When Bank of America announced that it would charge customers a $5 monthly debit-card fee in late September, it probably did not count on a 22-year-old woman standing in its way. But for Molly Katchpole, a 2011 college graduate who works two part-time jobs in Washington, D.C., and lives paycheck to paycheck, the annual increase of $60 was just plain unacceptable. "I heard the news about the fee and was like, 'That is it. I'm sick of this,' " says the daughter of a Rhode Island machinist and a physical therapist. "On the one hand, they are running a business, but on the other hand, it is people's money they are working with, and some people don't have a lot of money. It's not like they are just selling toothbrushes it goes much deeper than that."
So Katchpole turned to Change.org, an online platform that publishes petitions and mobilizes community campaigns. Her open letter to Bank of America to withdraw the fee went viral. She closed her Bank of America account, cutting up her debit card on camera, and moved her money to a community bank. Americans flooded her with support. One month and 306,000 signatures later, she won: Bank of America removed the charge on Nov. 1.
Katchpole's success testifies to the power not just of protest but of social media's growing power to create solidarity. "Ten years ago if this had happened, what would Molly have done? Molly would have been mad, she would have been frustrated, and she would have quietly and meekly gone and moved her account to a community bank. That would have been it," says Change.org founder and CEO Ben Rattray. "With social media, it's actually possible to connect other people and to build a lobbying group of customers for any business and any social institution."
Since it started four years ago, Change.org has made possible over 50,000 petitions in more than 30 countries. Some 500,000 new users join the site every month, 1,000-plus campaigns are added each week and at least one petition achieves victory every day. But Katchpole's campaign has been the largest yet. The site's growth began to explode about one year ago, when organizers made a decision to shift emphasis away from giant, catchall campaigns that lobbied President Obama or Congress to manageable projects that focused on local community problems. From baseball fans asking the San Francisco Giants to make an "It Gets Better" video to South African lesbians fighting the practice of "corrective" rape, Change.org petitions have become a unique way to harness discontent worldwide, be it social, economic or political. "It is not enough just to be angry, and it's not enough just to tweet," says Rattray. "You have to coordinate people."
Across the nation, financial and political frustration has spawned a rush of petitions to effect change many Americans feel like Congress can't. Bank of America previously faced the Change.org hot seat this summer when a Seattle woman won her fight to keep the company from foreclosing on her home. Foreclosure petitions, usually started by older people, were one of two trends Change.org noticed this year. Deportation cases for undocumented students, usually started by younger folk, was the other. Dozens of students have had their deportation canceled as friends and family used the platform to bring attention to their situation.
Many of the nation's largest banks, including Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, considered imposing debit-card fees to make up for financial losses after Congress's Dodd-Frank Act and Durbin amendment restricted them from nickel-and-diming retailers. But Katchpole says that does not let them off the hook for doing the same thing to customers. "People kept trying to explain it along the way. I'm really tired of the lack of thought of people in charge of things," she explains, recalling how a Bank of America executive called her to explain the fee. "The reason these acts were passed was because of a lack of responsibility on the part of the banks. So no, I'm not going to go after Congress. I'm going to go after the banks, because they are the ones that screwed this up in the first place."
Bank of America has not said whether Katchpole's petition prompted its decision to remove the $5 charge. "We received a great deal of feedback from customers, from community stakeholders and from interested parties. In light of that feedback, and in light of the competitive conditions in the marketplace, we decided not to proceed with the fee," company spokesman Ernesto Anguilla said. All other top national banks have also halted plans for a fee.
As for Katchpole whose hero, she says, is Hillary Clinton she is down to just one job, as a political-communications freelancer, after the family she nannied for moved a couple of weeks ago. Yet she remains hopeful. After all, she did help push one of the nation's largest banks to change its policies. "It does really give me a sense of empowerment," she says.