BY CATHY HOLT
A couple of months ago, I spent a week in Standing Rock protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, and the experience was a kind of initiation for me: I came home from North Dakota determined to make a difference locally. On a cold, drizzly Dec. 4, after thousands of veterans had gone to Standing Rock in solidarity, more than 100 people rallied in Asheville. We marched to four banks, with Suzannah Park leading chants like “Water is life!” and “Defend the sacred!”
If you’ve ever asked yourself “What can I do to make a difference?” this is a great place to start.
The new administration in Washington has made it pretty clear that it’s all for big banks, oil, fracking and the Dakota Access pipeline. On Jan. 24, President Trump signed a series of executive memorandums aimed at expediting Dakota Access and other oil pipelines. And on Feb. 7, in response to Trump’s action, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed its earlier decision, approving an easement needed to complete the pipeline. Those seeking to profit from extracting the dirtiest of fuels are using their money and power to try to lock in a fossil fuel infrastructure, with no regard for cataclysmic climate change.
But we don’t have to let them. Starting right here in Asheville, we can derail those plans by moving our money out of the big banks that are financing the pipeline!
The movement to divest from South Africa helped bring down apartheid. Student organizing led hundreds of colleges and universities to divest, with cities, counties and states following their lead. Now, the youth of Standing Rock are asking people across the country to divest from the banks that fund the pipeline.
Here in Asheville, there are branches of Wells Fargo, Bank of America, SunTrust, TD, PNC, Citibank and UBS. Collectively, these giant banks have over $2 billion invested in the project, according to the activist group Food & Water Watch.
Water is sacred to all indigenous people, who have typically lived in harmony and connection with the elements. They see clearly that without clean water, there is no life for us, our children or the other species with whom we share this earth. We need to listen to them and stop the pollution and desecration of our water.
I believe the three greatest issues of my lifetime are:
- Clean water – defending it as a sacred birthright for all, and protecting what’s left of it.
- Indigenous rights – sovereignty over their own lands and water.
- Preventing climate catastrophe – keeping as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible.
The Dakota Access pipeline’s planned route goes under Lake Oahe, a portion of the Missouri River that is the Standing Rock Sioux’s sole source of drinking water. Together with their allies, indigenous people from over 300 tribes have designated themselves Water Protectors. “Water is Life!” proclaims many a banner. And it’s not just the Lakota either — the Missouri River provides water for 17 million people!
How likely is it that the Dakota Access pipeline would leak? In 2016 alone, multiple U.S. pipeline leaks spilled nearly 300,000 gallons of crude oil and 331,000 gallons of gasoline, Wikipedia reports — and those are only the documented cases. Even when the Corps of Engineers denied the easement needed to run the pipeline under Lake Oahe, Energy Transfer Partners publicly stated its intention to complete the project without changing the route.
Meanwhile, the pipeline and the violence used to construct it are only the latest chapter in 500 years of colonial oppression of native people, the land’s original inhabitants. During my week in Standing Rock, respected elders led prayers, and drumming and chanting frequently filled the air. Despite the brutal response to the demonstrators — dogs, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons and concussion grenades — tribal leaders emphasized respect and peace toward the police.
The website defunddapl.org lists 38 banks as pipeline funders; some are foreign but have branches in the U.S. The site lays out simple steps to close an account while making a public statement, and it tallies the funds that have been reported as divested so far. As of Feb. 9, that total stood at more than $60 million. And the same day the Corps of Engineers approved the easement, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to withdraw more than $3 billion from Wells Fargo to protest its funding of the pipeline, among other concerns.
Pretty words, ugly deeds
A lot of people lack a clear understanding of how banks invest their money. I was surprised to see how many of the folks attending fundraisers for Standing Rock said they had accounts with Wells Fargo or Bank of America. Aghast to learn that their money was funding the pipeline, however, many of them promised to close those accounts.
As for-profit institutions, the big banks try to maximize gains for their shareholders. And their pretty words about human rights contrast starkly with the violence inflicted on the Water Protectors.
TD Bank spokesperson Judith Schmidt, for example, said: “TD has heard concerns from the community about DAPL and will continue to advocate that Energy Transfer Partners engage in constructive dialogue and work toward a resolution with community members, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. TD played an active role in helping to secure an independent human rights expert to conduct a review on behalf of the lenders and advise on improvements ETP and Sunoco Logistics can make to their social policies and procedures moving forward.”
Wells Fargo’s Demond Hunter said, “Wells Fargo is committed to environmental sustainability and human rights, but we must fulfill our legal obligation to serve the financial needs of our customers under the credit agreement.” SunTrust and Bank of America did not return my calls requesting an interview or comment.
A better way
Wouldn’t you rather have your money help the local economy and meet genuine social needs? The nonprofit Self-Help Credit Union, for example, makes loans to charter schools and small, local businesses; it promotes things like affordable housing and child care centers. Ellen Schloemer, the director of marketing and communication, says that Self-Help’s interest rates are comparable to those offered by big commercial banks, and like them, the nonprofit issues credit cards and belongs to the CashPoints network. Unlike those commercial banks, however, credit unions are membership-owned, and any profits are reinvested in the organization. Other local options include the Mountain Credit Union and Telco Community Credit Union.
Last September, Asheville City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the rights of all indigenous peoples, including the Cherokee and Standing Rock Sioux, to self-determination, environmental justice and respect for their ancestral lands, sacred places and water.
Council member Cecil Bothwell is asking the city to divest from banks that fund the pipeline. The Davis, Calif., City Council just voted to divest about $124 million from Wells Fargo, and other cities across the country are considering following suit.
As a few of us stood outside Wells Fargo Bank in late December, politely inviting people to move their money elsewhere, a sympathetic employee came out and told us that seven people had closed their accounts in less than a week! A pregnant woman at the ATM spoke regretfully of having a credit card to pay off before she could divest. “I want my baby to grow up in a world without these fossil fuels!” she declared.
Each person who closes an account is sending an unmistakable message to the banks. It’s not just the dollar amount being withdrawn — it’s the loss of legitimacy that threatens the stranglehold the big banks have enjoyed for so long. Time is short to prevent the completion of the pipeline, so if you have an account with any of the above-listed banks, please MOVE YOUR MONEY NOW!
Longtime environmental activist Cathy Holt (firstname.lastname@example.org) works with Defund DAPL, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the Creation Care Alliance and Asheville TimeBank. Besides coaching in communication and personal resilience (HeartMath), she teaches the Connection Practice.