is only one broad brush that works in painting today’s Occupier: angry Americans who want—for once—their voices heard. And that brush is getting broader every day. This movement is growing in its pluralism and diversity.
The media’s attempt to please the elites by assigning to Occupy a single negative iconic image is one that’s doomed to failure.
Not surprisingly, a far more accurate description of the Occupy movement comes from Noam Chomsky—a long-time leading critic of the media. When we interviewed him for “Bailout,” Professor Chomsky had this to say the then month-old movement:
This is the first major spontaneous but organized, dramatic popular reaction to what’s been going on for the last 30 years and has peaked in the last several years with the financial crisis, which is kind of just the peak of the whole policy. And it’s got a lot of promise. It’s pretty much without precedent, but the situation is without precedent. As I said, there’s been a real reversal of a couple hundred years of history.
The banking shills in the media are losing. If anything is clear from the screening in St. Louis, it’s that the joke is now on the media members, who know less about the reality of Wall Street than the Occupiers they’re paid to caricature.
And the truth will only continue to spread: after the screening, several energized Occupiers approached us about a Bailout screening in their respective cities. We're certainly up for it. After working on some logistics, we plan to hit the road and use Bailout as a form of outreach to as many Occupy sites or, for that matter, any group interested in learning about how Wall Street is robbing Main Street. Yes, we know it’s ambitious. But then democracy is ambitious. It’s definitely a trip worth making.
We are hitting the road. Next stop—LA! We will hold a screening/teach-in with “All in for the 99%!” Bailout screens Saturday, March 31st, 7pm, at the Cinefamily Theater, 611 N Fairfax Avenue, LA.
Stay tuned…