Piece of cake

It’s not likely the monolithic banks felt the pinch of Bank Transfer Day. Not yet, anyway.

Kyle Edgerton, a member of Occupy Reno, closed his bank account at Wells Fargo Bank on Bank Transfer Day, Nov. 5.

Kyle Edgerton, a member of Occupy Reno, closed his bank account at Wells Fargo Bank on Bank Transfer Day, Nov. 5.


For information about Occupy Reno, check out occupyreno.wordpress.com.

Nobody, no one, not a single nutjob in the roughest edges of the internet predicted that Bank Transfer Day would end the stranglehold monolithic banks have on the world’s financial windpipe. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that anyone thought the gentle rebuke of giants would have any result more substantial than a symbolic moral victory.

Bank Transfer Day, which this newspaper wrote about last week in the feature story “Break the bank,” was Saturday, Nov. 5. Its basic idea was that customers should pull their money out of big banks and open accounts in locally owned banks and credit unions because “if we shift our funds from the for-profit banking institutions in favor of not-for-profit credit unions before this date, we will send a clear message that conscious consumers won’t support companies with unethical business practices. It’s time to invest in local community growth!” That bit of a quote came from Kristen Christian’s Facebook invitation for Bank Transfer Day. As of the Monday morning following, 85,987 people had planned to attend the event.

Here’s a little more from the 27-year-old Los Angeles art gallery owner, Christian, who opened the Facebook page: “While the Bank Transfer Day movement acknowledges the enthusiasm from Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, the Bank Transfer Day movement was neither inspired by, derived from nor organized by Anonymous or the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Bank Transfer Day movement does not endorse any activities conducted by Anonymous or Occupy Wall Street.”

Be that as it may, Occupy Wall Street and by extension, the Occupy Reno group, whole-heartedly embraced the idea, meeting in the frigid morning temperatures at City Plaza—the Mapes Hotel site across from Reno City Hall—to march on the banks, shake some signs, make some noise, close some accounts and have some fun. While there were fewer than 50 people who gathered at 9:30 a.m., there were media people from the Daily Sparks Tribune, This is Reno.com, and the Reno News & Review (yours truly). Just as interesting as the who’s who of Occupiers that attended (all the usual suspects) was who didn’t make the party: the Reno Police Department, which has had a high-profile membership at almost all the demonstrations. Peculiar, since this type of activity—Occupiers closing bank accounts—has generated harassment and arrests from Manhattan to Santa Cruz, Calif.

There was no observed mistreatment of account closers in Reno, though. With four people closing accounts at Wells Fargo Bank in conjunction with the Occupy Reno demonstration, the banks weren’t strained. In fact, the biggest dispute came as one man who intended to close his accounts, Steve Smith, got in a minor tiff with Robert “Tuna” Townsend, who was dressed in full Guy Fawkes regalia, including mask, boots, wig and hat. While the disagreement was quick and relatively humorous—it was over before the temp security guard even stepped outside—it did serve to illustrate the fact that democracy can be chaotic.

Inside the Wells Fargo Bank, though, the atmosphere was calm. Demonstrators and press were settled in the lobby until customers could each receive personal service.

Lisa Schmidt, a teacher at Pine Middle School, was the first to close her accounts. She had two accounts, checking and savings. She had intended to move her money for some time, but with entanglements from things like school loans, she’d waited. But with the national push of Occupy Wall Street and the added impetus of the looming debit card fees, she felt that now was the time.

“It does feel historic,” she said.

She was cut two cashier’s checks, although they were titled “personal money orders.”

Branch manager John Nichols was cheerful and professional, taking the whole thing with a grain of salt.

“We think that if you have a good experience with us—even closing your account—we may just get you back,” he said.

The city’s credit unions made out like bandits. While Heritage Bank of Nevada and Frontier Financial Credit Union are always closed on Saturday, some credit unions were open late specifically to take advantage of Bank Transfer Day. Great Basin Federal Credit Union stayed open four extra hours. The break in routine paid off, said Elisabeth Hadler, marketing manager for Great Basin Credit Union.

“Just on Saturday, we opened 18 new accounts, and six existing members came in to open up checking accounts,” she said. “That’s on top of the 18 brand new accounts. Since Sept. 29 of this year [through Nov. 5], we’ve opened 239 accounts. Last year in that same period, we opened 97.”

Considering the total eclipse of the economy, there was plenty of wealth to spread around.

“We were very busy this weekend,” said Tom Wambaugh, vice-president of member services at Greater Nevada Credit Union. “We’re not actually publishing the exact numbers for how many accounts were opened … but I feel totally comfortable telling you that it was a very busy weekend. It was about twice as busy as any Saturday in the past two months or in the past several years for the same day. Definitely an impact from Bank Transfer Day.”

Even the closed-on-Saturday Frontier got some love: “In October 2010, we had 63 new accounts,” said Rebecca Johnston, director of marketing for Frontier. “This year, we had 125.”

It’s hard not to imagine this as a sustainable trend, but again, not even in the craziest recesses of the internet did people believe the big banks felt a momentary discomfort from the insignificant nose tweaking. Still, revolutions—even economic ones—have rarely been a piece of cake.

“I hope that it’s not just a fashion,” said Hadler of Great Basin Credit Union. “This certainly will get some momentum going, and I’m sure that momentum will last a few months, and from there it might slow, but I think that the more people realize that there is a difference that the more the trend will continue. Probably not at the same rate, but word will get out.”