Bank's offer to fund vandalism repairs draws activist backlash

Thousands of protesters demonstrated outside Wells Fargo's April 26 annual shareholders' meeting.
Yael Chanoff

After young anarchists vandalized cars and businesses during a brief but destructive rampage through the Mission District last week, Wells Fargo was quick to offer $25,000 in grants to repair the damage, which the bank publicized in a press release as “building upon its history of supporting local communities.”

Yet this is the same Wells Fargo that has been targeted by housing rights, labor, and other progressive activists in recent months for its aggressive foreclosure tactics and investments in mountaintop removal coal mining and other heinous activities, culminating in a major standoff between protesters and the company during its annual shareholders meeting in San Francisco on April 24.

The grant money was supposed to be administered mostly by the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association, but the group got an earful from activists during its meeting on Monday night and now its leaders are figuring out how they can extricate themselves from this thorny situation. Among those putting pressure on the group is Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, who says the bank is trying to buy allies that it desperately needs right now.

"Wells is trying to divide a wedge between activists who have been working to highlight their irresponsible practices in the community and the businesses we shop at,” Shortt told us. "As a Valencia Street resident, I resent that they are hoping to use my community merchants as a tool for them to gain positive PR, by taking advantage of their desperation after the attacks.”

Bank spokesperson Holly Rockwood emphasized Wells Fargo's “long history of corporate philanthropy” when I asked her about the donation, and she denied that the corporation was trying to burnish its tarnished image less than week after thousands of activists disrupted the bank's annual meeting, resulting in 20 arrests. “The timing was simply in response to the wave of vandalism,” Rockwood said.

Nonetheless, merchants association President Deena Davenport said the group is now “backing away from this” to avoid getting in the middle of this fight. “The people with the Housing Rights Committee gave us a lot of good reasons why shouldn't accept this money,” she said, adding that the association will make a final decision at its meeting this Monday.

While she said that she appreciates the bank's offer and doesn't begrudge anyone who wants to accept the money, “we are looking at ways to raise the money ourselves,” including reaching out to local credit unions to see if they would match the Wells Fargo offer, making the same money available but without the heavy political baggage.