Protesting private banks gains urgency in climate justice fights

Paul Cheoketen Wagner, member of the Saanich nation, speaks during a brief occupation of Chase Bank last week. (Photo by Sammi-Jo Lee.)

Indigenous water protectors and allied activists — fresh from February’s success in advocating Seattle’s divestment from Dakota Access Pipeline bank Wells Fargo — turned their resistance to a new financial institution, and an old pipeline.

J.P. Morgan Chase is poised to finance TransCanada Corp’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project that would connect oil fields in Canada to refineries in the U.S., which was re-approved by President Trump in March.

Last week, climate justice non-profit 350 Seattle coordinated a protest that briefly shut down 13 Chase Bank branches across Seattle. Between 300 and 400 people were involved, and 26 were arrested.

Because the project still needs financing and permits, anti-pipeline activists believe that the KXL can still be stopped.

And with an oil-industry friendly administration now in power, targeting private financing has become an increasingly important strategy for climate justice activists.

Coordinated efforts

Let’s first be clear: pipelines are dangerous, and tar sands mining is toxic.

Alec Connon, an organizer with 350 Seattle, and Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien are arguing for Chase Bank to divest from funding pipeline projects.

The strategy has been successful before — the No DAPL movement resulted in nearly $30 billion of personal assets moved out of banks that financed the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in February, Seattle broke ties with Wells Fargo for the same reason.

Under this premise, activists last week deployed 12 independent actions throughout Seattle to shut down Chase branches ranging from Northgate to the International District.

One branch, on Capitol Hill, was preemptively closed for business. The protest had been announced to Chase weeks earlier in an open letter demanding divestment.

Activists livestreamed the protests at their locations. The epicenter was downtown, close to the location of three Chase banks.

At the epicenter of the action, different photographers crept under and around people and legs while people spoke. Police officers loitered in groups around the action sites, their every move shadowed by legal observers in bright green hats. A 350 organizer spoke into a livestreaming iPhone, gesturing at an occupied Chase branch, quickly delivering an anti-pipeline platform.

In the 2nd and Union branch, sage smoke wafted and activists spread a banner reading, “Water is Sacred! Water is Life!”

Rachel Heaton, a member of the Muckleshoot tribe and organizer with Mazaska Talks, emphasized the Native leadership in the climate movement and stewardship of the earth.

“We’re here because we are the first people of this land,” said Heaton. “And the reason why we’re standing in this bank is because it’s up to us to share that wisdom with the visitors of this land… That’s the gift that the creator gave us. He gave us the ability to take care of this land, and so that’s what we’re doing.”

While the mainstream climate justice movement is largely white (including the makeup of the protesters Heaton addressed), the movement borrows heavily from Native traditions and treaty rights, which tribes have defended for many generations.

At the Westlake Chase Bank, police officers cordoned the demonstration with black police tape. The Indigenous-lead group arrived with other sign-carriers in tow, pushing as close to the tape as they could. With police officers in between, a singing and drumming chant started between the two groups. “No KXL!” “No way in hell!”

Protesters were old and young, Native and non-Native (and non-Natives were mostly white). Some were experiencing direct action for the first time. Many others were from the community of Seattle climate justice and Indigenous affinity groups.

Some in the crowd, including the 26 people arrested, intentionally risked arrest as a form of protest. The 26 arrested were charged with criminal trespass and were released sometime after midnight, according to a 350 Seattle Facebook update.

One of the arrested protesters was Seattle City Council Position 8 candidate Jon Grant, the affordable housing advocate who ran, unsuccessfully, against incumbent Councilmember Tim Burgess in 2015.

Grant said he is not content celebrating Seattle’s official break with Wells Fargo.

“Passing the ‘Socially Responsible Banking’ Ordinance was a first step,” he said. “But we need to do more.”

“We’re very lucky in Seattle,” said 350’s Connon. “We have a number of elected officials aligned with the cause of climate justice. We have seen over the last three months that a lot of elected officials and prominent candidates are prepared to take a stand on issues about the climate.”

Native leadership

This dialogue in Seattle between elected officials and climate activists, much like the U.S. climate movement at large, owes much of its current momentum to Native leadership.

Matt Remle, activist, writer and editor for Last Real Indians, and member of the Standing Rock Sioux, was key in the anti-DAPL Wells Fargo divestment, as he drafted the ordinance, and brought it to Sawant.

Native leaders are protesting private banks overseas as well. Heaton is traveling in Europe with three other water protectors, visiting a dozen cities and the U.N. to build North American indigenous solidarity with European climate activists, share strategies and join their fight against the European banks that finance fossil fuels.

“We have had a big shift in our country,” said 350 Seattle organizer Ahmed Gaya. “And a reorientation within the climate movement toward centering Indigenous rights, centering the oppression of Indigenous people. And the Indigenous uprising in Standing Rock, North Dakota has had a huge role in changing the momentum, probably more so than anything else, the momentum in the climate movement.”

The effort to challenge banks and their moral legitimacy is gaining ground.

“Since 2011, the fossil fuel divestment movement has really achieved an incredible amount,” Connon said. “Over $5.2 trillion of investment capital has committed to not directly investing in the fossil fuel industry, and that’s been incredibly effective.”

It is debatable whether the divestment strategy is effective because of grassroots financial pressure, or moral and symbolic pressure. Some activists say it’s not enough —  also calling for regulatory reform and the development of an alternative clean energy/technology system. The actual number of dollars withdrawn from accounts and shares divested — current, not pledged — may certainly be overstated.

Yet as the concept of divestment gains in moral legitimacy, it also grows in its power. And with the Trump administration weakening the EPA’s ability to restrict the fossil fuel industry, the grassroots effort to try to change the culture of banking is growing in urgency.

“But it’s time for the fossil fuel divestment movement to evolve and move in a new direction,” Connon said. “What that looks like is focusing on the financial sector. Not only are they complicit in the climate change, but they’re enabling the climate change.”

Protesters against Chase Bank’s funding of the Keystone XL pipeline unfurl a sign (Photo by Sammi-Jo Lee)

Four ways to protest pipeline funding

  1. Recognize and support the Native tribes and organizations, including Mazaska Talks, Honor the Earth, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion. Work for Indigenous sovereignty, just as Indigenous peoples have worked for climate justice.
  2. Check out resources for divesting — both you and your city — at Mazaska Talks.
  3. Learn facts and talking points collected by Honor the Earth.
  4. Call Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase, at 212-270-1111. 350 Seattle has a sample script: “I’m calling today to ask that Chase stop funding new tar sands projects, including KXL and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Tar sands oil is the dirtiest fossil fuel on Earth, and is deeply opposed by First Nations and tribes. Chase has no business financing tar sands.” 350 has more talking points here.