ATLANTA, Ga. - Michael Render has just finished an interview with Akinyele Umoja, a Georgia State University professor and author of We Will Shoot Back, for a podcast he's producing with The Huffington Post. He's walking through the student center when somebody recognizes him: "Killer Mike!"
The kid wants a selfie and, more urgently, he demands to know when "Run The Jewels 3" is dropping. "Fall," Render promises.
But Render wants something in return: the kid's money. Not for himself, but for Citizens Trust Bank in Atlanta, a black-owned bank nearly a century old. Render suggests opening up a checking account with $100. The kid hesitates, and Render says even $20 would help. "Bank black, bank small and bank local," he says. "Bank black, because, especially if you're African-American, it strengthens the ability of you to help institutions that will help give small business loans or home loans to people in your community."
If people don't start to follow this advice, the ongoing existence of black-owned banks is in doubt.
Render has a long history of social activism and has emerged as one of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) most prominent endorsers.
His goal, he tells The Huffington Post, is to get 1 million people to open an account at Citizens Trust Bank.
The campaign kicked off with an Instagram post at the start of February as part of Black History Month.
"If you're not black, still bank with this bank or a local black bank because when you bank small, you're building a real relationship with the people you're banking with. Small banks appreciate your money in a different way than a national bank," he says.
That message is particularly timely in Atlanta. In January, rapper Blac Youngsta (Sam Benson) was arrested after withdrawing money from his own Wells Fargo account. Police cuffed him after he exited the bank, according to the blog Financial Juneteenth.
Diedra St. Julien, marketing director at Citizens Trust Bank, told HuffPost that Render's campaign "aligns so much with the legacy of the bank and what we stand for: It's all about community. It's about having a good relationship with your money."
St. Julien said there has been a surge in awareness of the bank, and that "we have seen an uptick on inquiries from loans" and other products.
Such "Move Your Money" campaigns gained prominence after the financial crisis as a way for individuals to take action to decrease the financial power and risk posed by too-big-to-fail banks. Some individual efforts had an impact.
The Huffington Post launched a Move Your Money campaign in 2010, aiming to shift assets to local banks that have shown that "you can both be profitable and have a positive impact on the community," to quote a blog from HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington and Rob Johnson, the executive director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Bank Transfer Day was a similar campaign that began with a Facebook post and became a coordinated effort to get people to open accounts at credit unions.
Money did move, often because of obvious blunders by big banks: In 2011, Bank of America added a monthly $5 fee for customers to use its debit cards, and within a month, $4.5 billion flooded into credit unions. (Bank of America ended up scrapping the fee.)
But at a large scale, Move Your Money campaigns have not worked: The largest banks have a greater share of Americans' deposits now than before the financial crisis. That's part of a long trend of consolidation in the banking industry.
It’s also a drawn out and torturously detailed process to open a new bank account, transfer your money and shut down your old account while making sure all your automatic payments and bills still get paid. That, of course, is by design.
In the the Instagram post that kicked off his campaign, Render dealt with this issue by saying the aim wasn't necessarily for people to close their accounts with big banks. He wrote that people could keep their old accounts and open a new savings account with Citizens Trust, as one option. "[M]ake sure at least 1 account is with a black bank," he wrote, "turning that dollar in our community!”
Later this month, The Huffington Post is launching a podcast, hosted by Killer Mike, on Reconstruction. If you know anything about Reconstruction, you've probably been told that it was a brief moment of ill-advised revenge that the North took on the South just after the Civil War. But the real history of Reconstruction is one of great hope and promise mixed with tremendous violence. Sign up here to get an email when the podcast goes live.
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