Progressive Activism Helps Prevent Wall Street Banks From Receiving a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card

10/02/2011 07:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2011

When progressive activism achieves meaningful results and scores a win over Wall Street banks, there's nothing wrong with taking a little victory lap.

After receiving 38,358 petitions from Californians organized by The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and CREDO Action, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced on Friday that she would join New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in opposing a massive settlement with 5 of America's largest Wall Street banks.

The settlement would have released JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Ally Bank from liability for possible fraud in the run-up to the subprime mortgage crisis which led to the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that America and most of the world is now suffering from. Also pressing Harris to reject the settlement was Californians for a Fair Settlement backed by leaders from unions like the California Nurses Association, California Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union.

Kamala Harris's action was a major victory for progressive organizing, as well as a major setback for the Wall Street banks and their behind-the-scenes political supporters.

As I wrote in The Huffington Post a month ago, NY Attorney General Schneiderman had been facing pressure from the Obama administration and members of the NY Federal Reserve to accept the bank settlement.

Now, with the Attorney Generals of the two largest states opposing the settlement, it's effectively dead and too-big-to-fail banks face further investigations and possible civil or criminal liability for their role in the financial crisis. (Full disclosure: I played a small role in the movement to pressure Harris. After writing my HuffPo piece about Schneiderman, I contacted my colleagues at The Progressive Change Campaign Committee suggesting a "We've Got Your Back" campaign to support Schneiderman and PCCC responded with the petition campaign to Harris.)

Aside from the substantive issue of investigating and possibly prosecuting financial fraud, Kamala's Harris declaration -- following pressure campaign from progressive groups -- is an instructive example of how progressive change happens. It generally involves the interplay between grassroots activism and electoral politics.

Electing politicians who may have some sympathy to progressive change is often a necessary component to bringing it about, but is rarely sufficient. Once in office, politicians, even progressive-leaning ones, are subject to numerous forces to maintain the status quo, not the least of which is the role of money in politics. Absent mass popular movements to hold them accountable and press them to uphold their promises, political office holders are likely to be constrained by the forces of the status quo.

Neither the New Deal nor the Great Society would have been enacted without BOTH powerful mass protest movements and politicians who were capable of being moved by those movements.

For example, soon after FDR was elected, his Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins (the most progressive member, and only woman, in FDR's cabinet) went to FDR and asked him to do more to protect the interests of America's workers. FDR's response was "Go out and make me". Among other things, Perkins organized a conference of labor leaders in the Secretary's suite, which developed a 10-point program to present to FDR, including abolition of child labor, higher wages for all workers, government recognition of the right to organize unions, and social security.

Much of this program was eventually enacted as part of the New Deal. But it wouldn't have happened without million of workers organizing, unionizing and demonstrating.

Likewise, while LBJ is credited with passing Medicare and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, it wouldn't have happened without millions of Americans sitting in marching, registering voters, committing civil disobedience, and even dying.

And Obama is unlikely to have abolished "don't ask, don't tell, and NY Governor Cuomo unlikely to have worked so hard for the legalization of gay marriage in the state, if it weren't for a mass civil rights movement by gays and their supporters which started over 40 years ago with the Stonewall Tavern riot.

Too many progressives forgot these lessons when millions mobilized to elect Barack Obama as President but then failed to organize to maintain pressure on him once he was elected. With #OccupyWallStreet growing and spreading to other cities across the country and with the American Dream Movement meeting in Washington this week, it remains to be seen if Barack Obama can -- like FDR and LBJ -- be pressured by a mass progressive movement to fight for progressive change, particularly when it comes to issues of economic justice and equality which are opposed by powerful corporate forces which he looks to for campaign contributions.

One thing I do know -- without such a mass progressive movement, Obama is all but certain to maintain his timidity and caution.

In the meantime, the progressive movement is entitled to a little celebration for its success in helping to convince California Attorney General Kamala Harris to do the right thing and keep holding the too-big-to-fail banks' feet to the fire.
P.S. You can sign the petition opposing a settlement giving Wall Street banks broad immunity from civil or criminal prosecution to send to the Attorney Generals of other states by clicking here.