As well as giving us the ability to support international liberation movements and trade ideas and strategies with people all over the world in an instant via social media, interdependence also means arms- and knees-deep relationship with systems, ideologies, and people who use their power to cause others harm… There’s no way to live in this world and come up clean.” —Me, in August
When I visit new places, I like to pay attention to which kinds of commercial resources are in the area. I look at the ratio of banks to check cashing places and the financial terms those institutions offer in that zip code. I check out the kinds of grocery and restaurant options available. I notice which public transit services residents have accessible to them. All of these and other things tell me a story about the community and how invested its governments are in the people who live in there.
I walked around today in a part of New York that has Chase Bank signs every few blocks. New York City is JP Morgan Chase Bank’s home base, and one of its recent merging partners, Bank of the Manhattan Company, has operated on that part of the NY archipelago for 217 years.
Contemporary Chase advertising may be fresh, trendy, and blue, but whenever I see the company’s name, I associate it with the sour history of big bank participation in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the German-Jewish Holocaust. It’s not just a small-business-friendly bank. It’s also a bank that’s nourished itself on blood. And it’s unusual only in the sense that it’s publicly acknowledged this history.
Working with any centuries-old institution means becoming part of its stories. When the institution’s stories involve oppression and blood, that means our stories will too. We, too, become entangled; we, too, become enrolled.
There’s no living in this region, on this land, under these flags, on this planet, and still having clean hands. Yet only some of us seem to get a choice about how much dirt gets under our fingernails.
It’s expensive to be poor, and not just in money but also in options: what makes wealth most meaningful, after we’ve gained the ability to survive and assure our fundamental needs, is our ability to choose more of the social stories that we participate in.
When only a handful of banks are accessible, and each bank punishes the public with fees for using competitors’ services in a pinch, people have a much more limited capacity to choose whether they’ll partner with an institution that grew rich from seizing Jews’ assets or from turning enslaved people into debt securities. Even when these organizations have verbally apologized, their contemporary position rests on them leveraging the wealth they gained once upon a wicked time.
I don’t know what to tell you about how to choose when we’re all one or two degrees away from evil or when we ourselves are the portal through which injustice flows. I can’t tell you, for instance, to eschew every major bank and retreat to credit unions, though I know people who have. Many of us participate in the stock market in some way, directly or indirectly, and evem when we abandon certain banks on principle, the health of our portfolios is still bound up with theirs.
We can’t withdraw from the “network of mutuality,” even when we want to. We can only strive for a world in which individuals and institutions alike have meaningful choices and the rough places of our collective pasts are “made plain” through much more just relationships. The past took centuries of intention to create, and so will the divergent future that I’d prefer to live in. It’s a future where there’s room for all, and all may choose.