by Susan Lamont
…we have just begun to touch
the dazzling whirlwind of our anger
Joy Harjo, Muskogee Creek poet
People are angry. I don’t just mean activists – it’s our “job” to be angry – I mean everybody. Unfortunately, many don’t know where to direct that anger and some haven’t even admitted that there’s a problem. But if you were to catch someone at the right moment, over a beer or glass of wine, alone in their cars with the radio off, on a night when they can’t sleep, off-guard, you’d get an earful.
The work of an activist is to harness all those justifiable negative emotions – anger, despair, hopelessness – and channel them to positive action. But for most people, it’s difficult to get a handle on the big picture issues that have such an influence on their daily lives. When one is trying to energize a movement around national and international issues, the most productive exhortation is to “make it local.”
For those of us in the social justice movement of Sonoma County, that opportunity was offered up on a platinum platter when bankster/thief Sandy Weill came to town in the guise of benevolent philanthropist. Weill dropped a cool $12 million on Sonoma State University and the school’s president returned the favor in the form of an honorary degree.
The result? A perfect forum. The Sonoma State University graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 12 offered students, professors, and local activists a golden opportunity to demonstrate their outrage at this shameful “transaction,” and to educate thousands about why it was wrong. A Coalition was formed; media coverage was assured.
In bestowing a Doctorate of Humane Letters on Sanford Weill, former CEO and Chairman of Citigroup, SSU President Rubin Armiñana asked the assembled students, families and residents of Sonoma County to ignore how Weill came to have so much money and to believe that ill-gotten gains can be called “philanthropy.” The Coalition said “not so fast!”
Sandy Weill has said that he retired from Citigroup because he needed to fulfill his “deal with God” by giving away a sizeable portion of his wealth. He failed to mention that the money he would be dispensing was obtained through a pact with the devil. (For details on his crimes, see shameonssu.org)
None of this bothered Armiñana. He acknowledged that Weill had some part in the economic crisis, but said “We are all sinners. That is part of the human condition.”
All of Sandy Weill’s corporate “sins” are public record, but not many people knew about them. Here’s how they found out.
In March of 2011, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that Joan and Sandy Weill had donated $12 million to the Green Music Center, calling the Weills “nationally recognized philanthropists.” I did some quick research and was amazed that the explosive truth about Weill and his responsibility for the financial crisis was so easy to find, right under our noses.
I submitted an OpEd to the Press Democrat, in which I called Weill a thief, not a philanthropist. I contacted the paper every day and said I would continue to do so until they published the piece. In early April, they relented. It was very well-received by the progressive community, but there it ended.
Six months later, the Occupy movement burst upon the scene. Sandy Weill was a ready-made target for the movement, but I didn’t see his name anywhere. Most of the talk was about Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs. Weill was one of the first executives to hire a public relations company to protect his image and it had served him well.
But I work at the Peace & Justice Center of Sonoma County and we’re on Sonoma State’s press release email list. In late April 2012, we were informed that the university was awarding degrees to Weill and his wife. I had turned my back to Henry Kissinger in 1969 when Brown University awarded him a degree. I knew what I wanted to see and I knew that the Peace & Justice Center couldn’t be the focus of that work, nor could the local Occupy groups. That work had to come from within the Sonoma State community if we wanted it to have real traction.
I contacted Peter Phillips, professor of Sociology, and Shepherd Bliss, lecturer in Humanities. Eight people came to our first meeting, nine days before the graduation, to plan a protest. We dubbed it “Day of Shame on SSU.” By the next day, we had a website (shameonssu.org) and then our first press release. By our second meeting, we’d grown to twenty-five people with more on our email list. We got a Facebook page.
The amount of press coverage we received was an activist’s dream. Peter and Shepherd wrote OpEds which were immediately printed. The protest was covered for four days in the Press Democrat and Armiñana felt forced to respond. Letters to the editor favored our position. Our commentary appeared on numerous internet sites and there were interviews on many radio stations. The last issue for the semester of the SSU student newspaper, Sonoma State Star, carried the headline “Day of Shame at Sonoma State University.” Copies mysteriously disappeared overnight from the campus, to reappear when the faculty advisor formally complained. The faculty senate and the staff’s union weighed in on the controversy.
We issued a second press release declaring our commitment to nonviolence and our intention to protest Mr. Weill with back turning and silence and to honor the students.
On the day of the graduation, about fifty activists, including numerous SSU alumni, fanned out across the campus and handed out 4,000 explanatory flyers to a crowd of 10,000. To our delight, they were not dropped on the ground. We had the opportunity to speak with many people and received more favorable responses than negative.
When the degree was finally presented, close to 100 graduating students stood up and turned their backs to the podium. Many were in the highly visible second row. They were joined by faculty members on stage, and more than fifty people, organizers and the general public, in the audience.
One of the graduating students had written to the commencement speaker, Marc Lamont Hill. Mr. Hill did not respond, but he gave a barnstorming speech enumerating the sins of Sandy Weill (without mentioning his name), calling out the business graduates to do things differently, and asking the students to stand up for what is right even when others disapprove. He got a standing ovation and our profound gratitude.
Sandy Weill’s cover has been blown. The campaign to let the Weills know they are unwelcome in this county will continue and that will be our local hook for what is actually a global story – the story of an elite which is destroying everything we value.
Equally important, this rapidly convened coalition brought SSU students and faculty together with Occupy activists from Santa Rosa, Sebastopol Petaluma and Healdsburg for a successful action. We have owned our anger and discovered our strength.
There will be more opportunities for this group of people, many of whom were strangers a couple of weeks ago, to continue their work of changing the world by changing their community – a local community where more and more people can begin to realize that they are not alone in their anger. And that we are on their side.
The whirlwind is getting stronger.
MEDIA CONTACT: John Bertucci
“Day of Shame on Sonoma State University”
(Petaluma 5/6/12) A recently organized coalition of Sonoma State faculty, students and local Occupy activists is calling for a public demonstration of outrage in response to the announcement that former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill will receive an honorary degree at SSU’s graduation ceremony this year. People all over the country are invited to the Sonoma State campus for a “Day of Shame on Sonoma State University.” The protest begins at noon on Saturday, May 12, and does not intend in any way to disrupt graduation proceedings. On the contrary, this is an urgent call to defend the integrity of the ceremony and denounce the unacceptable insult that Mr. Weill’s dishonorable doctorate degree represents.
Sanford (Sandy) Weill was the driving force in shattering the Glass-Steagall Act, which for decades had prohibited Wall Street investment firms from gambling with their depositors’ money. Its reversal opened the gates for the housing crisis in 2008, the plague of foreclosures devastating our communities and the economic recession that has stolen our children’s future. Mr. Weill thus enabled the merger that created Citigroup, a major player in the criminal banking practices thereby unleashed. Given his unquestioned responsibility in this, Time Magazinerecently included Weill’s name in its list of the “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis.”
A major purveyor of toxic subprime mortgages, Citigroup required $45 billion in government investment and a $300 billion guarantee of its bad assets to avoid bankruptcy; yet Sandy Weill retired an incredibly wealthy man shortly before the “banking collapse he helped engineer” required a tax-payer bail-out. Now Mr. Weill is being rewarded with a degree in Humane Letters for his donation of 12 million of his ill-gotten dollars to complete SSU’s construction of the controversial Green Musical Center. SSU Sociology Professor Peter Phillips asks, “Is this a doctorate honoring anything besides being the largest recent donor to the Green Music Center? It seems to smack of buying the honor instead of earning it.”
In fact, many of the students in the SSU graduating class this year are leaving school saddled with Citigroup student loans, all part of the trillion dollar student loan debt from which graduates across the nation will be struggling for years to escape. The courageous obligation to protest Weill’s honorary degree is made quite clear in graduating SSU student Melanie Sanders’ words: “I must now call my grandma and explain that I will be protesting at my graduation ceremony. I am personally offended that he will be at my graduation and receiving a degree.”
Many attribute this offensive gesture to the stewardship of SSU President Ruben Armiñana. They argue that, by honoring a man who, in the process of amassing his fortune, has inflicted so much suffering and destruction on countless lives – including many in this very graduating class – Armiñana has betrayed the integrity of the California State University system and its mission. The “Day of Shame on Sonoma State University” is an urgent action organized to give people an opportunity to demonstrate their outrage and publicly denounce the arrogance, greed and fraud that has inverted our social contract and hi-jacked the American Dream as the entitlement of the few, at the expense of the many.
According to organizer Shepherd Bliss, “Seating for 4,000 guests will be set up to accommodate those wanting to be present for 1000 graduates in the morning and another 1000 in the afternoon. This would be an important audience to educate and mobilize, helping them connect the necessary dots between a prominent one percenter and his victims.”
The “Day of Shame on Sonoma State University” starts at noon on the SSU campus at 1801 East Cotati Ave, Rohnert Park, on May 12, 2012. Please respect our commitment to non-violent assembly and protect the integrity of this graduation ceremony, deploying your creativity to inform and articulate compassionate resistance, and honoring the dignity of this treasured moment for students and their families by dressing appropriately in black.
For more extensive information on Sandy Weill’s background and the corporitization of SSU, visit:
For interviews and additional information, contact:
To sign a petition urging the CSU Board of Trustees to revoke Sandy Weill’s dishonorable degree:
“Scoundrel” Billionaire to Receive Honorary Doctorate at Sonoma State University
Weill was a primary player in the removal of the Glass-Steagal Act during the Clinton administration. This act allowed for Wall Street investment firms to gamble with their depositors money held in affiliated commercial banks leading to the housing crisis in 2008. The International Herald Tribune (1/4/10) described Weill as once viewed as a “brilliant deal maker, while now critics cast him as the architect of a shoddily constructed, unmanageable financial supermarket whose troubles have sideswiped investors, employees and average citizens.” Robert Scheer in the Nation Magazine (4/12) describes Weill as a “ Jolly Good Scoundrel”, and “The Man who Shattered Our Economy.” (Huffington Post 11/17/10) Scheer points out how Weill bailed out of Citigroup before the crash, “laughing all the way to the bank.” Weill is currently reported to be selling his 200-foot yacht, named the April Fool, for $69.5 million. The boat has a huge master stateroom, a Jacuzzi on the fourth-level sun deck and a sprawling outdoor eating lounge.
Sandy Weill paid $31 million in late 2010 for a 362-acre estate and vineyard in Sonoma County. He brought with him carpetbags of money, a pile of which he donated to gleeful SSU President Ruben Armiñana’s Green Music Center.
Jump to May 12, 2012 graduation at SSU, Sandy Weill and his wife Joan will be awarded an honorary doctorate. Many will ask, What for? Is this a doctorate honoring anything besides being the largest recent donor to the Green Music Center? It seems to smack of buying the honor instead of earning it.
Previous honorary SSU doctorate recipients have been primarily local community leaders with decades of regional merit. Included in these ranks are Herb Dwight, who has distinguished himself throughout his life as a highly respected engineer and prominent business and community leader; Belva Davis, a highly regarded reporter in the San Francisco Bay area; Bernie Goldstein, provost and vice president of academic affairs at SSU; Edward R. Stolman of Glen Ellen past president and chairman of the Federation of American Hospitals; and Donald Green. a prominent leader in the telecommunications industry. Green founded three regional companies, Digital Telephone Systems, Optilink Corp., and Advanced Fibre Communications, and became know as the “Father of Telecom Valley” in the North Bay region.
Many Sonoma county folks are not taking kindly to a near billionaire with tainted money receiving a honorary doctorate from Sonoma State University without having given decades of regional accomplishments for which to be truly honored. Thousands of people who lost their homes through foreclosures in Sonoma County might like to have something to say about such an award. Shame on Ruben Armiñana for arranging such an outrageous gesture, and dishonoring graduation for the class of 2012.
Peter Phillips earned a Ph.D. in 1994 at UC Davis and has been a sociology professor at Sonoma State University for the past eighteen years. He is presently President of Media Freedom Foundation/Project Censored.