A message for Wells Fargo

May 7, 2012

Dan Russell and Julien Ball report on protests at the Wells Fargo shareholders' meeting in San Francisco--and discussions among activists about the action.

THE ANNUAL protest against the Wells Fargo shareholders meeting held across the street from the bank's San Francisco headquarters received a boost from the Occupy movement this year. Community groups, unions, Occupy activists, and others spent weeks planning to disrupt the meeting with civil disobedience and a mass march and rally outside the meeting.

In all, more than 1,000 people attended the April 24 action, the largest one in San Francisco in several months. Protesters highlighted Wells Fargo's responsibility for the destruction of communities across the country through foreclosures, predatory lending, investment in private prisons and immigration detention centers, and its failure to pay any taxes. Speakers from the stage included many people directly affected by these policies.

As Ernesto Viscarra, a foreclosure fighter from San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood, said, "I've been fighting the banks by myself all along...until Occupy Bernal knocked on my door and started fighting the banks." Reflecting on the trial loan modification he recently received, he said, "I won, but I'm only 1 percent happy. Ninety-nine percent of me is still unhappy until all the foreclosures stop."

Hundreds march and rally outside a Wells Fargo shareholders meeting
Hundreds march and rally outside a Wells Fargo shareholders meeting (Ben Powless | Indybay.org)

The centerpiece of the action was going to be the disruption and attempted takeover of the shareholders' meeting by up to 200 homeowners, public-sector workers and union members, immigrants and others from around the country affected by Wells Fargo's policies. Through the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the demonstrators had secured proxy shares in Wells Fargo so they could legally enter and express their views to CEO John Stumpf.

Other activists from Occupy San Francisco and the community group Causa Justa: Just Cause planned a takeover of the lobby where the meeting was taking place, along with a nonviolent blockade of the sides of the building and several entrances.

As many as 30 people did successfully enter the meeting, as one protester confronted Stumpf, and others began a call-and-response "mic check" before being kicked out of the meeting, with more than two dozen being arrested. Wells Fargo, however, was able to stack the meeting with high-level employees and other shareholders, while using dozens of police officers to keep out the remaining demonstrators with proxy shares.

In a slap in the face to those who hoped to challenge Stumpf, shareholders approved his $20.6 million compensation package. The bank reportedly concluded the meeting in an unusually brief 45 minutes, with no question-and-answer period.


THE WELLS Fargo shareholders meeting action highlighted debates in the Occupy movement over strategy and tactics, exemplified by those who wanted to take over the meeting versus those who planned to shut it down from the outside.

Forces organizing those affected by Wells Fargo's policies to confront the executives on the inside saw this as the most important part of the action, along with the mass march outside that could help bring out strength in numbers. Those planning the blockade of the building from the outside reflect a trend in the Occupy movement that favors tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience, including arrestable actions, as a goal in and of itself.

As a way to bridge the differences between the "inside" planners and the planners of outside civil disobedience, arrangements were to be made to allow those with proxy shares to get into the meeting before the blockades were erected and the takeover of the lobby began. However, due to a breakdown in communication, the lobby takeover began before all of the demonstrators with proxies had entered the meeting. This led to an increased police presence, and gave Wells Fargo and the police a pretext not to allow any additional proxies into the meeting.

In the end, the bulk of the foreclosure fighters, immigrant workers and public sector workers--who could have used the opportunity inside the meeting to put a human face on the economic crisis and the corporate entities responsible for it--were prevented from carrying out the action they had planned by forces engaged in action on their behalf.

Those who organized the blockade need to consider the tactics they pursued. The Occupy movement should be helping those most directly affected by the crisis to be involved in activity--in fact, these people are looking to participate. It is possible that full group of several hundred proxies would not have been able to enter the shareholders' meeting anyway. But the actions of those who organized the lobby takeover, rather than complementing the civil disobedience happening inside, detracted from it.

Despite these flaws, the protest was a step forward. It showed that Occupy activists, working together with unions and community groups, can help broaden the movement to highlight the stories of those most affected by the economic crisis, while bringing out hundreds, if not thousands of people, and putting the banks on the defensive. However, it also showed the need for continued debate over strategy, and how tactics can help reinforce, or detract from, that strategy.

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