If someone came to your house and camped in your front yard and screamed all day and night about how bad you are, you would want to correct the record somehow. Right?
Yesterday, New York City was cold, rainy, and grey. West Street in lower Manhattan is just a block from the Hudson River, meaning everything is colder. Goldman Sachs’ headquarters is a skyscraper on West Street just across from the Freedom Tower, the top of which rises so high it disappears into the mists on these wet winter days.
At 3:30 in the afternoon, a group of perhaps a hundred protesters had assembled on the sidewalk at the southeastern corner of Goldman’s building. They were there touting banners that read “Government Sachs,” protesting the extent of the bank’s involvement in the Trump administration. It’s hard to argue with that. If all goes as planned, a Goldman Sachs alumni will soon be running the Treasury Department; a lawyer who’s worked for Goldman will be running the SEC; and Goldman’s former president will be Trump’s top economic adviser. Steve Bannon, who ran Trump’s campaign, is a Goldman alumni, and so is Anthony Scaramucci, who just sold his investment firm in order to take a job as a Trump adviser. The stock rally that followed Trump’s victory reportedly made Goldman partners $800 million richer.
The standard response to protests like this is to say that Goldman is simply a skilled participant in the financial markets, and that its expertise ultimately helps raise productivity and efficiency of business around the world, thereby benefiting us all in an extremely vague way. But pretending that a bank of this stature is merely a rote financial utility while failing to discuss its self-serving political machinations is like ignoring the peanut butter in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If there is in fact a swamp to drain, that swamp is composed of Goldman Sachs alumni. The protesters were eager to drive home this point. They held aloft swamp-themed signs, and one person had dressed as a swamp monster, complete with a grotesque, fish-like head piece. They laid down pieces of blue plastic on the sidewalk and unrolled green and black sleeping bags—they would be spending the night on the wet pavement, hemmed in by police barricades on three sides. “Goldman committed crimes to crash the economy,” one man said as he stretched his legs on the ground, “and now they’re in charge of the whole economy.” An elderly woman in a rain poncho was making herself comfortable for the long haul. “I’m here to protest that we need money for the homeless, for the sick and disabled,” she said.
“Unsophisticated” is a malleable term of art. In reality, it is naive not to hold Goldman Sachs at least partly responsible for rising inequality—the bank uses its considerable influence to push for softer taxes and less regulation and similar policies that ultimately exacerbate the gulf between the rich and poor. This is what the protesters were getting at when they said, for example, “In this building live a den of snakes!” Harsh, perhaps, but to the point.
Yesterday afternoon and again this morning I stood beside the protest pen and asked hundreds of passing Goldman Sachs employees for comment on what was being said. Most of them, I presume, consider themselves good people, and they probably care about various causes, and they think that they work hard and “add value” and earn their paychecks. It would be quite interesting to know how they square that self-conception with the much uglier image the protesters have of them. Not a single employee was willing to say a word to me. Most of the men walked by staring straight ahead, zoning me out in a very determined way. I instantly recognized this as the posture we all adopt when a homeless person we don’t want to talk to is walking through a subway car, and felt a pang of guilt. (We are all swamp monsters, to somebody.) Some employees, once they were at a safe distance, stood and watched with a quizzical expression, snapping photos on their iPhones which were no doubt destined to be sarcastically captioned and shared with sympathetic friends.
At a quarter to nine this morning, only a hearty band of about 15 protesters were still in the pen. Their commitment afforded them the opportunity to yell at all the Goldman people going to work, which appeared to be a satisfying pastime, like finally working up the courage to tell your rich uncle that he’s an asshole. “Why don’t you donate your leather gloves to homeless people?” one young woman shouted. Her determination to harass the well-attired employees was admirable, since none of them were willing to engage with her even a little. “How do you sleep at night? On 12,000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets?” she hollered. “The average American doesn’t have $500 in savings. How much do you have?” The bankers, most of them young a clean-shaven and attired in friendly pastels, just kept walking. “How much to you make?” she asked one. Nothing. Eventually, she even tried the friendly approach: “No disrespect, but you have no morals, sir.”
One after another, Goldman people stalked by at top speed. They focused their eyes on the horizon and pretended to be lost in their headphones, or their earmuffs, or their cell phone pressed to their head. The very polite ones would give a sheepish grin, but most just pretended that neither I nor the chanting protesters were there. Several of the women reacted to a request for comment as if they’d heard a bad pickup line—a half-roll of the eyes, a tight smile, and a quick shake of the head. One middle-aged, slightly disheveled banker slowed long enough to ask me, “Is this a Trump protest?”
“They’re actually protesting Goldman,” I said. “What do you think? Do you work here?”
“Oh... nah,” he said, before entering the building.
As the shivering activists accused the passersby of selfishness and destroying the global economy, one balding man in a pinstripe suit turned over his shoulder with a pissed-off look. “I’m a financial adviser for small cities! I don’t work here!”
No actual Goldman Sachs employees had anything to say for themselves at all. Of course they didn’t want their names to appear in a news story, and they didn’t want to be yelled at, and it was wet and cold, and they didn’t feel like getting in a long argument on the sidewalk. But watching the tight lips and quickened steps of all of these masters of the universe—these achievers, these hard workers, these people who have spent their lives succeeding and been richly rewarded for it—it was impossible not to detect in them another familiar feeling: guilt. But nobody wanted to talk about it.