Bank of America Protest Draws Preemptive Crackdown

The city of Charlotte, N.C., has announced broad restrictions on protests planned for a May 9 Bank of America shareholders meeting, citing safety concerns. The restrictions are prompting fears that constitutionally protected civil liberties may be suppressed, and that the preemptive bans for demonstrators could serve as a preview of the city's tactics when it hosts September's Democratic National Convention.

Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton said Monday that citizens would be banned from carrying a host of commonplace items, including bicycle helmets, padlocks and permanent markers, along with weapons, mace, pepper spray and pipe. The rules also ban any animals that are not part of an official parade or working as service animals during the protest. Since violation of the ban within a designated protest area would be considered grounds for arrest, local citizens could be jailed for simply walking their dogs on May 9. Anyone carrying a backpack or a briefcase with the intent to hide any prohibited items can also be searched or arrested, as can anyone wearing a scarf or a mask with the intent to hide her identity.

"How does law enforcement know that you're carrying a backpack with the intent to conceal weapons? . . . It doesn't seem like it's possible for police to divine that intent," said Katy Parker, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. "That's our concern, because then you have unfettered discretion on the part of law enforcement, and that's unconstitutional."

The city's new rules for the protest, first reported by the Charlotte Business Journal, follow significant controversy surrounding the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting last week in San Francisco. Activists and community groups involved in the Wells Fargo event are organizing people to protest Bank of America's foreclosure abuses and its heavy lobbying operations and political donations.

Bank of America is headquartered in Charlotte, and Wells Fargo also has a presence there stemming from its acquisition of Wachovia, which was also based in the city. Local and state politics are heavily influenced by those big banks. Bank of America was not immediately available for comment Tuesday, and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx declined to comment.

Wells Fargo responded to the San Francisco protest by barring dozens of legitimate shareholders from the meeting and screening out those of the company's owners who appeared critical of the bank, according to activists present at the meeting.

"I had a proxy. I showed up 2 hours early," labor organizer Stephen Lerner told HuffPost. Lerner serves on the executive board of the Service Employees International Union, and is a frequent critic of the financialization of the U.S. economy. "We got in line and they locked most of the doors, and they kept saying, 'We'll let you in later.' And we saw people going in the front door, and they said, 'Well, those are just people who are vendors.' And then finally at the end, their justification was firecode -- there wasn't enough space for us. Only about 15 or 20 of our people with proxies got into the room. The riot squad was in there, and they were arrested."

Wells Fargo spokesperson Mary Eshet told HuffPost, "Wells Fargo wants to welcome as many shareholders as possible to our annual shareholder meeting, and we did our best to ensure the meeting proceeded smoothly. We respect the right of people to peacefully assemble and express their opinions."

By law, any shareholder of a corporation is allowed to attend the company's annual meeting and cast votes in its board elections and on some of the company's policies. On Monday, officials from 10 protest groups sent a letter to Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan warning him not to repeat Wells Fargo's tactics.

"Bank of America must not engage in the same bad faith practices with its shareholders," the letter reads. "You must ensure that the meeting room is big enough to accommodate all shareholders that have a legitimate right to be present and that all shareholders are in the same room with board members and top executives. In addition, you must honor legitimate shareholders’ rights, including the right to designate a proxy to attend the meeting in their stead. We will have legal and citizen voting rights observers on hand to observe and publicly report if legitimate shareholders are deliberately excluded from the meeting."

The new anti-protest rules were originally approved by Charlotte City Council in January in preparation for the Democratic National Convention, but also include a ban on public camping which resulted in the eviction of the city's Occupy demonstrators. The council granted the City Manager the power to designate any event an "extraordinary event," which the ACLU worries will chill free speech. The police response to the May 9 protest will prime expectations for the September National Convention, which is expected to be the focal point of much larger demonstrations. While the rules state that people arrested at protests can be exonerated if found to be possessing items "legitimately," or for never using the items violently -- intensive searches and arrests could nevertheless stifle protests.

Protesters say they will be bringing at least 100 members with proxies to the Bank of America event, with the hopes of getting them into the meeting to speak before company executives. But even if the protesters are ultimately blocked, organizers emphasize that aggressive response from banks and local officials serves as a public reminder of the power that large corporations can exercise over American society.

"To me, this is a sort of glimpse into an America of the future, in which banks and corporations can write all of the rules," Lerner, the labor organizer, told HuffPost.