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Protesters Launch Showdown With Monster Banks, Demand Wells Fargo End Predatory Lending

Crowds in San Francisco chant, 'Hey, big banks, where's our dough? Working families have a right to know!'

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As the crowd of union members, community activists and angry bank consumers weaved its way from the Embarcadero up Market and California streets in downtown San Francisco, bankers in dark suits watched curiously as sidewalks that are normally financial arteries started to pulse with populist anger. The protesters followed an empty horse-led stagecoach, a real-life representation of the Wells Fargo logo. It was empty in order to symbolize the bankrupt morality of the bank, organizers said.

An AFSCME union member blew on a conch shell, startling a group of men on their lunch break outside Nomura, a Japanese investment bank. A Chase customer stopped the group in front of his bank's branch to tell his foreclosure story. He concluded with a rallying cry: "This is criminal and needs to stop."

Protesters' signs read: "Stop Corporate Greed," "Make Wall Street Pay," "Neighbors United Can Stop Foreclosures." The most resonating rallying cry called for "Justice, now!" A few onlookers joined the march as the loud, angry group made its way to Wells Fargo's global headquarters, where across the street, on the 15th floor of the Merchants Exchange Building, the bank was hosting its annual stockholders meeting.

Wells Fargo is one of the so-called Big Four banks, alongside Citigroup, JPMorganChase and Bank of America. To give a sense of its reach, by late 2008, Wells Fargo held nearly 9 percent of the nation's deposits and likely an even larger percentage of the country's bank assets.

The bank was a significant player in the subprime mortgage crisis that sent our economy and many families to the brink -- and onto the street. In 2006, Wells Fargo issued $74.2 billion worth of subprime loans, making it one of the largest subprime lenders in the country. According to the Treasury Department, the bank has only permanently modified 7.9 percent of its estimated 378,480 eligible loans in the Making Home Affordable program.

Wells also stands accused of being racist -- in 2008, it was three times more likely to deny loans to neighborhoods of color than to white neighborhoods in Oakland and San Diego. (One protester, David Ramirez, spoke of being denied a loan when he applied as a Latino. He resubmitted his application, ticking off the "White" box, and was accepted for what turned out to be a subprime mortgage.)

In addition to being a predatory mortgage lender, Wells has long been in cahoots with the payday loan industry, which takes advantage of cash-strapped working families by offering them short-term, high-cost loans. The bank provides credit to six of the seven major payday lenders, while it charges its own customers a 240 percent annual interest rate on payday loans from Wells' ATMs.

Al Marshall, a city employee from Oakland, told the assembled crowd his sad story. He, his wife, and six children lost their home of 12 years after Wells Fargo refused to modify their mortgage. They asked for the modification without ever having missed a payment. "Wells Fargo laughed at me -- well, you won't laugh today," Marshall said, pointing to his fellow protesters.

Fifteen stories up, the Wells Fargo executive board told shareholders of their plans to up compensation now that the bailout restrictions no longer applied to them. John G. Stumpf, the bank's chairman, president and CEO received a total compensation package of over $21 million in 2009, up from $9 million in 2008, according to the meeting's agenda, obtained by AlterNet. The document showed that Mark C. Oman, the man in charge of Wells Fargo's home and consumer finance division made almost $13 million in 2009, up from $4 million in 2008.

 
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