#WBWS Whistle Blow Wall Street: An Open Call
The US banking sector operates with impunity despite efforts to hold it accountable, taking huge risks and threatening the public good. In 2015, we collaborated with two whistleblower-advocacy organizations on a open-call campaign to build power among workers in the sector to blow the whistle on corruption, to raise awareness of successful actions, and to put Wall Street on notice.
The banking industry holds significant power in the United States and despite efforts to hold it accountable, it continues to take risks with the entire economy, threatening the public good in the interest of accruing private profits. Inside the banks, we know that illegal activity takes place that goes unpunished.
We were approached by advocacy organization, The Other 98% (O98) and The Government Accountability Project (GAP), which advocates on behalf of whistleblowers. We started discussions for a collaboration in early 2015 with the aim of launching a public campaign in October 2015, for the seventh anniversary of TARP, the bank bailout that occurred during the 2008 financial collapse.
At the time, GAP had a number of high and medium profile cases within the banks and Wall Street firms. But because GAP was not a campaigning organization, the revelations that came from these cases seldom had significant impact.
In addition to O98 and GAP, we partnered with Wall Street labor organizer Stephen Lerner and policy organization Americans for Policy Reform (APR) to imagine and launch Whistle Blow Wall Street (WBWS). The aim was to bring together some of the best campaigning organizations, legal experts, and technologists to escalate pressure for radical financial reform.
In order to protect GAPs current whistleblowers, we started with the idea of creating an open-call to whistleblowers across the spectrum of the banking sector, from tellers to high level executives. The initial goals of the campaign were:
1) to create pressure on the financial industry by building a platform where illegal actions are recorded and exposed, and used as lightning rods in the media;
2) to provide a tool that bank workers could actively use, in a way that gave them voice and agency and supported their existing labor organizing efforts;
3) to create widespread demand for criminal trials for financial crimes and other reforms;
4) to give citizens an avenue to channel their outrage and take collective action against the banks (e.g. join a debtor’s union, organize local actions, etc.);
5) to provide education about the financial sector, and its embodiment of the broader neo-liberal capitalist system.
Although the platform was not created as a resource for bank workers and others with insider knowledge in the banks’ wrongdoings, it was intended to be a public forum where the WBWS ‘organization’ synthesized and curated stories for wide public appeal.
Method and Execution
The alliance created WhistleBlowWallStreet.com, using an encrypted process for disclosing statements and documents anonymously using similar technology to Wikileaks. We then launched a media offensive directed at bank employees. With a small grant, we purchased ten billboards around Wall Street with the headline, “See something, do something,” encouraging bank workers to visit WhistleBlowWallStreet.com to raise awareness of corrupt practices in the banking industry and take action to stop them.
At the time of the campaign, WBWS was the first online resource of its kind specifically to allow bank workers to blow the whistle on corruption while giving them protection and security.
To draw attention to the Whistleblow Wall Street campaign, union members and allies of the Committee for Better Banks handed out leaflets at financial centers in multiple cities throughout the United States including New York City, Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Orlando.
We also worked with bank whistleblowers like Richard Bowen, a former CitiBank executive, to encourage bank workers and to create public legitimacy for the campaign.
We focused our framing and messaging on the corruption of the big banks and the still existing anger towards the transfer of losses and risks to ordinary taxpayers seven years after the bank bailouts, while news was coming out about record profits for bank executives.
Here is a sample of framing from our press release that linked people’s immediate anger with the logic of the broader economic system, a critical strategy for “laddering up” messaging that TR employed often:
“This is not about a few corrupt individuals in the financial sector. The laws that govern Wall Street are hardwired to maximize profits, mistreat workers, and shift all costs to tax-payers. Wall Street is the canary in the coalmine for unregulated growth-at-all-costs. More whistle blowing from bank workers can help reset the global economy and prevent predatory behavior.”
Links and Resources:
“There are now ads for Wall Street whistleblowers”
New York Post
Billboards urge Wall Street employees to report financial crimes
Connecting WBWS to the Panama Papers.
Connecting WBWS to wealth extraction.
The initial hope of this project was that the aggregation of stories of bank misconduct would create widespread media exposure and therefore pressure for bank reform. In addition, we thought that WBWS would facilitate discussions about policy solutions including reinstating Glass-Steagall, public banking possibilities, and other ways to reimagine the future of finance. This did not happen. There was little if any public conversation about the need for serious reform of the financial industry.
The first strategic flaw was to make decisions on the basis of analogy. Given the powerful cultural ripples Wikileaks was making at the time, we believed there would be appetite among bank workers to adopt similar methods. In the end, there were very few registered leaks on the platform. We learned that when it comes to current employees, they are more likely to whistleblow to a lawyer or trusted NGO like GAP than a new organization like WBWS in order to protect themselves. In hindsight, we should have spent more time and money building credibility for WBWS and having more direct reach out with bank employees. We should have also taken the cases that came in and amplified those stories from the get-go in order to create a safe-space for others to do the same.
The second major learning was that the campaigns that depend on public awareness and interaction live and die by how much media attention is garnered. For a project like this, we should have brought on a full-time media person with expertise and contacts in the financial sector (e.g. Wall St Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, etc.). This was a critical error as we never built enough momentum to break through the veil of mainstream media and its filter bubbles.
The other important thing to note is that we did not coordinate what TR called a ‘starburst window’ where we asked multiple activists, writers, researchers, journalists and in this case whistleblowers, to send out a coordinated content blast of articles, videos, visual memes, etc. This was a lost opportunity to build organic momentum that corporate media was never going to give us.
By The Rules
The Rules (TR) was an activist collective that existed from 2012 to 2019. In its eight years of existence it focused on addressing the root causes of inequality, poverty and ecological break down through narrative and cultural interventions. TR worked directly with social movements to inform the nature of interventions, and worked with journalists, think tanks, independent researchers and others to reframe and amplify alternatives to help midwife post-capitalist realities.
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