In Defense of Bankers: Why Occupy Protesters Shouldn't Target Those Who Cash Our Checks

One banker, we'll call him Steve, was walking out of the corporate office in Orlando recently when a protester got in his face. There were three or four Occupy protesters who spotted Steve with a couple other people wearing suits. The protesters figured they had found one percenters.

"You're responsible for this!" the man yelled, inches from Steve's nose.

Steve, not backing down, replied: "You're completely misguided. I'm not what's wrong with the system."

Now first, a little background on Steve, who asked that his real name not be used due to his bank's media relations policy. He's charming, the kind of guy who could host a dinner party of random strangers picked up from a bus stop. He's generous: I saw him give a cabbie an excessive tip once without asking for extra from the other passengers. And he's incredibly reasonable: He's a die-hard Gator, but he and his FSU-grad wife go to separate bars when the two rivals play.

But Steve wasn't going to let this Occupy protester shout him down. The protester was yelling about how Steve worked for a big bank responsible for the financial collapse. Steve shouted back, explaining that he does commercial loans and had nothing to do with it, although his arguments did nothing to get the man out of his face.

But Steve's right. He had nothing to do with the financial collapse, and the Occupy protesters are doing their cause a disservice by targeting the workingman, even if he is

briefcased and suited and calls a big bank his employer.

Anti-bank sentiments have dominated the Occupy movement lately. Protesters from London to Milwaukee to Los Angeles have descended in hordes to block the entrance to banks and centers of commerce. Last week, police busted hundreds of Occupy protesters as they tried to block New York's financial district. Their civil disobedience failed to keep the Wall Street bell from ringing and succeeded only in keeping hundreds, maybe thousands, of workers from getting to their offices.

Granted, some of the bankers did themselves no favors. "Get a job," one of them snarled to NBC Nightly News while entering the turnstiles of an office building. But I'm willing to bet that TV cameraman filmed streams of workers before getting that soundbite.

Here in South Florida, banks dominate the skyline, and their workers make up much of the young professional groups like Emerge Broward and PetSet. These bankers generally aren't the one percenters. They're the toilers, working in quota systems where their jobs depend on sales or new business or generally profits. Their computers forbid web access to ESPN and Facebook, they're required to wear ties and sometimes even jackets at their desk, and their hours are strictly regulated.

Sure, that doesn't sound like the kind of place many of us would want to work. But their function is key to a democratic society. They lend money to people buying houses, to businesses looking to expand, and to insurance companies looking to insure.

Not all Occupy protesters believe low-level bankers ought to be targeted. Evan Rowe, an artist and adjunct professor at Miami-Dade College, has been involved in Occupy Fort Lauderdale since the beginning. He says fellow protesters miss the point when they target those who work for banks. He says, "Here's a metaphor: Don't hate the player, hate the game. There are always going to be bankers who do good in a bad system. Just because someone works at a bank that has done bad things doesn't make them bad people."

So who is responsible? Protesters had better intentions last month when they marched to the Upper East Side home of John Paulson, who collected billions by betting against the housing market (although marching to someone's home does seem akin to an angry mob). And blame President Clinton and Congress for removing many of the government rules on banking in 1999. Those rules would've saved us from ourselves during the housing bubble, restricting homeowners from taking out loans on houses they wouldn't be able to afford and limiting the risks that banks took on before the collapse.

But the bankers toiling away at the low levels of the financial system? They didn't lobby for deregulation (although their employers did). They didn't ask for the taxpayer bailout of banks (that would be the 2,000 banking lobbyists who surely helped get it passed). They didn't lead Lehman Brothers to collapse (the blame there, at least in part, should be placed on the bookkeepers who did some dastardly number-crunching). And they didn't cause you to enter foreclosure on your house.

Well, OK, it is bank workers who file foreclosures. And they've filed lots of them, considering that 2.7 million of us have lost our homes in this Great Recession -- and that may double in the years to come. But society also needs bankers to file foreclosures. If we're going to have a system where lenders give money to homeowners, there has to be a penalty for not paying. There has to be someone who spends the workday taking someone else's home out from under them.

Those bank workers won't all have a good holiday season this year. Last week, big banks began handing out 75,000 pink slips. Many of those will be at Bank of America, which plans to lay off 30,000 people. There may be a few of the lobbyists or hated hedge fund types among them, but largely we're talking about enough low-level bank workers to fill a football stadium -- workers who may soon find themselves on the wrong side of a foreclosure filing.

Occupy protesters can take credit for at least some of those layoffs. The movement spurned Bank Transfer Day, which targeted big banks as the bad guys in our financial mess. Since Bank Transfer Day began on Facebook, $4.5 billion has gone from big banks to credit unions, according to the Credit Union National Association. The idea -- to hurt big banks that helped cause the financial crisis -- was simplistic and short-sighted and ignored the cost to workers now losing their jobs.

Which leads back to Steve and his job of arranging loans for companies. He exchanged shouts and a few insults with the protester without ever really getting angry about it. "Do your research," he said. Then he walked away.

What the protester doesn't know about Steve is that he epitomizes the dream that our capitalist system allows. Neither of his parents finished high school, yet he went on to become the first college graduate in his family. Then he got a master's. Then he landed an entry job at one of the country's largest banks. From there, hard work earned him the vice president title he now carries. His job is to lend money to companies looking to expand, and his role in that is to help them assess the risk of taking on the debt.

"By and all, banks do good things. I work to help clients be successful and do positive things in the community," Steve says. "In capitalist society, there is always going to be greed, and there will be people who do bad things because of greed. But that's not what I do."

That Occupy protester had picked the wrong person to harass. And as the protest hones in on the employees of the big banks, the movement overall loses a bit of its reason to exist by targeting those who aren't responsible for our problems.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton