El Hispanic News
Portland, OR — Andrés Jiménez’s day at work had been unpredictable. The real surprise of the day arrived after he returned home that evening. His mother in Los Angeles called him and said, “Hey! We saw you on TV!”
Jiménez’ appearance on network television came as a backdrop to the “Occupy the Banks” protests on Nov. 17. In addition about a thousand protestors gathered outside the Standard Insurance Building on SW 5th Avenue, and about 11 protestors slipped inside to create a “street drama” in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Bank office.
A few minutes before noon, Jiménez was helping a bank customer to establish a new account.
Jiménez noticed that instead of the usual three or four customers at that time of day, about 15 well-dressed people were scattered around the lobby.
Then things began changing in a hurry.
Jiménez recalled hearing someone “just out of the blue” say, “Mike check! Mike check!” Some 11 visitors removed their jackets to reveal shirts with protest slogans. One of the visitors began video taping the inside portion of the demonstration. (Available online at “Wells Fargo n17 Protest Portland, Or.” on YouTube.)
Automatically, four of the regular doors went on lock-down mode. The two revolving doors, one on the west side and one on the east, remained open.
The main event, Jiménez recalled, came as several leaders broke down their demands into phrases, with the other 10 repeating each phrase — not unlike a chief justice swearing in an incoming president.
Jiménez said the protesters were polite, but noted, “It was a little inconvenient for customers.”
About 15 minutes after the protesters entered the building, the police arrived.
Jiménez quoted the police officers saying, “Leave now or be arrested for trespassing.”
After the protesters refused to leave, the officers then bound their hands, except for one in a motorized wheel chair. At that time, protesters lining the sidewalk outside the bank began chanting, “Let them go! Let them go!”
Troy Cunningham, the district manager for Wells Fargo, said that with the crowd outside pushing on windows, “Some of my team members were getting nervous. I believe that they would have come in [if we had opened the doors].”
Cunningham said the police told them the protesters had the option to stand up and go or be carried out. He said seven of the nine opted to be carried out. Neither side was physically aggressive.
“The police did a fantastic job,” Cunningham said.
A coordinated protest
Wells Fargo was not the only target of the Occupy Portland and “Occupy the Banks” groups. Downtown branches of Bank of America and Chase were also on the list.
Eleven members of the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) planned and carried out the event at Wells Fargo.
Another group gathered at the Steel Bridge a dozen blocks to the north of the downtown banks. According to Alejandro Juárez, who spoke to El Hispanic News by phone from Los Angeles, the objective of blocking traffic on the Steel Bridge was to emphasize the poor condition of the bridge and that refurbishing it could create jobs in Portland.
According to Juárez, local labor unions coordinated the Steel Bridge incident.
Juárez, formerly with We Are Oregon, a community action group, provided the telephone number of one of the protesters at the bridge. When called, the man declined to talk to El Hispanic News.
“Occupy is not just a change in policy,” said Kari Koch, a member of PCASC in Portland, “but changing our system and improving the lives of people.”
Speaking by phone on the Oregon coast, she said that the Occupy demonstrations are not about party politics. “This is not about Bush or Obama,” she said. “It’s about laws that are passed that put more people in prison [and cut workers’ incomes].”
“Republicans and Democrats have both failed,” Koch said. Although she believes that minority parties offer some good alternatives, she said, “Help won’t come from one person.”
She charged that newspapers and broadcast news control how politicians are seen. This implies that alleged media slanting tends to affect elections.
Koch said “The 99%” that appears in Occupy placards refers to the vast difference in money and power that separates the richest 1 percent and the rest of the country. She said she wants to see a more equitable distribution of wealth.
As for occupying two downtown parks for six weeks and disrupting traffic and some businesses, Koch noted, “Sometimes freedom of speech causes negative actions.”
Another PCASC member, Craig Hennecke, dismissed the notion that the Occupy actions were responsible for costing the City of Portland more than $1 million in overtime paid for increased police presence. Hennecke said that Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese had paid for unnecessary officers.
Koch suggested that the money would have been better spent increasing Portland’s “limited bus service.”
Wells Fargo and prisons?
Koch and Hennecke claimed that Wells Fargo supports “right wing think tanks” such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Further, they asserted that ALEC was responsible for bringing a bill in the Georgia legislature that resembles Arizona’s controversial SB 1070.
Koch and Hennecke see a connection between SB 1070 and private prisons. They claimed that for-profit prisons funnel money to legislators to pass laws that will increase the number of people — especially immigrants — to be arrested.
In October of 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story in which Benson, Ariz., City Manager Glenn Nichols claimed that two un-named men approached him about locating a for-profit prison in Benson to house “illegal” women and children.
One of the un-named men, according to Nichols, described how the prison would benefit the city. This would happen through locking up a continuous stream of immigrants under Arizona’s SB 1070 law.
The NPR report described a meeting in Washington, D.C., that included “a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council.”
Another group at the meeting, according to NPR, was “the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the country.”
The key speaker, Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, was the force behind SB 1070. Voters retired Pearce from office recently.
Several advocate websites suggest that some banks, including Wells Fargo, have interests in private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group.
Tom Unger, a Portland-based Wells Fargo spokesman, denied this.
In a letter e-mailed to El Hispanic News, Unger wrote, “Wells Fargo & Company does not own shares of the GEO Group or [Corrections] Corporation of America (CCA), nor have we invested our own assets in either company. As a diversified financial services company, Wells Fargo invests on behalf of clients and customers in thousands of domestic and foreign companies. These types of client investments are frequently published on websites, in public filings, and through other mediums and can give the incorrect impression that Wells Fargo is an owner of a company’s stock.”
Unger went on to address four other points:
- “These shares are owned by various Wells Fargo mutual funds. Wells Fargo is not a beneficial owner of these mutual funds, but serves as an advisor.”
- “Mutual funds are essentially a pool of assets that a variety of clients have asked us to invest on their behalf. The clients own the shares.”
- “As an example, in the case of the Wells Fargo Advantage Small Cap Value Fund, which owns $62.3 million in shares, GEO Group is one of 150 different stocks owned by the Fund and represents only 1.3 per cent of the $4.586 billion fund.”
- “Similarly, the Wells Fargo Advantage Small/Mid Cap Value Fund owns $390,000 in shares of CCA. This position is just one of 148 stocks owned by the Fund and represents only 0.13 percent of the $284 million fund (roughly 1/10th of 1 percent).”
Hennecke responded that although the percentages might be low, they still represented large amounts of money.
Immigration and service for immigrants
Unger pictured Wells Fargo as neutral on immigration. “Wells Fargo respects the seriousness of our country’s ongoing debate on immigration reform. However, we do not, as a corporation, take positions on public policy issues that do not directly affect our company’s ability to serve customers and support team members.”
In his position paper, Unger wrote, “We strive to serve all of our customers who provide valid forms of identification as required by law through company policies that conform with state and federal laws. And it also includes adhering to practices that ensure that we do not discriminate against our customers or our team members on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, or sexual orientation.”
Unger concluded, “We have been leaders in making financial products and services available to Hispanic, Asian, African-American and other diverse groups. This support includes monetary donations and volunteer service for groups that serve these communities and provide needed financial education.”