Small Town Sebastopol’s David and Goliath Struggle Against Mighty Chase Bank and CVS Pharmacy

The largest bank in the United States, Chase, and the globalized CVS pharmacy have been trying for over a year to get permission to move into Sebastopol’s downtown. Like the Biblical small David in his fight against the giant Goliath, Sebastopudlians are armed with little more than sling-shots and the good-will of the people. Many residents are fighting these two mighty corporations and the possibility of a lawsuit against the city if they do not get what they want.

Located in semi-rural Sonoma County in Northern California, this small town has fewer than 8000 residents. Fierce resistance from the community has met the Chase/CVS effort to develop a drive-through mall at the busiest intersection in town, as well as some support from the business community.

The City Council, Planning Commission, and Design Review Board (DRB) have all rejected their plans. One citizens group, Committee for Small Town Sebastopol, has sued on environmental grounds. Occupy Sebastopol organized a recent rally at its remaining large tent on the plaza and then a march to where Chase/CVS wants to relocate.

JPMorgan/Chase’s recent loss of over $3 billion in derivatives trading further threatens the powerful bank’s chances of having its development approved. The next DRB meeting on this development is May 30 and the City Council meets May 29. Activists plan to speak at both.

What if a bank had been convicted numerous times of predatory banking practices and a pharmacy had been convicted of failing to clean up its toxic wastes? Would you let that bank and pharmacy move downtown into the commons?  Or would you consider the potential harm to the community and reject the proposal on ethical and moral grounds? Would you insist that they stay on the outskirts of town? Or are their “private property rights” more important than the greater good of the community? These are questions that Sebastopol faces.

Chase and CVS have each paid billions of dollars in fines for their many illegal activities. Such violations are considered customary business expenses to such white-collar criminal elements of the ruling banking/pharmaceutical/attorney/bought-politicians complex.

By developing a vacant automobile dealer’s site at the busiest corner in town, they would increase traffic and draw more money from local citizens out of the county and into the hands of the global 1%. Occupy Sebastopol and various community groups, like GoLocal, claim that it is time to reverse globalization and trumpet re-localization.

The U.S. Justice Department recently launched a criminal investigation into JPMorgan/Chase’s trading loss of over $3 billion by continuing their casino capitalism gambling with derivatives. This practice is what initiated the current extreme economic downturn.

JPMorgan/Chase has about $2.5 trillion in total assets. That’s roughly 20% of the U.S. economy, according to MIT professor Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. It “is too big to fail,” Johnson said in an interview with Bill Moyers called “Are JPMorgan’s Losses a Canary in a Coal Mine?”

Even the corporate media has raised questions about Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. The daily Press Democrat here, until recently owned by the New York Times, describes him as part of “Wall Street royalty.” The arrogant Dimon is experiencing “some poetic justice,” its editorial noted.

“How the mighty have fallen” captions a May 21 Newsweek photo of Dimon, linking him to Jon Corzine of MF Global and Kweku Adoboli of UBS. Which other members of the 1% may soon to fall?

Even after the announcement of the bank’s staggering losses, shareholders confirmed Dimon’s $24 million dollar annual pay package. He seems to have been rewarded for gambling big, even when he lost, noted an Occupy Santa Rosa activist.

“Huge banks have been using their enormous wealth for years to buy off politicians and regulators,” said Moyers. “Chase just had to pay almost three quarters of a billion dollars in settlements and surrendered fees to settle one case alone, that of bribery and corruption in Alabama. It’s also paid billions to settle other cases of perjury, forgery, fraud and sale of unregistered securities.”

Is that the kind of predatory operation one would want to anchor their lovely downtown where people gather? In addition to being private property, downtowns are part of the commons, constructed by taxpayers with plazas and other places to gather, celebrate, have fun, shop, and pass through without having their pockets picked by corporations.

CEO Dimon, by the way, happens to be on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which is supposed to regulate banks. A conflict of interest?

“Some reports say that he (Dimon) meets with President Obama with some regularity. The political access and connections of Mr. Dimon are second to none,” Johnson reveals. This is why some in Occupy Wall Street consider Obama to be “the number one manager of the 1%.”

On ABC’s “The View” after the announcement of the stunning loss, Obama praised his friend as “one of the smartest bankers we got” and JPMorgan/Chase as “one of the best-managed banks there is.” Best managed for whom, other than its managers?

Dimon is close friends with Sandy Weill, Citigroup’s retired CEO, which already has a bank in downtown Sebastopol, as do Wells Fargo and Bank of America. How many big banks circulating money outside of the county does a small town need downtown?

In 2010 Weill bought a vineyard and huge house here in Sonoma County for $31 million dollars, thus joining this county’s 1%, which the wine industry anchors. He then gave $12 million dollars to Sonoma State University’s elite, expensive, fashionable Green Music Center, where the 1% can enjoy opera and symphonies, joined by a few others who can still afford it. With that he bought an honorary doctorate.

Dimon is described as being “like his mentor Weill, who ran Citigroup into derivative trading hell” by Robert Scheer, writing May 17 at Truthdig.com. “Dimon was in cahoots with his mentor, Sandy Weill, in engineering a series of mergers and acquisitions that would have violated the Glass-Seagall law,” Scheer continues, which made “the too-big-to-fail” banks legal.

SSU faculty, students, alumni, community members and activists from Occupy Petaluma, Occupy Santa Rosa, and Occupy Sebastopol engaged in a successful “Shame on SSU” direct action at the school’s May 12 graduation, where SSU rewarded Weill and his wife with honorable doctorates. The activists described them as “dishonorable” and turned their backs to shun them in a dignified action.

Their concerns include that other banksters and criminal corporate executives will retire, buy into the most lucrative wine industry in the U.S., and bring their predatory/polluting practices here. Sonoma County used to have a diverse agriculture industry; it is now a grape mono-culture. This threatens the county’s entire economy, due to wine’s boom-and-bust quality and the potentiality of a pest to destroy mono-crops.

Chase’s partner CVS is another globalized mega-corporation with a history of abuses.

“CVS must pay $13.75 million in civil penalties,” reports the April 26 weekly Sonoma West. This settlement recently was reached by 44 California district attorneys and city attorneys because CVS “violated California laws for safe storage, handling and disposal of sharps waste, pharmaceutical and pharmacy waste, photo waste containing silver, and hazardous waste generated from spills and customer return of hazardous products.”

This means that people and the environment have been hurt by the customary practices of CVS, which it can be expected to continue if allowed to move downtown into the commons.

“I researched CVS and after reading hundreds of pages of court documents and articles, decided to no longer shop there. CVS is merciless,” according to Sebastopol’s Eric Snyder in a letter to the weekly Sonoma West. It has been forced to pay hundreds of millions in fines. Its executives have been charged with bribery, conspiracy and fraud. CVS paid $75 million, the largest penalty ever paid under the Controlled Substances Act, in 2010. Other locals also already boycott CVS.

Big businesses like Chase and CVS threaten local businesses. Sonoma West published a May 17 commentary by Sebastopol resident Bill Shortridge that detailed the losses to local stores such as Sebastopol Hardware and Art & Soul. Such stores build rather than scatter community. When locals go there they converse with each other and create relationships. This is unlikely in the colder, corporate, industrial places that Chase and CVS build.

Many families have had their homes foreclosed as a result of Chase’s immoral practices. Others have lost their jobs because of the common practices of the giant financial operations. The faulty clean-up practices of CVS can lead to disease and even deaths. The practices of these two corporations have worsened and destroyed many lives.

“Let’s ban chain stores downtown and promote incentives so local businesses can flourish,” Shortridge concludes. Other Sonoma County and North Bay cities have such bans.

Sebastopol’s downtown is at risk of profiteering and polluting by the country’s largest bank and one of its largest pharmacies. Fortunately, credit unions have recently located in Sebastopol, since the successful move your money campaign to take money out of big banks and deposit it in local banks.

At nearly 70 years old, this reporter is old enough to remember Mom and Pop drug stores that anchored downtowns. We would come to the soda fountains and socialize. May our re-localization efforts restore such corner drug stores as places to gather and meet friends.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.