As Tea Party protests grabbed headlines last week, another angry group found itself fighting for attention. The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) took its case to the Capitol, where some of its members disrupted a congressional committee hearing, surprised a bank executive, and dramatized the problems faced by many "underwater" homeowners.
At first, the April 13 meeting of the House Financial Services Committee seemed destined to be pretty run-of-the-mill. David Lowman, CEO of JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) home mortgage business presented 12 pages of testimony outlining his company's plans to help struggling mortgage borrowers to stay in their homes. But as Lowman began fielding questions from the congressmen, the meeting took an unexpected turn. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) asked the banker whom homeowners could turn to if they felt that JPMorgan's employees weren't helping them deal with their mortgage problems.
Lowman confidently replied "They can come to me." Within minutes, they did: A stream of roughly 50 borrowers presented him with a six-page analysis of his company's failure to help homeowners. In an article about the event, Reuters quoted organizer Bruce Marks, who described Lowman's hasty retreat: "He ran. He ran like a dog with its tail between his legs ... He was scared to death because he doesn't really want to talk to homeowners."
Equal Parts Pied Piper, Protester and Prankster
Over the past few months, Marks has emerged as a sort of a Pied Piper for angry homeowners. A former union activist, regulator for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and congressional liaison for the Department of Energy, Marks has combined middle class anger and 1960s-style street theater to create protests that are grabbing headlines -- and homeowner interest.
In December, Marks gathered an estimated 1,000 NACA members and stormed JPMorgan Chase's offices in New York's financial district. During the brief sit-in, the protesters occupied the main atrium of Chase plaza before being escorted off the premises by police. While not as dramatic as the building seizures of the Vietnam era, the action energized the group and garnered headlines. At the time, Marks told me that the confrontation "in the belly of the beast" was designed to draw attention to President Obama's critique of the "fat cats" in the banking industry.
A year ago, Marks borrowed a page from the playbook of Joey Skaggs.' In the late '60s, the famous prankster noticed that tour companies were running buses full of suburbanites through his hippie-laden neighborhood in New York's East Village. In response, he launched the "Cultural Exchange Tour," taking a Greyhound bus filled with hippie gawkers on a tour of suburban Queens.
Marks updated the prank by leading a collection of buses and minivans on a "Predator's Tour" of suburban Connecticut. Dropping in on Greenwich Finance CEO William Frey and Morgan Stanley (MS) CEO John Mack, the tour highlighted the social and economic gap between the bank execs who fueled the economic crisis and the struggling homeowners who were its victims. Commenting on its battle against the Wall Street execs -- which it referred to as "Loan Sharks," NACA's website stated that "We can't let them live quietly in a lap of luxury while they throw hard working Americans out on the street."
Marks' theatrics have drawn protest and critics have levied numerous accusations against him. According to some, the "financial terrorist" is evasive when questioned about NACA's business practices, while others claim that his tactics often cross the line into abuse and bullying. Yet, with an estimated 6 million homeowners behind on their mortgage payments and 1 in 4 mortgages currently underwater, it looks like Marks -- and his fellow protesters -- are going to be around for a while.
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