SAN FRANCISCO - From all around the Bay Area and beyond they came, a thousand strong - union members proudly displaying their banners, community organizations from neighborhoods wracked by foreclosures and unemployment, faith leaders, housing and racial justice activists.
As they marched through the financial district to Wells Fargo headquarters where shareholders were meeting April 27, they bore a coffin topped with flowers and emblazoned with the legends, "8 million jobs," "5 million homes," symbolizing the financial crisis' devastating impact on working people. "Shine a light on corporate greed - working families have mouths to feed!" they chanted, and "Working families have a right to know - hey big banks, where's our dough?"
"I'm standing with my neighbors, my brothers and sisters, who are jobless and have lost their homes," retired Pacific Gas and Electric Co. worker Maria Elena Buitron said as she accompanied the coffin. "Every day, people are driven down until they have nothing!"
Her outrage was shared by Brenda Blannon, marching with Contra Costa County's Interfaith Supporting Community Organization. "The banks are cheating us left and right," she said. "They overcharge us for our checking accounts and then they mess them up and make us late with payments. Someone needs to bring them up short!"
During a brief halt in front of a Chase branch, a marcher suddenly climbed onto a cement planter that held a tree, hoisting his young daughter up to join him. Recounting "six months of pain and suffering" at the hands of Chase, Jose Vega asked, "Is anyone familiar with them losing documents, and asking for the same things over and over?" "Yes!" roared the crowd.
After Sen. Dianne Feinstein filed a complaint on his behalf, Vega thought he was on the road to resolving his problem. But just as the bank was again requesting more documents, it suddenly foreclosed on his home. "Chase is as guilty as all the big banks!" Vega declared, as his listeners cheered and applauded. "This is criminal and it needs to stop!"
Once at Wells Fargo, marchers settled in behind barricades across the street from the bank's headquarters, warding off the spring rain and wind with bright red plastic ponchos supplied by the California Nurses Association.
Speakers regaled the crowd with facts: Wells Fargo was among the nation's biggest subprime lenders, and as California's third largest mortgage lender in 2008, it was three times more likely to deny loans to neighborhoods of color than to mostly white neighborhoods in Oakland and San Diego. Wells Fargo is also one of the big players in the payday loan industry, not only providing credit to the biggest payday lenders but making such loans through its own ATMs, at 240 percent annual interest.
Meanwhile a delegation brought the demonstrators' demands into the shareholders' meeting: stop predatory and discriminatory lending, keep families in their homes, help rebuild neighborhoods, invest in communities - including helping to generate jobs - and stop fighting federal financial reform. They returned to report the shareholders largely seemed indifferent, going about their business in spite of people losing homes and jobs.
One delegation member electrified the crowd with calls to "move our money, as a group, create a no-banking zone and start with Wells Fargo!"
As rain and wind picked up, demonstrators left with the words of California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski ringing in their ears: "This is just the beginning of the fight to stop the excesses of Wells Fargo, the Big Banks and Wall Street!"
The April 27 march was among a number of actions this week at big banks around the country, leading up to an April 29 march on Wall St. by an anticipated 10,000 union and community activists.