By now, most of the stories told by the dozen or so protesters at the Occupy San Francisco press conference on Tuesday had a familiar ring. There was the sailor from Iraq War Veterans Against the War, the labor organizers and the woman who lost her home to foreclosure — all there to explain why they're calling for a daylong protest on Friday.
Langley was dressed in a suit and tie for the occasion, the only protester to do so. As he approached the podium, which was in the shadow of the skyscraper that was once Bank of America’s headquarters in San Francisco's financial district, the reporters crowded in.
The Occupy movement, he said, is “our last chance to level the playing field and let you and my kids and grandkids have the opportunities I started with when I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1965.”
Langley, who is 69, said he spent 15 years on active duty and another eight years in the reserves before he entered the world of high finance. He was an early supporter of the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act. The repeal is often cited as a key contributor to the recent financial meltdown. And Langley admits to lobbying Securities and Exchange Commission officials for exemptions to the act in the lead-up to its repeal.
“I was benefited by it,” Langley said. “I wasn’t looking at it from a whole perspective. I was looking at it from my perspective.”
It was nine years ago on Tuesday that Langley joined his first march, to protest the Iraq War. Afterwards, he participated in a demonstration to shut down the financial district, again in protest of the war. Langley said that was the last protest he attended before Occupy started up in the fall. Both actions were in opposition to corporations wasting taxpayer money, he said.
"When I was in the Air Force, I saw the defense contractors spend our taxes on obsolete weapons with huge cost overruns," Langley said. "Then I was disgusted when Halliburton and its cronies made great profits in Iraq."
In a sense, it’s protesters like Langley who keep the Occupy story going. That is, the Occupy movement has attracted people who aren’t part of the usual crowd of Bay Area protesters. In fact, like Langley, many are relatively new to protests and have opinions and views that go beyond the platitudes we’re accustomed to hearing.
After the official press conference, several reporters crowded around Langley to ask questions. Here are his views. (This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: Are you a Republican or Democrat?
Langley: I’ve done both. I grew up primarily in Alabama. My parents were sort of Southern Democrats. This was before they evolved in to Southern Republicans. But I think over the course of the years and particularly by having two daughters, I understood more about the injustices of gender and race that we have in this country, and it’s tended to make me socially liberal. But I tend to be a fiscal conservative in terms of thinking we’ve got to have a balanced budget.
Q: What will you be doing on Friday?
Langley: I will probably join the people here at the Bank of America, because I think it’s a nice symbolic place right in front of the Financial District. If you look, there are probably a few hundred hedge funds in San Francisco. Representatives of all the major investment banks are here.
There are a number of hedge funds and other people who are here in the Bank of America building. I don’t think these people are evil or doing anything illegal for the most part. It’s just that the rules have been set up for them.
In fact, by consistent lobbying for the carried interest loophole, they’re only paying 15 percent taxes. The game's been rigged. And the corporations have been able to convince Congress to give them subsidies and tax breaks that let them be monopolies.
Q: Are you still in touch with old colleagues?
Langley: Yes. Like me, they like entrepreneurship, believe in self-responsibility and want the opportunity to do something creative. They don’t want to be stifled. They rail against the government and they probably are right to some extent.
They like the game because it’s tilted in their favor, but they also understand it’s not particularly fair, and they have a hard time defending why they pay less in taxes then some ordinary person who’s not in that business.
Q: Where do you see the movement going?
Langley: I think it’s done a good job of raising and identifying the issues. They’ve been good at avoiding putting out an agenda, because I don’t think that’s what a movement like this should do. I think it needs to continue to do what’s it’s doing and essentially not just occupy a physical space but occupy the minds of the people.
Q: Do you think Occupy protesters will back a political party?
Langley: The people that I know in the movement here and in other places are so independent. You hear them saying, “I’m sick of the Democrats and the Republicans, I want something better.” There’s no party they want to align themselves with. They may join this online political nomination, which is basically aimed at independents. But ultimately, we can’t solve this any other way than politically. We have to elect people who will look at the whole picture and not just self-interest. And we have to get the money out of politics.
Q: Some Occupy protesters want to do away with capitalism. Do you agree?
Langley: If you only focus on financial returns, it distorts things. If you don’t have to pay for pollution and you’re a power company, you’ll pollute. You need more profit, you need more money and that’s what you’re supposed to do as a corporation. So maybe you should be judged not just on profit, you should be judged on the whole cost. The cost of the environment.