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Inside the lion's den at Bank of America 

One reporter's account of what went on in Wednesday's shareholder meeting

Bank of America sheltered its shareholders from protesters before and during the shareholder meeting, first with a temporary wall, then with a heavy security presence. The meeting itself was calm, at least until the very end when some shareholders, or their appointed proxies, conducted a "mic check" and then chanted as the audience filed out of the building. Afterward, many of those same people stood across the street from the meeting location, sheltered from the rain, and continued chanting.

A few yards from where protesters rallied in the street, a security guard questioned all who sought to join the line of those hoping to enter the bank's annual meeting. They stood behind a temporary wall that shielded them from seeing the protesters, but not from hearing them. The line advanced in sections as the bank allowed a handful of people in at a time where their bags were searched or, if they were larger than 10" by 12", checked, with a number being given in return so they could collect their bags later.

The shareholders then had to offer proof of their stock holdings before they were given a badge and a wristband. Then, they were directed upstairs where they were asked to walk through metal detectors. Their wristbands were checked with a black light before attendees were able to advance another flight of stairs to the auditorium where the meeting was held.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officers helped the bank's staff direct shareholders to velvety red seats that were also populated by security officers who were scattered throughout, giving themselves away with their wired earpieces. At least 30 more police and security officials lined the stair-stepped aisles.

CMPD Officers standing guard in front of the Bank Of America shareholders meeting entrance. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
  • CMPD Officers standing guard in front of the Bank Of America shareholders meeting entrance. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Outside, lines of motorcycle cops stationed on Tryon Street and officers on foot and bicycles circled the block every ten minutes.

Bank of America's CEO Brian Moynihan and other bank officials read brief messages from a teleprompter before opening the floor for questions on several shareholder initiatives – all of which the bank's board disapproved of, and all of which were voted down by those shareholders who had voted before the meeting. Those in attendance were given an opportunity to vote, though those votes were not tallied at the meeting.

The meeting itself wasn't overly contentious, though nearly every speaker had some sort of beef with the bank and the meeting ended with a "mic check." The country's and the bank's foreclosure crisis was the main topic mentioned, though some speakers asked Moynihan to vow to stop financing "pay-day lenders" and the coal industry, to lay off lobbying, to pay federal taxes, to stop sheltering money in offshore accounts, and to give them real answers to their questions.

Speakers – from New York City's comptroller to the United Way's executive director and various social and environmental groups – were given two minutes to talk as a clock counted down on four large-screen televisions. When their time was up, the microphones held by bank staffers were cut off. Several speakers spoke more than once, and several others told their personal hard-luck stories. Nearly all of them were applauded by the audience.

While several speakers, like John Moore of Charlotte, accused the bank of criminal activity, at least three non-profit groups with ties to the bank – including the United Way's June McIntyre – praised the bank for their donations of money and volunteer time.

Moynihan rocked on his feet as he listened to people speak and referred to the bank's staff as "teammates." He seemed most at ease when talking about high-level finance, though his response – when he gave one – to many of the speakers was simply, "Thank you, next comment," or "We have looked into that process," or "talk to someone outside [of the meeting]" about whatever personal financial issues they had with the bank, which most often involved mortgages. At times, that response elicited laughter and loud sighs from the audience. At one point, in response to one of many questions about the bank's mortgage modification processes, Moynihan said, "Dealing with the consumer is very difficult. Sometimes it doesn't come out right."

One woman, from Buffalo, N.Y., asked the CEO if all of the bank's loan recipients had to travel to an annual meeting for redress. "Is that the solution?" she asked, "Or can we figure out what the problem is?"

In response, Moynihan said people could call the bank for help, which also elicited laughter.

The CEO maintained that the bank has processed tens of thousands of mortgage modifications, that a third of such transactions in the country are handled by the bank and that it has attempted to streamline the process. "From a shareholder perspective," Moynihan said, "we spend $3 billion a quarter on this – a quarter."

Roger Davis, a shareholder from Ohio, described his home loan as "under water" and said he makes his payments on time and that he's doing everything he can to work with the bank. However, he continued, "Many of our friends and neighbors have actually walked away. They walked away because they couldn't keep dealing with [the bank's] red tape." He would like to see the bank offer principle reductions to homeowners whose property values have dropped during the Great Recession.

Moynihan also said that the bank is constantly reviewing its loans of all kinds and that in a couple weeks it would announce additional investments in renewable energy. He also said, "We believe in all types of power, but the reality is that half of our power comes from coal." However, he also claimed that four to five years ago the company stopped financing companies that "primarily do mountain-top removal" coal mining. Additionally, he said that he would look into all of the accusations the shareholders made about the destructive practice, which one man from Virginia, who did not identify himself, said, "destroyed the essence of life for me."

Ultimately, however, Moynihan said he anticipates that the bank will continue to finance the coal industry.

The last speaker, Walter Lipscomb, from Yonkers, N.Y., said, "This is America. Listen to us. Hear us. People are talking to you. They're pleading with you."

Moments after Moynihan responded, "I listen carefully," members of the audience did a "mic check," made famous by the Occupy movement. The shouted call and response chant recapped the meeting's complaints and seemed to fall apart as people shuffled out of the meeting, some flanked by security guards. The chanting continued as the audience exited the bank.

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