#BlazeFAILS: The Free Speech Fight for the Future of Bank Transfer Day

Since first coming to understand the implications of the credit union model during the 2008 BTD MaskFinancial Crisis, I’ve been firmly convinced that promoting a mass consumer migration to cooperative finance is one of the most effective tactics for realistically challenging the political and economic hegemony of the Too Big To Fail Banks. As such, I was incredibly excited when, at the peak of the Occupy Movement’s influence in October 2011, movement energy coalesced around the idea of “Bank Transfer Day.” With an unpopular Bank of America fee adding fuel to the fire, the call went out for people to withdraw their deposits en masse from the Too Big To Fail banks and deposit them in credit unions on November 5th, in a nod the the date of the revolution in “V For Vendetta.”

The spark was provided by a Facebook event created by Los Angeles art-gallery owner Kristen Christian that spread virally through the then rapidly-growing Occupy social media networks. Within days, tens of thousands of people had RSVP’d to the event, and working groups affiliated with Occupy General Assemblies in cities around the world began working to promote participation and to plan activities in their communities (examples from Portland, L.A., and Vermont). As a result of that strenuous organizing work, hundreds of thousands of people moved their resources into the cooperative financial system in the fall of 2011.

However, as widespread and diverse groups threw themselves into getting ready for the big day, troubling signs began to emerge from the center. As the creator of the event that went viral, Kristen Christian was the natural point of contact for the media, and she soon parleyed that role into becoming the sole, self-appointed spokesperson for the movement who gave numerous interviews to the media. By using that position of power to quickly disaffiliate Bank Transfer Day from the Occupy Movement (with its commitment to democratic processes and rotating spokespeople), she was able to avoid any expectations of accountability to the community of Bank Transfer Day activists.

This concentration of power manifested itself in her behavior as an administrator of the “official” Bank Transfer Day social media. When dissenting supporters raised questions decisions she’d made in the role of the public face of BTD, she was unwilling to engage in good faith dialogue about her decisions and accountability for them. Instead, criticism was met with the classic authoritarian remedy, repressive silencing (in the form of the ban hammer). Below is the note I sent her on 11/16/2011:

Kristen,

I have to say I’m feeling disappointed and offended that, instead of engaging with the points I made in our earlier conversation on your page, you removed the posts and blocked me. Having sunk an enormous amount of effort into encouraging people to move their money from banks into credit unions over the past few years (in case you haven’t seen it, the first action shortly post-bailout: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzUu0QJu5BY), it’s been incredibly exciting to see public awareness of credit unionism blossom in the past months. There is finally a populist surge happening the likes of which the CU movement has not seen since the Great Depression, and the potential to harness that energy to strengthen the cooperative banking sector is huge.

However, accomplishing that goal requires those of us who are committed to the credit union cause to share our strengths and work together in an effective and mutually respectful way. I very much appreciate the time an energy you’ve put into BTD over the past two months, but I feel like disrespectfully dismissing dialog and constructive criticism is not a productive way to build this movement.

Yours in cooperation,

Matt Cropp

Sadly, Christian ignored this appeal for respectful cooperation. As time progressed, the exciting and creative activist community that had clustered around Bank Transfer Day gradually dissolved in the face of her repressive behavior, while the focus of the “movement” became increasingly less about building grass-roots power and more about cultivating Kristen Christian’s brand as a consultant and paid public speaker. With authorship of Bank Transfer Day as the crown jewel on her resume, Christian spent 2012 jet-setting around to speaking engagements at conferences, while not even attempting to organize or promote any grass-roots actions to mark the one-year anniversary of the event.

After quoting herself in a post, Christian hooks another fan...

After quoting herself in a post about not exploiting 9/11, Christian hooks another fan.

After watching these developments with increasing consternation for some time, I was finally nudged into action by a particularly ironic Facebook post on September 11th, 2013. In it, Christian condemned the exploitation of the 9/11 attacks for political gain while simultaneously exploiting them for her own personal gain by, in the voice of Bank Transfer Day, quoting herself and linking the quote to her personal “Public Figure” page.

When some supporters questioned the validity of her statement, she responded with vitriol, and she was soon flailing the ban-hammer about wildly, striking myself (I’d been previously banned from the event in 2011, but not from the page) and several other erstwhile supporters who happened to disagree with her statement. Fortunately, I’d taken a screen-capture of my comment and the thread in which it was embedded, and posted the comment on my own Facebook page with commentary on how the episode constituted strong evidence of Christian’s authoritarianism. A productive conversation ensued in which we decided that it would be a good idea to create a new page for the purpose of creating a safe space in which activists could freely discuss and debate the task of rebuilding the Bank Transfer Movement.

The next morning, things started to get weird. When I logged in to Facebook, I was greeted with a screen that informed me that my post with the screen-capture had been removed due to an report of unspecified violation of the Facebook “Community Standards,” and that my public posting privileges had been suspended for twelve hours. After a review of the Standards, it was clear that the post did not actually constitute a violation, as it claims to “allow users to speak freely on matters and people of public interest,” and Christian has a “Public Figure” page.

However, Facebook offers no mechanism for holding people accountable for false reporting, so I waited out the twelve hours and then posted a screen-shot of the suspension notice with a statement calling Christian out for her abuse of the reporting system. Additionally, our Facebook page continued to grow, and we started a thread on which participants were asked to share their own stories of being banned from the Bank Transfer Day page, and it quickly became clear that the 9/11 thread was no isolated incident. Two female co-op activists reported having been banned several months previously for having pointed out the sexist nature of one of Christian’s posts, and the other stories that were contributed made it clear that we were seeing just the tip of the iceberg.

When I logged in to Facebook the following morning, I received an similar notice to the first one, informing me that both the screen-capture and the thread concerning “Why were *you* banned from Bank Transfer Day” had been removed, along with all of the comments, for violating more unspecified “Community Standards.” Christian, it appears, doesn’t feel comfortable stifling dissent merely in the spaces that she controls directly; she also appears to feel entitled to silence the voices of people who are critical of her behavior anywhere on the entirety of Facebook. Fortunately, page admin privileges had been distributed to a number of supporters, so the page’s nascent community could continue to be kept abreast of what was going on even when one or two admins were sidelined.

As frustrating as this episode has been, it has also had a clarifying effect. In her role of Bank Transfer Day “founder,” it is now obvious that Christian has been cannibalizing the movement for her own personal benefit. From shamelessly using BTD’s social media infrastructure to build her personal brand to summarily silencing activists whose valid criticisms undermine her status and position, Christian’s failed “leadership” has become one of the largest obstacles to building a bottom-up grass-roots movement of credit unionists.

The first step to rectifying this situation and getting things back on track is the creation of safe spaces, such as the new Facebook page (although its safety is undermined by Christian’s apparent willingness to abuse the Facebook reporting system) and a website, where supporters can engage in mutually respectful dialogue without fear of being silenced for the benefit of a single individual. Fruitful ideas have already started growing out of the conversations in our new spaces; in particular, we’ve begun planning for a Bank Transfer Day of Action to commemorate the second anniversary of BTD on November 5th, and hopefully more will follow.

Second, we need to recognize that, as Audrey Lorde put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Minnesota co-op activist Emily Lippold Cheney was banned from BTD for posting that quote). If we are to build a movement for economic democracy, our movement needs to embody the principles and values of democracy. In practice, that means that those who are our “leaders” and “spokespeople” need to be democratically accountable to the rank and file activists who they represent. No matter how well meaning it is, if democracy is our end, despotism cannot be our means.

Where we go from here is an open question. If Christian hears our critiques with an open mind and heart, I believe there is room for all of us who care about building a vibrant and democratic credit union movement to work together as peers towards that goal. I’m not holding my breath, however, as her behavior over the past two years suggests she’s far more comfortable silencing dissent than she is engaging constructively with it. In any case, though, the proof will be in the pudding; with or without her support, credit union activists will be working to celebrate the anniversary of Bank Transfer Day this November 5th with an eye towards the cultivation of a truly grass-roots, sustainable, and democratic credit unionist movement; #CreditUnionPower!

Matt Cropp is the Co-Host of Cooperative Vermont. The opinions expressed in this opinion piece are his own.

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