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Watch out, Citigroup, these students will tan your hide

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001


Did you spank your bank today?

As tempting as that sounds, a group of mostly college-age students is gathered south of Tampa Bay this week with a more dedicated mission: to influence one big bank.

Rather than spend time partying during spring break, this group spent a week training in protest techniques to be used against the New York-based global giant Citigroup.

More than any other bank, activists call Citigroup a "global slumlord, loan shark and ecoterrorist" that has its fingerprints on nearly all of the world's social and environmental ills.

The grassroots campaign operates under a snappy slogan: Spank The Bank.

Near Arcadia, overlooking the Peace River, about 150 undergraduates are living in tents and participating in the second annual "Alternative Spring Break" sponsored by the Ruckus Society and the Rainforest Action Network. The two California activist groups have been big players behind the disruptive protests against the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle, the International Monetary Fund annual meeting in Washington and other organizations accused of promoting the globalization of corporations and disregarding growing environmental concerns.

The first Arcadia gathering last year focused on global climate change as part of a general "Save the Earth" campaign.

This week's assembly is the first to target one major corporation.

At least David could see daylight around the edges of Goliath. In this case, the protesters are trying to get the attention of the biggest U.S.-based financial behemoth -- and probably the world's most influential, which operates in 102 different countries. (Who can even name 102 different countries?)

To attract its young protesters-in-training, the groups spread the word on college campuses and with hip Internet pitches. The gist of the message:

Wanna learn to raise hell and create a more just and sustainable future with a couple hundred other committed young people?

But the Arcadia group is more than a bunch of liberal students "roughing it" before heading back to their BMWs on campus. If I were Citigroup -- big as it is -- I would not ignore the passion evident in this rural Florida gathering.

"Student activists have come together to learn skills to organize against the world's most destructive bank," says a calm and focused 28-year-old Patrick Reinsborough, the grass-roots coordinator of the Rainforest Action Network and a leader at the Arcadia event.

"We cannot allow Citigroup to bankroll the destruction of rain forests. We do not accept predatory lending in poor communities."

Protesters say all these issues share a common problem. Financial institutions operate without any social or environmental guidelines. Says Reinsborough: "Wall Street has too much power. We are asking Citigroup to go beyond the bottom line."

To drive home their points, the Ruckus/Rainforest group held workshops in various methods of protest. How to tear up Citigroup credit cards. How to demonstrate at Citigroup offices in 50 cities. A major letter-writing campaign is planned for April 11 -- six days before Citigroup's annual shareholders meeting.

At its Manhattan headquarters, Citigroup is well aware of the protest groups. Spokeswoman Leah Johnson says Citigroup supports many of the same causes as the Rainforest Action Network. The group, she suggests, chose to target Citigroup not for its environmental record but because the company is so big and well known around the world.

There is no hint of fear in her voice.

Big banking companies such as Citigroup are tough. They have been threatened, especially internationally, with "Yankee Go Home" banners and condemned as capitalist pigs and CIA fronts. They have had branch offices bombed in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

For now, the rumble in Arcadia is lost in a bigger din.

But isn't it ironic that Florida -- a state that ranks near the bottom of any list for consumer activism -- is home this week to a protest movement that may just get in a spank or two along the way?

Says Reinsborough: "When a corporation is naughty, sometimes it needs to be spanked."

Short takes

With stock markets in a tailspin, is it any wonder that the ritzy financial street in Palm Beach known as Royal Palm Way did not want a public statue of 5-foot dice decorating the conservative scene? Apparently, local stockbrokers complained about the dice, created by a local artist, as symbols of risk and gambling. Maybe there's another reason: Dice are too low-tech. The statue should have been a slot machine. . . .

Poor Raytheon. The Massachusetts defense contractor, with a prominent subsidiary in St. Petersburg, may become a test case for how the Securities and Exchange Commission enforces its recent "fair disclosure" rule. The rule prohibits companies from selectively disclosing information. The SEC, which has yet to nail any company, is investigating whether Raytheon gave information to analysts in the past month about its profit outlook without making it public. . . .

After Tampa's ex-corporate raider Paul Bilzerian was put in county jail earlier this year, he moved on to a Miami federal detention center. For nearly a decade, he's managed to avoid paying a penny of the $83-million the SEC says he now owes for an alleged fraud scheme to reap profits from his attempted corporate takeover targets. While Bilzerian claims he's bankrupt, SEC lawyers say he's hidden $15-million in offshore trusts and family-owned companies. This month, a Washington court temporarily froze five accounts allegedly linked to Bilzerian at Wells Fargo banks. . . .

Tried to find a cheap house to rent around here? Housing coalitions are lobbying the Bush administration to be more supportive of national efforts to construct affordable rental homes. Among cities singled out for failing to build any low-cost rentals last year were New York, Boston, Akron, Ohio, Baltimore and Tampa. . . .

Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, isn't the only sports marketing effort by Bradenton-based Tropicana. The citrus juice giant this week revealed a four-year sponsorship with Chicagoland Speedway and and said its first NASCAR Winston Cup race July 15 will be called The Tropicana 400. NASCAR's popularity -- despite the recent death of Dale Earnhardt -- continues to lure corporate America. . . .

First Union may still be limping along, but it never left the fast lane when compensating its top executive. First Union chief executiveKen Thompson took home an $8.57-million pay package last year even as the nation's No. 6 U.S. banking company's profits tumbled 97 percent. What a sacrifice: Thompson's pay did not include a bonus in 2000.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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