Dozens of good-government groups, Occupy Wall Street contingents, environmental activists, struggling homeowners and institutional investors are descending on Charlotte, N.C., to protest Wednesday's Bank of America shareholders' meeting. Occupiers characterize the event as a test run for activism targeting September's Democratic National Convention, and expect thousands of protesters for a full day of marches and theatrics criticizing what they say are the Charlotte-based bank's consumer abuses and political power.
The widening of income inequality and growing corporate influence on governing have sown disillusionment among parts of the Democratic Party base, including Occupiers, much as the Vietnam War demoralized the Democratic base in the '60s. The tension climaxed in during the 1968 convention in Chicago, with a police crackdown still remembered as a pivotal event in 20th century American politics.
Charlotte authorities may not have the brutal reputation of Chicago's Democratic Daley family that ordered the assaults on protesters. But today's organizers note that Charlotte authorities are already cracking down on dissent.
In fact, the arrests have already begun. On Monday, three activists were taken into police custody for carrying a banner criticizing the bank, according to organizers who discussed the matter on a Tuesday call with reporters. The city of Charlotte has authorized a broad array of unconventional police powers for the bank shareholders' meeting on Wednesday. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the preemptive crackdown for permitting the arrest of anyone carrying a backpack, purse or briefcase with the intent to conceal anything on a long list of prohibited items, ranging from weapons to markers to bicycle helmets. Those same police powers will be in effect for September's DNC Convention.
"Part of it is testing those out," explained Tammy Shapiro, an activist with Occupy Wall Street. She came to Charlotte from New York City to participate in the protests. She called the new police powers "ludicrous." "There's the sense that we are going to challenge what these laws are."
The new police powers were authorized by a City Council ordinance earlier this year that also banned camping in Charlotte, effectively razing the Occupy Charlotte community.
Tim Liszewski, an activist from Occupy Columbia in South Carolina who plans to protest Bank of America Wednesday, said any arrests may serve as a way to challenge those police powers in court. "It might be that when you go up there you can get some lawsuits going to invalidate the restrictions," he said. He added that he's not planning on getting arrested. But "if it happens, I certainly will challenge the law."
City of Charlotte spokeswoman Kim McMillan insisted that the city's goal is not to prevent the exercise of free speech, but to ensure that protesters are safe and businesses can operate normally.
Inside the Bank of America meeting, disgruntled shareholders including Trillium Asset Management, the City of New York and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will force votes on proposals that would curb the bank's political spending and force it to review its foreclosure practices. Bank of America's board of directors opposes the resolutions. Service Employees International Union organizer Stephen Lerner told HuffPost that Bank of America has hired off-duty police to serve as security officers inside the meeting. Despite being off-duty and employed by a private company, Lerner said the officers will have the authority to arrest people inside the meeting.
Outside the meeting, protesters promise a boisterous slate of events drawing attention to Bank of America's relationship with the federal government, the coal industry and its long record of foreclosure abuse. Occupy Atlanta's Tim Franzen said there are three marches planned, each with its own theme: the bank's environmental record, the housing crisis and corporate accountability issues. The marches will converge into one big protest Wednesday morning.
Occupy Wall Street veteran Max Berger said he sees fighting Bank of America as a critical piece of the movement's goals. "I think Bank of America is the most important thing that Occupy Wall Street has going on right now," he said. "I look at Bank of America as the weak spot in the entire financial system. The campaign to break up Bank of America is like Luke blowing up the Death Star. It's the one thing that keeps the whole thing together. This is the opportunity to hold the people who destroyed the economy accountable for what they did."
Berger is flying into Charlotte for the protest. Franzen said Occupy Atlanta is taking 20 or so of its members. Shapiro said Occupy Wall Street has rented a bus, which arrived in Charlotte Monday night. She has already met people from Olympia, Wash., and from Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and across North Carolina.
Occupy activists won't just be meeting each other for direct-action trainings and marches.
Tony Romano, the organizing director with Right to the City, a national alliance of community groups organizing around foreclosures, said his group is bringing roughly 175 residents who have been evicted by Bank of America, along with community members from Miami, Boston, New Orleans and Virginia. "They are folks whose homes are being stolen by Bank of America, and their lives are being destroyed by Bank of America," Romano said.
"Some of our folks decided they wanted to influence Bank of America -- some have shares," Romano said. Some have asked to speak at the shareholders' meeting. "Other folks will be protesting," he said, "hitting Bank of America from every side."
On Thursday, the group Right to the City is hosting a one-day "Urban Congress" for groups to share their home-defense tactics. More than 250 people will attend, Romano said.
Bank of America emphasizes that it has performed 200,000 loan modifications under President Barack Obama's Home Affordable Modification Program, and has increased staffing to improve its outreach to borrowers. The bank was active in the subprime mortgage market during the housing bubble and purchased the nation's largest mortgage lender, Countrywide, in 2008. The bank has been plagued by widespread allegations of foreclosure fraud in the years since.
Meanwhile, environmental groups will be decrying the bank's relationship with the coal industry.
"A human health crisis is exploding in Appalachia and Bank of America lights the fuse every day," said Coal River Mountain Watch president Bob Kincaid. "This bank and its shareholders must confront the brutality of what they do."
Kincaid noted that 3 million to 5 million pounds of explosives are detonated every day in Appalachia in mountaintop removal mining, stripping away rock and soil to expose mineable coal. Scientific research shows that runoff from those activities is poisoning citizens in surrounding areas, with increased birth defects, cancer rates that lead to 4,000 deaths a year in West Virginia, according to Kincaid.
"That's a newborn who never knows a clear breath, a 4-year-old who never gets to be a 5-year-old, a mother who never gets to be a grandmother," Kincaid told reporters Tuesday. "That is what Bank of America finances when it finances the coal industry."
Bank of America told HuffPost it recognizes the urgency to address climate change and energy challenges, but argued that the move to a low-carbon economy will take time and there are environmental impacts attributed to all sources of energy. Bank of America is the single largest financer of the coal industry in the U.S.
Coal River Mountain Watch is one of several organizations that has been protesting Bank of America's policies at its shareholder meetings in recent years, with anti-foreclosure groups also taking prominence. But in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street's efforts to popularize discontent with income inequality and corporate influence of American politics, this year's meeting will be a bigger gathering with broader themes.
"I think Occupy co-opted all of us," said Stephen Lerner, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union.
The selection of Charlotte for September's DNC Convention is itself emblematic of the rift between the party's base and its more corporate-friendly leadership. Charlotte has long been nicknamed the "Wall Street of the South" because of Bank of America's headquarters and the heavy presence of Wells Fargo, which bought Charlotte-based Wachovia. Activists view the choice as an effort from the Democratic Party establishment to curry favor with the state's banking elite -- a constituency that played a significant role in the subprime lending explosion and subsequent economic catastrophe.