Macalester College turned its back on a long history of celebrating student activism when it harshly penalized some of us peacefully protesting its relationship with Wells Fargo instead of using its institutional power to punish the real perpetrator: Wells Fargo.
The Macalester Kick Wells Fargo Off Campus (KWOC) coalition believes that Macalester has no business banking with Wells Fargo while Wells Fargo refuses to implement principal reduction on underwater mortgages to counteract their predatory and reckless lending practices and high rate of foreclosures. We knew that in regions like California, community pressure has forced Wells Fargo to find solutions for homeowners. We wanted to join many community voices in applying that pressure in the Twin Cities, so we kicked off our campaign in April 2012.
After nine months of meetings with our school's executive financial administrators, we discovered that the more socially responsible Sunrise Community Bank has both the capacity and desire to take on our Wells Fargo account. They even provide a slightly better interest rate. Despite that, Macalester administrators decided to stick with the status quo and continue supporting Wells Fargo over our Twin Cities community.
So, on April 23, 2013, just over a year after we had started our campaign, we stormed Macalester’s administrative building. Eleven of us occupied the lobby outside of President Rosenberg’s office while a large group gathered for a rally outside the building. We sat in the lobby with our arms linked and chanting, making it clear we would not leave until the President agreed to meet with us and discuss cutting Macalester's banking relationship with Wells Fargo. But instead of sitting down with us, President Rosenberg came out of his office, informed us he was going to Chicago for the week, and tossed us a bag of jellybeans as he left. Meanwhile the entire wing of administrators evacuated the building, leaving us with security guards.
When we realized the administrators would rather move their offices to another building than meet with us, we decided not to let them ignore us. For the next day and a half, we occupied the lobby of the administrative building, chanting, blaring protest songs and bagpipe music (we are the Macalester Scots after all), painting signs, and holding teach-ins. We emailed members of the Board of Trustees, Provost Kathleen Murray, and President Rosenberg. Despite the fact that none of them wanted to meet with us, I was blown away by how many folks did come by, both with questions and encouragement. We received visits from faculty and staff, students and prospective students, neighbors passing by. We were especially surprised by how many administrators turned out to be strong allies. At one point, Brother Ali came and spoke about the importance of perseverance and led a chant of nearly one hundred people inside the administrative building.
I have never seen so many students engaged in Macalester’s governance before, and it was an incredibly moving experience. It was draining to literally live in the very space where people in power were making decisions that went against my core beliefs, but I was more determined than ever to fight those same decisions. I was energized by our collective power.
Yet, the President was still in Chicago and the Provost would not speak to us until we ended the occupation. It seemed the administration was content to continue as if we were not even there. After two days without word from them, we realized we would have to take bigger steps to make our voices heard.
On Thursday, April 25th at 7 AM, nineteen of us sat down in front of all five doors to the administrative building, arms linked. We let anyone in the building who wished to exit leave, but we would not let anyone in until President Rosenberg agreed to meet with us in good faith. Within an hour and a half, Vice President of Finance David Wheaton was on the phone with our President in Chicago. By 9:30 AM, we agreed to stop blocking the doors and end our occupation in exchange for a different kind of meeting with the President – one where cutting the contract would be on the table - when he returned from his trip on Friday.
But in that meeting we were once again let down as he refused to budge. He told us he never makes decisions based on pressure and that the College would never take a stance on a political issue that doesn’t directly influence students. I am ashamed that the President of my school does not think Wells Fargo’s reckless foreclosure practices directly affects Macalester students. That kind of willful ignorance writes a large group of my peers out of Macalester’s narrative and disregards their experiences.
The disappointment I felt in a school I had loved didn’t end there. All but two of us who blockaded Weyerhaeuser were placed on disciplinary probation – the harshest punitive measure the college employs before suspension and expulsion – until December 2013. This means that none of us are allowed to represent the College in an official capacity. We cannot hold internships, study abroad, be leaders of student organizations, serve on student government, participate in varsity athletics, or perform in theater productions. Furthermore, we are liable for suspension if we commit even the most minor infraction. Fortunately, I appealed my probation, and it was moved to the Spring so I can continue with my plans to study abroad in the Fall. The rest of my peers, however, were not so lucky.
Our probation demonstrates a dramatic move away from Macalester’s powerful history of encouraging student activism. It tells us that our activism is not welcome on campus and that because of our activism, we are unfit to be leaders on campus and representatives of our school. After news of our disciplinary probation was covered by The Star Tribune, The Pioneer Press, and other outlets, Mac alumni became furious. Nearly four hundred alumni have already signed a petition, refusing to donate to Macalester until the administration drops our disciplinary probation and comes to an agreement with students that upholds our commitment to social justice and the Twin Cities.
Although my peers and I are angered by our probation, we will not let it stop us from demanding action against a bank that is tearing apart our community. While the US Department of Justice has sued Wells Fargo multiple times for predatory lending, defrauding the Federal Housing Administration's insurance program, and other abominable practices, my supposedly progressive and civically engaged institution refuses to hold Wells Fargo accountable. And until they do, we will continue to ask Macalester – where is Wells Fargo's probation?