A True-Life Adventure in Confronting Power
by Mike Davis
I traveled to San Antonio to attend the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting on April 29th. It was quite an adventure in confronting power.
I went to confront Wells Fargo, their CEO, Board of Directors and shareholders with the story of a leader from Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis who was steered into a high interest rate refinance loan when he qualified for a much better rate. I went to represent ISAIAH and the members of our churches and communities who have been targeted with sub-prime mortgages or refused fair access to credit. I went to ask what they were planning to do make our communities whole after redlining in the Twin Cities. I went to stand in solidarity with our partner organizations from across the country that have decided to stand up to even the most powerful bank in America.
I met up with a group of homeowners and fair housing activists from around the country just before the meeting. About 20 of us attended, mostly people of color. From the very start, it was clear that Wells Fargo was treating us differently, as they had us stand off to the side as other shareholders and bank employees were ushered through registration.
The meeting was held at a posh country club resort on the far outskirts of San Antonio. Security was intense, with dozens of guards, and even metal detectors outside the meeting room.
When I approached the registration table at 8:00 am, the Wells Fargo employee barely glanced at my documentation before saying, “This is insufficient.” I was carrying a proxy document for 1.2 million shares held by the AFL-CIO, and had the exact same documentation that my ISAIAH colleague Lars Negstad had when he was admitted – without trouble – to the US Bank shareholder meeting two weeks previously (although his was only for 793 shares).
Wells Fargo started spewing all sorts of nonsense about what sort of documentation I should have, trying to confuse me and make me feel like I was in error. I got on the phone immediately with our support team, including our allies in the labor movement who had secured the proxy. In the process, a Wells Fargo corporate lawyer got involved. Even after the pension fund consultant was on the phone with her, she still was putting up stiff resistance to letting me in. It went from stonewalling, to technical jargon, to blaming me, to some moves towards appeasement: “Oh, you can watch the meeting on the TV outside the room!” they offered. Turns out the lawyer is a Minneapolis based employee and is familiar with ISAIAH.
The meeting started at 8:30 am sharp. They put me through this run-around for 40 minutes, even though these meetings usually only last about an hour. Finally, and seemingly arbitrarily, they relented and let me in.
Entering the meeting late I had to sit in the second row behind the entire Board of Directors. At the Q&A, I raised up a copy of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity (IMO) report on mortgage lending discrimination in the Twin Cities that was released in April, and I shared Emory Carter’s story. Emory, who couldn’t make it because of a cancelled flight, is a member of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. In spite of having excellent credit, Wells Fargo attempted to steer him into a high-interest refinance loan.
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf claimed to have never heard of the report. He also told the homeowners who were present that “I don’t want to hear your personal stories” and “I can’t help you.”
After the meeting, the sole African American Board member, Lloyd Dean, approached me and congratulated me for being “very articulate.” While I appreciate the compliment, it was out of place considering the damning evidence I raised against the bank on whose board he sits that is engaging in such egregious behavior targeting African Americans and other communities of color. A comment about that would have been more appropriate.
I also spoke to Jon Campbell, the Executive Vice President, who is essentially the top dog in Minnesota for Wells Fargo. He said, “The IMO report is certainty gaining a lot of attention. In fact, we are meeting with some legislators today,” referring to MN state legislators back in the Twin Cities. I asked, “Really? Who initiated that, was it Wells Fargo or the legislators?” He claimed not to know and I could tell from the way he answered that my question caught him off guard. I then asked which legislators they were meeting with and, again, he said he couldn’t remember and even made a show of scrolling through emails on his phone for a while to try and find it. After only a moment he put it away saying, “Oh I must have deleted that one.” Our conversation ended with him giving me his card and agreeing to meet with us.
One thing is clear from the reaction to my presence and what I had to say, not only are we are confronting power of the highest order but our decision to confront Wells Fargo is the correct one. We are on the right path to win justice and healing for our communities!
Mike Davis is an organizer with ISAIAH.