From Coal to Foreclosures, Bank of America Faces Protest at Shareholders Meeting in Charlotte

Democracy Now*

HAVANA TIMES — Occupy Wall Street protesters, environmental activists, and struggling homeowners are converging in Charlotte today for a protest outside Bank of America’s annual shareholder meeting.

The protesters are calling attention to the bank’s involvement in the financial crisis, its support for the coal industry and its long record of alleged foreclosure abuses. The rally marks a test run for activism targeting September’s Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Charlotte.

The city recently enacted broad police powers to stop and search anyone carrying a backpack, purse or briefcase with the intent to conceal anything on a long list of prohibited items, ranging from weapons to markers to bicycle helmets. “Folks are coming to Charlotte to stand their ground against the predatory practices of Bank of America,” says Rachel LaForest of the Right to the City Alliance, a national coalition of community groups that is bringing roughly 175 residents to Charlotte who have been evicted by Bank of America.

“We’re coming to their shareholders meeting and to say: ‘This is what your practices have done to our lives.’ We’re entering into the space to become decision makers and ensure this stops.” We’re also joined by Rebecca Tarbotton, executive director of Rainforest Action Network, which is calling on Bank of America, the largest financier of the coal industry, to transition its investments out of coal and toward energy efficiency and renewable energy.

“Bank of the America is the lead [U.S.] financier of coal — the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. We’re here to say to Bank of America: You need to get out of coal if you’re serious about this country transitioning into renewable energy.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We stay in North Carolina, where Occupy Wall Street protesters, environmental activists and struggling homeowners are among hundreds gathered to protest at Charlotte-based Bank of America’s annual shareholder meeting. They’re calling attention to the bank’s involvement in the financial crisis, its support for the coal industry, and its long record of alleged foreclosure abuses. On Tuesday, Bank of America began mailing letters to customers who may qualify to have their home loans reduced as part of a multi-state settlement over its foreclosure abuses. Meanwhile, eight protesters were arrested outside the lender’s building in New York City.

GUILLERMO CALLE: I’m still living in my house, and I’m still fighting to stay in my house. I don’t think it’s fair for Bank of America to throw people and families on the street. I think they should work out a better deal with the homeowners and families.

AMY GOODMAN: Today’s protest is a test run for activism targeting September’s Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Charlotte. The city has enacted a broad array of unconventional police powers that are in effect already for today’s demonstrations. Police will be authorized to stop and search anyone carrying a backpack, purse or briefcase with the intent to conceal anything on a long list of prohibited items, ranging from weapons to markers to bicycle helmets. The new police powers were authorized by a city council ordinance earlier this year that also banned camping in Charlotte, effectively razing the Occupy Charlotte community.

For more, we’re going to Charlotte to two guests. Rebecca Tarbotton is executive director of Rainforest Action Network, which is calling on Bank of America, the largest financier of coal, to transition its investments out of coal and toward energy efficiency and renewable energy. And Rachel LaForest is with us, executive director of Right to the City Alliance, a national coalition of community groups organizing around foreclosures. The group is bringing roughly 175 residents who have been evicted by Bank of America, along with community members from Miami, Boston, New Orleans, Virginia, to the protest. On Thursday, it’s hosting a one-day “Urban Congress” for groups to share their home-defense tactics.

Rebecca Tarbotton and Rachel LaForest, welcome to Democracy Now! Rachel, let’s begin with you. Lay out what, overall, this protest is about. It’s bringing together many different groups.

RACHEL LAFOREST: Yes, good morning, Amy. Thanks for having us.

So, this protest is bringing together organizations from about over 30 cities throughout the country—you mentioned some of them—New York; Los Angeles; Boston; Kentucky; Tennessee; the Bay Area; Providence, Rhode Island; Boston. Folks are coming to Charlotte in order to stand their ground against the predatory practices of Bank of America, against the poisoning that Bank of America has done to their communities, against the destruction that Bank of America has leveraged against their families, in defense of everything that they’ve worked so hard to build for. And so, we’re coming to their shareholders’ meeting in order to stand before their key shareholders and say, “This is what your practices have done to our lives. And we are entering into this space now to become decision makers and ensure that this is something that stops.” At the same time, we’re going to have a thousand—

AMY GOODMAN: Why Bank of America, in particular, Rachel?

RACHEL LAFOREST: Bank of America is one of the—I mean, around the foreclosure crisis, in particular, Bank of America holds $88 million in their servicing portfolio of the foreclosure mortgages that exist. That’s the second in the nation. They have a horrible, horrible rate of foreclosure. At the same time, they received $230 [billion] in tax bailouts, paid no taxes in 2009, got a billion-dollar tax rebate in 2010, and are systematically putting people out of their homes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rachel, you’ve also pointed out that Bank of America has been discriminating against low-income people through some of the practices that you name—predatory lending, foreclosure fraud, denying loan modifications, etc. But you say that they also target, in particular, people of color. Could you elaborate on that?

RACHEL LAFOREST: So, the statistics and the research show that communities that have been first and worst hit by this housing and foreclosure crisis in the country are communities that are low-income and mainly people of color communities. So if you do a review of the foreclosure portfolio of the mortgages that Bank of America holds, the vast majority of the mortgages that are being foreclosed upon, people who are being evicted from their homes, are people of color from low-income communities.

And it began with a predatory lending practice. Bank of America had a large role in the subprime lending practices that were moving two and three and four years ago, even as early as 10 years ago, really shopping mortgages—shopping, you know, mortgages to families that would either be unable to pay the ballooning prices that would skyrocket towards the end of their mortgage or honing in on low-income communities of color, who they knew might not be able to make ends meet and, given the economic crisis, were more likely to either lose their job and wind up with a mortgage under water.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what are some of the key demands that the protesters will be making today at the shareholder meeting?

RACHEL LAFOREST: Around the foreclosure crisis, our demands are very, very clear. For one, we want Bank of America to stop—to stop profiting from the crisis that they’ve created, to make a reduction in principal the norm and how they move their business forward, especially in low-income communities of color. We’re demanding that they pay their fair share of taxes. If they are paying taxes and contributing to the revenue of cities and states, then we will more readily and more quickly see an end to the economic crisis that this country is in. And we’re demanding a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. While there are AG investigations that are moving forward, while they’re under investigations federally and from state to state across the board, we’re asking that there be a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions until more information can be revealed—not that we need any more information; there’s tons of information out there already, but so that we can really start to piece together a fuller case of what this is—look like.

AMY GOODMAN: You think you are already having an effect. Bank of America started sending letters to thousands of homeowners throughout the country offering to forgive a portion of the principal balance on their mortgages by an average of $150,000 each. When did this start? Is this part of what you have been calling for?

RACHEL LAFOREST: So, member organizations from Right to the City Alliance have—many of them have been working around this foreclosure crisis for a decade. This 200,000 people who are being granted, if they qualify, a principal reduction on their mortgage is a drop in the bucket. And while it’s really wonderful that Bank of America may be recognizing that it needs to step up and do the right thing in some cases, we’re talking about a number that would essentially be in the neighborhood two people out of a hundred people are going to be granted a reduction in principal, and the other 98 will be removed from their homes. So, 200,000 out of the 11.1 million homes that are underwater right now, and people who are at risk of losing their homes, is nothing. It’s not enough, though I do think that it comes directly out of the organizing and the groundwork and the swell of information and power around this 99 percent versus 1 percent, you know, that’s come up in the wake of Occupy and that’s really been growing to a crescendo. And I think it’s only going to grow and get better from here on in. Today is about maintaining that pressure, growing our numbers and showing people that if you’re vigilant about this, they will begin to move in a particular direction, and that this is something we have the power to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca Tarbotton, you’re executive director of the Rainforest Action Network. Why is RAN involved with this massive protest, not just in front of Bank of America today in Charlotte at the shareholders’ meeting, but at what has been taking place here in New York and around the country?

REBECCA TARBOTTON: Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me.

RAN is involved in today with Bank of America specifically because climate change is the most real and present danger that we have to the environment and to people all around the country and the world, and Bank of America is the lead financier of coal in the country. And in particular, they—coal-fired power plants, for instance, are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the cause of climate change and climate chaos. So we’re here very specifically to say to Bank of America, “Look, you need to get out of coal, if you’re serious about this—or if any of us are serious about this country transitioning out of fossil fuels and into renewable energy.”

We’re part of 99 Percent Power, because about—in November, a group of community rights organizations, environmental organizations, unions came together realizing that the space that was opened by Occupy has really created a moment where Americans and all of us are ready to really go directly to corporations with our demands. RAN’s been working on corporate campaigning for about 25 years, and we saw the space created by Occupy as a really galvanizing moment to build more power than we’ve ever had before, to really take our demands directly to the real decision makers in this country, which is corporate America.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rebecca, could you say something specifically about the controversial practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and Bank of America’s involvement in it? The Rainforest Action Network has done a lot of work around this, pointing out also that the U.S. is the second-largest coal producer in the world.

REBECCA TARBOTTON: Bank of America is the lead financier of mountaintop removal mining, which, as you said, is a practice of mining which is really the worst of the worst mining that we see anywhere, that’s essentially blowing the tops off of mountains in Appalachia, destroying people’s homes, polluting their water supplies. And that’s even before it gets into the coal plants, where it’s burnt and creates air pollution in inner-city areas and all around our country. Mountaintop removal is really the canary in the coal mine for our reliance on fossil fuels. The kinds of poverty and destruction that’s created by that practice, that is fueled by Bank of America’s money, is emblematic of the wrong direction for this country and the wrong direction that our—for our banks. The same way that banks are foreclosing on Americans’ homes, they’re foreclosing on our climate by continuing to fund and increasing their funding of coal, whether it be mountaintop removal, coal exports or retrofitting old, ailing coal plants so they can keep burning coal for another 50 years. Bank of America is top of the list for all three of those things.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we tried to get Bank of America on the broadcast today, but they didn’t respond to our calls. What is their response to your organizing efforts, Rebecca, especially around the issue of mountaintop removal?

REBECCA TARBOTTON: You know, it’s a very interesting question, Amy. We have been bringing this issue to Bank of America for a few years now. And not so very long ago, Bank of America released a coal policy that we called, in no uncertain terms, a love letter to the coal industry. In that, they stated that coal was a very important part of the energy mix for the United States moving forward and that they were proud to be part of that, that carbon capture and sequestration was the answer. And, “Oh, by the way, we will endeavor to reduce our funding for the companies that are doing most of the mountaintop removal mining.”

We haven’t seen evidence that that has actually happened. So, while we know that Bank of America has this on their radar—in fact, we’ve had very recent intel intelligence from them that they are very aware that coal is one of the top issues of concern in this country around Bank of America’s practices, along with their economic injustice that they’re fueling—we are not—we have not seen any evidence that Bank of America is really putting their money where their mouth is. They’ve talked a good talk about being good corporate citizens, about caring about the environment, about caring about climate change. But we aren’t seeing the evidence in where they’re putting their financing and what they’re underwriting. In 2009, 2010, Bank of America underwrote $4.3 billion to the coal industry. In 2010, 2011, that went up to $6.8 billion. That’s including an increase in their financing for mountaintop removal. So we need to see some real change, and we need to see it fast, if we’re going to believe the rhetoric we’re hearing from them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rebecca, can you say why your organization, the Rainforest Action Network, was denied a spot at Bank of America’s Earth Day expo earlier this year?

REBECCA TARBOTTON: That’s a great question. We felt that we were going to be able to be a very educational presence for—to the many masses of people that come to that event every year. We weren’t exactly given a very direct response for why we were denied, but we—reading between the lines, we know that Bank of America is very concerned about the reputational risk that is brought to their doorstep by all the many hundreds of people that are today outside their offices in—or outside their shareholder meeting here in Charlotte, by the kind of publicity that they’re getting for their predatory lending, their fueling of the foreclosure crisis, and their funding of coal. I don’t think they want any exposure that they don’t have to have, so they took the opportunity to keep us out of that expo when they could.

AMY GOODMAN: Rachel LaForest, let’s end by talking about the police in Charlotte and today the Bank of America shareholder meeting taking place being declared an extraordinary event and what that means.

RACHEL LAFOREST: So, essentially, the city manager of North Carolina—of Charlotte, North Carolina, sometime last week declared this an extraordinary event, which essentially means that the police are to follow the ordinances set forth by the Democratic National Convention. So it means a heightened level of police presence. It means that things like you mentioned before, Amy—magic markers; unlabeled bottles of medication, you know, whether they be prescription medication or not; backpacks; duffle bags—are all subject to search, all subject to seizure. And essentially, it’s moved as a deterrent to have people show up. You know, these are some of the things that politicians and corporations like to put in place and like to have the police move on, in order to prevent organizations like ours, coalitions like ours, from actually coming and moving forward on our stated goals.

It hasn’t been a deterrent. It hasn’t worked. We’re out there. We’ve got puppets. We’ve got signs. People have incredible energy. There’s instruments. There’s bullhorns. We’re going to be having a boxing match: Brian “Big Bank” Moynihan against Miss 99 Percent. There’s so much energy and beauty and power out there. No one has been deterred by this extraordinary event declaration that the city manager has put forward. We’re prepared. We’re not foolish, we’re prepared. We have our own security in place. We want to make sure that our folks are protected. We want to make sure we’re aware of what’s moving on the ground in the city. There’s been lots of scouting of the different sites where we’ll have feeder marches coming into our march, our main march that’s happening at the front of the building where the shareholders’ meeting is taking place. We’ve got shareholders that are going to be inside, and that’s one of the really key pieces, you know, in moving forward, is they need to know that this is growing. And what folks listening to this show need to know is that it has to grow, that we actually need to step up and become shareholders of these corporations and show up at places where they’re making decisions, so they can no longer make these decisions behind closed doors and in a way that affects our families this way. So, city ordinance be what it may, we’re here. We’re here to get a job done, we’re here to present our demands, and we’re here to grow this movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of President Obama, who will be giving his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in September, being in the Bank of America Stadium, the—moving into the second extraordinary event, if another one doesn’t happen before, what the city council passed these laws for? Let me put that question to Rebecca Tarbotton of Rainforest Action Network.

REBECCA TARBOTTON: I think that there is a symbolic importance, above all, about—of Obama being at the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte. There is an incredibly cozy relationship between our politicians and our corporations, which is why—and Americans are getting frustrated with the political process. We feel like we’ve been banging our heads against the door of Congress for far too long. And knowing how our politicians are essentially bought and sold by major corporations, that’s why we’re going right to the doorsteps of those corporations, right to the boardrooms of the 1 percent, to say, “We want to talk to the decision makers. And unfortunately, they are not the people that we elected, because your money, corporate money, is what’s electing our politicians.”

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank—

REBECCA TARBOTTON: We want to create a framework for the upcoming—of the upcoming elections, which is basically forcing politicians to choose whether they are a candidate of the 99 percent or the candidate of the 1 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca Tarbotton, thanks for joining us, from Rainforest Action Network, and Rachel LaForest, executive director of Right to the City, both speaking to us from Charlotte, North Carolina, where they are involved with protests both inside and outside the Bank of America shareholders’ meeting that is taking place today.

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