They call it “Western Wall Street” when they’re being polite, and quite the variety of unpleasant names when they are not, and they seem intent on singling it out for special treatment. Its real name is Wells Fargo, and the Occupy movement and its acolytes hurl such vitriol its way that, in 2011, the bank went as far as recording in its annual report that the group had the potential to damage its profits.
The charges against Wells Fargo range from the quotidian to the ridiculous: Along with almost all other large corporations in America, it is accused of paying too little in taxes; along with almost all the other big banks in America, it is denounced for offering the subprime loans that contributed to the financial meltdown of 2008. Wells Fargo is also held to be a particular offender when it comes to foreclosures — a trend that was made worse, protesters allege, by its acquisition of Wachovia in October 2008 — and it seems that it rather likes outsourcing too, with a higher than usual number of call centers in India and other foreign countries.
But while the details might vary a little, these are pretty standard progressive charges — common to all big banks — and what really appears to vex the Left is the pervasive and effective fiction that Wells Fargo is involved in a vast conspiracy to lock up illegal immigrants and to expand dramatically the prison population for its own pecuniary gain. In and of itself, the United States’ incarceration rate is a popular issue for Occupy Wall Street types: As well as objecting to the privatization of prisons, they consider the number of Americans behind bars and the racial makeup of the prison population to be symptomatic of institutional racism. They see the fact that Wells Fargo–backed mutual funds are used to build detention centers that hold illegal immigrants as, at best, complicity in the “prison-industrial complex,” and, at worst, as profiteering from crime.
Some protesters have even gone so far as to allege that Wells Fargo cynically allows illegal immigrants to open bank accounts and then uses their money to ensure their internment in facilities such as Washington State’s Tacoma Detention Center. Indeed, so public has been the angst that on May Day of this year, Wells Fargo released a statement clarifying the situation. “We are a bank,” it read. “We accept deposits and make loans. It’s unfortunate that groups that are passionate about certain causes are making us out to be something we’re not in order to further a political or social agenda. The fact remains Wells Fargo plays no role in advocating a policy on immigration or the operation of private prisons.”
“Unfortunate” is certainly one way of putting it, but the euphemism belies the fact that Wells Fargo’s authorities know all too well that the stakes are high. Tuesday’s May Day protests yielded paint-stained and smashed windows at a branch in Seattle and arrests outside a branch in Philadelphia; and in New York City, at least three bureaus received white envelopes full of white powder and notes that warned, “This is a reminder that you are not in control. Just in case you needed some incentive to stop working. We have a little surprise for you.” The white powder turned out to be corn starch and representatives from Occupy were quick to deny responsibility for the stunt; but whoever was behind it, Wells Fargo’s management cannot be blamed for being cautious. Their enemies have a track record.
On April 25 of this year, activists led by the Occupy movement joined assorted union groups, some of whom had bought stock for the purpose, in disrupting the bank’s annual stockholder meeting in San Francisco. Twenty people were arrested after they blocked the entrance, shouted slogans, refused to allow the meeting to proceed, and then — somewhat ironically — insisted that “the time for talk is over.” Meanwhile, the 1,000 protesters in the streets outside pushed around a mock stagecoach with “Hells Fargo” emblazoned on the side and erected a giant inflatable rat with a cigar in its mouth. A website that promoted the event claimed that Wells Fargo is “driving us straight to prison with our own money,” a notion that made its way in various forms onto billboards at the rally.
As it happens, as banks go, Wells Fargo is not especially egregious. It is not even, to appropriate the terms of the Occupy movement, especially redolent of the “1 percent.” What it is, is visible. It has many consumer branches, outside of New York at least, a fact that grants its enemies the opportunity to see it directly involved in people’s lives and affords them the opportunity to smash its windows and cover its walls in paint. Moreover, police investigating the powder incident observed that several “key” members of the Occupy movement hail from Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, in which areas Wells Fargo is particularly prominent. Outside of the conspiracy theories, it is difficult to ascertain exactly why this particular bank has attracted the ire of the hard Left, but it has, and for the near future at least, wherever it and the Occupy movement come into contact, there will likely be broken glass.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.