Sticking their necks out

The day before the demonstration at Bank of America, the activists gathered at the Southeast Convergence for Climate Action were feeling stressed out. Despite the tranquil wooded surroundings at their camp near Brevard, the solar-powered van providing their electricity and the spicy rice and vegetables being served up for lunch, the air crackled with tension.

The polar bear five, minus one: Arrestees (from left) Noah Hurowitz, Alison Self, George Silva and Jacob Stockwell were bailed out of jail the day after the protest. Also arrested, but not pictured here, was Peter Tsolkas. photo by Rebecca Bowe

A day earlier, on Saturday, a local blogger had hinted that “enviro-freaks” were planning to protest outside Progress Energy’s Skyland power plant. Helicopters, meanwhile, had been circling the camp periodically, and around midnight on Sunday, conference participants received word that police might be planning a raid in the early morning hours. Suddenly, what had seemed like a secluded location for “direct action” training was entering the public spotlight.

But for the protesters who targeted Bank of America, the point was to speak out against mountaintop removal and convey their sense of urgency about climate change. And they were determined to see their plan through, come what may.

A crash course in protesting

“At this camp, we’re really looking at building a movement based around direct action,” Matt Leonard, who led the direct-action workshops at the convergence, told Xpress the day before the protest. “What I believe—and I think a lot of what this camp is about—is recognizing that, politics aside, if you simply listen to science and look at the world around us, we don’t have the time to wait for little tweaks and techno-fixes to [reverse climate change]. It has to be a widespread, systemic change. And these are things that are not just being said by activists or radicals, they’re being said by scientists.”

Leonard says that disrupting business-as-usual is typically a key objective of direct action, because it is meant as a wake-up call. “Often times when people hear the phrase, they think of fringe radicals … or conflate it with violence or destruction. But it’s inherently not any of those things,” he argues. “They don’t think of the histories that really framed the world we live in—why we have a 40-hour work week, the civil rights movement etc.”

On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 12, convergence participants called an emergency meeting. “Someone said they suspected a police raid between the hours of 4 and 5 a.m.,” says Alison Self, one of the activists who was there.

Some of the activists decided to change plans. “I don’t want this to seem like it was a super-secret thing, [but] I’m not going to go into the original plans,” Mary Olson, one of the convergence co-organizers, told Xpress afterwards. She did acknowledge that a demonstration near the Progress Energy plant—one of “three or four options” under consideration—was abandoned in light of the surveillance by law enforcement.

“We knew that we could only make a statement at the power plant if we had the element of surprise,” she added. “Our overall goal was a photo-op … with canaries [i.e. canaries in a coal mine] passing the baton to polar bears.” Olson said that when she woke up Monday morning, she assumed all plans were off—but others in the camp pressed ahead with a Plan B: Raise a ruckus at Bank of America, which has given loans to companies involved in mountaintop-removal coal mining.

In the end, there was no raid, but as they left the campsite Monday morning and headed toward Asheville, the activists found police cars lining the main road. Several cars were followed out of the camp, and “a helicopter flew around for about an hour,” according to Noah Hurowitz, another participant.

Canaries and polar bears hit the streets

“The Bank of America was targeted specifically for their financial investments in coal-extraction projects,” explains George Silva, one of the activists arrested during the protest. “The focus of this campaign is to get the Bank of America to divest in these companies.”

Around 2 p.m., when the protest began, Self and Silva entered the back entrance of the bank and used three U-locks to secure their necks together. In the process, they skirmished with a bank employee, who tried to wrestle the U-lock out of Silva’s hands, according to Silva. While they attempted to stay planted inside, other activists linked arms to form a blockade at the front entrance. Others entered the bank, dumped lumps of charcoal on the floor and distributed leaflets about mountaintop removal. Many more stayed outside the bank, chanting and waving banners while dressed as canaries and polar bears.

“We went in and made it a point to say why we were there,” says Silva. The activists announced that they intended to peacefully protest, he adds—and not to rob the bank. Nevertheless, “some of the customers were scared,” notes Self.

The Asheville Police Department, meanwhile, responded to an emergency call and arrived in force. Once inside the bank, they gave the locked-together activists an ultimatum: leave or get arrested. But they refused to budge, and out came the handcuffs. By the time they were transported to jail, Silva and Self still had U-locks fastened around their necks. Bolt cutters supplied by the Asheville Fire Department were used to sever the linking lock.

Jacob Stockwell had entered the bank with Silva and Self with the intention of supporting them during the “lockdown.” But when police started threatening arrest, he locked elbows with Silva. According to Stockwell’s account, that was when one officer began using a “compliance hold” on him.

In response, Stockwell let out a hair-raising scream. When the sound reverberated outside the bank, a rumor flared that police were using Tasers on the activists inside. According to Self and Silva’s accounts, police had mentioned Tasers, but never actually wielded them. Hurowitz, who was outside the bank, joined a group that rushed in after hearing the rumor. He, too, was subsequently arrested.

A fifth activist, Peter Tsolkas, was also arrested, but was unavailable to provide comment. All five were charged with trespassing, failure to disperse and resisting arrest, and were released on bail the following day.

Did the message about the urgency of climate change and imperiled coalfield communities translate to the general public? Reactions, it would appear, were mixed. The Mountain Xpress Web site was one of many forums where community members weighed in with both praise and criticisms.

“Thanks, demonstrators for your efforts,” wrote one. “We need more concerned and engaged young people to see beyond themselves to the critical state we are in.” Another wrote: “This country was founded by patriots dressed in silly costumes interfering with government and corporate operations.”

Not everyone was impressed. “Hey kids, I understand what you protestors are saying, but showing up to protest at Bank of America seemed a bit reaching” wrote one critic. “You should have gone to the coal companies to protest if that was what you were protesting.” And another wrote: “The protesters were just plain WRONG. Worse … it was bad PR for their cause. Just durn stupid wannabe ecoterrorists.”

For their part, the arrestees who spoke with Xpress said the demonstration was a success and worth all the trouble. “It’s not just about me, it’s about these communities in Appalachia and elsewhere who have to bear the consequences of Bank of America’s financial backing,” says Silva. “The least we can do, given our privilege, is show our solidarity with them until they can live without the threat of ecocide.”

“I’d do it over and over again, if it meant people didn’t have to go through that,” Self adds. “I’d want somebody out there locking their necks together for me.”


Editor’s note: The main author of each article in this series is noted in its byline, but all of the articles drew on reporting from Xpress staffers Rebecca Bowe, Jon Elliston, David Forbes and Brian Postelle.

Climate change culture clash:
The inside story of last week’s fracas in downtown Asheville, from multiple perspectives
by Jon Elliston

Dog day afternoon:
Many downtown merchants take protest spectacle in stride; others decry “spoiled brats”
by Hal L. Millard

Policing the protest:
Riot team, K-9 units—but no Tasers—deployed
by David Forbes

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