“This is an example of the banality of evil.”
Pushing his way through the crowd outside the Wells Fargo headquarters, Ronald Colbert tried his best to get inside the banking giant’s annual shareholders’ meeting.
“Look, I have a proxy vote,” Colbert shouted to the policemen blocking his way, holding up his shareholder invitation. “I have a right to be at that meeting, and tell Wells Fargo to stop foreclosing on all my friends and neighbors.”
The cops, let alone the bankers, had no interest in listening to such pleas, but that did not stop Colbert from joining over 1,000 people in making their protests against Wells Fargo heard outside on the streets -- and some inside the meeting itself. A broad coalition of housing activists, immigrants, union workers, students, and Occupy protesters took over the streets of San Francisco’s financial district on Tuesday, bringing their demands directly to one of the largest, and most controversial, banks in America.
Several dozen activists made it inside the shareholder meeting, disrupting the proceedings before being escorted out by police. 24 people were arrested during the day, but for the most part there was little of the police-protester confrontations that have accompanied other Occupy protests in the Bay Area. Instead, activists were able to focus their message on Wells Fargo’s numerous misdeeds, above all, its major role in the ongoing foreclosure crisis.
“In my neighborhood, no one can afford to pay their mortgage. It was all those subprime loans and now the banks won’t renegotiate,” said Mark Lopez, a Los Angeles resident and member of the Bus Riders Union who made the six-hour drive that morning. “So you’ve got three or four families living together in one unit, and then right next door, a whole house is sitting there empty and foreclosed.”
Housing was not the only issue on the table for activists. From being labeled “America’s largest tax dodger” for its refusal to pay any corporate taxes since 2008 to its investments in private prisons and lobbying for anti-immigration legislation, protesters denounced Wells Fargo as both a symbol and a cause of corporate power in America. Tuesday’s action was the first in a series of nation-wide protests set to taking on America’s largest corporations over the next two months, organized by a national coalition of progressive organizations called 99% Power.
Here in San Francisco, protesters represented a wide range of local groups, including Causa Justa : Just Cause, Domestic Workers Alliance, SEIU, and Occupy San Francisco and Oakland. Unlike other Occupy protests, the majority of demonstrators were black and Latino, reflecting both the membership of the lead organizations and the communities hardest hit by the economic crisis. Songs and chants rang out in both English and Spanish, with the occasional Tagolog and Chinese heard over the speakers. One beautiful sign echoed the call of Argentina’s protest movement: “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“Kick them all out!”)
Protesters did not kick anyone out of anything on Tuesday, but they did keep some top bankers from going in, blockading three different entrances for the day. Starting from Justin Herman Plaza, the former home of Occupy San Francisco, activists marched their way through the financial district and arrived at the Wells Fargo building, where they set up a massive sound stage complete with a giant inflatable “corporate rat.” For the next five hours, they filled the streets of the so-called Wall Street West with music, street theater, and nonstop noise.
Inside the actual shareholders’ meeting, high on the fifteenth floor of the adjacent Pacific Merchant’s Exchange building, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf began his annual report. He did not get far before the first interruption.
“Mic check!” a dozen protesters shouted. “Mic check!”
“Wells Fargo, stop investing in prisons and immigrant detention,” yelled a woman, before police quickly escorted her out.
Ten minutes later, CEO Stumpf declared, “All in all, 2011 was a terrific year for the company.” One activist shouted back, “Not a terrific year for all the families foreclosed on by Wells Fargo.” He, too, was quickly ushered outside.
The meeting ended in less than an hour, apparently record time, as the shareholders rubber-stamped the $20 million annual salary for Stumpf while voting down a resolution to investigate the company’s foreclosure policies.
Outside on the streets, activists readied themselves for the next stage in the battle against corporate power. They marched to the nearby regional headquarters of Bank of America building, whose own shareholder meeting on May 9 in Charlotte, NC, has also been targeted for protest.
“This is only the beginning,” said Stephen Lerner, an SEIU executive board member and key strategist in the 99% Power campaign. “We are getting together all the folks who are impacted by these giant corporations, and we’ll continue to challenge them directly at these meetings and in our communities.”
As for Occupy, after a relatively quiet few months, things are heating up around the Bay Area. Earlier this week, several hundred students and urban farmers took over an unused plot of land in Berkeley in a brilliant action called Occupy the Farm. And next week there plans to be major demonstrations by Occupy, immigrant groups, and unions on May Day in Oakland and other cities.
Over the last few months, there have been questions, and outright tensions, between some Occupy groups and more established progressive organizations over tactics and language. Fears of “cooptation” or “outside takeovers” (whether by Democrats or anarchists) have become all the rage on the activist blogosphere -- but the real, challenging, and yes, powerful work of progressive organizing is in building bridges rather than burning them. Goldman Sachs, Freddie Mae, Halliburton: Corporations understand the power of class unity. It is up to us to build our own alliances amongst the diverse communities of the 99%.
This latest Wells Fargo protest was a strong step in that direction towards unity and justice. Here’s to hoping -- and organizing -- for that to continue.