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(This article was first published in The Utica Phoenix in print and online in April 2012. Unfortunately, the paper’s website was hacked into oblivion months ago and this article was one that disappeared. If supporters of John McDevitt, who is still active with Occupy Utica, want to nominate him to be this year’s grand marshal for the Utica St. Patrick’s Day Parade, please email info@gaif.us saying so.)

Occupy Utica delivered a major public relations blow to Bank of America last week and won a victory for the Occupy movement. Master Sergeant John McDevitt of Clayville, in an epic David versus Goliath battle with an institution too big to fail, took national media by storm after he and a few Occupy Utica activists picketed the Bank of America branch on Mohawk Street. Every Occupier has their own story of why they joined the movement. This is the story of John McDevitt.

John McDevitt has been in the Army for most of his life. He joined in 1978 and saw combat in the first Gulf War, Bosnia, and most recently in Afghanistan where he was sent to Kandahar in 2010. While there he worked as a budget analyst with the first unit deployed to Afghanistan tasked to analyze and monitor money being spent by the military. He acted as an internal watchdog to see why so much money was spent so quickly and where it all went. Both on the job and off he was meticulous with tracking money – an attribute that would eventually haunt Bank of America. While stationed in Afghanistan he went on two weeks Rest and Relaxation in November 2010 to a place he had always wanted to visit – Athens, Greece.

While in Athens he took some time to relax from the war zone and visited ancient ruins, temples and walked the winding streets of the historic city. One night he asked a taxi driver to bring him to a night club and was dropped off at one called Palia Plaka. He stayed for a little over an hour at the bar and bought a few drinks, charging them to his Bank of America debit card. He left the nightclub, never to return for the duration of his trip. When his two weeks were up and he flew back to Afghanistan he checked his Bank of America account online and was shocked to discover that over $25,000, $25,243.71 to be exact, was charged to his debit card. A red flag should have gone up to Bank of America but if it did the bank did not bother to temporarily close his account. When asked if he spent that amount of money he said, “I wish. No one spends that kind of money in one day except the one percent.”

He immediately notified Bank of America and found himself struggling to get his money back for the next year and a half. He was eventually able to secure sales drafts from the club with signatures that were clearly forged. Although McDevitt pointed this out to the bank they sided with the merchant. He diligently kept track of all the correspondence he had with bank representatives. The paperwork continued to pile up. Bank of America’s position was that it was not their responsibility to protect their customer; rather, it was entirely the responsibility of Palia Plaka and McDevitt to find closure in the case. His claim went all the way to the Office of the CEO and President of Bank of America only to be shot down.

When he found that his bank would not stand up for him, he reached out to lawyers and government agencies for help. He went all the way up to the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for assistance. The CFPB was established by the Obama Administration for the very purpose of helping people like McDevitt but was unwilling to do so. Every bank, corporate and government official he went to either denied his fraud claim, or ignored him outright. He felt that he had exhausted every avenue of seeking justice and getting his money back. He had nowhere else to go and much of this money was saved up for his daughter’s wedding which was rapidly approaching. Then he heard about Occupy and it changed everything.

Finding Occupy

McDevitt stumbled on an article online about a group calling itself Occupy Atlanta. He had never heard of Occupy Wall Street, the occupation of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, or even Occupy Utica. In December, Occupy Atlanta activists occupied the home of Iraq War veteran Brigette Walker when she was fighting an imminent foreclosure of her home by JPMorgan Chase. McDevitt recalls hearing this story. “This poor girl was fighting Chase. Chase was so cold hearted, [but] Occupy Atlanta put them on the spot.” In the end, Occupy Atlanta was able to get JPMorgan Chase to offer a loan modification and the home was saved. Occupy Atlanta continued to occupy abandoned homes and fight foreclosures but had no idea their action would transform an Army veteran in rural Upstate New York.

The message Occupy Atlanta sent was clear: Occupy helps veterans. McDevitt discovered Occupy Utica online, found the group’s nightly internet radio program Occupied Radio, called in and told his story. Occupy Utica was quick to respond, meeting him at his house to make sure his fraud claim was accurate, interviewing him, setting up the website JusticeforJohn.org, spreading awareness and working with him every step of the way to develop a strategy to get his money back. The group took tactics of escalation borrowed from Seattle Solidarity Network, a grassroots organization of workers and tenants that takes direct action to fight for the rights of those wronged by abusive bosses and landlords.

Direct Action Gets the Goods

Occupy Utica decided to start small and simple in a series of escalating protests against Bank of America. On March 10th several occupiers accompanied McDevitt into the Bank of America branch on Mohawk Street. The group split up with some outside with signs and two accompanying McDevitt in the bank. A demand letter was given to the acting manager of the branch with the “one simple demand” that John McDevitt be given his money back. The letter ended by informing the bank that “this issue no longer solely belongs to Mr. McDevitt: it belongs to Occupy Utica and Occupy Wall Street.” John was no longer alone. He now had the backing of the big bank’s rival. A two week deadline was given.

The manager notified his superiors of the demand letter and said he was not responsible to handle this matter. McDevitt had heard this story numerous times before. He again got a letter in the mail from the bank telling him that the case was closed. On March 31st, with the intent to start small and escalate in the future, a very modest four person picket stood outside of Bank of America with signs, flyers detailing the Justice for John campaign, and brochures from First Source Credit Union so the picketers could urge customers of the bank to move their money to a sane financial institution. The police were immediately called and four cops arrived on the scene, leaving shortly after they learned what the situation was. John’s sign stated, “A Soldier that Puts his Country First, Should have a Bank that Puts the Soldier First” and grabbed the attention of WKTV news. Within only a few days the story was covered by ABC News, Good Morning America, Forbes, the Huffington Post and countless internet sites. Even the Fox News program Fox and Friends is planning on bringing McDevitt to their studio. The story took the nation by storm.

A mere four days after the picket Mcdevitt got a very unexpected call. Jeffrey Cathey, Senior Vice President, Senior Military Affairs Executive of Bank of America told McDevitt he had just gotten out of a meeting and wanted to talk. It took a bit of arguing on McDevitt’s’s part. David was face to face with Goliath and Goliath, for a moment, blinked. He hung up the phone and calmly told those with him that they were giving his money back in full. Who would have thought a four person picket would lead to that outcome? He was ecstatic. “They don’t know who they’re messing with! I’m a radical now! I’m with Occupy!” The old IWW union dictum that “direct action gets the goods” rang true in Clayville that night and soft whispers of the story travelled to Occupy groups, to active duty soldiers, to those robbed and cheated by big banks across the country. A small committed group was able to do what corrupt banks, and government bureaucracies failed to do – find justice and find it quickly.

Debit or Credit?

The story that was lost in the mainstream coverage of McDevitt’s and Occupy’s victory is how this could have been avoided. Corporate media outlets did not put the blame entirely on Bank of America – it was made out to be an individual consumer’s poor choice. Forbes was quick to jump on the story and point out that had McDevitt used credit he would not have been in this situation. But credit is a major contributor to the recent mode of our economic system and of the current economic crisis. Instead of creating an economy where people make a living wage and have all the necessities of life, we have one based largely on money that is not there – credit. And it’s the inability of millions to pay off this credit which chains them to debt. This is not an issue of whether credit is more secure than debit; it’s an issue of the type of financial institution Bank of America is. An institution that is too big to fail and, as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibii called it in a Bank of America article, “too corrupt to fail” has cheated John McDevitt and millions of others like him out of money, out of homes, and out of livelihoods.

Occupy was successful in helping John McDevitt and it may be successful, if the cards are dealt right, in doing something our government will not – bust up the bank and break it down into smaller ones on the scale of state banks, credit unions and local banks. After all, if McDevitt had banked with a credit union like First Source he would have never been in this situation to begin with. All over the country Occupy groups are protesting Bank of America, having sit-ins, pickets and are encouraging people to move their money to local banks and credit unions.  A recent meeting was held in Utica dubbed the 99% Spring where over thirty people cheered when they heard about McDevitt’s victory and committed to take future action against Bank of America.

McDevitt Looks to the Future

McDevitt finally got his check in the mail and is excitedly planning on opening a new account with First Source Credit Union. He can finally give the money to his daughter for her wedding, thanks in no small part to Occupy Utica. While he was fighting his own battle, he also found time to help out Proctor High School students in planning the recent demonstration against education budget cuts.  John McDevitt and the students that protested the budget cuts are just a handful of people that have for the first time in their lives stood up and taken action against economic injustice. McDeviit put it simply: “I’m excited I finally see people caring. They realize the destruction that the financial system is imposing on us… it’s financial terrorism.” Justice for John was found but for millions of others it has yet to come. John McDevitt is more committed than ever to continue the struggle against those that profit at the expense of others and that includes Bank of America. He made a direct hit at Goliath and if enough people like him do the same, we can take Goliath down.

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn