The legendary tale of Robin Hood is being re-created at the Occupy Wall Street protests.To steal from the rich to give to the poor** is, at least in part, the goal that protesters hope to further as they proclaim to the U.S. government, the media, banks, and anyone walking past them, that “Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out.” Many protesters argue that taxpayers sacrificed for the rich, represented by “Wall Street,” in 2008, and now it’s their turn to pay.
Though one of the organisers told us that he supports the Millionaire’s Tax and eliminating tax deductions, the protesters have no concrete goals. However if the movement could be crystallized in one 30-second exchange, let it be what happened in Chicago yesterday, according to a WSJ reporter —
Twelve Occupy Wall Street protesters dressed up as Robin Hood’s Merry Men chanted “We are the 99%,” in Chicago as the movement continues to spread to big cities around the country. As they chanted, a nearby event for the Futures Industry Association hosted a group of traders, who took pictures of the protesters with cell phones and waved. Jay Brown, an independent trader from Chicago attending the expo, told the WSJ, “They’re protesting for the things that got us into this mess in the first place. They want free handouts, unions.”
The presence of Robin Hood’s Merry Men does suggest that the protesters want free handouts, but it resonates with the message — whatever it is — that everyone is starting to decipher from the growing protests. Robin Hood stands for an unjust level of wealth inequality, as well as for kindness and giving back to the poor.*
The trader who says that free handouts got us into this has a point too. Many on Wall Street cite the cause of the subprime crisis not as evil speculation or tricky Wall Street finagling, but as the government’s push in the early 90s to provide affordable housing to low-income households. Federal lawsuits aimed at firms that did not provide affordable home loans to low-income borrowers provided an incentive for lenders to provide loans to people with lower credit scores. The Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992 required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to devote a percentage of their lending to support affordable housing.
They argue that predatory lending grew out of that federal requirement, which required that banks lend to people that historically didn’t pay off their loans. Public banks had to make a profit for their shareholders. An angrier Wall Streeter might say, blame the crisis on the people who didn’t pay off their loans.
One bank employee we spoke to was bewildered to learn that the protesters are being compared to the Tea Party movement, which accomplished much more, in dozens of national elections for example, than the Occupiers have so far.
But while it’s cited as an example of what might be their biggest problem, which is not government policies that favour the rich, but laziness, the protesters flaunt their lack of a coherent goal, and their message resonates. Everyone is blaming the media for giving the movement more attention than it deserves, but maybe they get heard by millions, and they get credit for doing more than they have because it’s something that resonates with anyone who has a sense that the taxpayer bailout stole from the poor to give to the rich, and that the poor are the worse off for it. Witnesses to the movement might be willing to listen and give them credit for doing nothing because they get the sense that even a proactive pity parade can change something, even if it’s just a intangible, like country’s moral compass.
*Robin Hood is also the name of one of the most prominent charity funds in the U.S., the Robin Hood Foundation, founded by one of the richest hedge fund managers, Paul Tudor Jones.
**A few commenters have pointed out that this is not what Robin Hood stood for. Regardless, it’s what pop culture remembers about him. This paragraph from a very enlightening Wikipedia page about Robin Hood which pulls some of its words from JC Holt explains further:
The political and social assumptions underlying the early Robin Hood ballads have long been controversial. It has been influentially argued by J. C. Holt that the Robin Hood legend was cultivated in the households of the gentry, and that it would be mistaken to see in him a figure of peasant revolt. He is not a peasant but a yeoman, and his tales make no mention of the complaints of the peasants, such as oppressive taxes. He appears not so much as a revolt against societal standards as an embodiment of them, being generous, pious, and courteous, opposed to stingy, worldly, and churlish foes. Other scholars have by contrast stressed the subversive aspects of the legend, and see in the medieval Robin Hood ballads a plebeian literature hostile to the feudal order.
Commenter “falcon” below suggests that Robin Hood fought for liberty against a tyrannical government. That is also a popular belief.
In popular culture Robin Hood is typically seen as a contemporary and supporter of the late 12th-century king Richard the Lionheart, Robin being driven to outlawry during the misrule of Richard’s brother John while Richard was away at the Third Crusade.