Holding Bank of America to Account

A wave of shareholder activism is shining light on the shabby role of banks in the subprime crisis and financing dirty coal

Shareholder meetings can be routine, unless you are Bank of America, in which case it may be declared an "extraordinary event". That is what the city of Charlotte, North Carolina called the bank's shareholder meeting this week. Bank of America is currently the second largest bank in the US (after JP Morgan Chase), claiming more than $2tn in assets. It is also the "too big to fail" poster child of Occupy Wall Street, a speculative banking monstrosity that profits from, among other things, the ongoing foreclosure crisis and the exploitation of dirty coal.

North Carolina, which went for Barack Obama in 2008, is a swing state in this year's presidential election. Current polls indicate the Tar Heel State is a toss-up. To boost its chances there, the Democratic party has chosen Charlotte to host this summer's Democratic National Convention. In preparation, the Charlotte city council passed an amendment to the city code allowing the city manager to declare so-called extraordinary events.

The ordinance is clearly structured to grant police extra powers to detain, search and arrest people who are within the arbitrarily defined "extraordinary event" zone. The ordinance reads, in part, "It shall be unlawful for any person ... to willfully or intentionally possess, carry, control, or have immediate access to any of the following" and then lists a page of items, including scarves, backpacks, duffel bags, satchels and coolers.

Wednesday's protest outside the Bank of America headquarters, with hundreds marching, was peaceful and spirited. The colorful array of creative signs was complemented by activists inside the meeting, who, as shareholders, were entitled to address the meeting. George Goehl of National People's Action, who was inside, told CNN about Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan's reaction:

"Dozens of us were able to speak, but Moynihan mostly dodged, deflected and denied. He looked visibly uncomfortable the entire time."

Many activists expressed outrage at the bank's role in the subprime mortgage industry and the foreclosure crisis it helped spawn. As part of a federal settlement over widespread mortgage fraud, Bank of America agreed to hand over $11.8bn. Just two days before the protest, the bank announced it was contacting the first 5,000 of 200,000 mortgage customers who are eligible for a loan modification, with a potential decrease in their mortgage principal of up to 30%.

Last week, activists with the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) climbed 100ft to suspend a banner on Charlotte's Bank of America stadium, where President Obama is scheduled to make his nomination acceptance speech on 6 September. The banner read "Bank of America" with the word "America" crossed out and replaced with "Coal".

RAN is part of a broad coalition fighting the destructive practice of mountaintop removal. RAN executive director Rebecca Tarbotton told me:

"Bank of America is the lead financier of mountaintop-removal mining, which is a practice of mining which is really the worst of the worst mining that we see anywhere, essentially blowing the tops off of mountains in Appalachia, destroying people's homes, polluting their water supplies. And that's even before it gets into the coal plants, where it's burnt and creates air pollution in inner-city areas and all around our country ... [it's] the canary in the coal mine for our reliance on fossil fuels."

The broad coalition in and out of the shareholder meeting demonstrates a key development in Occupy Wall Street's spring revival, and also foreshadows possible confrontations with the Obama re-election campaign this fall.

Obama responds to pressure. Look at the issue of marriage equality. In 1996, while campaigning for state senator in Illinois, Obama wrote he supported same-sex marriage. While campaigning in 2008, then US Senator Obama stated: "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman." This week, he told ABC News, "It is important for me to affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

Given the political climate, it is certainly brave for Obama to endorse marriage equality, especially just hours after the voters of North Carolina voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. But he was once a community organizer, and no doubt recalls the words of Frederick Douglass:

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will."

The LGBT community was organized and vocal, and the president's position moved.

Those gathered inside and outside the Bank of America shareholder meeting this week - homeowners fighting foreclosure, environmentalists, Occupy Wall Street activists - will take note of the president's change. They are sure to continue their struggles, right through the Democratic National Convention, making it truly an "extraordinary event".

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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