Wall Street Sikhs, Corporate Tyranny, and the 99%

By now I imagine most of you have heard about Occupy Wall Street in New York City and the growing “Occupy” movement all over the country. Inspired by the mass uprisings of the Arab Spring, the movement is uniting under the banner, “We are the 99%”, in its protest of unprecedented economic inequality and Wall Street and corporate power and influence in the United States.

The official declaration of #OccupyWallStreet, released last week (as a working document), states:

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human racerequires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, andupon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights,and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power fromthe people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people andthe Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined byeconomic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit overpeople, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. Wehave peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

The mainstream media coverage of the protest, now in its 18th consecutive day, has largely downplayed its significance or remained silent all together. Some in the movement, thus, raised $12,000 on Kickstarter in 3 days (now over $40K) and published 50,000 copies of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal,” grassroots media at its best. This says a lot about what is going on at Liberty Square (what protesters call the park they are occupying). People, many with little background in activism, are taking matters into their own hands, and building a democratic movement against corporate tyranny.

I have been participating in the growing protests regularly for the last week, and generally feel inspired and hopeful about what is happening in downtown Manhattan, despite some frustrations, some of which Sepia Mutiny just blogged about today. My time at Liberty Square–sometimes spent attending the nightly General Assemblies (where decisions are made by consensus, not unlike the Sikh Sarbat Khalsa process), sometimes participating in marches, sometimes playing a musical instrument–leaves me thinking about how this movement relates to Sikhs and Sikhi.

First of all, in all the times I’ve been there, I haven’t seen one other person who was easily identifiable as a Sikh. I’m sure other Sikhs have come through at different times, but to be sure, this is no significant Sikh presence. Where there is a significant Sikh presence, however, is on Wall Street itself. I-banking appears to be a go-to career for a lot of young and intelligent Sikh Americans who come from privileged backgrounds. Almost every time I’m in lower Manhattan I see Sikhs in their nice suits in the Wall Street area.

My intention here is not to disrespect any Sikhs who choose to work in investment banks or assume their reasons for working there. But I do want to assert that how we make a living is a deep ethical and spiritual question that is necessary for us to reflect upon. Isn’t it fair to ask oneself: Is how I make a living in line with Sikhi and in line our Gurus’ vision of the world?

For people who work in finance, there is just one goal in their job: to make money. No less, no more. Here are some words of wisdom from a trader:

YouTube Preview Image

Again, my intention is not to assume what the intentions of those Sikhs who work in finance are, but instead to raise questions and concerns. Does making money with no regards whatsoever for the well-being of the majority of people in our society seem in line with Sikh principles of equality and justice?

Our Gurus consistently identified with the “lowest of the low” and the poor, and spoke up for those at the bottom of society — the majority, in fact.

Gurbani says:

neechaa a(n)dhar neech jaath neechee hoo ath neech || naanak thin kai sa(n)g saathh vaddiaa sio kiaa rees ||

jithhai neech samaaleean thithhai nadhar thaeree bakhasees ||4||3||

Nanak seeks the company of the lowest of the low class, the very lowest of the low. Why should he try to compete with the great?

For, where the weak are cared for, Thy Mercy is showered.

The scholar Jagjit Singh states:

The Gurus wanted to bring about revolutionary changes. It was from this purpose that Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa in order to capture political power for a plebian mission…. ‘Cherishing the poor’ and ‘destroying the tyrant’ are, according to Sikhism, God’s own mission. [my emphasis]

Why should we treat the corporate tyrant any different from the tyranny of Aurangzeb? Shouldn’t we Sikhs today, in the U.S. and around the world, speak up and take action for the 99%?

Visit occupywallst.org to follow the growing movement in NYC and across the country (now in over 100 cities) and on Facebook.

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32 Responses to “Wall Street Sikhs, Corporate Tyranny, and the 99%”

  1. Ikaas says:

    Thank you for this post, brooklywala. The questions you pose are very important for us all to reflect upon. We need to locate ourselves within the violences that we see and we need to understand how we are participating in those very violences. Just because we are Sikhs, doesn't mean that we stand outside of systemic violence. Thank you!

  2. Preet says:

    Great post. I think about this when I make decisions about my career. Other Sikhs should think about this as well. How does what I do for a living effect others? For example, in my opinion working with a fashion magazine has no positive effect. Neither does working in finance. People should really reconsider what choices they make, and not turn a blind eye to something they know is wrong.

  3. kantay says:

    Preet, will you be paying people the difference in wages? I'm sure most people will be happy to work in the careers you feel are correct if you'll make sure they and their families don't fall behind.

  4. kantay says:

    Bn, your post has a certain face validity, but why do you always seem to single out an evil doer? I think almost every career carries trade-offs, and I think its kind of intrusive to interrogate the choices of others like this. You are doing it in a polite way, but its just too binary for me. The good teacher opposed to the bad banker? I think the Gurus, while they looked into the truth of our interactions did not do, is simply take sides like you suggest. The harder thing in my opinion is to hold ones one convictions even in the face of recognizing contradictions and grey areas.

  5. kantay says:

    one = own

  6. kantay says:

    And regarding the humility we are instructed to have I think the context is primarily to understand the nature of God through humility. The effect it will have on interactions with others is secondary. The phrase, if you want to play the game of love, enter the lane with head in hand is primarily an indication of the journey to realizing Waheguru.

  7. […] revolution underway on Wallstreet as I write this post (check out post on TLH “Wallstreet Sikhs, Corporate Tyrrany, and the 99%”). The “Arab Spring” revolution that brought democracy to Egypt was largely a quiet […]

  8. kantay says:

    there is nothing wrong with liking any particular shabad a lot.

  9. Harjit Singh GIll says:

    Kantay-I'm a social worker for a living. I decided to help those with mental health issues all day in a public hospital. I surely could have made a lot more (I know some in my family doing finance work who do). But who do they help? The wealthy, increase their wealth (at the hands of the poor).

    I don't make a lot of money, but I live well, and give my parents money every month. We come from villages of nothing and suddenly people making $65,000 a year cry poverty? Come now.

    RE: binaries, read Jasper's writings which later became the foundation for the Nuremburg trials, the conclusion was essentially: you make decisions in regards to your career and how you spend your daily life. If you chose to do it in a way that maximizes your own wealth/power as opposed to helping others? Well, that's your decision, but that has consequences re: guilt in a society built on war and creating poverty.

  10. Harjit Singh Gill says:

    And Brooklynwalla: keep it up, you give me some faith in this community that I often can't find any in. <3

  11. Sathari Harrington) says:


  12. kantay says:

    What will the correct professions be and who will decide? Teachers but not artists? Makers of roads but not makers of plastics? Will there need to be a cap on incomes so that no one chooses professions that are considered wrong? Will we need money at all? Will some people have goods and opportunities that others don't have?

    It might seem like a nice manichean binary between the good professions or the bad ones, but any profession can be lost from a mooring to others and any profession can entail compromises.

  13. Tej says:

    Brooklynwala, I saw a Sikh guy playing some kind of dhol/drum in the news coverage of the protests, was that you?

  14. is there kantay says:

    If you take this opportunity to try to reach for the left fantasies of a world of agrarian yeomen and collectives or artists and teachers you will not make much traction. The 99% does not include many people who have a desire to radically re-work the assumptions of society and you are misreading things if you think that is what is going on.

    Take a page from Obama, if you speak to the concerns of the mainstream that what has been going on is not fair and should be made right you can make headway. Pres. Obama is a centrist who tried to speak to the basic principles of fairness.

    Sikhs can offer a way of looking at the world based on a commitment to seeking and living the truth but its always got to be something that people are drawn to and not harangued toward. Be an example and gather together as exemplars and you'll win those who are ready to hear.

  15. is there kantay says:

    or = of

    win those = win over those

  16. Brooklynwala says:

    Also I should add an update that I saw another young sardar at #OWS yesterday. I was rushing to a meeting and didn't get a chance to say hi to him, but he appeared to have a sleeping bag. Hopefully will connect with him soon.

  17. Nina Chanpreet says:

    Dear brother, thank you for asking the questions that no one wants to ask and holding up a mirror no one wants to look in – the topic of more consciously choosing a career path is not only so important but the lack of awareness around career path decisions is at the root of some of what is tearing our community apart today – class divisions. I noticed someone commented above what are the "right" career paths, then? I would hope that we would think outside of right/wrong and more in terms of matter of the heart, what do you feel called or drawn to do? What is your work, your gifts that you want to contribute to the world? Many of those working in day jobs or corporate jobs (not just on wall street!) live a numbing life and they are not in touch with the source of their own potential (creativity). I truly believe that when you are willing to inhabit and meet your own potential you will find work that contributes to the world and supports you financially in the way you need to be supported. It is a process of discovery. The question I would like to ask those are see jobs as mostly matters of making $ whether wall street or not, do you feel fulfilled do you feel passionate about what you do do you wake up every morning and feel good about what you're doing? Do you feel you're using all of the skills you have? Are you operating at maximum? And, are you living each day as if it is your last? If not, then do some soul searching and not to save the world but to save yourself and find a way to connect to world you inhabit in a meaningful way. Our education systems are fundamentally not set up to nurture this type of growth. I hope this is where our family systems and spiritual practices will step in for young Sikhs and those in the early and mid careers.
    As far as occupy wall street, I agree we need a new economy and it is high time that we all start thinking more deeply about hte issue and organizing around it. To be quite frank, I am irritated and sometimes enraged at the lack of cohesiveness and lack of depth in perspective and purpose in much of the messages I have seen coming from the occupied spaces. That said, a trusted friend and intellectual pointed out to me that organizations in Tienanmen Square and such were equally "disorganized" in that they didn't have a clear purpose but in their frustration and refusal to accommodate they came together and things shifted. However, all I continue to think about is how far away the proposed solutions are to our current reality – capitalism and corporate life being so entrenched – that they are some ideal hung up high in the cloud and not specific or realistic enough to offer actionable steps to get to another type of economy. I am deeply concerned and disturbed that most of the messages have left out or not taken into consideration global issues of poverty and inequality. These issues are entrenched not just in America but abroad they will take serious focus not just fun messaging and protesting to change. And the change must happen in all our systems political educational economic etc…but mostly, in our day to day lives, each of us, me and you making better decisions. I don't see these protests getting us there, I fear. But I am watching and have some hope.

  18. Sarabloh says:

    Interesting use of bani. but author seems very misguided.

    I can then also respond with:

    "Ap-a Beej-uh Apae Hee Khahi||" – japu ji sahib or "Kum karan vich daridar nahi karna – Don't be lazy while doing work." 52 hukhams- akali guru gobind singh ji against this article. The protester manifesto calls for a living wage, whether you work or not. Guru sahib does kirpa, but only if you put in the effort and himat. this concept is anti-sikh

    ending freetrade and being prejudice of goods= anti sikh anti open economy

    Demand eleven: Immediate across the board debt forgiveness for all
    Demand twelve: Outlaw all credit reporting agencies.
    vs "Sir munae noo kanaiaa nahi daeni. Uos ghar daevni jithae Akal Purukh di sikhi ha, jo karzaai naa hovae, bhalae subhaa da hovae, bibaeki atae gyanvaan hovae" – guru gobind singh ji

  19. singh says:

    i have to disagree with the statement that the only goal for someone working in finance is the money.

    while the industry has those types, you can say that about anyone with a 6 figure salary, doctors, accountants, lawyers etc

    as a sikh i would not take any job that would not be making an honest living, but an investment banker is someone who advises companies on strategic decisions, essentially consultants. many of the big names i do have ethical problems with (goldman being a huge one) but if i got a job at a smaller bank that did not take advantage of clients/the public, wheres the fault in that? i think its unfair to label someone due to their job title. i would never do that, just as i would never label someone based on their age, gender, etc

    also (in my view) a larger paycheck means more you can give back

  20. […] Sikh from New York, Sonny Singh, describes his motivation, asserting that it behooves a Sikh to stand up for the poor by way of this movement (against “corporate tyranny”) based on the teachings of the […]

  21. […] written previously about the importance of Sikhs standing up both for economic justice and immigrant rights. These intersecting issues, which will converge in a powerful display of […]

  22. […] is a “quiet” revolution underway on Wallstreet as I write this post (check out post on TLH “Wallstreet Sikhs, Corporate Tyrrany, and the 99%”), which is receiving almost no media coverage. Not even from the New York Times, despite many […]

  23. Great post. I think about this when I make decisions about my career. Other Sikhs should think about this as well. How does what I do for a living effect others?