Published in Oakland Local, August 22, 2011

Two-dozen clergy and congregation members closed their Wells Fargo accounts earlier this month to protest the bank’s “bad-faith negotiations” that have led to blighted, foreclosed homes in Oakland’s flatlands.

The divestment demonstration – held Aug. 10. – was led by Oakland Community Organizations, or OCO – a collaboration between schools, congregations and community organizations. With banners and signs reading, “Stop Foreclosing on Our Properties” and oversized withdrawal of “Our Trust” forms, nearly 30 protestors, including a contingent from ACCE – the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment – and the Oakland Education Association called on other Oaklanders to divest from Wells Fargo.

“As a community we no longer have faith in Wells Fargo,” Jesus Nieto-Ruiz, pastor of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, said. More than 20 individuals and congregations closed their accounts, with Nieto-Ruiz’ congregation moving more than $100,000 worth of deposits. Wells Fargo is a “poor corporate citizen” of Oakland, he added.

Barbara Lafitte-Oluwole lost her income property through foreclosure two years ago.

“We were not given an opportunity to refinance. Wells Fargo sold the $600,000 property for $250,000,” she said. “I want to be able to trust my bank.”

After a press conference, those seeking to divest from the bank were met to locked doors guarded by Wells Fargo security agents and Oakland police. While other customers were allowed inside, those seeking to close their accounts were let in two-by-two and one at a time.

One customer seeking to close her account was told she would be arrested for trespassing if she didn’t leave, and she said the teller laughed at her when she said she wanted to close her account.

“Wells Fargo made it very difficult to close my account,” said Donna Vieira.

This is only the latest of Vieira’s difficulties with the bank. She and her husband got a fraudulent appraisal on her mortgage loan five years ago, she said. After making more than $350,000 in payments, Wells Fargo will not allow them to refinance.

“I’m trying to work with Wells Fargo,” she said. “We still have equity, but there’s no longer any point to bank with Wells Fargo.”

Vieira also recently was arrested at a Wells Fargo shareholders meeting.

“They’re putting the wrong people in jail,” she said. “The real criminals are the banks.”

While her son, Leonardo, was chanting, “Move Your Money,” along with demonstrators, her husband Muno explained the strength of group solidarity.

“As an individual, I don’t have the voice,” Muno Vieira said of their five-year struggle. “But with others, we can show that big banks need to be responsible.”

OCO’s co-chair Richard Speiglman outlined the organization’s demands of WellsFargo: First, the bank should pay the $1 million of fines levied by the city of Oakland for failure to clean and maintain their foreclosed properties. Second,Wells Fargo should reduce the value of mortgages through a Principal Reduction Program to prevent further foreclosures. Finally, OCO says the national data on foreclosures does not translate to local solutions and Wells Fargo must make local foreclosure data public on a monthly basis.

A Wells Fargo representative did not respond for comment.

Jan Herzog waited nearly over half an hour to get inside Wells Fargo to close her account. The member of the Kehilla Synagogue had been a Wells Fargo customer for 25 years. She’d heard about the damage foreclosures were doing in the community, but did not act until now.

“This was the kick in the butt to finally do it,” Herzog said. “Before, there was convenience, but I don’t have that anymore.”