Wells Fargo, Terrified to Face Victims of Its Foreclosure Fraud and Predatory Lending, Locks Shareholders Out of Annual Meeting

On April 24, Wells Fargo, assisted by dozens of Bay Area police, took the unprecedented step of locking more than 100 of its shareholders out of its annual meeting – a meeting they had every legal right to attend.

These shareholders had a story to tell, and Wells' Chairman and CEO John Stumpf was not in a listening mood. They'd purchased stock in the bailed-out Wall Street giant, and then travelled from around the country to tell the board how its corporate citizenship gad ruined lives and wrought profound economic pain on entire communities.

The previous day, about 150 people had gathered in a church to strategize the day's activities. When Wells foreclosure victims were asked to stand, about 50 people stood up. When victims of predatory lending were asked to stand, another 30 rose to their feet. One woman explained how, after losing her job, she'd fallen behind on her payments. She said Wells Fargo had offered her an agreement that would allow her to keep her home, but had then thrown her out anyway.

The day of activism was organized by a broad coalition of groups working under the banner of the “99% Power Movement,” including the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), SEIU, Causa Justa, Jobs with Justice and Moveon.org. They were later joined by a rowdy crowd from Occupy San Francisco who filled the streets surrounding the Merchant Exchange Building, where the meeting took place, for several hours as the bankers hunkered down inside.

Around 2,000 occupiers arrived from multiple directions.

The shareholders' demands were simple: they called for a moratorium on foreclosures, principle reduction for homeowners who are deep under water and the end of the bank's predatory lending. (According to organizers, “Wells Fargo has operated revolving credit facilities since 2002 with payday lenders across the country such as First Cash Financial and Check into Cash [2002], as well as Dollar Financial and Ace Cash Express [2003]. Within the past 10 years, Wells Fargo has led the way in financing payday lenders, funding well over $1 billion.”) They also called on the bank to divest its 7 percent stake in the GEO Group – one of the nation's largest private prison corporations.

Last year, about eight activists had attended the annual meeting. This year, more than 150, with shares in hand, descended on the bank's global headquarters in downtown San Francisco, only to be greeted by throngs of police manning barricades around the building's entrances.

Police man barricades at the building's entrances.

What followed was, literally, a runaround that lasted several hours, as police at one barricade sent shareholders around the block to another, only to be told by officers there that the only way in was at the blocked entrance from which they came. Organizers said that some shareholders – not affiliated with the protests – continued to be let in, a move organizers said was illegal.

The Merchant Exchange Building was shut down by management in advance of the meeting. 

About 25-30 community shareholders did manage to make it into the meeting before Wells executives declared the room full. But one woman who got in reported that the room was largely empty, and another said that many of those in attendance were Wells Fargo employees (this could not be independently confirmed). The woman also said that as soon as one of the community shareholders attempted to speak, they were immediately threatened with arrest and removed from the building.

Police officials said 14 people were arrested during the day of action.

Interfaith leaders blocked an entrance to the building and were the first to be arrested.

The Wells Fargo meeting was only one in a series of corporate events that will be met with shareholder activism. Community shareholders plan on attending General Electric's annual meeting today, Verizon on May 3 and Bank of America on May 9.

How effective these actions will be remains to be seen. But it's clear that the days of large corporations operating in a space removed from the communities they impact are over. Corporate boards should resign themselves to the fact that the 99 percent are complacent no more.

Occupiers formed a human barricade at an entrance to the Merchants Exchange Building.


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