Rallies Against Predatory Financiers Pepper Lower Manhattan

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Populist anger toward Wall Street and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg boiled over again Wednesday as protests against predatory financial practices peppered Lower Manhattan, drawing more than 600 people.

The wealthiest elected official in U.S. history continues to use his office to shield a financial sector that helped him build a $20 billion fortune while precipitating the worst global economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Bloomberg, who views the New York City Police Department as his “own private army” sought to hinder his fellow Americans’ First Amendment right to “freedom of expression without government interference” during a rally against soaring tuition costs, a march for universal health care, and an ongoing vigil against predatory financial practices.

More than 6,000 arrests have occurred nationwide since Americans began protesting the concentration of our nation’s wealth in the hands of the richest 1 Percent in September, with the NYPD accounting for more than any other law enforcement agency. Bloomberg’s private army tallied another 19 of their fellow countrymen and women Wednesday.

Occupier Andrew Speirs, 22, of Dallas, said modern America bears little resemblance to the democracy he was taught about in school.

“This is corporate fascism and here in New York it’s a dictatorship, too,” said Speirs (left). “I came to New York City because the Bloomberg Nanny State epitomizes everything that’s wrong with America right now – the arrests, the divide between rich and poor and the mass amounts of advertising that are being used to mislead people.”

Wednesday began with the arrest of at least 12 members of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), after the direct-action group marked their 25th anniversary with a march from City Hall to Trinity Wall Street Church, which enjoys tax-free status as a nonprofit religious organization despite its $10 billion real estate portfolio. The social justice veterans chained themselves together and placed furniture in the street to block traffic and draw attention to the lack of housing assistance for people with the virus that causes AIDS and to demand universal health care funded by a tax on Wall Street transactions.

The ACT UP march drew more than 200 protesters.

“There are many lessons in ACT UP’s success for Occupy,” ACT UP Veteran Bill Dobbs told the Village Voice. “Occupy has many of (the same) ingredients: It has anger, it has fun, but Occupy has a much broader sweep. So far it has been wildly successful at waking people up about economic conditions and class in this country. But the bigger challenge for Occupy is to inspire more people to get angry, learn as much as possible, and take loud visible action and push all the players for change.”

ACT UP was founded in 1987 by members of the gay community and their supporters protesting the high cost and low availability of HIV medications.

Occupiers outside the Stock Exchange took up ACT UP’s signs on Wednesday after the initial spate of arrests. Among them was Lee Starke, a former U.S. Army sergeant, who said the banking sector’s efforts to financially enslave Americans via predatory lending practices and the legalized bribery of the U.S. Congress give the lie to the popular view of the U.S. as the democracy it once was.

Starke, who was wounded in Iraq, is part of a group of 40 to 100 Occupiers who have been holding an around-the-clock vigil outside the New York Stock Exchange the past month.

“They just want us to be good little workers bees,” said Starke, 25, who was motivated to join the military by the 9/11 terror attacks. “It took my being blown up in Iraq to understand that working hard is no longer any kind of guarantee to a piece of the American pie. Playing by the rules does not work when the banks change them as they go along. It does not work”

Starke is still waiting for a chance to visit the 9/11 memorial, which has remained closed to the general public since it opened in September. Unlike the federal monuments in Washington, D.C., which are open to all, Bloomberg controls access via visitors’ passes. Starke, a combat-wounded veteran, was turned away when he tried to visit the memorial.

Bloomberg Spokesman Stu Loeser, who reserves his time for media organizations run by the 1 Percent, did not respond to a request for comment about the protests from the Cynical Times. Apparently, his boss was preoccupied vetoing a bill that would have required New York City employers to pay a living wage.

One middle-aged Occupier named “Billy” was arrested by a middle-aged U.S. Park Police commander on the steps of Federal Hall shortly after the ACT UP march.

The incident occurred when Lt. Davis (below left) of the U.S. Parks Police ordered protesters from the left side of the steps without realizing that he was blocking their exit with his own super-sized physique.

Billy (below left) set the white-shirted Davis off by pulling a steel barricade forward to provide an alternate exit for his fellow Occupiers.

“Move it again,” Davis shouted before arresting Billy with 14 other officers – including members of the SWAT team – and roughly cuffing his arms behind him.

“You’re hurting me,” Billy shouted, before being shoved into a waiting van.

Bloomberg has sought to maintain the pretense of impartiality in the ongoing class warfare dustup, while actively protecting the Wall Street trading houses that rely on his Bloomberg LP financial information service. In his position as the city’s No. 1 public servant, the Boston native has utilized the NYPD much as robber-barons used private security forces to protect their businesses from organized labor during the 1920s and 30s.

Police have tossed aside their normal protective duties in recent months to play an active role in the public relations battle between Bloomberg and the nonviolent Occupy movement in the pedestrian plaza outside the New York Stock Exchange. They’re using steel barricades to bar much of the public plaza to pedestrians and have established formal checkpoints to deny access to the entire area to anyone who doesn’t look like a financial professional or tourist.

The tactic has prompted some Occupiers to begin wearing suits and ties.

City and federal police also have taken it upon themselves to subvert the U.S. Constitution by establishing a designated First Amendment protest area on the right side of the steps of Freedom Hall – thereby implying that every American’s birthright to free speech and freedom of assembly applies only to the areas where the ruling status quo and their well-paid champions choose to permit it. Right now, that’s a section of steps just to the right of the statue of Revolutionary War hero George Washington.

Such a drastic revision of the Constitution would have required a constitutional amendment before the evolution of the present police state. Now, all it takes is a gun and badge and a healthy dose of professional ambition.

The day was filled with symbolism as more than 400 people gathered in Union Square to mark the escalation of U.S. student debt past the $1 trillion dollar mark. Protesters donned name-tags listing their debt to draw attention to the predatory student loan market and the rise of for-profit colleges engineered in recent years by firms like Warburg Pincus Private Equity.

The Union Square protest included comedic and musical performances by Reverend Billy and his Church of Earthalujah; a skit featuring a woman calling herself “Sallie Mae,” in a reference to the publicly traded company that originates, services, and collects student loans; and a speech by a fictional superhero called The King of Degrees (right).”

“The vast majority of the $1 trillion worth of student debt is actually held by Wall Street banks,” Pamela Brown, a Ph.D. student who helped launch the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, said on Democracy Now! “Those banks actually securitize these loans, and they sell them off, and they make enormous profits from them.”

Unlike the U.S., many modern nations provide free college education to their citizens. The U.S. charges students for higher education, leaving many of them with decades of debt repayment. These financial burdens force many physicians and lawyers to choose lucrative corporate work over public service endeavors and preclude many Americans from becoming engaged in principled political stands that might endanger their careers.

Arlene Geiger (below left), 64, of New York City, is still carrying $30,000 in college debt from her days as an undergraduate at the City College of New York and a graduate student at The New School in the 1970s and 80s.

“It’s outrageous, it’s really outrageous, and it limits people’s options for much of their lives,” Geiger, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said of the student loan game. “Someone who borrows to attend college has to go into an industry where they make enough to repay their loans and it might not be something they want to do. Things are even worse now, because rising tuition costs are making it a choice between school and no school for many students. And a lot of those who manage to find a way to pay for their educations can’t find jobs after they graduate now.”

One of the highlights of Wednesday’s protests occurred as a procession of more than 400 marchers moved past the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art toward Wall Street. They were joined by more than 50 like-minded protesters at the school, which is one of the few remaining free colleges in the U.S.

A lone protester surprised both groups with a greeting from atop the nearby statue of school founder Peter Cooper, who had been an ardent critic of debt-based monetary systems. Jesse Kreuzer (below left), 23, of Long Island, greeted protesters and police alike with the familiar Occupy call of “Mic Check.”

Kreuzer, a graduate of Cooper Union, was trying to draw attention to a plan by its current crop of administrators to begin charging tuition in 2013 for the first time in its 153 year history. He held up a sign reading “no tuition, it’s our mission” and engaged in a 100 minute standoff with more than 40 police, who ultimately removed him from atop the 25-foot statue with a cherry-picker.

The incident was a welcome come-uppance for the supervisor (below right) in charge of the police shadowing the march, who seemed to be itching for a confrontation as he ordered his scooters to drive through groups of protesters along the procession route. The supervisor spent more than an hour staring up at Kreuzer and shaking his head in frustration as he tried to devise a formula for the inaccessible protester’s removal and arrest.

Kreuzer was charged with reckless endangerment, criminal trespass and obstructing governmental administration.

Cooper Union student Sara Abuna (below right), 23, of Brooklyn was also arrested on charges of harassment, disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration. The young woman was swarmed by police, including one officer who needlessly kneeled on the back of her neck as she was cuffed.

In recent years, some nonviolent political protesters have been treated differently than dangerous street criminals during their arrest for engaging in civil disobedience. For example, actor George Clooney and his father were gently handcuffed and led away last month in Washington, D.C., after they protested the deteriorating human rights situation in distant Sudan.

That’s far from the case for the nonviolent protesters of the Occupy movement and those who support them. They’re regularly thrown to the pavement and immobilized by officers using their knees to transmit all of their weight to the back of protesters’ necks.

Wall Street has been pouring investment dollars into for-profit colleges the past decade in order to pilfer the U.S. Treasury via student loans and Pell Grants. The so-called “schools market” now boasts more than 1.8 million students and $26 billion a year in financial education funds.

Warburg Pincus Private Equity was the principle investor behind the creation of Bridgepoint Education, which provides a perfect illustration of how for-profit colleges work. Its profit rose 35 percent to $172.8 million in 2011.

The San Diego-based company operates under the “Ashford University” and “University of the Rockies” brand names to obscure its true nature from its 87,000 students, who think it’s in the business of educating them. It’s not.

Bridgepoint and its peers are in the business of maximizing profit growth for investors like Warburg.

They generate profit in three ways. First, by spending very little of the tuition money they take in on students; Second, by overcharging for degrees; and third, by enrolling marginal students at places like homeless shelters and securing financial aid in their names.

The ratio of part-time instructors to full-time Bridgepoint faculty members was 37 to 1 in 2009 – less than any other for-profit college. That compares with a 4 to 1 ratio for its peers.

An investigation by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that 15 for-profit colleges made deceptive statements to potential students and four encouraged them to lie on their applications for federal financial aid. One for-profit college charged $14,000 for a massage therapy certificate available at a local community college for $520.

Only 24.5 percent of the students enrolled in four-year programs at for-profit colleges graduate in six years, compared with a 64 percent graduation rate at similar nonprofit private colleges and a 55 percent rate at similar public colleges.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) blames for-profit colleges for boosting the annual cost of the Pell Grant program to $40 billion in 2011 from $16 billion in 2008.

The saddest irony of the for-profit college sector is that the predatory schools and their investors are entitled to federal bankruptcy protection, but the students they exploit are not. Those students wind up carrying the loans taken out in their name for decades, often without the benefit of the degrees they pursued.

How do schools like Bridgepoint do it?

For-profit colleges sell themselves to a gullible public the same way tobacco companies once sold cigarettes – with massive amounts of advertising. The 15 largest for-profit colleges spend $3.7 billion a year on marketing and recruiting – much of it with the very news outlets entrusted with scrutinizing them.

The biggest problem isn’t the money, but that almost all of it comes from federal tax dollars meant to help young Americans learn. Harkin and U.S. Sen. Kay Langan (D-N.C.) have sponsored a bill to prevent the schools market from spending federal money on advertising in the future.

The bill is unlikely to pass in a pay-to-play Congress that blunted an effort to rein in for-profit colleges last year by showering lawmakers with legalized bribes in the form of political contributions. Much of the contributions come from federal dollars, too, which account for 90 percent of the sector’s revenue.

“I’m genuinely in solidarity with Occupy,” said Jay Blair (left), a 27-year-old adjunct professor at Brooklyn College. “I don’t have a whole lot of student debt, but most of my students do and I think it’s a wonderful symbolic thing to have a place to challenge capital accumulation.”