Fans For Fair Play
Challenging Bruce Ratner’s Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project

Monday, February 05, 2007

Hello, Neighbor! 

Well, sports fans, there's a new neighbor on the street.

A big ol' English punter, with the strength of a terrace vet and the obnoxious arrogance of a Tory back-bencher.

The kind of person who extends a hand for a shake while casing the joint.

There goes the neighborhood.

...not 'cause the new neighbors are from London. It's because they act like they own it.

...and now, Brooklyn too.

Of course we're talking about Barclays Bank, who just crawled into a comfy palace four-post bed with Bruce Ratner. Barclays shelled out $400 million or so -- as per the usual secrecy from all things Ratnerian, Bruce and the bank won't exactly say how much.

New neighbors? Hey, let's do what anyone would and walk up the street, say hello, find out a little about them.

Seems that Barclays has a few skeletons in its closets...boney, scrawny evil lookin' things called Slavery, Apartheid, Anti-Semitism, Racism.

Oh...and a quick-trigger forearm to the throat of any newspaper, journalist, blogger, writer or internet site willing to write about their sordid little history. The Brooklyn Papers has written a great response to Barclays' attack on them.

Fans For Fair Play did some research and found out that Barclays was:

* connected to the slave trade between England, Africa and the West Indies back in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries;

* a fiscal and social enabler of South Africa's apartheid regime from 1925 through 1986;

* complicit in the theft of French Jews' bank accounts during France's Nazi occupation;

* one of the banks that helped defraud Enron's workers and shareholders.

Currently, Barclays is funding exploitive mining operations in the explosive Congo conflict and making loans to Robert Mugabe's internationally-condemned government in Zimbabwe.

Nice people...the kind of folks who'll stop by to borrow a cup of sugar and then trash your house.

Why do we say such awful things about these denizens of delight just arrived on Brooklyn's shores?

Because they're knee-jerk, defensive corporate bullies, that's why.

After we reported our findings -- one or two of which are in dispute, the vast majority of which are correct -- media outlets began picking up the story. (The Brooklyn Papers put out their story at about the same time. And just to be clear, none of this was secret stuff FFFP had to meet a Deep Throat source in a parking garage to get.)

Within the past week, local Black leaders, including some allied with Bruce Ratner, have criticized Barclays' past as well as the naming-rights deal. Citizens have voiced their disgust at a big blue sign above Flatbush and Atlantic reminding them of slavery, apartheid and global financial juggernauts. Media outlets from the New York Times to small indy hip-hop websites have run the story from different angles, everything from Bloomberg's bouncy "they're a great company!" to one rap site's headline: "Jay-Z Supports Slavery." (The hip-hop sites are fascinated to find out that Jigga owns less than one-percent of the team and has been something of a tool for Bruce Ratner's desperately-sought street cred.)

No sooner did the news break than Barclays began breaking necks. The conglomerate's "Head of Corporate Communications for the Americas" (read "spokesperson"), a feller named Peter Truell, sent threatening whiny letters to every media outlet that had the temerity to simply report the story. The vast majority weren't even running their own research or analysis...just reporting the story, ma'am, just the story.

Brooklyn, this is how your new neighbor rolls -- like a brutal 900-pound thug. Truell, at the behest of his bosses in London, is coming straight at Brooklyn and its love for freedom of speech the way muscle men in gangster movies do.

...er, Mr. Barclay, see, he don't appreaciate the tone yer takin'. He would like it very much, see, if you could, you know, think very carefully about what comes out of those pretty little lips of yours...

The letters weren't legal papers, per se, but for good intimidation value they were cc'd to one Jonathan Hughes, Global General Counsel, Barclays Capital.

Welcome, neighbors, to the neighborhood...

At least one part-time journalist who writes about the Ratner project on her/his own time had the letter hand-delivered at the writer's workplace. Nice touch, Barclays.

Truell's threatening letter contains a few hasty paragraphis of Barclays' self-adoring history. It's a boilerplate -- we've seen a few others and they contain the same basic language.

Why do we keep using the by-now-tired "neighbor" imagery? Because Truell does.

As a good neighbor and corporate citizen, we pay close attention to the concerns of any community in which we have a presence; however we also defend our reputation vigrously against allegations that are simply untrue or that are misleading.

What's got the Barclays eagle's feathers so fluttery? It's right here.

First of all, jack, you're not our neighbor yet. You've bought naming rights for an arena that may never get built, part of a project which we believe not only is wrong for Brooklyn but is unconstitutional for anywhere in the United States of America. The first of many cases is being heard this Wednesday in federal court here in Brooklyn.

Don't "neighbor" us.

Second, what we said is true and borne out by historical research, with the exception of this sentence:

"And what of Barclays Bank? For the most unsavory of starters, it was founded in 1756 on profits made in the slave trade."

The date is wrong...it was 1690. And while the gentlemen who founded the bank were wealthy from mercantile pursuits, which at the time had to have some connection to the slave trade, it's debatable what the phrase "founded...on profits made in the slave trade" comes to mean historically.

Okay, Truell, statement adjusted.

But that's it. Nothing else in Truell's letter contradicts what we wrote. From our research notes compiled over the last several days:

Barclays’ claims of innocence (indeed of nobility based on Truell's glowing accounts) are wholly disingenuous. The very nature of a major bank operating in London in the 18th century makes it exceedingly difficult to escape the taint of slavery. More importantly, however, there is substantial evidence to suggest direct involvement in slavery and, more broadly, in the riangular trade. Even if the former is disregarded, the latter is sufficient to cast a substantial shadow over Barclays’ past. The triangular trade was the slave trade, even if Barclays did not deal directly in the handling of enslaved Africans. Each side of the triangle supported the others, and involvement in any aspect meant profiting ultimately from slavery.

Our research into Barclays Bank’s exact participation in the slave trade is on-going. While we found useful research both in Brooklyn and Manhattan, many prime sources are presently beyond our reach: Society of Friends documents in Philadelphia, and a vast array of shipping records, mercantile ledgers, banking documents and manifests from the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

Our remarks about Barclays' apartheid past elicited this bizarre defense:

We have also investigated your claim that Barclays was a major funder of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Perhaps the best reponse is to note that Barclays [sic] conduct within South Africa has been endorsed by the current President Thabo Mbeki...

No, Peter, the best response is to actually deal with the fact that from 1925 to 1986 Barclays Bank:

* Became the largest bank operating in South Africa;

* Partnered with Anglo-American, the oppressive mining operations consortium;

* Did business with countless South African companies whose profits came from paying black, coloured and Asian labor a small percentage of what white workers earned;

* Made loans to South Africa’s government and government-owned corporations;

* Supported Portugal’s colonial stranglehold on Mozambique by helping to fund the controversial Cabora Bassa dam project;

* Helped Rhodesia circumvent UN economic sanctions in the 1960s by assisting with the transfer of government funds out of the country;

* Ignored, in 1962, the first of many United Nations resolutions calling for sanctions against South Africa;

* Facilitated the transfer of funds between the South African and Rhodesian governments in the 1960s and early ‘70s;

* Continued to operated in South Africa after the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres in 1960 and 1976;

* Operated in Namibia when it was illegally occupied by South Africa;

* Promoted international investment in South Africa during a time when such foreign funds helped to prop up the apartheid system;

* Issued a pamphlet that touted the Afrikaaner government’s version of history and culture in the southern tip of Africa, including use of the slur “Bantu” to describe black Africans;

* Until the 1970s paid its black employees far less than white employees in the same job – on the few occasions Barclays allowed blacks access to jobs traditionally held by whites.

Yes, Peter Truell, Head of Corporate Communications for the Americas, that would be the best way to respond.

By the way, in November 1986 the New York Times reported that your current friend Mbeki left a meeting with you convinced that you weren't telling the truth about fulling divesting your South African holdings.

There is simply no disputing Barclays was heavily involved in propping up the South African apartheid government. While we have sources for the information laid out in this blog, it is so widely available throughout the academic, research and internet worlds, we’ll leave the appropriate cites for later, if needed.

Racial discrimination against the majority black African population was first practiced by British colonial administrators in the 19th century. Afrikaaner officials began passing discriminatory laws in the early 20th century, and apartheid as an extensive political system was largely implemented in the late 1940s.

In short, apartheid pracices existed prior to Barclays Bank’s arrival in South Africa in 1925. The bank was aware of systematic discrimination and set up shop anyway.

Barclays Bank did business in cooperation with South African apartheid for sixty-one years – from 1925 until it divested its interests in 1986. The bank operated a complex series of subsidiary operations covering a wide range of banking services.

Barclays divested in November, 1986, selling their operations to Anglo-American, a company profoundly linked to apartheid. The sale empowered South Africa’s massive mining company to continue its exploitation of black and migrant workers.

Barclays congratulates itself for divesting from South Africa nine years before the legislative end of apartheid in 1994. Theirs is a disingenuous stance for a number of reasons:

* Barclays had been operating in and profiting from South Africa’s apartheid system for over sixty years before deciding to pull out. From the moment they set up shop, the company was well aware of the brutally oppressive social and economic system in South Africa. Perhaps apartheid’s inhumanity bothered Barclays officials, but never enough to prevent their economic support for it for over sixty years;

* Barclays quit not of its own devices, but under massive global protests. These protests had been going on for at least two decades;

* In the days after divestiture in 1986, Barclays officials are quoted in the New York Times as defiantly claiming economics, and not social justice, was the reason they pulled out of South Africa. Today, Barclays claims moral superiority in their act of divestive contrition, but at the time it was anything but.;

* Barclays is currently a defendant in a class action suit filed in 2006 in the United States demanding reparations for the corporation's economic conduct during the apartheid era. One of the claims is that Barclays' fiduciary conduct led to the expansion of the South African security apparatus, used overwhelmingly against the country’s black majority.

Here in 2007, Barclays crows about its return to South Africa – in the form of buying up smaller South African banks. That they have returned is not the issue for Brooklynites. Rather, it is Barclays’ six decades of compliant acceptance of apartheid in their quest for larger profits. Given every opportunity over the course of three generations to break their ties to apartheid, Barclays Bank stayed put – giving the Pretoria government economic and social aid and comfort during a time of economic sanctions and worldwide condemnation.

See, here's the thing about Barclays Bank: it habitually and chronically does the wrong thing, sticks around for as long as it can profit off a situation in which so many people suffer, and then, when the pressure from a lawsuit, a court ruling, or an international campaign becomes too great a threat to its profits, does Barclays pack up its tents and find another desperate spot to operate.

Barclays must see Brooklyn as it's latest conquestable desperate spot.

The busybody bank's threats come at the end of the letter:

Now that you have factually correct information, we ask that you immediately retract and cease making any further misrepresentations of this sort, including as appropriate, by removing the same from any websites under your control.

And then, in the very next sentence, the kicker:

We look forward to working with you to improve the Brooklyn community in which we all will live and work together.

Well, that remains to be seen, Peter. That definitely remains to be seen.

It's easy to see the path these good neighbors are heading down. We see SLAPP lawsuits in the future. SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation." Big corporations bring SLAPP lawsuits against small, threadbare public interest groups and grassroots organizations in order to silence them.

It's done to intimidate activist from challenging the big corporations -- in the streets, in public campaigns, whatever, wherever, however. The cases are almost always baseless -- the corporation claims that they're being harrassed by a small six- or seven-member group meeting in someone's living room. The corporation cries about having their reputation impugned and irreperable harm done to them.

The small group is often bankrupted because they have to argue the case in court. If they don't show up because they can't afford lawyers, they run the risk of having a huge-money judgment levied against them. The corporations, of course, can afford to litigate forever. Fearing bankruptcy, a community group might agree to a settlement forcing them to shut up in return for the corporation ending the court case.

SLAPP suits exist to chill freedom of speech. In South Africa, by the way, Barclays' old friend Anglo American has used SLAPP lawsuits with predictable results.

So, Brooklyn -- in addition to slavery, apartheid, anti-semitism, Enron, racism and current civil unrest, you wanna add "silencing free-speech" to the list?

Oh, and thanks for writing, Peter. Have you sent out your good neighbor notes to everyone in New York, or just the lucky few of us in Brooklyn who learned a little more about you than you wanted known?

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