On Tuesday, April 24, 2012, a coalition of homeowners, clergy, immigrant rights advocates, unions, tenant rights groups and residents who represent some of the hardest hit communities across the country hit the streets of San Francisco for a nonviolent direct action protest of Wells Fargo’s annual Shareholder’s Meeting. The coalition is asking Wells Fargo to enact widespread principle reduction on home mortgages that are under water, end low-cost loans to immigrant detention centers, reform the pay day loan industry, pay their fair share in taxes, and support the California Homeowners Bill of Rights instead of lobbying against it. This is a first hand report of that action.
I arrive at a San Francisco downtown plaza that overlooks the San Francisco Ferry Building and the bay, counting fifteen motorcycle police gathered a block away and another 25 police with cycles at the plaza entry. I am at the right place. The Ferry Building clock tower bell rings in the 10AM start time.
Clergy of various denominations and genders stand under a palm tree. Signs in the crowd of demonstrators in the plaza identify groups and sentiments: “OccupyHousing,” “Wells Fargo takes with one hand and steals with another,” “Occupy Wells Fargo / Stop Predatory Loans / Stop Illegal Foreclosures,” “We are the 99% / DemocracyforAmerica.com/occupy,” “United Service Workers West,” “Occupy SF,” “SEIU.”
I move to the palm tree as representatives from the interfaith clergy speak.
“This is not the first time we have invited you, Wells Fargo, to make changes.”
The speaker tells us that he, along with a coalition of community groups, many represented today, met with John Campbell, Senior VP for Corporate Responsibility earlier this month.
“We talked with him, sharing our stories of pain, asking for real change and by the end of the meeting John Campbell had said, ‘no, no, no, no’ to every one of our suggestions. This meeting was just one of many that community groups have had with Wells Fargo over the past several years. All of them came back with the same response: ‘No.’ ‘No.’ ‘No.’ Well, there was a time for repentance. There was a time to call for dialogue. But those times are long gone. The Spring has come. The Easter season is here. It is now a time of action.”
As I listen, a mother arrives carrying her daughter piggy-back style. The mother has a red stop sign sticker on her shoulder which says: “Stop Corporate Greed / Jobs with Justice.” Her daughter fingers the sticker absent-mindedly while her mother listens to the prayers of the clergy. The daughter squirms and mother lets her down. The daughter sits on a wall next to what I see is her grandmother, sitting on a wooden stool that has carved, painted legs.
When I turn from the gathering of clergy under the palm tree, I see the crowd has tripled in size to at least 1500 people. What was first retired, elders, and labor has mushroomed into a packed crowd of several thousand. I see the California Domestic Workers Coalition, Causa Justa :: Just Cause, the tenant rights organization, San Francisco Day Labor Program, La Colectiva San Francisco, Coleman Advocates for Children, Contra Costa Interfaith / Supporting Community Organization, and the Chinese Progressive Association with their accompanying sign that says “We are the 99% / American Dream, Education, Opportunity – all are under attack.”
We head out in packed, tight groups up Market Street, the main East-West downtown thoroughfare, then fork right into San Francisco’s Financial District. A mother, a young teen, and what looks like a three year old march with a tenant rights group. The young teen has a Charles Schwab drawstring backpack – swag from the corporate lure. A woman tells me she has traveled two thousand miles from Philadelphia to attend this Wells Fargo Stockholders Meeting. She wants to tell John Stempf, the Chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo how she wants her investments used.
We arrive at the main San Francisco branch of Wells Fargo, a towering building. Across the street, in the Merchants Exchange Building, Wells Fargo is scheduled to hold it’s annual meeting in a few hours. San Francisco police are already stationed at the entrance to the Merchants Exchange. Crowd control barriers are in front of the police.
Shareholders, stock certificates in hand begin to line up against the barriers, pressing to get in, holding their certificates up in the air. Meanwhile, chants roll out from the crowd. “We got sold out. They got bailed out!” “You owe us.” “We are the 99%.” Some protesters move away to other building entrances as the chant “Let us in!” spreads across and up into the building. Later I will talk to one shareholder, Betty, who did make it into the meeting. She heard us.
A paramedic unit arrives with a stretcher and attempts entrance into the Merchants Exchange Building. Shareholders confer: “Should we try to follow them in?” The police allow just the emergency paramedics through. Are not the horrific wounds of Wells Fargo’s foreclosure policies, evictions at the same time as predatory lending practices, and policies on immigration that include investment in private prisons and immigrant detention deep enough to also require immediate emergency attention?
As witness, I take a picture of the police blockade. An officer, eying my upraised cell phone bows his head to his chest and holds it steadfastly down. A crack in the armour of the enforcers of the 1%.
A commotion draws my attention one block East of the Merchant Building entrance. The line of shareholders are calmly filing one-by-one into an adjacent building separated by an alley. Up until now it was hard to identify the shareholders from other protesters. I watch as the line of stockholders continues into this lobby entrance. More, and more. Hundreds. They keep their calm, deliberate pace into the building. A few minutes later, they exit – with equal pace and determination, to return to their line at the main entrance. A chant erupts: “Let us in! Let us in!”
I learn later from Betty, who was processed from that lobby for entry into Wells Fargo’s annual Shareholders meeting, that out of the several hundred who held legally purchased Wells Fargo stock, only thirty would be allowed entry. Betty tells me the meeting room had seating for 400. 350 of the seats were taken up by people “who all had the exact same suit on. They must shop at the same store!” she laughed. “They were wired, with ear buds.”
Protesters have linked connected arms protected by cardboard tubes in front of police and crowd control barricades at the alleyway entrance. The further end of the alley is also blocked. With this blockade area, police in groups of three’s and five’s gather in the shade of the buildings, relaxing. From the further end of the alley, I see three men in dark suits walk three-abreast, jackets unbuttoned and blowing open from the alley breeze, like Men in Black. They turn and enter the Merchants Exchange Building from a side entrance. A broad, tall, light gray-suited business man stands facing the blockade I am in front of. He shifts his weight back and forth, back and forth, watching. Is it the metal crowd control barriers that I see him through that make me think of a caged animal?
The shareholder’s meeting is supposed to start in five minutes. Those holding stock certificates stand in frustration at the police barricade while people in the street chant “Stand Up with the People!” Again the shareholders press in, holding their stock certificates high in the air.
I walk around the block to see what is happening on the other side. Police have erected more crowd barriers and stand in a line blocking entrance to the street and sidewalk. A fair number of us pedestrians, having been re-routed, make the trek one block further to get around this blockade. Some hold protest signs. One, a bag, which turns out to be his laundry as he enters a drycleaner.
Now at the opposite side of the blocked street, Occupy San Francisco has established their own blockade outside the police barriers. One well dressed young worker is agitated. “I’m not a Wells Fargo employee!” she argues. Protesters deny her entry to the police barricade. The police are not even watching. The woman tries the other end of the blockade. A protester asks to see her employee ID to prove she is not from Wells Fargo. She is let through but remains agitated as she weaves through the blockade to reach the crowd control barriers, which the police open for her.
One of the protesters gets a text and announces loudly that “Protesters have disrupted the meeting!”
I return to the front, main entrance to the Merchants Exchange Building, where the protest demonstration outside continues loudly in full swing. Contra Costa Interfaith offers sandwiches, chips, water and a cookie free of charge. People make sure the shareholders, still in line, get lunch. Causa Justa :: Just Cause comes by with a large see-through trash bag collecting the bottles for recycling.
A circle forms around a properly dressed middle-aged woman, who then moves to the main protest stage. This is Betty, and she tells us she was threatened with arrest in order to remove her from the Shareholders meeting. To hear her tell her story from inside the Merchants Exchange Building, go to: http://redroom.com/member/jane-p-perry/media/audio/stockholder-and-grandmother-betty-calls-out-wells-fargo
In the sound mix from this event you will hear prayers and further testimony from members of the clergy, the several thousand-strong protester and stockholder rally cries, chants, and song, and testimony from a stockholder who was excluded entry to his shareholder meeting: http://redroom.com/member/jane-p-perry/media/audio/audio-to-many-thousand-strong-tell-wells-fargo-you-owe-us . Today the 99% took on the 1%. Let us shine.