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Mark Engler

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The Bank vs. America Showdown

Posted: 05/14/2012 10:01 am

This spring is a season of confrontation at the shareholders' meetings of U.S. banks and other major corporations. And this week, Bank of America has been in the spotlight.

On Wednesday, about 750 protesters rallied outside the bank's annual meetings in Charlotte, N.C., brilliantly rebranding the event "Bank vs. America." The demonstration was remarkable in uniting people across a wide range of issues. As Laura Gottesdiener wrote at Waging Nonviolence, protesters are targeting the bank for

funding mountaintop coal removal, perpetuating student debt that has now surpassed $1 trillion nationally, laying off more than 100,000 workers in the last few years and, of course, foreclosing on millions of homeowners across the country. In anticipation, the Charlotte City Council has already passed laws criminalizing protest, as well as camping and carrying permanent markers.

The latter part of the quote, about the great lengths officials have gone to truncate rights to free speech and assembly, is unfortunately less remarkable than the activists' coalition-building. There is no doubt more to come, since Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention in September -- and Occupy activists have promised to target that event.

In addition to outside marches, there were also critics of BoA inside the annual meeting, with dissidents introducing shareholders' resolutions challenging the bank's overseas tax havens and its support of environmentally destructive mining practices. As Zach Carter of The Huffington Post reported, Bank of America CEO and public enemy No. 1 Brian Moynihan

defended the company's operation of subsidiaries in nations identified as international tax havens by saying, "We're a global business," suggesting that Bank of America needs its sub-companies in other nations because that's where the business is.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of Bank of America operations in the Cayman Islands," one disgruntled shareholder responded.

Later Bob Kincaid, president of Coal River Mountain Watch, spoke out:

"You are part of the poisoning of Appalachia and so is every one of your directors and so is every one of your shareholders," Kincaid said. "You are part of the destruction of an entire region of the country."

"Sir, our environmental team will take a look at it. We look at it all the time," Moynihan said. The crowd responded with jeers.

The move to target corporate shareholders meetings is the outgrowth of an ad hoc coalition that is calling itself 99% Power. This umbrella campaign includes participation from community groups (National People's Action, the New Bottom Line, the Unity Alliance), environmental organizations (Rainforest Action Network), and major unions (UNITE HERE, SEIU, USW) -- and it overlaps very substantially with the groups that organized the 99% Spring trainings last month. Those trainings -- an effort to provide 100,000 people will skills in nonviolent direct action -- drew some over-the-top criticism. Adbusters magazine led the way with frantic cries of cooptation. It characterized the trainings as a scheme to make the Occupy movement a "re-election campaign for President Obama" and encouraged its readers to "Jump, jump, jump over the dead body of the old left!"

This was more paranoia than it was an actual effort to look at the 99% Spring agenda or to assess the range of groups involved in it. As I wrote in April, the trainings ended up getting some mixed reviews, but, on the whole, they could hardly be characterized as Camp Obama cheer sessions. Moreover, what some frame negatively as cooptation could easily -- and more accurately -- be framed positively as Occupy gathering needed allies and successfully setting the agenda for a far-reaching progressive movement.

In my view, the Bank vs. America protests provide more evidence for the baselessness of cooptation complaints. While the decision to focus attention on the spring meetings of major corporations did come out of a coalition of institutional left groups, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the actions we saw last week do not fit comfortably within the established ethos of Occupy. And even if joining those confronting Moynihan was not your cup of tea, it's hard to see how the Charlotte protests were mutually exclusive with other Occupy-related organizing. If anything, they helped to keep the movement in the press and generate a continuing sense that activists are coming back strong after a winter of semi-hibernation.

The more valid criticism is that it does not appear that 99% Spring, despite trying to ready tens of thousands of people for escalating civil disobedience, resulted in particularly disruptive actions in Charlotte. The reports I've seen suggest that there were six anti-BoA protesters arrested there -- with a handful of other arrests occurring at solidarity events in places like New York City. That's hardly an avalanche of civil resistance.

On the plus side, there's still more than a month of spring opportunities left, and there are upcoming protests at Sallie Mae, Chevron, Target, and WalMart -- not to mention the NATO summit in Chicago. Worthy targets all, I'd say!

Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.

 

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