November 18, 2011
On a drizzly October morning, approximately 50 LL.M. students trudged through a maze of rain-soaked tarps and cardboard signs in a makeshift camp nestled in the middle of the financial district in downtown Boston.
Believe it or not, they were in class and journeyed to the heart of Occupy Boston to witness the grassroots movement as it relates to their graduate-level course, Banking Structure and Regulation.
“I have to say, I’m part of the problem because my generation created the system that crashed in the crisis three years ago,” explained Professor Cornelius Hurley to the group gathered at Dewey Square, the site of the protest. “You are the ones that have to come up with the solution, because we all well know that the leaders of the world and the leaders of the U.S. and Congress certainly don’t have all the answers.”
With this prompt, the students broke into three small groups to engage with Occupiers in an intelligent dialogue to determine goals to be met through the movement. Specifically, the groups hoped to answer:
A Practical Education
The idea for the Occupy class came from Hurley, who hoped to provide his students with a practical “outside-the-classroom” experience, as well as give them the opportunity to offer their expertise to the discourse on systematic financial sector improvements. Also the director of the Boston University Center for Finance, Law & Policy, Hurley is a longtime advocate of structural banking reform, and since the economic crash he has vocalized his expertise in publications such as the New York Times, American Banker, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Politico.
The students of the Regulation class represent 26 countries and boast a wide variety of legal backgrounds. Some work for banks or government financial institutions, while others work with the financial sector as private attorneys. Each, however, is bar certified in his or her home nation—from Greece and Russia to Singapore and China—and brings a unique set of experiences to the table.
Given the tumultuous world economy that has fueled widespread political and social dissent, and given the professional insight these students from such uniquely qualified backgrounds have to offer, Hurley—along with co-lecturer John Beccia—has sought to incorporate participation in current events into the curriculum of their semester-long course.
“It wasn’t that long ago where certain parties in Washington were saying that we cannot learn from other countries, particularly with respect to our judiciary,” explains Hurley. “The idea that we would exclude any good idea…is just not thinkable. We need all the help we can get on a global basis.”
Earlier in the month, the group drafted a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission in direct response to a presidential Request for Information to review current regulations in place, evaluate their efficiency, and offer suggestions and alternatives.
When Hurley proposed visiting the site of the Occupy protest, the class responded enthusiastically, despite differing political views and social backgrounds.
“We were all very excited to visit the Occupy Boston site,” said Neela Swaminathan, who before enrolling in the LL.M. program worked in anti-money laundering and counter terrorism finance legal research in London. “The Occupy movement is a central and pervasive current event that could one day shape policy.”
Engaging the 99%
Upon arriving at the Occupy Boston encampment, the BU Law group was met by a half-dozen Occupiers who agreed to participate in the discussion. Varying drastically in age and socioeconomic background, the handful of Dewey Square tenants immediately sought to eliminate any preconceptions that the law students may have had about the conditions of the movement.
Philip Anderson, a recent college graduate and volunteer spokesperson for the demonstration, explained that one problem has been the media’s portrayal of Occupy Boston as chaotic as opposed to complex, and he stressed the movement’s impressive organizational efforts.
“We have medical tents. We feed almost 1,500 people each day. We have legal services, media services, and faith and spirituality services,” Anderson stated. “It really shows that a small community of people can provide services that sometimes the city of Boston can’t provide.”
Ryan Cahill, another protester, echoed the frustration in the city’s social safety net.
“There’s a housing crisis, but not because there are too many people and not enough homes,” he asserted. “What’s wrong with this country when we cannot establish a system where people can work for a living wage and affordable housing?”
With a human face attached to the movement, the Occupiers—with their grassroots enthusiasm—and the students—with their relevant financial sector expertise—split into small groups to attempt to address this question and offer solutions.
Occupy Boston spawned from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which began on Sept. 17 in New York City. Reportedly modeled after Arab Spring protests, OWS sought to reclaim public space, build an organizational headquarters on it, and use that forum to protest social and economic inequality. Anti-consumerist advocacy group Adbusters originally organized the peaceful occupation as a response to a call from Spanish populist advocacy group ¡Democracia Real YA! for a worldwide protest on Oct. 15.
What started as an estimated 1,000 demonstrators in lower Manhattan has—in less than two months—ballooned into hundreds of thousands of participants and hundreds of “tent cities” in over 2,300 communities worldwide.
Occupy Boston launched on Sept. 30 when approximately 500 people met in Dewey Square across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The ragtag group of college students, socialists, libertarians, and anarchists sought common ground in establishing the fact that there are social, economic, and political problems that ail society, leaving specifics about these problems—and their solutions—to be determined later.
Since establishing the communal services at the site following the first assembly, the Occupy group has also established a daily educational forum, Free School U, which welcomes outside speakers and lecturers and has been included in BU’s Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series.
While a specific consensus and action plan seems far from being established, protesters generally agree that the vast amount of wealth controlled by a small percentage of Americans is being used to erode democracy and perpetuate a system of corporate greed. Demonstrations launched from the Occupy camp have, however, addressed a variety of issues, from a march against the mining of tar sands to a flash mob protesting the imprisonment of alleged terrorist Tarek Mehanna.
“I think that this is a movement that a lot of people connect with emotionally in terms of problems they feel,” explained Jason Potteiger, an Occupy protester who spoke to the BU Law group. “Not a lot of people down here could tell you exactly what the percentage of wealth distribution is in this country, or where we stand on the wage equity index, or things like that. But they feel that something’s wrong and they express things very emotionally.”
In its first month, the Occupy Boston demonstration has been relatively free of conflict with the city and police, especially compared to recent violent Occupy marches in Oakland and Rome that met with riot police and tear gas. The only case of direct civil disobedience came on Oct. 10, when protesters attempted to expand the tent city onto the Rose Kennedy Greenway, resulting in 141 arrests.
One of the most crucial goals of the protest, explained Potteiger, is to gain legitimacy in the national political discourse. Therefore, he continued, groups like the one from BU Law are welcomed with open arms.
Three Groups, One Ultimatum
Once divided, the BU Law LL.M. students and Occupiers began to tackle the loftier issues that plague the financial sector.
Group One, which addressed what went wrong leading up to the meltdown, had no problem establishing fundamentally flawed practices and institutions that helped cause the crisis.
“The biggest failure is the lack of transparency,” claimed Cahill, clearly frustrated. “They’ll release their balance sheets but not their proprietary methods of making money, which is based on a need to perpetually expand the system.”
Swaminathan, using her academic and professional expertise, cited the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (1999), which allowed commercial and investment banks to consolidate with securities firms and insurance companies.
“Some of the schemes that ultimately led to the downfall of our economy were carried out through transactions so complex that even the analysts making those transactions did not fully understand how they worked,” she contended.
Potteiger emphasized the tedious balance of regulation and deregulation. While experts like Alan Greenspan pushing for mortgage-backed securities likely expanded the economy, it also created the harmful derivative products that led to the economic downfall, he claimed.
LL.M. student Jason Amarteifio, an MBA and J.D. from Chicago who has spent his career in the financial services industry, referred to a fundamental shift in corporate accountability as having a potentially harmful effect on the financial system.
“The voice of the industry, ‘Joe Shareholder,’ has actually been silenced when you have mutual funds, hedge funds, etc. controlling major corporations,” Amarteifio explained.
While the first group focused on the harmful intricacies of the system, Group 2 was able to summarize what everyone would like to see come out of the Occupy protests in one word: participation.
“[The Occupiers] just want to participate in the whole process, this meaning the structural process, the governance process, and the rule-making process,” said LL.M. student Roberta Demange, a private practice attorney from São Paulo, Brazil.
Tasked with identifying tangible solutions to the issues, Group 3 focused on promoting more legislative oversight in the financial sector.
Anderson maintained that corporate executive shakeup is definitely needed, but instead of completely dismantling the systems of regulation, the government should simply focus on enforcing existing regulations.
Acacia Brewer, an Occupier and high school student from Malden, Mass., explained that more widespread participation could be achieved by removing corporate lobbying from politics through reversing the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, or, at the very least, requiring transparency in corporate campaign donations.
“People ask us, ‘Why don’t you get a candidate into office?’” said Brewer. “We answer, because that’s just not how things work in this electoral system.”
After presenting their findings to the larger group, Hurley expressed how inspired he felt by the class’s accomplishments, and he encouraged his students to continue their critical analysis of current events.
“Be thinking, be organizing, be conversing, just like you have today, about what this system should look like and how we’re going to bring that about, not only in the U.S. but globally,” he urged.
While the Occupy movement continues across the globe, Hurley is confident that his students were able to contribute their valuable knowledge of financial and banking systems during the discussion. Representatives from the class submitted summaries of their discussions to be posted on the Occupy Boston website.
Additionally, Hurley hopes that by initiating discussions like the one at Occupy Boston, he can provide his students—especially those from foreign nations—with practical examples of their academic curriculum at work:
“My aim is to show them America firsthand, and I believe that this movement is part of the nation’s finest traditions.”