Thursday, Mar. 26, 2009

Hang the Bankers! Getting Ready to Vent in London

It's a rotten time to be a banker. Whether their fingerprints are on a single credit default swap or collateralized debt obligation or not, financiers are being fingered for blowing up the global economy. The assets they traded are "toxic" and their bonuses "obscene." And members of the public, it seems, are fed up with the lot of them. In a leaked security memo sent to staff last week, bosses at AIG warned workers to keep an eye out for aggressors amid the "growing sense of public attention fueled by increased media scrutiny." AIG employees were advised to ditch AIG apparel or ID badges outside the office, and dial emergency services if they think they're being followed. "At night," the company suggested, "travel in pairs and always park in well-lit areas." (They might well have added, "choose seats at the rear of theaters"; when the boss of one of Iceland's beleaguered banks took his seat inside the country's National Theater recently, he was roundly booed.)

This week it's been Fred Goodwin's turn. The former boss of the stricken Royal Bank of Scotland is rumored to be mulling a move to South Africa after vandals smashed windows and his car at his Edinburgh home. Britons are livid that Goodwin was awarded a $1 million annual pension after he quit RBS in disgrace last year. The 50-year-old oversaw a disastrous expansion that almost felled one of Europe's largest banks, prompted a $30 billion government bailout last fall and triggered the biggest annual loss in U.K. corporate history. "We are angry," a group claiming responsibility for the attack wrote in an e-mail to an Edinburgh newspaper, "that rich people, like him, are paying themselves a huge amount of money and living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute and homeless. Bank bosses should be jailed. This is just the beginning." (See pictures of the financial crisis in London.)

Things might get even hotter in the coming days. On the eve of a meeting between leaders of the G-20 in London next week, thousands of protesters are expected to converge on the Bank of England as part of "Financial Fool's Day." G-20 Meltdown, the umbrella of anti-capitalist groups behind the demonstration, promises a "carnival" atmosphere. But here's a spoiler alert: "We are going to be hanging a lot of people like [RBS's Fred Goodwin] from lampposts on April Fool's Day and I can only say let's hope they are just effigies," Chris Knight, one of the march's organizers, told the BBC on Wednesday. "If he winds us up any more, I'm afraid there will be real bankers hanging from lampposts," Knight said, before adding: "Let's hope that that doesn't actually have to happen." A day later, the University of East London, which employs Knight as a professor of anthropology, suspended him. (See TIME's G-20 content.)

Protesters plan to "lay siege" to London's financial institutions, according to G-20 Meltdown's website. There's even the promise of a "Banquet at the Bank" and the chance to "feast on a rare delicacy: bankers' brains!" Features like that are all meant in jest, says Michael Rainsbro, a spokesman for the group. "It's April Fool's day," he says. "Do you seriously think we're gonna go down and eat bankers' brains? Come on."

Nevertheless, London's Metropolitan Police has advised financial workers to dress down during the protests, and newspaper fashion writers have offered help on blending in. "Boring cardigan, neatly buttoned and worn with a skinny-ish tie and narrow fit trousers" should offer male bankers some anonymity, one wrote this week. As for women, "flat boots", and "leopard-print cardigan" ought to give marchers the slip. (See pictures of the Top 10 scared traders.)

For all the good humor, there's a serious point to such protests. "Anger is an emotion that spurs collective action," says Bert Klandermans, a professor of applied social psychology specializing in protest behavior at Amsterdam's Free University. It's "an emotion that results from feeling that somebody is responsible for something, and could have acted differently," he says. For many, "the bankers did it wrong, and they did it wrong because they were greedy. That's what makes people angry." Still, getting wound up doesn't necessarily mean changing the world. Being heard, Klandermans says, is often enough. "In any demonstration, you will find people are there for no other reason than expressing how upset they are, next to people who seriously believe it may make a difference."

For politicians, anger directed at bankers is also anger that's not being channeled toward them. Gordon Brown, Britain's Prime Minister, has hardly emerged unscathed from the collapse of the U.K. economy — he was, after all, the country's finance minister for a decade until 2007 — but he's also helped stoke the public's irritation toward banks. "The anger that the public has," the Prime Minister said in February of the furor over the size of Fred Goodwin's pension, "is anger that I have as well." Just don't expect to see Brown on the streets next week.

Cast your vote for Brown in the 2009 TIME 100.

See TIME's G-20 content.