Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) shareholders needed police help to enter the bank’s annual meeting yesterday in San Francisco as at least 500 people gathered to protest the company’s lending and foreclosures.
Sounds from the street wafted up to the 15th floor of the Merchants Exchange Building across from Wells Fargo’s headquarters in the city’s financial district, where Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf was interrupted at least four times by shouting. About two dozen were arrested as protesters chained themselves together to block an entrance and others made it inside, chanting as police cleared paths for attendees.
Members of Occupy Wall Street are among groups seeking to revive last year’s protests against the nation’s biggest banks for their role in causing the financial crisis and gaps between the incomes of the nation’s richest and poorest citizens. Wells Fargo is the largest provider of U.S. home loans and runs the biggest servicing operation, which handles billings, collections and foreclosures for banks and investors who own mortgages.
“We are here to put stories to the numbers and faces to the bottom line,” said Sarah Lombardo, 29, of Oakland, who joined a human chain with five others to block shareholders from entering the building. Her parents’ house in Southern California was foreclosed two years ago, wrecking her family’s credit, preventing her from getting a college loan and forcing her to work two jobs to help pay tuition, she said in an interview.
Lombardo said she didn’t know the names of the four banks that held the mortgage. The lenders foreclosed after her father was disabled in an accident and her mother got cancer, making it tough for them to make payments, she said.
Inside the hall, Stumpf was interrupted less than a minute into his presentation by a person shouting that the bank should pay its fair share of taxes, followed by at least two more such protests and a disruption by several people at once. Stumpf, 58, told the people they were out of order, and security personnel and San Francisco police escorted them out.
“There has to be a desire on both sides to have a true dialogue,” Oscar Suris, a Wells Fargo spokesman, said in an interview. “We respect the protesters’ right to protest, but well before their voices were heard today we already had a deep appreciation for the many challenges our customers are facing in today’s economy.”
No one queried Stumpf during a question-and-answer period, and he ended the meeting after shareholders voted to approve the management-compensation plan and the slate of directors.
Organizers of Occupy Wall Street are planning protests in more than 115 cities on May 1. The worldwide movement was born Sept. 17 as about 1,000 people marched in New York City and eventually set up camp in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.
Demonstrators who descended on Wells Fargo’s annual meeting yesterday set up a makeshift stage on the back of a truck, chanting “Let us in” as the start of the meeting approached. Others marching in a circle near a side entrance performed a call-and-response chant: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Some held signs reading, “Occupy Wells Fargo, stop predatory loans,” and others brought a posterized mockup of the company’s stagecoach logo festooned with protest slogans.
Dozens of people holding what appeared to be stock certificates pressed against a police barricade at the front of the building said they were being denied access to the meeting.
Maria Guillen, a protester who declined to give her age, said she wanted to attend the meeting to tell executives that the bank should pay its fair share of taxes.
‘People Are Struggling’
Wells Fargo paid almost $4 billion in federal, state and corporate income taxes last year as profit climbed 29 percent to $15.9 billion, according to the company’s 2011 annual report.
“We know our customers and with what’s going on in the economy, people are struggling,” said Suris, the Wells Fargo spokesman.
Minutes after the meeting started, protesters outside announced they had taken over the meeting, drawing cheers. Those who had chained themselves to block one entrance departed, declaring that they had accomplished their mission. The demonstrations took on a carnival atmosphere, with people dancing to a Brazilian drum circle and donning costumes, including one woman dressed as an anti-Wells Fargo cheerleader.
Sgt. Daryl Fong, a San Francisco police spokesman, said city police arrested 20 protesters and that the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department arrested four others. Of those arrested by city police, 14 were taken into custody during the meeting and six others were charged with trespassing, Fong said.
Other Occupy protesters, taking aim at what they called Wall Street West, were arrested Jan. 20 as they sought to shut the company’s headquarters. Wells Fargo was one of the few banks to acknowledge the movement in its annual report and list the protests as a risk factor that could harm the business.