Bank of America’s late summer statement that it would start charging $5 per month fees for debit cards in 2012 spurred protests, from cyberspace to the streets.
Molly Katchpole, a 22 year old recent university graduate, initiated a petition against the fee hike on the Change.org online advocacy platform, which 300,000-plus people signed.
Shortly thereafter Kristen Christian initiated “Bank Transfer Day,” which advocates that customers close their accounts at for-profit banks such as BofA, Wells Fargo, and J.P.Morgan/Chase, and open accounts at not-for-profit credit unions instead on or before November 5th. This en masse transfer of funds hopes to “send a clear message that conscious consumers won’t support companies with unethical business practices.”
The symbol emblazoned on the BTD Facebook page is the face of a freedom fighter called “V,” who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and uses terrorist tactics against a totalitarian government in the 2006 movie V for Vendetta. Guy Fawkes was the co-conspirator in the foiled “Gunpowder Plot” who planned to ignite explosives to blow up Britain’s Parliament House on Nov. 5, 1605. Significantly, Bank Transfer Day takes place on Guy Fawkes Day.
Forty one years ago, radicals used bombs, not boycotts or petitions, against Bank of America. In the Guy Fawkes tradition, student and underground revolutionaries burned three BofA branches in 1970 during a wave of violent protest. The first incendiary incident began on Feb. 24, 1970, as campus unrest spiraled out of control at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
According to talk radio host Jeff Rense’s website: “The immediate spark was the arrest of a young black militant, accused of using obscene language in public. As deputies tried to take him to jail, they were attacked by 50 of his sympathizers. That night, a mob of 400 attacked local realty offices, which, students claim, charge inflated rents. The rioters also broke every window in the Isla Vista branch of the Bank of America.”
The following day, the outspoken William Kunstler, attorney for the Chicago 7 leaders charged with conspiring to riot during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, made a rousing speech at UCSB’s Harder Stadium. According to Coastlines, UCSB’s alumni magazine, “Shortly after the speech, police apprehended and beat a student for carrying an open bottle of wine on the walk back to Isla Vista, sparking a volatile reaction from the students.
While the speech itself may have aroused emotions, the long-standing attitude toward the police played an important role in escalating events at Santa Barbara, where students already felt aggrieved by reputedly heavy-handed law enforcement tactics.
Rense’s website recounts, “After Kunstler’s speech, a crowd of 500 gathered in a park to listen to student radicals. Many appeared to be out for a lark. But the mood suddenly turned ugly, and when police patrol cars appeared a block away, the crowd began hurling rocks.
With 1,000 students and street people shouting ‘Burn, baby, burn!’ youths set fire to piles of debris and shoved them through the Bank of America doorway. Some of the students argued that the attack was senseless. Though outnumbered, state patrolmen and sheriff’s deputies took the offensive. But after a ten-minute rock barrage, they retreated, leaving a patrol car behind. The students set it afire. Meanwhile, the bank burned to the ground — a $275,000 loss.”
According to Coastlines: “That night the Isla Vista branch of Bank of America was vandalized and set on fire twice — once when a dumpster was lit on fire and pushed into the building, and again later when gasoline was used to relight the blaze. Students filled the streets throughout the evening and woke up to the charred remnants of one ofIsla Vista’s most central buildings,” where a lecture hall now stands.
S.B. Independent wrote: “The neighborhood erupted in a full-fledged riot, which was ended when Governor Reagan sent in the National Guard to quell the students.”
Why did rioters set their sights on BofA? Coastlines reported: “Some students felt the Bank of America was targeted because of its ties to the defense industry or its status as a large capitalist corporation.”
Ex-UCSB student John Riley said:
“Bank of America was highly involved in Vietnam and became a lightning rod for people to get pissed off and say here is this giant bank in the middle of this student village, and people took out their wrath at this bank as symbolic of the Vietnam War. People were really, really angry and the bank became the focus, whether rightly or wrongly.”
Bank of America was caught in the heat of this crossfire because “The burners, unable to articulate their reasons, answered that the bank was a “symbol of corporate corruption.”
On June 3, 1970, the Grand Jury of Santa Barbara County indicted 15 persons for various felony and misdemeanor offenses arising out of these events.
As LegendarySurfers.com noted: “the impact of theIsla Vista riots left an indelible mark.”
That same year, there were two more torchings of BofAs by extremist arsonists:
* On April 21, 1970 two fire bombs were thrown through a plate glass window of a Bank of America branch in Boyle Heights which touched off a blaze causing $30,000 in damage. No motive, however, was revealed.
* On July 26, 1970, the militant Weathermen bombed a Manhattan BOA branch. The BOA blast was part of the Weather Underground Organization’s “Declaration of a State ofWar” against the U.S. government.
Today, BofA’s current corporate policies – from proposed debit card fees to bonuses, to accepting TARP bailout taxpayer money – incense a whole new generation.
Bank Transfer Day organizer Kristen Christian contends: “Without the additional fee, Bank of America stands to turn a $3,228,480,000 annual profit from its 59 million customers’ debit card transactions.”
But unlike the violent uprisings that marked the protest movements of the 1960s, today’s radicals are asked to temper and direct their anger. Bank Transfer Day posted this:
”BANK TRANSFER DAY advises supporters to close accounts with banking institutions before November 5th in the same manner said accounts were opened: independently, with respect, without signage. Aggression & disruption don’t serve this peaceful movement.”
Customers have already been moving their money since the transfer movement has begun. Credit Union National Association (CUNA) notes that 650,000 individuals have joined credit unions in the past month – more than the entire 2010 year.
Even though November 5th falls on a normally slow Saturday, local credit unions are shoring up for what is expected to be a huge traffic day.
Bank-transfer advocates are quick to note that the November 5th “deadline” hopes to show the power of a mass transfer, but that customers are of course free to slowly consider their options and move their money at any time in the future.
Meanwhile, Guy Fawkes masks have been selling out everywhere.
(LATEST UPDATE: Bowing to pressure, on Nov. 1 BofA followed JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo and dropped its proposed debit card fees. Petitioner Molly Kotchpole crowed: “David can still conquer Goliath.” )
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Move Your Money Project – A site describing the details and advantages of transferring money from large banks to smaller credit unions.
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