Mirroring a national trend, mega-banks are drawing fire from Philadelphians fed up with business as usual. Protestors focused on two of the nation’s largest banks — Bank of America and Wells Fargo — drawing protestors to their local branches by urging a boycott of one and demanding “their money back” from the other.
“We’re calling for the nation to take their money out of Bank of America. Put it in another bank. Put it in your mattress,” said Ogbonna Hagins, with the National Coalition of African American Organizations. “We want to shut them down.”
Hagins urged all depositors to close their accounts on or before Nov. 11.
He spoke from the sidewalk in front a branch of the bank at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, where about 15 protestors joined him after a march from the site of the Occupy Philadelphia protest, which has been camped out at City Hall since Oct. 6.
Hagins said the NCAAO supported the Occupy Philadelphia movement, which has been camped out in Dilworth Plaza since Oct. 6, but added that he hoped to sharpen its focus with the call to boycott Bank of America.
“We want to galvanize as many people as we can,” he said Tuesday. “We wanted to give a bull’s eye to what we should be hitting.”
Protestors, chanting “boycott Bank of America,” were mostly young and drawn from the ranks of the Occupy Philadelphia encampment.
Queen Marlenah defied that demographic, coming to Center City from Germantown to speak out against the bank.
“They’re going to charge you $5 to use your debit card,” she said. “It’s not fair. All of the corporations own everything. The people don’t own nothing.”
“I’m legal,” replied Marlenah when asked her age, adding that she’s been struggling to get ahead for years and that it was time for people to band together to reform the system.
“They don’t have that unity,” she said.
Hagins noted that Bank of America laid off 30,000 people in the wake of a $45 billion taxpayer bailout.
“They are the epitome of corporate greed,” he said.
Bank officials declined to comment on the protest but defended the $5 charge.
“We have no comment on this group’s actions,” said T.J. Crawford, spokesman with the bank’s northeast division. “With regard to the debit card fee, I’d note that over the last two years, we have been more committed than ever before to being clear and transparent with our customers to help ensure they know exactly what they are getting and how much it costs. There are ways for customers to avoid the fee — we encourage them to contact the bank for more information.”
On Wednesday, Action United held a similar — though much larger — protest in front Wells Fargo’s branch at South Broad and Walnut streets. About 250 people stopped traffic on South Broad to oppose what protestors termed a “shady deal” by Wells Fargo.
Onlookers stood on the portico of the tony Union League Club watching as the hoi-polloi, led by a line of school-aged children and a drum corps, marched past.
Wells Fargo, along with three others, sold the Philadelphia school district interest rate swaps that the district eventually had to buy back at a cost of $63 million, including a prepayment penalty, which Action United wants paid back.
“They need to pay it back,” said Carolyn Banks, a grandmother living with her daughter and unemployed son-in-law, who has grandchildren in Philadelphia public schools.
Banks said she joined the protest because she was angry at Wells Fargo, but added that her anger goes deeper. Ticking off a list of reasons, she added: high unemployment, unaffordable college education and a future controlled by corporate interests.
“I want [my grandchildren] to be able to get a job,” she said. “I don’t want them going to school for nothing.”
Action United chose Wells Fargo because School Reform Commissioner Denise Armbrister is chairwoman of the Wells Fargo Foundation. “This is another example of corporate greed undermining our communities for the enrichment of the 1 percent and the padding of their bottom line,” said Pat Worrell, state president of Action United.
The local demonstrations were echoes of what appears to be a growing backlash against banks.
Wells Fargo officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Banks said she was glad to see Action United joined by many of the Occupiers camped out at City Hall.
“I was so excited and fired up,” she said. “This is one of the greatest things since we started fighting against the Vietnam War.”
Protests against banks have been growing louder all across the country.
Last week Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., blasted Bank of America on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
“Bank of America customers, vote with your feet,” Durbin said. “Get the heck out of that bank.”
The Occupy movement has also endorsed a boycott, started by Kristen Christian, which calls for depositors to withdrawal their funds by Nov. 5, dubbed Bank Transfer Day.
“If the 99 percent removes our funds from the major banking institutions on or by this date, we will send a clear message and give the 1 percent a taste of the fear that we experience every day when we aren't able to pay for our rent, food, medication, utilities, student loans, etc.,” said Christian.
More than 23,000 people on Facebook said they would do so.