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Hundreds of people marched through downtown Minneapolis on Friday afternoon, stopping traffic and forcing officials to block off several streets and divert traffic.
The protest, which began around 2:45 p.m. outside the Wells Fargo Center building, was aimed at getting Minnesota banks to resume business with local money transfer shops, which are used by many Somali-Americans to send dollars to their loved ones back in Somalia.
As part of the protest, an unknown number of people also closed their accounts at the bank. The demonstration was tied to a May 11 deadline for banks set by supporters of the Somali money-wiring businesses. They have been pressing Wells Fargo, where many Minnesota Somalis bank, to provide banking services to the struggling money-wiring outfits.
Organizers estimated the crowd at 500; Minneapolis police said 200 to 300 people were involved.
One person was arrested for obstructing traffic, according to police spokesman Sgt. Steve McCarty.
For months, members of the Somali American Money Service Association have been lobbying officials at Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp for help.
Years ago, several Minnesota banks had accounts with the Somali money-service businesses. But in recent years, amid tightened federal regulations designed to crack down on funding streams for terrorists, the banks have cut ties.
Friday's protest was not the first time Somali customers have showed up en masse at Wells Fargo to close their accounts in response to the money-wiring crisis.
In January, scores of people staged a similar protest at a bank branch just off E. Lake Street in Minneapolis.
But the event on Friday, which included members of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, SEIU Local 26 and Occupy MN, was by far the largest demonstration since the money-wiring crisis began in December.
Chanting, "Yes, we can!" and alternately "Haa waa karna!," which means the same thing in the Somali language, the crowd outside Wells Fargo was eclectic and included other grievances against banks.
Wells Fargo locked its doors, but a customer service counter was set up outside where people lined up to close their accounts.
Peggy Gunn, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said customers who wanted to close their accounts were brought to a banker who helped them with their transactions. She would not say how many people closed their accounts at the downtown office on Friday, citing the bank's general policy of not disclosing account closings or openings on any given day.
Friday's protest did not sway Wells Fargo to change its policy about doing business with the Somali-owned money-transfer shops, she said.
"We made a business decision in 2008 to exit those business relations," Gunn said. "... There are federal rules and regulations that banks have to abide by, and that's what we're doing."
Asked what the risk was in providing banking services to the Somali money-wiring businesses, Gunn said only: "We made a business decision. No financial institution in Minnesota is providing those types of services."
She added that Wells Fargo believes it strongly supports the Somali-American community by offering financial support to Somali community organizations and employing many Somali people. "We agree that it's unfortunate they're having difficulties finding a way to fulfill their need and desire to send money to their homeland," she said. "We have met with the community and we are always willing to do so."
Javier Morillo, president of SEIU Local 26, said the union on Friday closed the strike fund account it had kept at Wells Fargo. The amount: $72,000.
"Wells Fargo, if they wanted to, they can keep Somali families from starving in Somalia," he shouted through a megaphone.
'We're not going to go away'
Several times throughout the demonstration, the protesters took over different intersections. They started out lined up in front of Wells Fargo Center at S. 6th Street and Marquette Avenue S. Then they marched to the intersection of Nicollet Mall and 8th Street S. and stopped in the middle of the street.
"Sit down!" an organizer yelled through his megaphone. The crowd sat down on the street. Cars idled at the green light as a line of organizers stood in a row stopping them.
Police then closed off parts of Nicollet Mall and 8th Street S., diverting traffic to different routes. Demonstrators were protesting near U.S. Bancorp offices.
Meantime, about 15 protesters linked arms and sat in a circle in the center of the intersection, waiting to be arrested. Police warned them to clear the intersection and told them that if they did not comply, they would be arrested. After about an hour, the protesters got up and left.
Abdulaziz Sugule, a consultant for Somali American Money Service Association, said more than half of the Minnesota money-wiring businesses were recently notified by a bank in Seattle that their accounts will be closed in June because they can't handle the volume of money-wiring business they've been receiving from Minnesota's Somali community since local banks cut ties last December.
"We keep the pressure on," he said of the ongoing protests. "This is a message to the banks that we're not going to go away."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488