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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An estimated 500 to 750 protesters marched from three directions on the Bank of America Corp. headquarters Wednesday morning, blocking an intersection while dozens of police watched. At least six people were arrested.
The protest is billed by its organizers, Unity Alliance and 99% Power, as the “Showdown in Charlotte.” They are protesting Bank of America’s policies on foreclosures, and the bank’s support of the coal industry.
(PHOTO: Protesters march at the uptown Square on their way to Bank of America Stadium from Bank of America Corporate Headquarters, Wednesday, May 9, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina. )
The protest was aimed to coincide with Bank of America’s annual shareholders meeting Wednesday morning.
After gathering for nearly two hours in front of the bank building, the group moved about 11 a.m., marching toward Bank of America Stadium to continue their protest there. Police reopened the intersection around 11:30 a.m.
Protesters then marched toward the old Occupy Charlotte site at Old City Hall. There, the situation between protesters and police grew more heated. At least one additional protester was arrested, and a group of about 10 people were arguing with police about whether demonstrators could go into the street.
Some shouted at police that they weren’t afraid to get arrested, before things calmed down and people returned to the sidewalks.
Police spokesman Robert Fey said five other people had been arrested Wednesday morning. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Maj. Jeff Estes said officers did not conduct any searches of backpacks, a power given them by the city’s new ordinance limiting protests.
“There’s been no property damage, and nobody was injured,” Estes said. “We’re pleased with the outcome.”
Event organizers said they would have 1,000 protesters, but Estes said the crowd was closer to 400 or 500. Leaders of the protesters later said they had 750 people marching Wednesday. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police made a strong show of force but initially gave the protesters some latitude, allowing them to block the intersection. About 80 police had gathered in the area, with about 20 of those in front of the bank’s main entrance.
Soon after 10 a.m., police arrested several men after they tried to enter the shareholders meeting. The men said Bank of America had foreclosed on their homes. One was identified at Johnny Rosa of Framingham, Mass.
Police later said those arrested were charged with trespassing.
The scene turned tense during the arrests as some members of the crowd briefly chanted “murderers, cops, pigs” until organizers quieted them. They also chanted “no justice, no peace.”
The activities began with a fake boxing match and was followed by marches from three separate starting points, all converging on the Bank of America building. The protesters arrived at the bank’s headquarters just before 9 a.m.
Police on bicycles appeared to set up a perimeter around the intersection, while protesters chanted against Bank of America and banged on drums. Protesters chanted, “Whose city? Our city!” “Whose street? Our street!”
After about a half-hour, the protest grew quieter. Many of the participants sat down in the street, while speakers rallied the crowd against the bank. One woman told of losing her home to a Bank of America foreclosure. Some of the protesters had telephone numbers written on their arms, saying they were prepared to make calls if they were arrested.
About 9:30 a.m., a lay preacher began shouting at the crowd in an apparent attempt to rouse them. Police pulled him a few feet away from the main crowd.
The rally in front of the bank building was preceded by the three parades. About 8:30 a.m., protesters began their three marches, planning to converge on the bank’s headquarters. Groups from Asheville, Atlanta, Boston and Oakland were visible in the various marches.
One march had the theme “Housing Justice Now.” Several hundred protesters appeared to be involved in that march. Members of the group chanted, “Move, banks, get out of the way!”
The protesters were accompanied by legal observers, wearing lime-green caps, who reportedly were watching the interaction between police and the marchers. As the marchers neared the square, bank security guards lined the sidewalk in front of the new Bank of America building.
A second march, “Worker’s Rights,” started from the old City Hall. About 100 protesters appeared to gather there. As marchers crossed intersections, traffic came to a standstill during the latter part of the morning commute.
The third march was called “Anti-Coal Investment.” About 100 protesters appeared to be involved in that rally. Members of that group appeared to be making a scrupulous effort to stay on sidewalks. They were flanked by motorcycle police as they marched toward the bank headquarters.
There was a casual, almost friendly atmosphere in this march. Protesters waved to spectators and police. As the marchers moved past the covered walkways suspended above the streets, they were observed by dozens of uptown employees.
Many of the marchers chanted, “We are the 99 percent.”
Commuters had been warned to prepare to dodge three parade marches, a mock boxing match and a sizable contingent of police during the morning rush hour as a number of activist groups sound off about the nation’s second-largest bank.
Unity Alliance held a news conference about 7:30 a.m., and one speaker, Maria Reyes, referred to Bank of America as “Banco Contra America.”
That news conference included a fake boxing match between a man portraying Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan against a woman billed as Miss 99% Power. Organizers said the match was aimed at showing bank executives are pitted against U.S. citizens.
“It will be a very congested day,” said Brigid Flaherty, executive director of the activist group Pushback Network, on a conference call Tuesday afternoon laying out their plans.
Inside 1 Bank of America Center, shareholders will elect the bank’s directors and take on a number of proposals, ranging from more disclosure of political activity to a nonbinding vote on the bank’s executive compensation.
Unlike at Citigroup Inc., where shareholders rejected executive pay, analysts expect Bank of America’s pay to get a thumbs-up. Two major shareholder advisory firms have voiced their support for Bank of America’s pay packages this year. CEO Brian Moynihan’s pay fell from $10 million in 2010 to $7 million awarded for last year.
Outside, protesters will for the second time test the city of Charlotte’s new “extraordinary events” ordinance that gives police expanded powers to detain and search people in the vicinity of a major gathering.
Its first use, at last week’s Duke Energy shareholders meeting, was relatively uneventful. Though the police presence was heavy, it did not appear as if any of the several dozen protesters around the utility’s headquarters were searched or arrested. Seven people were arrested after blocking a train from entering a Duke Energy plant in Catawba County.
Police have not disclosed their plans for Wednesday’s meeting, but it promises to involve a good deal more protesters, who are criticizing the bank from numerous angles.
“The public sees Bank of America as the worst of the worst in the banking sector,” activist spokesman Trevor FitzGibbon said.
Some groups are calling for a moratorium on foreclosures and an increase in loan principal reduction as effects of the mortgage crisis continue. Others decry the bank’s financing of coal energy projects, and still others seek to end corporate political donations.
Organizers have pledged nonviolence. In fact, many of them have gone through workshops or other training on nonviolent protesting, said Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network. But they don’t rule out street and sidewalk blockages that could spur police action.
“We will have large marches coming in from Trade, Tryon, College,” Flaherty said. “At this point, they will be on sidewalks, and people may feel moved to go into the streets.”
The bank has said little directly about the planned protests. In the past, the bank has said it finances coal projects because coal remains the largest source of energy in the U.S., and said it spends money on lobbying to help build thoughtful, sound policy.
Bank of America also points out that it has modified more than 1 million mortgages and has nearly 50,000 employees dedicated to helping people avoid foreclosure.