The Beginning Of Something Big…Maybe

Five dollars? Really? To use your own money? Wow.

Bank of America’s decision to impose that fee for debit card use did not precipitate the Occupy Wall Street protests. But it does seem to embody much of what has driven thousands of people to the streets, first in the New York financial center and now in Boston, Los Angeles and other cities across the nation.

The fee carried an odor of pecuniary pettiness not dispelled by B of A’s claim that it was needed to recoup losses caused by a new federal regulation limiting the amount banks may charge retailers when you use a debit card. It felt like just another ding for consumers already dinged like the new car in a parking garage.

You pay a fee now to check your bags. You pay a fee to have an unlisted number. You pay a fee to buy show tickets. In some towns, you pay a fee for a plastic bag to carry your purchases. You pay a fee to pay your bills using the “pay by phone” feature from certain service providers.

So this decision to charge consumers for using their own money was the straw that put the camel in traction. It hacked people off.

Occupy Wall Street, then, feels like the right thing at the right time, like the harbinger of a new Zeitgeist — though not everyone is convinced.

Some observers dismiss the protests as “street theater,” an easy charge, given the loopy eccentrics who have been attracted to the movement like iron shavings to electromagnets. On the other hand, much of the anti-war movement, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement (rest in peace, Fred Shuttlesworth) was also street theater and those seem to have turned out fairly well.

The protesters have also been criticized for a lack of focus.

The proudly leaderless movement, organized (if that is the word) on social media, has yet to articulate its demands, even as individual demonstrators have advocated causes as disparate as saving the environment and ending the drug war. They don’t seem to get that when you try to say everything, you end up saying nothing.

But one suspects (or maybe just hopes) it would be a mistake to write off these events too quickly. “There comes a time,” Martin Luther King once said, “when people get tired.” When you spend evenings with pad and pen, trying to get the numbers on one side of the paper to line up with those on the other, when you spend nights not sleeping, wondering how long your job will last, when you spend days paying more money for less service, when it begins to seem as if the government that should be working for you is a wholly owned subsidiary of American business, when billions of dollars of your taxes goes to bail out money pigs who were too big to fail, when your fears are met with a tone deafness bordering on contempt (“Corporations are people,” says Mitt Romney; “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself,” says Herman Cain; B of A has “a right to make a profit,” says CEO Brian Moynihan) … when that is your reality, you have good reason to be tired. Indeed, sic
k and.

So, like Arab potentates in the spring, one dismisses this autumn of American discontent at one’s own peril. Granted, we don’t yet know what’s happening here, but one thing seems apparent: Something is.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at


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