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Don't Bank on Banks -- Except for One!

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I visited Zuccotti Park while in NYC a month or so ago while it was still Occupied and alive with a jumpy confidence. It was late in the evening and I'd come down from the West Village with an old friend, head of an arts organization in the city. As we talked to the protestors, we checked out the "floor plan": food distribution, sleeping quarters, communications tent and "general assembly", plus the impromptu library with its carefully-ordered categories of Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction (all these donated volumes were later tossed into garbage by police when they eventually "cleaned" the park).

As we walked among sleeping bags, listening to the onstage exhortations reinforced with the famous hand gestures, backed by strumming guitars, we found ourselves afloat in a nostalgic spirit of solidarity with this impassioned "village" of dissenters -- we felt like Boomer time-travelers, beamed up from a long ago counter-culture revolution -- a war that was never really won or lost. The People's Park demonstration in Berkeley in 1970 came back to me: the frightened faces of the nervous National Guardsmen as we placed flowers in the barrels of their raised rifles.

My friend recalled a more shocking image from her student days in Santa Barbara. She'd witnessed the famous burning of the Bank of America's Isla Vista branch. She also recalled the "scenic check" that those who lit up the BofA designed as a grim little private joke. Instead of pastoral backgrounds -- sunsets over the ocean or towering redwoods -- they came up with a check that cheerily depicted the bank aglow: no one inside, just the cash in the vault -- a little fiduciary coastal bonfire.

Don't get me wrong -- nostalgia's easy and self-indulgent. Answering questions from those who condemn the "Occupations" takes a wee modicum of reflection -- and I'm by no means advocating the torching of banks. But so many critics of the Occupy Wall St. movement have ridiculed the protestors for their seeming disunity of purpose that that image of the "burning bank" check, seared in memory, helps re-affirm that the fundamentals of the counter-culture protests of the 70's and those of 2011 are analogous. (And "Phase 2" of Occupy will be focusing almost exclusively on banks -- sit-ins in lobbies of banks, foreclosure speak-outs.)

It was the bankrolling of wars and resultant "class warfare" that drove the "old" protest movement: "Establishment" hypocrisy and use of police brutality in the attempt to suppress those intent on exercising their right to peaceful lawful assembly. The shocking results of unscrupulous profiteering: foreclosure, homelessness, joblessness were not as widespread and starkly evident then, but the recollection of "war-bucksing" or imperialism and global greed, (labeled "conspiracy theories" or lockstep ideology back then) -- look like spot-on prophecy of the rise of a conscienceless corporate oligarchy, of deregulation and its cancers. Looks like the crystal ball that foretold an inevitable future. At a Zuccotti Park shopping "bin" -- I chose a yellow button emblazoned with the peace symbol and the slogan, "Brought Back by Popular Demand".

The OWS protestors in NYC pitched their tents near the ongoing symbol of American greed, the big casino of the stock exchange, but there were "drop ins" at the big banks up and downtown with signs and chants and street theatre -- and, yes, more to come: more bank lobby and CEO office occupations. Their message: we're the 99% in cities across the world -- presence is platform.

Protests on university campuses also stand against banks and fiscal inequity, albeit less overtly. In "parks" and on campus, police violence is back -- simply because, as before, dissenters all over the world are following the money -- where it's going and to whom. And those who control the money being followed also control and promote police crackdowns on dissent. Students often are the core/matrix of the dissent -- they are the pawns in the banks' loan programs.

Re recent graduates -- check out the facts: only 55% of college graduates now find steady employment. Students pick up their diplomas and with that diploma a strangling balance sheet of debt -- the banks are merciless in pursuing graduates to collect the thousands and thousands owed. Few level with students about the appalling state of "their" job market (this was never supposed to be the duty of educators -- yet how to ignore that elephant now?). Schools do not invest in graduates' futures -- but the banks swoop in to recoup at graduation what they readily loaned in the "first year" -- with interest and penalties. Those who cannot pay back the loans suffer ruined credit ratings at a young age -- those bad scores follow them the rest of their lives. We Boomers went on to jobs in the "Establishment" or the "System" -- the System has now failed. The flag of entrepreneurship can be raised -- but beware that tilting deck on the big ship of commerce. If we're all going down, folks, only a few of us have life rafts.

Eric Schneiderman of New York and Beau Biden of Delaware -- with the backing of MoveOn members, Occupy protesters, and other grassroots heroes -- have used their power under state laws to demand a real bank investigation. But the banks will do anything to stop them, and these progressive attorneys general are being pressured to back down.

So how do the 99% -- the disenfranchised, essentially leaderless -- Take Back the Night of the predatory Fed and its fiduciary vampires" on the horizon? At this moment (early December, 2011) it looks as if there is a glimmer of "recovery" on the horizon, but whether this glimmer will light a fire is hard to know.

So what if we find a way, under state law, to build our own bank, state by state -- based on a model that is in existence right now?

If "It's the banks, stupid!" -- then why not fight fire with fire? I'd like to float a life-raft, a creative entrepreneur life-raft of a bank -- the Bank of North Dakota -- or, as it could be called: The Bank of the New Deal. Others have shone the spotlight on B of ND recently and senators and state officials have made pilgrimages to Bismark, the state capitol, to glimpse the miracle -- but most Americans still don't know about this amazing anomaly in our midst, in the middle of our country.

My mother and father came from North Dakota. After they married, they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was born and grew up. My parents were young in the Great Depression and that time of great deprivation and loss "stuck". My father became a staunch Republican and my mother a lifelong Democrat (she's now 95). They were two young citizens who grew up on once-rich Dakota farms and property, saw their parents lose all or most of what they had -- then were stirred by FDR's New Deal and the subsequent recovery. My father's reaction to "public works projects", to the Keynesian "priming of the pump" was a counter-belief in fiscal responsibility, hard-won conservative principles, separation of church and state -- those once-honored traditions of a hi-jacked GOP, a forgotten GOP.

My mother, on the other hand, like my father, a child of 2nd generation immigrants, believed that capitalism could be the "good provider" to workers who worked hard -- that all might benefit from the plenty of corporate initiative. Thus social good and compassionate politics were a measure of society's civilization. My parents disagreed with each other about just about everything -- but they were both clear about the populism that had swept the Great Plains from the turn of the century onward -- how it had defined their differing ideas of Justice.

Republicans of that era had a conscience. They cared about their fellow citizens. They held on tighter to the purse-strings, but history proves that they shared in social concerns.

Which brings me to Michele Bachmann, since she purports to represent the present-day conservative movement in Minnesota. As a neocon, her expressed horror at government "radicalism" would itself have shocked the "old" Republican party of the Plains, which embraced very different principles, among them individual rights, not those dictated by fundamentalism. My Dad built a very successful business -- and he provided the opportunity for individuals to work -- as well as a family legacy. Michele Bachmann's "family farm" takes in large government subsidies to run itself -- my father would not have approved of that. He would have called it "socialism" or "eating out of the public trough." (Ditto in regard to her husband's unlicensed "clinic" -- which accepts government handouts). Each time Bachmann uses the word "socialism" to excoriate the president and other politicians -- she avoids acknowledging a big-time shadow falling across her skewed "page" in the history book of these traditions.

Bachmann is heir to a "socialist" legacy, as my parents were and I am -- the history of populist activism in the Midwest. The Democratic Party in Minnesota is called the Democrat Farm Labor Party -- the DFL -- and its roots are in that "radical" prairie soil. The Bank of North Dakota is the fruit of that activism -- the Bank of N.D. (New Deal in North Dakota)!

Some quick facts about the Bank of N.D.: It is the only state-owned bank in America. It was created almost a century ago in 1919 -- as the populist movement swept the northern plains. Farmers and union leagues and individuals took a stand against East Coast market-makers who were deciding who got credit as well as controlling the marketplace. The bank, once it was established, stood on its own, complicit with justice -- i.e. state-owned mills would buy grain direct from the farmer, etc.) The progressive movement imposed regulations on railroads, banks and insurance companies. In 1938, citizens of North Dakota and Minnesota supported the New Deal (even Republicans.) Listen up, Michele; they were all "radical" -- like the citizens of Occupy right now!

The Bank of North Dakota created its own credit -- which created state economic sovereignty, sort of like its own state "Fed". It deposits all state tax collection and fees, then takes these funds and "plows" them back into the fund of the state of North Dakota -- its needs and well-being. The bank invests in areas like student loans -- what used to be called "the public good". Talk about nostalgia: remember The Public Good?

North Dakota's economy is booming. There are more jobs than can be filled by the state's population so out-of-state seekers are pouring into the state. It doesn't hurt that natural oil resources were found under N.D.'s soil -- but the state was thriving long before that. The resident population of North Dakota is 600,000 -- and those 600K are enjoying the largest surplus ever generated by a state.

Has the Bank been called "socialist"? Non-stop. It's been called "socialist" by the usual suspects -- especially the giant vampire banks that would exsanguinate the population of this country -- for their own profit. Do these behemoths turn back profits, like the Bank of N.D., into the future and well-being of its citizens? Sure, right. Hold on to your coat check ticket, ok?

But why shouldn't what the Bank of N.D. has so successfully realized over many years and in a wise tradition -- work for other states? I say that it will!

I would encourage the Occupy movement to adopt a new plank in the platform -- a new bank. De-bank and re-bank! Let's find the "radical" economists and entrepreneurs who can help make the success story of the state bank available to us all.

I'm not an economist. I'm not a businessperson. I'm a citizen. But I'd like a new checkbook -- how about you?

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