National People’s Action has developed a reputation for not being content to simply hold rallies on the streets outside of symbols of political power. In the words of NPA vice president Bobby Tolbert, “We like to take the crisis to the people who created it.”
That includes people like former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, one of the key figures in the 2008 financial meltdown that devastated the low-income workers and homeowners for whom NPA exists.
It is that spirit of bold confrontation and advocacy that has earned National People’s Action this year’s Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award from the Campaign for America’s Future. The award will be given Tuesday at the organization’s Awards Gala in Washington.
National People’s Action (NPA) is a network of grassroots organizations with a fierce reputation for direct action. Over 200 organizers work to unite everyday Americans — from farmers in rural Iowa to urban youth in the South Bronx — and unify their voices through direct action to advance an agenda of economic and racial justice.
Tolbert took part in a direct action in which NPA took the realities of the economic crisis that reached in to the communities and living rooms of countless Americans right to the front door of a man with the power to do something about it. In May 2012, a coalition of more than 1,000 activists — from National People’s Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance – went to then Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s Bethesda, Md. home to deliver a letter requesting that Geithner meet with them. They demanded that he support a financial speculation tax and launch investigations of the bankers whose dealings led to the financial crisis.
It was Tolbert who actually knocked on Geithner’s door and rang the doorbell. “We actually went to the home of Tim Geithner, when he was secretary of the Treasury,” Tolbert said. “I actually knocked on his doors to deliver a document. We silently went up his block … in a quiet vigil, so we could deliver this document. We were doing something that had never been done before.”
NPA activists didn’t deliver their letter to Geithner that day. Though he was apparently at home, Geithner never answered the door. Though they didn’t deliver their letter, NPA activists delivered their message.
Tolbert also described the impact of the action on those who participated. Step by step, NPA took people who watched the financial crisis bring blight to their communities, and perhaps foreclosure notice to their homes, and empowered their unified voices to speak truth to power. “We walked up to the door of the person who could actually be a game changer,” he said.
Two years before, NPA conducted a similar action, by bringing more than 800 activists to storm JP Morgan Chase’s annual shareholders’ meeting, to demand that the bank stop foreclosures and payday lending in their communities. The action brought together activists from across the country.
“In Ohio, in 2010, we went up against JP Morgan Chase bank, mainly around payday lending,” Tolbert said. “There were people there from California, there were people there from North Carolina, there were people from Washington, there were people from New York, who were all in solidarity with these folks.”
Solidarity that reaches across boundaries of geography and constituency is NPA’s strength. “The main strength is the cohesiveness of respective affiliates,” Tolbert said. “There is strength in numbers, and when many separate organizations and affiliates and coalitions have the same vision. That generates power. The glue that keeps us together is our shared interest. That’s what may change the power base.”
Today, NPA continues to fight the devastating impact of “payday loan sharks” in communities across the country, and to demand a financial transaction tax (or “Robin Hood tax”) to provide more money for housing, schools, meals for hungry children and crucial social services. The organization also supports legislation to make corporate tax dodgers pay, and stop separating families through deportation.
But according to Tolbert, “our challenge now is getting our own people into elections and into government,” Tolbert said, and pushing change from the inside. “We put out a challenge to our organizations to find at least one or two people who could possibly be candidates for office. And we met that challenge.”
One such organization has gotten national attention as its candidate runs for mayor in Maine’s second largest city. Ben Chin, political organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, is running on a populist progressive platform in Lewiston, Maine against an incumbent using Donald Trump-style anti-immigrant rhetoric. Chin credits the direct assistance and advice from National People’s Action for his success so far.
Whether knocking on the boardroom doors of major corporations or the front doors of policymakers, the activists and leadership of National People’s Action remain insistent on a just economy that works for everyone. “We are not afraid to open any doors,” Tolbert said. “We are not afraid to stand up, and say that we need to be counted right now, and we need to be heard right now.
To purchase tickets for the Campaign and Institute for America’s Future Awards Gala in Washington on October 27 featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Lily Eskelsen García, Scott Wallace and National People’s Action, go to Gala.OurFuture.org.