“Why do these people even bother showing up?” The words came from a grandmotherly-looking woman with kind eyes who stood behind me in a line of shareholders waiting to be admitted to Bank of America’s annual meeting today. She was looking at a group of demonstrators on the street in front of us.
“Nothing’s going to change for them.”
I had arrived in Charlotte bearing a letter that confirmed that I was the representative of a politically sympathetic investor who, like the titular figure in an old TV series called The Millionaire, “wishes to remain anonymous.” The letter confirmed that “the investor is a holder of 82,000 shares of BANK OF AMERICA corporation.”
That would have guaranteed admission—and probably a little hospitality—at any normal corporation’s annual meeting. But Bank of America isn’t just any corporation. Like many banks, it has the government on its side—not only against the public, but against its own shareholders.
Three years ago the number of shares I was representing was worth $4,264,000. Today they’re worth less than $634,000. While that makes it tougher to pretend I’m in The Millionaire, you’d think the loss of $3.5 million would get a guy a chair and a glass of water to stave off the Carolina heat. Nah. Not even a lousy cup of coffee for a group of a bank’s own investors, many of whom began the morning feeling sympathetic toward the bank’s executives and hostile to the demonstrators.
At a planning meeting the previous night, Occupy protesters reaffirmed their commitment to nonviolence and discussed the city’s plan to suspend civil liberties by declaring the demonstration an “exceptional event.” Then an organizer led the crowd in chanting “We are exceptional.” That was followed by a chant that rhymed “The system’s gonna die” with “We need hella Occupy.” (This reporter thought the use of “hella” as an adjective ended when Gwen “Hella Good” Stefani parted ways with No Doubt. Apparently not.)
The planning event was held at the local Teamsters Hall, and the mix of people there and at the demonstration crossed North Carolina and North American socioeconomic boundaries in a way that was unheard-of in previous protest movements. The following day’s demonstration went smoothly. Although police were deployed in force, along with at least one customs officer, civility was the watchword.
The process was smooth and seemed well-rehearsed. As I spoke with one of the parish’s Catholic priests—who said, “Keep up the fight, brother”—police on bicycles quietly surrounded us and blocked access in and out of the crowd with their bikes. They had spun their web silently and efficiently. But there was no violence, no hostility and only a few arrests.
City officials and bank executives had clearly decided to avoid arresting anyone inside the meeting room itself, even after a mic check was called. But the “exceptional” declaration, and the assertion of extreme extrajudicial rights, seemed to catch Charlotte locals off-guard.
“We negotiated with them in good faith,” said one, “then this.” I asked another Occupy Charlotte organizer if they might have been wanted to invoke this plan as a dry run for the Democratic convention. “They said as much,” he answered. “They’re trying out their crowd control plan today, and then in a couple of weeks at a NASCAR event.”
NASCAR? I asked him. First the Constitution, now NASCAR? Isn’t anything sacred around these parts anymore? He laughed. “Well,” he said, “for a North Carolinian I’m kind of a heretic, because I don’t care for NASCAR anyway.”
It was warm in the morning, although a cooling rain arrived shortly after noon. The crowd was peaceful. There was good will on the shareholders’ line too—at first. A man in his 30s made small talk with the older man next to him. “I’m putting everything I can in this stock,” he said. “With its presence”—Bank of America’s too-big-to-fail size—“these shares can only go up.” His companion directed a few disparaging words toward the demonstrators and then gestured with his iPhone. “Let me show you these pictures of my niece,” he said.
Then the line stopped moving. First one demonstrator vaulted the barricades and submitted peacefully to arrest. Then came another. Another twenty minutes went by. Then a phalanx of executives and security guards approached us. “We can’t guarantee your safety,” they said, “so we’re asking you to leave the property.” It took some back and forth to clarify what they were trying to tell us: we weren’t getting into the meeting. “It’s full,” we were told.
“You should’ve gotten a bigger room,” the man to left said.
The gentleman to my right looked to be in his late 70s or early 80s. He carried a sportsman’s tan, a full head of white hair and a pinstriped suit that could’ve been the work of a bespoke Hong Kong tailor. “I get the distinct impression that people at this bank can’t manage anything,” he said to me. That’s clear, I said. Have you looked at the share price lately?
“Good point,” he said with a bitter chuckle.
The man to my left, dripping with fury, demanded the name of the public relations—excuse me, communications executive—who was expelling us. I told the executive I was representing a client with 82,000 shares of stock, that I had flown into town especially for the meeting, and had called ahead to make sure I could get into the meeting. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, “but you can watch it online.”
He distributed preprinted sheets of paper with the URL for the online broadcast as security guards hovered nearby. “You’ll have to leave now,” he said “We can’t guarantee your safety.” The white-haired man stood up straight. “I’m not concerned about my safety,” he said
The bank executive’s eyes fell on me. “If you stay here you’ll be on your own.” I’m a grown man, I said. I’ve been on my own for a long time. Besides, I don’t feel threatened by the demonstrators. The others nodded in agreement. “Please,” the executive said, “leave now.”
What happens if I don’t? He sighed. “Let’s not let it come to that,” he said.
“Can’t you people plan ahead?” snapped the grandmotherly woman as we dispersed.
What we didn’t know at the time was that bank officials probably had planned ahead—and that’s why we had been shut out. I spoke with Amanda Starbuck from the Rainforest Action Network, one of the activists who made it into the meeting. She told me she and her colleagues had arrived at 7:30 in the morning and were at the head of the line.
“And yet when we were let into the room,” she said, “it was already more than half-full. More than 200 people were there,” Ms. Starbuck added.
“Most of them were Bank of America employees,” said Starbuck, “and they looked bored during the meeting. But in the middle of every row there was a goon-type man with an earpiece. The schedule said that there would be a question-and-answer session ‘if there was time,’ and when somebody asked (BofA CEO) Brian Moynihan about that, one of them looked like he was ready to tackle her.”
The bank’s managerial incompetence, reflected in its share price and its ongoing legal problems, extends to the simple process of inconveniencing and then turning away its own shareholders. It would have been easy enough to distribute bottled water to the parched people on line, many of whom were not young. They figured that out at Woodstock. And we were dispersed curtly and with only minimal apologies.
The meeting went peacefully. Moynihan endured hostile questions, responded with pat answers, and then walked away with shareholder approval for his 2011 compensation package of $7 million. Perhaps not coincidentally, new reports show that the Federal Reserve is intervening aggressively to block shareholders who try to limit executive compensation or make changes to incompetent executive teams. As Steven Davidoff noted today in the New York Times Dealbook, “The Fed appears to prefer the management of poorly performing banks over those who want to run the banks’ operations better.”
Put up with an hour of polite criticism, then get $7 million? Not a bad day’s work for Brian Moynihan. And with the Fed’s latest moves, it’s looking more and more as if a few angry shareholders don’t matter at all. In fact, when it comes to running Bank of America, they may not have much more influence than the demonstrators outside.
To paraphrase the woman on line this morning, Why should a bank’s shareholders even bother showing up anymore?
Nothing’s going to change for them.
Read more: “Showdown in Charlotte: Bank of America and Occupy”