Reynard Loki is a Justmeans staff writer for Sustainable Finance and Corporate Social Responsibility. A co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio, he writes the blog 13.7 Billion Years and is a contributing author to "Biomes and Ecosystems," a comprehensive reference encyclopedia of the Earth's key biological and geographic classifications, published in 201...
Chase Bank: Abusing the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In terms of economic justice, we haven't come very far since Dr. King's famous marches from Selma to Montgomery. Hypocrisy and deception, on the other hand, are as strong as ever.
Just a few days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the financial services giant JPMorgan Chase launched a webpage to promote the bank's involvement with the King Center in creating a website preserving King's legacy through "a comprehensive collection of documents, photographs, and audiovisual materials." The initiative is part of JPMorgan Chase's "Technology for Social Good Program."
Visitors to the webpage are greeted by a photograph of King and the following text: "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked to build and strengthen America's communities through justice, equality, and peace. At JPMorgan Chase, we are proud to play a part in sharing his message and legacy with the world."
HOMES FOR SALE, ETHICS SOLD OUT
In fact, the bank has been creating the exact opposite legacy, one based on injustice and inequality. On Friday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo for misleading homeowners. The suit charges that "the creation and use of a private national mortgage electronic registry system known as MERS has resulted in a wide range of deceptive and fraudulent foreclosure filings in New York state and federal courts, harming homeowners and undermining the integrity of the judicial foreclosure process."
"The banks created the MERS system as an end-run around the property recording system, to facilitate the rapid securitization and sale of mortgages," said Schneiderman. "Once the mortgages went sour, these same banks brought foreclosure proceedings en masse based on deceptive and fraudulent court submissions, seeking to take homes away from people with little regard for basic legal requirements or the rule of law."
USED AND ABUSED: THE LEGACY OF MLK
Millions of Americans have had to foreclose since the start of the financial crisis, and many of them have been forced to do so by the unethical actions of banks. But the current struggle of one homeowner in particular is emblematic of the deep wellspring of Wall Street hypocrisy. In a petition on Change.org, the Occupy Nashville Housing Protection Group says, "Chase misappropriates the memory and image of Martin Luther King this Black History Month." The group says that Chase, the consumer and commercial banking arm of JPMorgan Chase, is about to foreclose on Nashville resident Helen Bailey, a woman they describe as "a 78-year-old grandmother who participated in the civil rights movement, worked as a childcare provider for autistic children, and was a community volunteer." The foreclosure date is set for February 15.
Bailey's lawyer has found an alternate buyer for her home; the sale would allow her to leave her current mortgage and find other housing. The petition urges Chase to cancel any foreclosure action; waive all interest, legal fees and penalties accrued since the initial refinance offer; and accept the buyer's offer of USD 85,000. Occupy Nashville has been occupying Legislative Plaza since October 7, 2011.
"[Bailey] has paid her mortgage since 1999, but now she can't keep up the payments," according to Occupy Nashville. "All she wants is to stay in her home until she dies, in the neighborhood where she feels safe and has lived for nearly quarter of a century. She could have refinanced with a company willing to let her live in the house for free until her death, but Chase Bank would not reduce her principal by $9,000. She's been paying 7% interest, well above most rates, so Chase could have decided they had made enough. Instead, they have started foreclosure and Ms. Bailey could end on the street."
According to the petition, Chase may lose over $30,000 if they don't accept the settlement offer, "Therefore this option makes the most sense financially for Chase and given Ms. Bailey's specific circumstances, there is little moral hazard in this solution." The petition, which is addressed to JPMorgan Chase president and chief executive Jamie Dimon, among others, is seeking 50,000 signatures. As of February 6, over 35,000 people have signed.
GRAPES OF WRATH REDUX: DEPRESSION-ERA HARDSHIP RISES AGAIN
Of course, we all know that Bailey's plight is not an isolated incident. In November, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof interviewed James Theckston, former regional vice president for Chase Home Finance in southern Florida, writing that the ex-banker "fully acknowledges that he and other bankers are mostly responsible for the country's housing mess." In 2007, Theckston's group wrote $2 billion in mortgages, some of which were "no documentation" mortgages. "On the application, you don't put down a job; you don't show income; you don't show assets," said Theckston. "But you still got a nod..If you had some old bag lady walking down the street and she had a decent credit score, she got a loan."
Linking John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath to the Occupy Movement, Kristof notes, "those Depression-era injustices seem so familiar today...That's why the Occupy movement resonates so deeply: When the federal government goes all-out to rescue errant bankers, and stiffs homeowners, that's not just bad economics. It's also wrong."
King would have agreed. "Economic war broke out between black and white Montgomery," writes Thomas F. Jackson in his book From Civil Rights to Human Rights. "King learned important lessons about black economic power, economic dependency, and poverty. Though advisors counseled moderation and mainstream press framed his message in moral terms, King's evolving rhetoric richly documents his growing sense linkages between civil rights and economic justice."
MONSTERS, INC., WITH PERSONHOOD STATUS
The title of Steinbeck's novel is taken from a line in Julia Ward Howe's 1861 song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the lyrics of which were quoted by King in a public speech he gave on March 25, 1965, on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, following the completion of the third march from Selma to Montgomery.
In that speech, known as the "How long, Not Long" or "Our God Is Marching On" speech, King posed the question, "How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?" He gave the answer: "Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice...Not long, because...His truth is marching on."
In The Grapes of Wrath, when the landowners came to evict the sharecroppers after years of poor crops, they blame the bank, saying, "It's not us, it's the bank. A bank isn't like a man...The bank is something more than men...It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it." But how can a bank be a monster when the Supreme Court specifically gave corporations the status of personhood, conferring them rights that a human being would have? King was wrong when he said "Not long." The real answer was and still is, "A lot longer."
Speaking about the lawsuit, Attorney General Schneiderman said, "Our action demonstrates that there is one set of rules for all -- no matter how big or powerful the institution may be -- and that those rules will be enforced vigorously." If King's vision of equality and justice will ever become a reality, more of these actions must come to bear on these personhood-status-enjoying monsters.
That banks are morally challenged is a given. But by connecting its brand to King's message of justice while deceiving its customers -- and foreclosing on a civil rights activist during Black History Month -- JPMorgan Chase has reached a new height of hypocrisy, a height matched only by its monstrous mountain of money. With $2.3 trillion in assets, JPMorgan Chase is America's biggest bank. In 2009, the salary of Jamie Dimon, its chief executive, was $1.3 million. In 2010, his salary jumped to $20.8 million, an increase of almost 1,500 percent. He is currently the highest paid chief executive on Wall Street.
 JPMorgan Chase. "Preserving the inspiration and sharing the passion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." January 13, 2012.
 The Office of the Attorney General of New York. "A.G. Schneiderman Annouces Major Lawsuit Against Nation's Largest Banks for Deceptive & Fradulent Use of Electronic Mortgage Resgistry." February 3, 2012.
 Occupy Nashville. "Chase: Don't foreclose on Helen Bailey - Petition." January 9, 2012.
 Occupy Nashville Housing Protection. "Chase: Don't foreclose on Helen Bailey." Change.org. January 9, 2012.
 Kristof, Nicholas D. "A Banker Speaks, With Regret." New York Times. November 30, 2011.
 Jackson, Thomas F. Civil Rights to Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. p. 52.
 King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Our God Is Marching On! The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. March 25, 1965.
 Ibid., 3.
 Baldwin, Clare and Jonathan Stempel. "JPMorgan CEO Dimon's pay jumps to $20.8 million." Reuters. April 7, 2011.
image: Martin Luther King, Jr., June 8, 1964. (credit: Walter Albertin, Wikimedia Commons)