Occupy protesters take to the streets, march against corporations

Occupy protesters take to the streets, march against corporations
Occupy Portland demonstrators march through the streets of downtown, Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. Demonstrators chanted in front of businesses. There were no immediate reports of arrests or violent clashes. The protesters said the march was aimed at the nonviolent disruption of businesses. The crowd numbered about 500 and appeared to be no more than a third the size of a similar rally in November. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Protesters with the Occupy Portland movement marched through the streets of downtown Portland on Wednesday to rally against corporate influence in government.

The protesters were generally peaceful, although some did clash with police at times.

Two people were arrested for vandalizing a van outside a downtown Verizon store, according to Lt. Robert King with the Portland Police Bureau. Three others were arrested after they chained themselves inside the 34th floor of the Wells Fargo office tower. Two more people were also arrested for other reasons.

Wednesday’s protest was called “F29,” as in February 29. Demonstrations were held in Portland and across the country to draw attention to a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC.

The Occupy movement’s biggest issue is with large corporations that they say use ALEC to craft legislation that favorable to them. The proposed laws are then forwarded to state lawmakers where they’re introduced in individual states.

Occupiers say that gives the appearance of popular support across the nation for any one particular issue. The protesters argue that’s essentially rigging the nation’s political system.

“Our goal today is to draw attention to the companies that are involved in ALEC and to expose that the biggest companies in the world are writing as much as 10 percent of the legislation that passes through our House here in Oregon,” said Brian Sloan with Occupy Portland.

Those behind the Occupy movement say ALEC allows corporations to influence laws without being held directly accountable for what those laws do.

"There's currently too much corporate control," said a protester who only wanted to be identified as Paula.

"I love watching people so passionate about change and wanting to make the country better," said protester Chelsea Harris.

When reached by email on Wednesday, ALEC spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss said the protests are misguided.

"ALEC is proud to play our part by providing a constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical solutions that help put America back to work," Buss said in a statement. "We are disappointed that some people would choose rhetoric over solutions, but we certainly respect their right to do so."

At least twice during the protest, police gave way as protesters used a row of cardboard banners to push through police lines. After about one hour, officers on bicycles stopped confronting protesters and instead began to form lines in the street parallel to the march column that blocked cars and allowed the marchers to pass through busy streets.

Police in riot gear could be seen riding on the backs of police vans. One officer on a bike was shoved in the face with a sign, and occasional pushing matches between protesters and marchers erupted at busy intersections, but the march remained otherwise peaceful.

The march followed the trashing overnight of a Southeast Portland bank by vandals who tossed rocks at glass windows and doors. A communique taking responsibility challenged the Occupy protesters to take violent action.

Protesters stopped at several businesses along their route, including Verizon, The Oregonian, Wells Fargo and Regence Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Oregon.

While at Regence, a man claiming to be a spokesman told the group that the insurance provider was pulling out of ALEC. However, an official Regence spokesman later told KATU that man was a fake and did not represent the organization.

“To make the facts clear, our company is not a member of ALEC and as such, we cannot resign from this organization’s membership rolls,” Regence spokesman Scott Burton said in a statement. “We appreciate the public’s right to organize and exercise their right to free speech; however we’d like to take this opportunity to correct the record.”

Wells Fargo also put out a statement addressing several of the protesters’ points. A company representative said they understand that people are demanding more from financial institutions during difficult economic times.

“We continue to support our customers and communities by working to keep people in their homes and lending to businesses that need financing to grow and create jobs,” Wells Fargo said in a statement. The company also pointed out that it has repaid its TARP loan, which generated $1.44 billion in interest for the federal government.

When the march reached The Oregonian office, protesters chanted “tell the truth.”

At one point, protesters wearing hazardous materials suits entered a McDonalds restaurant and started telling patrons about the company’s involvement with ALEC.

“We’re trying to bring back government of the people instead of government of the corporations,” said protester John Schweibert.

Full statement from Wells Fargo:

• We respect the rights of Americans to peacefully assemble and voice their opinions.
• We understand that people are demanding more from their financial institutions during these difficult economic times. We, too, would like to see the economy improve and are doing as much as we possibly can to help. 
• We continue to support our customers and communities by working to keep people in their homes and lending to businesses that need financing to grow and create jobs.
• We fully repaid the $25 billion TARP investment the government made in Wells Fargo. This loan generated $1.44 billion in interest for U.S. taxpayers.
• Wells Fargo does not own shares of the GEO Group or Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), nor have we invested our own assets in either company. One of our mutual funds currently includes a small holding in the GEO Group on behalf of our customers, who own the shares.
• Fewer than 2 percent of the loans on owner-occupied properties in our mortgage servicing portfolio have resulted in a foreclosure sale over the past 12 months. We have not made one unwarranted foreclosure.
• While we respect the seriousness of the debate on immigration reform, the protesters are misdirected. It’s not our business to decide how issues like prison services and immigration are handled. We do not, as a corporation, take positions on public policy issues that do not directly affect our company’s ability to serve customers and support our team members.

Full statement from Regence:

This afternoon in front of the Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon headquarters, a member of the public purporting to be a spokesperson for Regence made statements about our company’s ties and connections to the American Legislative Exchange Council. This individual does not represent our organization.

To make the facts clear, our company is not a member of ALEC and as such, we cannot resign from this organization’s membership rolls.

We appreciate the public’s right to organize and exercise their right to free speech; however we’d like to take this opportunity to correct the record.

KATU reporters Bob Heye, Thom Jensen, Dan Tilkin and KATU.com producers Shannon Cheesman, Bill Roberson and John Tierney contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.