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Bankers Despised by Militias _ And Average Citizens, Too

June 14, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ Mark Van Dyke believes that the U.S. banking system is illegal and corrupt and says the money banks lend is worthless.

The Wisconsin resident, a member of a right-wing group called Family Farm Preservation, says he plans to ``expose the whole system″ later this summer when he faces trial on federal charges that he and two other group members defrauded hundreds of people in a fake money-order scam.

Oklahoma City bombing suspect Terry Nichols accused banks of stealing customers’ money and refused to pay back thousands of dollars he charged on his credit card, according to tapes of a 1993 Michigan civil court proceeding and bank sources.

Instead, Nichols tried to pay off the banks with one of Family Farms’ phony money orders, saying that since banks lend funny money, they should be paid back with it.

These views may sound crazy, but they illustrate an emotion harbored by many ordinary Americans: they despise banks.

Whether it’s because they were denied a car loan, are outraged over the savings and loan bailout or just plain mad that they had to wait in line to cash a check, consumers have no lost love for bankers.

``People resent power,″ said Mark J. Roe, a law professor at Columbia University and the author of a book about corporate America. ``Banks get more than their fair share of resentment because they sit on piles of money.″

To be sure, few people act on their anger and break laws to lash out at banks. Even those that claim to mistrust banks still keep their money in them or borrow from them.

But disdain for bankers is as American as baseball _ and it’s getting worse all the time. A consumer study by Opinion Research Corp. in Princeton, N.J. shows public opinion about banks has plummeted over the last 25 years. Only 36 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of banks, compared to 65 percent in 1969.

Bank loathing dates back to the birth of the nation and British control over the money system. Later, bank hatred was fueled by farm foreclosures and the Depression, when 9,000 banks failed.

Much of the anti-bank rhetoric of today’s militia and right-wing groups echoes populist politics and anti-Semitic propaganda that’s been around since the turn of the century, said Dan Levitas, an author of a book about militias.

``The anti-banking tracts circulated by militias are the same tracts verbatim that have been circulated in America for 80 years,″ said Levitas.

In recent years, scandals like the savings and loan crisis and the insider trading scams of the 1980s have reinforced the belief that bankers are corrupt.

More recently, consumers say First Chicago Corp.’s new $3 charge for using tellers adds to the perception that bankers are greedy.

Popular culture is chock full of negative images of bankers, portraying them as unscrupulous and immoral. For example, a recent rock video from singer Tom Petty depicted a banker having an after-hours tryst with his secretary.

When they’re not being portrayed as louts, they’re getting grief for bad customer service. People say banks have gotten so big that service is impersonal, people are treated like numbers and screw-ups are more common. Ever-increasing fees irk customers, especially small depositors.

``They’re so unfriendly,″ said Joe Gabris, a Bronx, N.Y. real estate agent who recently received a notice from Citibank telling him his low-fee account could be closed if makes too many withdrawals. ``They only care about where the money is.″

Bankers are well aware that many people abhor their profession.

``I can’t go to a cocktail party in this town without someone saying `Let me tell you what my imbecile banker did,‴ said Joel Epstein, executive vice president at New York-based Chase Manhattan Corp., the nation’s sixth largest bank.

The American Bankers Association is so concerned about the negative images that it’s holding focus groups to study consumer attitudes and plans to launch an advertising and education campaign to combat the industry’s poor image.

``We think that people’s rapport with their local banker is far superior to what they might think of the industry as a whole,″ said Ginny Dean, executive director of communications. ``But we’re doing the research to learn what we can do to make things better.″

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