By Dalila-Johari Paul
Wall Street has been on someone's naughty list. Dominatrix "Bank Reform Bitch" wants to punish JP Morgan Chase's CEO Jamie Dimon for regulatory offenses. And the "Ethical Fiscal Fairy" has been sprinkling some fairy dust around New York City and wants federal regulators to come down harder on the banking industry.
Those two characters are the creations of Marni Halasa a performance artist, who is also a journalist and lawyer. Maybe you've seen some of her other personas: "The Money Bunny," "Connie the Anti-Constitutional Cop" or "Juanita the Wonton One Percenter."
And it just might be working. On August 6, the Justice Department sued Bank of America. The offense: Defrauding investors by understating the risks of the mortgages backing about $850 million in securities.
"What I find funny is that Wall Street men seem to really like the 'Bank Reform Bitch,'" Halasa says. "When I protest outside the Federal Reserve, I often get invited for drinks, or for a date. Some have even asked if I 'really am a dominatrix?'"
Decked out in sequined costumes, with wings, fan veils, feather boas and signage, Halasa even roller bladed outside of Dimon's Park Avenue apartment. Another character, "Better Banking Butterfly" parked herself outside of N.Y. Senator Charles Schumer's 3rd Avenue offices with a sign stating, "Hey Senator! Stop Kissing Megabank Ass."
VITAMIN W recently spoke to Halasa in a quest to find out what is pissing off her alter egos.
What inspired you go from lawyer to performance artist/activist?
Although my career path appears to be somewhat schizophrenic, if you know me, it makes sense. As a child, I was a figure skater, but came from immigrant tiger Arabic and Filipino parents who pushed academics like no tomorrow. Their choices for their daughter: either a doctor, scientist or lawyer. I chose the latter...law. But my love of current events and investigative reporting turned me towards journalism. From graduating law school at University of Pittsburgh, I went to journalism school at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, excited to become a legal journalist in New York City. I reported on legal affairs for a number of years, but unfortunately, the market in print journalism eventually tanked. I went back to my first love, figure skating. When the Occupy movement began, I was inspired to go down to Zuccotti Park to protest, perform and connect with others. I found a smart, interesting, like-minded community. Not only did they have great politics, but they could teach me in detail why our viewpoints were sound. Performance art made sense at the time, and I was able to combine all my interests -- skating, performance, costuming, my interest in current events and my political beliefs -- into one medium. When my protest personas began to get noticed, I realized that I found a unique way to spread the message of income inequality.
How do you pick your causes? What's most troubling to you about banks? who are the biggest offenders?
I think what I am most fascinated and horrified with are scandals in the finance industry, the influence of money in politics, how a very small elite percentage of the population partake in benefits others do not have access to and the lack of social mobility in this era. Specifically, what is infuriating is how the banking industry consistently gets away with perpetrating fraud -- how important banking figures like Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, etc., can "game" the system, perpetuate fraud, engage in activity that can lead to the demise of our economy -- but then never get criminally prosecuted. HSBC admitted to laundering money for the drug cartel and terrorists. JPMorgan Chase manipulates the price of energy, Goldman Sachs unfairly bolsters the price of commodities. All the megabanks admit they were complicit in manipulating the Libor rate, which affects every consumer's credit card, mortgage rate, etc. The list of scandals are endless and banks profit in the billions. But historically, they get slapped on the wrist with paltry fines that are really the cost of doing business. There is an utter disregard for the rule of law. Plus, we have a government that supports Wall Street's bad behavior, so no one is ever criminally prosecuted. It is completely unfair on so many levels.
Have you seen any change resulting from your protest or has a banker come to a show?
The one thing I notice is that the public usually wants to talk to me. I don't hold myself out to be an expert, but I do try to explain to people what I am doing, what the protest is about, why Occupy is involved. Often while protesting outside of a bank in Midtown, I hand out New York Times editorials as well as other literature explaining the bad behavior of Wall Street. Currently, the group that I am with, the Alternative Banking Working Group is writing a book called, "Occupy Finance," to explain to the public about various scandals, how the middle class has been hurt by Wall Street and why they should care about what is going on in the financial industry. Recently, the group organized 20 artists to create a deck of cards for last year's anniversary of OWS, "52 Shades of Fraud," that they have sold to the public for the OWS campaign to forgive student debt.
Are you making a difference?
I don't have the answer. Who knows what will be the tipping point will be -- or what it is that can make a real impact. If I can help spread the messages of systemic economic inequality, police brutality, the broken system of regulation for the banking industry, etc., even in a small way, I feel like what I do is worthwhile. Even if I have to do a one-woman protest, it's all worthwhile to me.
Like many have said, the number one important thing Occupy has done is put these social issues on the national agenda. The year 2011 really woke up members of Congress, the White House, the media and the public to the systemic inequity going on in the world. I think the message of Occupy really helped Obama get elected, and decimated the Romney campaign.
What Occupy has also done is give a voice to protesters, and given them a sense of legitimacy. I believe we live in a different world now, where the voice of the many can make a difference. When 800 protesters gathered in Union Square last summer to protest the Con Edison union contract and low wage workers in general not being able to get a livable wage, Governor Cuomo got involved to broker a deal with the union and management to get employees back on the job. That is one example where public protest can have an impact.
Photos courtesy of Marni Halasa