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Protesters crash Wells Fargo shareholder meeting

SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators from across the country descended on San Francisco Tuesday in an attempt to crash banking giant Wells Fargo's annual shareholders meeting.

Several dozen people representing community groups had bought company stock and were allowed inside the meeting. Police said 24 people were arrested, including 15 for disrupting the meeting while inside the standing-room-only gathering of nearly 300 people.

Dozens of police officers were stationed around the Merchant's Exchange Building in the city's bustling financial district in advance of the 1 p.m. meeting.

Many stockholders arrived early and were asked to show certificates or letters of proxy before being corralled past gates erected in front of the doors. As they went inside, hundreds of union members, activists and clergy members blocked the street waving signs and chanting, "We are the 99 percent! Let us in!"

Shareholder Erik Crew, 30, of Cincinnati, said he was arrested at the meeting shortly after one protester shouted that Wells Fargo should pay its fair share of corporate taxes. A group of women then said the bank should be ashamed of investing in private prisons and pleaded for a moratorium on home foreclosures, he said.

While the demonstration was a small win, Crew said, the real victory will come when the corporation actually divests from the aforementioned dealings.

"This is a public statement that raises awareness to hold Wells Fargo more accountable," he said. "It's going to take a lot more intervention from other entities who will threaten to pull their money out of Wells Fargo in order to claim victory."

Shareholder William Brittendall, executive director of the Peace and Social Justice Center in Wichita, Kan., said Wells Fargo executives could not ignore them.

"The 99 percent is tired of always getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop," Brittendall said. "They haven't felt an impact like this before."

Wells Fargo spokesman Ruben Pulido said the company respects the protesters' right to gather, but it will work to keep its customers, employees and shareholders safe.

Among the two dozen demonstrators arrested, six people were taken into custody for trespassing, a misdemeanor, San Francisco police Sgt. Mike Andraychak said. Sheriff's deputies arrested another three for resisting arrest, also a misdemeanor.

The demonstration saw some minor skirmishes between police and protesters, but Andraychak said organizers were cooperative.

"We believe they followed through with their stated objective, which was to have a peaceful protest," he said.

Shareholder Mark Richmond, a member of the Portland-based group "We Are Oregon," was among the protesters who arrived before the meeting started. He said he hoped he could voice his concerns specifically about predatory lending and home foreclosures.

"Oh, there's going to be some action, all right. We're very dissatisfied with Wells Fargo," said Richmond, who works as a janitor at the Portland International Airport.

Angus Maguire, a spokesman for the Oregon group, said hundreds of shareholders representing groups from throughout California and as far away as New York made their presence felt whether they made it inside the meeting or not.

"The people were heard, loud and clear," Maguire said.

Ross Rhodes, 53, of San Francisco, clutched his proxy letter with the hopes he could plead with Wells Fargo to help save his family's home of nearly 50 years from foreclosure.

The home care provider said he's back on his feet after going through some hard times. But he said he wants to renegotiate with the banker so he can get a modified loan and a mortgage he can afford.

"I don't want to lose my home. I need them to come back to the table and work with me so I can make good," Rhodes said. "All I'm asking for is a fair shake. That's all we're asking for."

Pulido, the Wells Fargo spokesman, defended the bank's foreclosure policies, saying less than 2 percent of the loans Wells Fargo issued on owner-occupied properties had been foreclosed on.

"We work to keep people in their homes where there is affordability," Pulido said. "Unfortunately some people have seen their incomes drastically reduced due to unemployment or underemployment."