Americans hear a lot about how you can vote with your money, and typically it’s consumer purchases based on ethics or politics that come to mind. But it’s not just about what people buy (or don’t buy in the case of consumer boycotts). You can use physical currency as a tool to spread a message in the most literal sense.
In 2014, protesters from Global Ultra Luxury Faction, an offshoot of the Gulf Labor coalition, signaled a demonstration in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. A handheld bell sounded, and 9,000 “1%” mock dollar bills rained down with messages, such as “What does an ethical global museum look like?”
G.U.L.F. has led numerous demonstrations against the Guggenheim to protest the poor working conditions of migrant laborers building Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The demonstration in the rotunda was inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s 1967 intervention at the New York Stock Exchange, where he orchestrated dumping fistfuls of real and fake bills down to the traders below.
Using dollar bills to make a statement isn’t a new tactic, and it’s not going away any time soon. Money talks, as they say, and using money as part of a spectacle can speak even louder. Here are three ways consumers use physical dollars to call for change.
In 2012, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s started Stamp Stampede, an organization that enables citizens to stamp their money with statements to get money out of politics, such as “Not to be used for bribing politicians.” Cohen hopes to build support for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision, and the stamping idea was partly inspired by Occupy George, a similar effort stemming from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Marking a dollar with a message is legal as long as the bill is still usable, and Stamp Stampede’s website features a legal opinion to reassure stampers. Stamp Stampede claims if 100 people stamp 10 bills a day for a year, those bills will eventually reach 300 million people, roughly the entire U.S. population. “Money stamping is kind of like petitions on steroids,” Cohen told Mother Jones. In 2015, activist Doug Hughes gladly joined the stamping effort. (Hughes is a mailman who famously landed a gyrocopter on the White House lawn to deliver petitions about campaign finance reform.)
Paying in small bills
Paying large sums with change or one dollar bills as a protest tactic is kind of silly and appears to punish the person who has to count out all that change, but it certainly gets a point across. Americans have been known to do this when paying their taxes, and a Texas man was actually arrested for it after he tried to pay $600 in property taxes with individual dollar bills folded up so tightly that it took six minutes to unfold each bill.
In 2011, a college student in Colorado showed up to the bursar’s office carrying a 33-pound duffel bag full of cash. He paid his entire spring tuition, more than $14,000, using dollar bills, a 50-cent piece, and a penny. It took him two days to withdraw the money from several banks, and three people spent almost an hour counting it. “It’s just an absurd amount of money,” Nic Ramos said. “I wanted to give the school a different way to look at tuition.”
Another college student, this one at the University of Utah, pulled a similar stunt in 2014. He paid his tuition bill in 2,000 one-dollar bills and explained that while his tuition is lower than most, he wanted to raise awareness about the rising cost of higher education on a national level.
The Occupy Wall Street movement helped inspire “Bank Transfer Day” in 2011, an organized effort encouraging bank customers to close their accounts and move their money to a credit union or local bank. The protest was partly in response to big banks like Bank of America rolling out new fees, forcing customers to help banks recover lost profits resulting from financial regulations. Bank of America dropped its $5 per month debit card fee ahead of Bank Transfer Day, but that didn’t stop people from withdrawing. By November 4, 2011, the day before the event, nearly 80,000 people were signed up on Facebook as participants.
In addition to the symbolic value of the organized withdrawal, more than 600,000 U.S. consumers moved their money from big banks to community banks or credit unions, according to an analysis released by Javelin Strategy & Research. Organizers estimated $50 million was withdrawn from big banks. The protest also sparked a “Move Your Money” campaign in the U.K., and credit unions saw tremendous growth in the long term.
A spokeswoman from the American Bankers Association remarked on the impact of Bank Transfer Day: “While these 600,000 adults represent an exceedingly tiny fragment of the hundreds of millions of Americans with bank accounts, the industry takes consumer sentiment seriously.”