Picketing the Fat Cats

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Is consumer frustration with the slow pace of loan modifications finally becoming more than silent resentment? If Monday's protest at the New York offices of JPMorgan Chase is any indication, the answer might be yes. With a little goading from the president, who on Sunday called America's bank presidents "fat cats," a new populist strain is perking up.

While CEO Jamie Dimon was in Washington meeting with President Obama -- one of the few major bank chiefs that made it in person -- hundreds of protesters stormed the bank's New York lobby. They carried signs reading, "You're a mean one, Mr. Dimon," and "Don't CHASE us out of our homes."
The protest was organized by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), a Boston-based non-profit community advocacy group that was founded in 1988 to fight predatory lending. Recently, the group has focused on helping troubled borrowers renegotiate their mortgages and stay in their homes, and has held protests like Monday's as well as mass "Save the Dream" gatherings that draw thousands of homeowners seeking help. (A Save the Dream event is taking place this week at New York's Jacob Javitz Center).

Similar uprisings have been bubbling up across the country, as people begin to channel their frustration. On Dec. 4, dozens of people gathered in downtown San Jose, Calif., an area hard hit by foreclosures, to protest Bank of America's dismal record in helping troubled homeowners. Among their demands: that BofA not foreclose on homes that have an outstanding application for a loan modification, and that the bank establish a 45 day deadline to respond to modification requests (instead of letting them languish in a Kafka-esque limbo).

Days later, in downtown San Francisco, demonstrators picketed Wells Fargo and Bank of America to demand more action from the banks to help stem foreclosures.

But the public display of outrage is still muted, given the level of anger many Americans feel over the taxpayer-funded bailout out of banks, which are once again raking in profits while ordinary Americans continue to lose jobs, benefits and homes.

It's actually surprising that there have been no mass demonstrations, no Million Man Marches. Where is the Move On for mortgage reform? You don't have to be kicked out of your home to be mad as hell over the way that reckless financial institutions brought us to the brink of catastrophe, took our money, and then left us holding the bag. Sure, they've paid back their TARP funds. But what gets glossed over is the fact that the banks are still at the government till -- in the form of more than a trillion dollars of cheap loans and loan guarantees that have enabled their record profits.

And where do those profits go? Not to strapped consumers, homeowners or small businesses that might use the loans to expand and hire. No. The bank chiefs would like to reward themselves and their employees for a job well done, and pay lobbyists to block any meaningful reform.

This much is clear: President Obama has lost his leverage over the banks, and Congress has lost (or never had) the will to pass truly effective reforms (hello, cramdown). Maybe a Million Mortgage March would get their attention.
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