Spank the Bank

Students Challenge Citigroup’s Hand in Bad Lending and Environmental Devastation

“Predatory lending is not unintentional,” says Terra Lawson-Remer, a cofounder of Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC) and recent graduate of Yale. “It is a purposeful and strategic exploitation of poor people and people of color.” STARC, which has been on the forefront of anti-sweatshop organizing on campuses, has also recently decided to put the heat on Citigroup’s alleged predatory-lending and redlining practices.

Redlining is the selective denial of banking services to certain communities. “Long before they bought Associates, Citigroup was underserving minority neighborhoods,” says Matthew Lee, of Inner City Press (ICP), a grassroots consumer and community group in the South Bronx, which has been fighting Citibank since 1992. “There are 450,000 people living in the South Bronx, but there are only three consumer-accessible Citigroup branches here.”

Last November during a hearing held by the New York State Banking Department on Citigroup’s proposed acquisition of Associates, an array of community groups spoke against the acquisition. But then later that afternoon, as Lee tells it, “A gaggle of young, mostly white college students came to testify on the community’s behalf and about the environmental and social impacts of Citigroup projects all across the globe. This surprised the heck out of the regulators.”

Alternative spring break: A mock arrest replaces wet-t-shirt contests.
Photo Courtesy of Ruckus Society
Alternative spring break: A mock arrest replaces wet-t-shirt contests.

Citigroup, however, doesn’t seem too concerned. When queried about the links between these diverse complaints, Johnson said, “What links?” Activists have come to identify unchecked corporate power as their common enemy. “We shouldn’t be drawing red lines around U.S. inner cities,” says Patrick Reinsborough, grassroots coordinator for RAN. “We should be drawing green lines around the world’s remaining forests.” Johnson refused to comment on whether this multipronged campaign posed a threat to Citigroup’s image or its ability to appeal to new customers. “Citigroup seeks to maintain constructive dialogue with RAN and other groups on relevant social and environmental issues,” she said. “We disagree with their pressure tactics, but we share common goals.”

“Companies like Citigroup have become so powerful that until you start asking questions about their global presence, community groups can’t get their ear,” Lee contends. “Citigroup may not care what people in the South Bronx think, but they’ve got to care about what white students think.” Lawson-Remer agrees: “As students, we have kinds of leverage that others don’t.” Besides cutting up Citi credit cards, STARC and the five other national student groups that cosponsored the Ruckus camp are working to divest university endowments of their Citigroup holdings and pressing for a jobs boycott by creatively disrupting Citigroup recruitment efforts on campuses.

“Targeting Citi makes sense,” says Dave Casey, a senior from Eastern Michigan University. He hadn’t heard about the campaign until the Ruckus camp but is now planning to make it the focus of his campus activism. “It puts a head on the enemy; it gives us an opportunity to take concrete local actions on campus. It also helps make connections because no matter what you’re already working on, Citi’s probably involved in it.”

The week in Florida ended with a campwide direct action role-play. Trainers stood in as police, campus officials, and reporters. A RAN staffer played Citigroup’s CEO, Sandy Weill, who was visiting the mock campus for a speaking event. In a scene of organized chaos reminiscent of recent antiglobalization protests, the campers put into play almost everything they had learned that week. One action team locked their arms through steel tubing to the chassis of a van, blocking the CEO’s limousine from entering campus. Another team went to the auditorium, where three students locked themselves together on the stage with bicycle U-locks around their necks. “Citigroup is profiting from racism,” said one of the students hoarsely, as an aggressive newscaster from “No Content News” stuck a mic in his face. A third team scaled the walls of the administration building. A banner with Citi’s red umbrella and a slash through it fluttered high above the ground. Chants of “Human need! Not corporate greed!” filled the camp. The chants finally turned to cheers as the lead Ruckus trainer yelled out, “OK. Stop! You guys won!” It is unlikely that students will hear these words from Citigroup itself any time soon, but as Reinsborough says, “This is just the beginning.”

A demonstration against Citigroup on Wednesday, April 11, begins at 11:30 a.m., at Hunter College, 68th Street and Lexington.

Other Useful Sites

Tell Citibank

Student groups:
Free the Planet!
Student Environmental Action Coalition

To locate the nearest Citigroup office:
Salomon Smith Barney

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