The morning is crisp, but the sun is out, and several dozen Native leaders and climate activists have gathered around a Chase Bank branch in downtown Seattle to raise their banners and do it again: Target a financial institution for funding fossil fuels.
This time, it’s a different bank and a different pipeline. But they’ve also upped the ante: Hundreds have promised to simultaneously occupy and “shut down” between 10 and 20 Chase Bank branches across Seattle on Monday, May 8, if JP Morgan Chase does not issue a statement beforehand declaring that it will not provide any loans to the Keystone XL pipeline. And they’ll risk arrest to do it.
“Standing Rock and the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline was only the beginning,” promised Muckleshoot tribal member Rachel Heaton to a clutch of cameras and a small crowd carrying #NoKXL signs. “We thought that by sending a message and getting folks to divest from Wells Fargo — we thought that these other banks would get the message,” she said. “But clearly, the banks are not getting the message. And that’s why we’re out here in front of Chase Bank right now.”
JP Morgan Chase has already offered TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL and other tar sands projects, the largest line of credit of any American bank, activists say. And it may be poised to offer the Canadian oil company the extra loans it needs to complete the whole thing. Keystone XL — a recognized threat for environmentalists years before the Dakota Access pipeline — would run 800,000 barrels of crude per day, 1,179 miles from southern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, to be refined and shipped abroad. Native activists have called the pipeline “an act of war”; scientists have called tar sands extraction “game over for the climate.” Former President Barack Obama officially denied Keystone XL its U.S. permit in late 2015, but President Donald Trump re-issued it in late March (after which TransCanada CEO Russel Girling told CNN he was “very relieved”).
Paul Cheoketen Wagner, a Saanich tribal member who’s been involved in anti-pipeline and indigenous rights activism for many years, points out the impact that Alberta tar sands development has already had on nearby First Nations — horrific, by his telling. Local people are finding bulging tumors on both salmon and elk; adults and children are developing strange cancers (at least one report has linked the tar sands extraction to a spike in cancer diagnoses); families are bringing babies to the doctor covered in rashes, to which “the doctor says you cannot bathe your child for more than three minutes in this water. This is water that they have to drink and bathe and wash and do everything in! That’s what we’re doing to people in Alberta, and that’s wrong.”
The organizers behind the Defund DAPL Seattle Action Coalition, now re-branded Mazaska Talks (the Lakota word for “money”), buoyed by early success, are only ramping up their efforts now to take on as many banks and as many pipelines as they can — and to start, of course, with Seattle. After they encouraged the City Council to pass a resolution in early April that would prohibit the City from contracting with any bank with ties to tar sands projects, they’ve opted to twist the knob a little tighter, a little sooner, and try to force a move out of local and national bank executives by being as loud and obnoxious as possible.
“We’re standing on stolen land right now,” northern Cheyenne activist Raymond Kingfisher told the crowd. “And we’re here to take it back, one bank at a time.”
“I am standing here today to make it crystal clear to the leaders at Chase Bank that if they choose to provide project-level financing to the Keystone XL pipeline, then they will be ineligible to work with the City of Seattle,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien, also in attendance. “The City of Seattle issues hundreds of millions of dollars of debt every single year; Chase Bank would not be eligible to bid on that work. The City of Seattle processes billions of dollars in payments every year; Chase Bank would not be able to bid on that work.” He went on to promise that he would work not only with Seattle City Council, but with city councils across the nation to make similar statements, take similar stances, and, ultimately, “change the culture of banking in this country.”
After a handful of speeches on the street, Kingfisher, Heaton, and Wagner pounded drums, sang, and led the group inside the bank, where #NoKXL signs crowded the Chase logo. The branch manager and other employees watched the scene politely for ten or fifteen minutes, their faces remarkably blank (one teller appeared bored). The manager was unable to comment on the scene, but offered Seattle Weekly a JP Morgan Chase regional media contact. We’ve yet to hear a response.
Yes, it was awkward. But that was the point. “We have to disrupt the system,” Heaton said into the mic. “I know it makes people uncomfortable, but it’s the only way that they’re listening.”
This kind of escalation is new, says 350 Seattle organizer Alec Connon; although during the Defund DAPL actions, there were similar disruptions — crowds, music, speeches, and drums — and protesters entered one downtown Seattle Wells Fargo branch, no one was arrested, or risked arrest. And there wasn’t a concerted effort to disrupt business in Wells Fargo bank branches across the city all at once, either. “This is different from what we’ve done,” he says. This will involve civil disobedience.
“We don’t care if you’re uncomfortable about it, because we don’t care if this bank closes, because we’ll survive,” added Kingfisher. “We’re giving Chase Bank fair warning. Don’t make us stop a freeway, or stop a train. We’re here because we want action from you. We want the message from you. So on May 8, prepare your statement, Chase Bank, because we’re gonna occupy the city.”