Fed up with Wells Fargo's corrosive behavior, thousands of everyday Americans came to Wells Fargo's annual shareholder meeting in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 24, to let the top executives know that the 99 percent would no longer tolerate corporate malfeasance. Nearly 200 protesters bought shares in Wells Fargo ahead of the meeting and prepared to attend representing the communities hardest hit by Wells Fargo's bad business practices. They were there to face CEO John Stumpf and demand that instead of foreclosures, Wells Fargo adjust loans and keep families in their homes; instead of financing payday lenders and private prisons, Wells Fargo invest in green jobs and energy; instead of avoiding its responsibilities, Wells Fargo pay its fair share of taxes; and instead of its PAC donating to politicians who fix the rules of our democracy to benefit the 1 percent, Wells Fargo get its money out of our democracy and let it truly be of, by and for the people.
A broad coalition of groups helped organize the protest, including of ReFUND California, Causa Justa, PICO National Network, San Francisco Organizing Project, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Service Employees International Union, Occupy Wall Street West, and many more.
This is the story of how a few "shareholders" went inside Wells Fargo's meeting to confront its president and CEO John Stumpf.
National People's Action, where I am a staff member, was given the role of highlighting Wells Fargo's investment in immigrant detention centers, given our work on the National Prison Divestment Campaign. We also decided that for a myriad of personal reasons, we would not risk arrest.
Seventeen grassroots leaders and organizers from National People's Action affiliates came to the meeting from Sunflower Community Action (Kansas), Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa), POWER (Los Angeles) and The AMOS Project (Ohio) to join the other shareholders who were also fed up with the bank's bad business practices.
Going in, we knew that Wells Fargo invests in the GEO Group, a private prison company that fills its prisons by spending millions of dollars on lobbying to keep the immigration and criminal justice systems broken. Wells Fargo and GEO Group make money with very cell that is filled on the public dime and increase their profits by skimping on food and medical care.
With our share certificates in hand, we arrived more than three hours early to the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting. Although the police had already blocked all the entrances, we were allowed to pass once we showed our shares. We must have taken them by surprise because we were quickly escorted out to wait in an alley.
The bulk of shareholders who were part of our group remained behind a barricade at the end of the block. As we waited, the corporate security team allowed a group in.
We were told they were employees. Wells Fargo was filling the room with its staff.
After finally being let in, we found a huge room packed with bank employees. Via text messages, I was told that no one else was being let in.
It was at that moment that it really sank in: the only shareholders in the room were those who had said they couldn't risk arrest and that it was possible that anyone who spoke up would be arrested.
We needed a new plan, but we couldn't huddle because the police and security were breathing down our necks. After a quick check in with my colleague Liz Ryan Murray, we decided we couldn't risk our folks getting arrested, but Liz and I were willing to do what was necessary.
The meeting came to order. Stumpf began to speak. We were all uncertain about what was going to happen, when Robert Sisk from We Are Oregon stood up. His voice wavered for just a second, then became strong: "Point of order: Whereas Wells Fargo has its hands deep in America's pockets." Immediately, Stumpf banged his gavel, "You are out of order."
Robert continued, "The bank is making billions off the 99 percent, profiting at our communities' loss by being a leader in foreclosure and by hoarding billions in unpaid taxes that could be used to put America back to work." Police quickly descended and removed him.
It was the spark we needed. Maria Fitzsimmons of POWER L.A. stood up and declared, "Point of order: Wells Fargo invests in, thus profits from the biggest players in the private prison industry."
Stumpf declared, "You are out of order." A policeman warned Maria she would be arrested if she didn't sit down. She sat down and was arrested anyway.
Message received: speaking out equaled arrest.
Stumpf continued, "As I said, it hasn't been the best year for everyone." The crowd of employees laughed; it turned our stomachs. "But it's been a great year for Wells Fargo."
Liz couldn't believe what he had just said and stood up.
"Mr. Stumpf it was not a great year for the thousands families that Wells Fargo foreclosed on." Liz told Mr. Stumpf he could be the "good guy" by putting a moratorium on foreclosures and writing down families' mortgages. Everyone was listening attentively. The police officer even seemed to take a little longer to remove Liz from the room.
It was time for the Occupy movement's famous mic check.
Bill Pryzlucki from POWER L.A. stood and yelled, "Mic check!" A moment passed, then we heard a few people call back, "Mic check." Bill yelled louder, "MIC CHECK!" And got a louder, "MIC CHECK!" One last time, Bill yelled, "MIC CHECK!"
It was my turn: "Wells Fargo" The crowd responded, "Wells Fargo!" Relief washed over me; they weren't backing down.
I yelled louder, "Stop investing in immigrant detention centers." I kept shouting as two police officers roughly twisted my arm back. "Private prisons profit from peoples' misery and our tax dollars." My fellow shareholders repeated every phrase. I yelled all the way out the door. It was now up to those left in the room, the ones who couldn't afford an arrest.
People disregarded their personal security and took up the call. Like a perfectly orchestrated symphony, shareholder protesters, one after another, rose up and mic-checked Wells Fargo: "You are profiting off separating 400,000 families a year. How dare you profit off of incarcerating your clients. We will keep working until the entire Latino Community knows you are not our friend," said Sulma Arias with Sunflower Community Action.
Cristal Gallegos from SEIU seized the opportunity to ask, "Are you ok with your money invested in prisons where rape and abuses are rampant?"
Several more continued the mic check. In total, 15 of us were taken out of the room and handcuffed.
We were told we would be released as soon as the meeting was over. We began disrupting the meeting during the second point on their agenda. A meeting that usually takes two and a half hours, lasted 37 minutes.