SAN FRANCISCO Police in riot gear arrested two dozen people on Tuesday as protesters with a huge inflated rat sought to disrupt a Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N) annual shareholder meeting to express anger over foreclosures, executive compensation and corporate taxes.
Several of those arrested were handcuffed and taken away in police vans as hundreds more chanted and waved signs outside the meeting in a building across from the bank's San Francisco headquarters.
"Wells Fargo is one of the largest and most corrupt Wall Street banks and has foreclosed on hundreds of thousands of homes," said Charles Davidson, an organizer with Move On East Bay. "I think it's really important that we stand up to this or the economic crisis will continue."
Protesters gathered on a street corner near an inflated rat that had dollar bills coming from side pockets. They held signs that read: "99 percent take over, topple the 1 percent" and "Up with the people, down with the bankers."
Police said there were more than 500 protesters and confirmed 24 arrests, including 14 people who were removed from the meeting.
Activist groups are targeting corporate stockholder meetings this spring to draw attention to economic disparity in the United States and to promote a variety of other causes.
A group called 99% Power, a reference to those not among the top 1 percent of earners, has said it plans actions at 36 shareholder meetings, starting with Wells Fargo.
The group said it was demanding that Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf resign and that the bank halt foreclosures pending investigation and reform.
Wells Fargo has emerged from the financial crisis as one of the healthier U.S. banks and it has expanded across the United States after buying North Carolina-based Wachovia Corp in 2008.
The bank is the largest U.S. mortgage originator and servicer, making it a target for protesters who say lenders have poorly treated struggling borrowers. Wells was one of five big lenders to agree this year to a $25 billion national mortgage settlement over foreclosure abuses.
Inside the shareholder meeting, Stumpf highlighted the bank's efforts to work with struggling homeowners, including 740,000 loan modifications and more than $4 billion in forgiven loan balances. But he acknowledged the pain of homeowners who have lost their homes.
"We did not help everyone," he said. "We could not help everyone. In some cases, we cannot avoid that."
The meeting began on time, but protesters interrupted the proceedings multiple times, causing police to remove them.
During the meeting, shareholders ratified the bank's 2011 executive compensation plan by an overwhelming margin, elected the bank's slate of directors and rejected four shareholder resolutions.
Last week, shareholders delivered a rebuke to Citigroup Inc's (C.N) management with a surprising vote of no confidence in the bank's executive compensation plan.
At the Wells meeting, more than 96 percent of shares cast were in favor of the bank's pay plan. Stumpf received $19.8 million in total compensation in 2011, an increase of about 5 percent from the previous year. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit's pay rose to $14.8 million in 2011, up from a token $1 the year before.
Among the shareholder resolutions, a proposal to split the chairman and CEO roles held by Stumpf received the most support, about 38 percent of votes cast. Last year, resolutions to split the positions garnered an average of 33 percent of votes cast at shareholder meetings, according to ISS Proxy Advisory Services, one of two advisory firms that had backed the Wells Fargo proposal.
The meeting ended after an hour and a half and no questions from the audience.
"This is a first," Stumpf said.
After the meeting, some protesters marched one block away to stop in front of building where Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) is a tenant. Those who were arrested celebrated outside Wells Fargo's headquarters building, across the street from the shareholder meeting.
"We made it very clear to shareholders and John Stumpf that we will not keep quiet while they hurt our communities with their bad business practices," said Veronica Castro, 30, campaign director, National People's Action and one of the 14 arrested inside the meeting. "We've tried to negotiate and communicate, but they haven't been responsive and that's why we came here."
(Additional reporting by Malathi Nayak; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Andre Grenon)