The barbers positioned themselves on Monday near the front of Zuccotti Park, just behind the police barricades on Broadway.
A motley collection of Occupy Wall Street protesters and passersby donned grey plastic ponchos printed with names and logos of some of the nation's biggest banks, and gave those banks a haircut -- a term used by economists describing deals to accept lower-than-promised loan payments to prevent borrower default. A group of six volunteer barbers then lopped inches off the I've-been-camping-out beards of protesters as well as the anti-establishment ponytail of a man who was willing and ready to shed his hair for a cause. By 3 p.m., Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank and Goldman Sachs had all been in and out of a chair, taking their turn under a barber's shears.
"On an ordinary day, most of our customers are basically on the bottom, the bottom 10 percent," Steve Vilat, a master barber from Massachusetts and the organizer of the Monday event, said of his local customers in Pittsfield, Mass. In preparation for Monday's event, Vilat had the characters "99%" shaved into a close-cropped area on the back of his head. "We're saying to these banks that people like us and our customers need a break right now."
In a space where there is no shortage of rich irony, political theater or bongo drums, the haircuts may represent one of the early signs that protesters are beginning to suggest cohesive policy ideas.
Strong Economy for All, one of several economic justice nonprofits that predated the Occupy Wall Street movement but has been drawn to the park, is calling for a government mandate that would force banks to reduce interest rates or principal balances owed on the student loans, credit card debt and mortgages with which millions of middle and low income families are struggling. On Monday, the computer hacker collective known as Anonymous also called for Occupy Wall Street protesters to consider endorsing a call for the world's 20 largest economies to impose a 1 percent tax on certain financial transactions and currency trades, Reuters reported.
"I think it's fair to say that debt is a core and cogent concern for many of the people here and for many people who support this movement," said Mike Konczal, a research fellow with the progressive Roosevelt Institute. "That is really because in an age where the social safety net has essentially collapsed, there are a lot of people for whom debt -- student loan debt, housing debt, credit card debt -- really became an essential resource. But now debt has, for too many Americans begun to function in a way that is essentially abusive."
The protesters' call for banks to "take a haircut" is a far cry from the the new program announced by the Obama administration Monday to lower monthly mortgage payments for underwater homeowners. But several analysts have questioned whether the new program will have a significant impact when banks have already shown limited interest in refinancing the mortgages of troubled homeowners. And limited participation in the new program could ultimately produce negligible new spending, according to an analysis released last week by Macroaviser, an economic research firm.
Konczal was not familiar with the details of the administration's most recent proposal, but said he is dubious that it can repair the nation's ailing economic health.
"If it is voluntary, then there won't be much of a victory here," Konczal said. "Without a mandate and a serious look at the entire debt overhang suffocating the economy, it cannot be healed."