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Protesters in Chicago March on Offices of Goldman, Wells Fargo

by Lauren Etter

CHICAGO - Hundreds of union members and organizers descended on the streets of downtown Chicago on Monday morning to picket the offices of Goldman Sachs Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co.

A large crowd of protesters march outside the American Bankers Association annual convention in Chicago, Illinois October 26, 2009. (REUTERS/Frank Polich) The group, which included supporters from community group National People's Action and the Service Employees International Union, has organized the protests to coincide with the annual meeting of the American Bankers Association. The group is demanding that "banks end their over-reliance on greed and profits and commit to using their taxpayer bailouts and backstops to help America's economy recover," said a news release from the Service Employees International Union.

The protests, similar to ones that have flared up in other cities throughout the financial crisis, pick up on popular sentiment that big banks are partly to blame for the financial crisis. Last week, a government pay czar proposed slashing compensation for bank executives whose companies received government bailout money.

People inside the American Bankers Association meeting said the anger directed at that group was misplaced, since the association mostly represents community banks.

"You did not make any abusive subprime loans; you did not take big bonuses for products that later blew up," ABA President Edward Yingling said during his opening remarks.

Most of the protesters on the Chicago streets Monday appeared to be with a union and many of them were brought in on yellow school buses from across the Midwest.  The message was one of ire at bank executives' large bonuses, bank foreclosures and predatory lending.

"I'm here basically for my grandchildren," said Peggy Sower Knoepfle, a protester who traveled in on a bus from Springfield, Ill., with National People's Action.  "If we don't stop these foreclosures we're not going to have a country left."

Another protester, Garry Klicker, who is with the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, took time away from harvesting his corn and soybeans in Bloomfield, Iowa, to voice his anger.

"This is not a financial system," he said.  "This is a financial disaster." 

Protesters carried effigies of bank executives, including John Stumpf, chief executive of Wells Fargo, and former Bank of America Chief Executive Ken Lewis.  Some clutched "Wanted" signs bearing the faces of bank executives deemed "Wall Street Robber Banker[s]."  They carried signs with slogans such as "No Bonuses for Big Banks" and chanted sayings like "Bust up big banks!"

The morning protests started at the Chicago offices of Goldman Sachs.  A woman on a megaphone shouted, "We're here to tell Goldman Sachs, shame on you! Shame on you for helping bring this country to the brink of a depression!"  The crowd, in turn, chanted "Shame on you!"  An organizer yelled a list of demands for Goldman Sachs, including that the bank support calls for a consumer-finance protection agency and that it donate the money set aside for bonuses to loan-modification programs. 

The group also asked to meet with Goldman's chairman and chief executive officer, Lloyd Blankfein "within the next 30 days."  At one point the group tried to enter the Goldman Sachs lobby to hand-deliver a letter to Mr. Blankfein but was held back by police and security.  Instead, a representative was sent down to pick up the letter.  That person shook hands with some of the protesters.

A spokeswoman at Goldman Sachs said the bank's security office in Chicago had received a copy of the letter.  She didn't comment further.

The group then marched down the street to the Chicago offices of Wells Fargo.  There they also attempted to hand-deliver a letter to Mr. Stumpf, the Wells Fargo CEO. Officials at Wells Fargo couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Around noon, the group boarded a fleet of yellow school buses that took them to the American Bankers Association convention.

At the convention, speeches by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair and Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan weren't disrupted by the protests amid tight security.

Ms. Bair, who had earlier addressed protesters, told the audience of community bankers that there was still work to be done in assuaging public concerns over banks' policies on fees.

She drew applause when she said lax regulation of nonbank financial entities had been a "key gap that was exploited," pledging with Mr. Dugan to crack down on lenders that had cost traditional banks market share.

-Doug Cameron contributed to this article.
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