Dakota Pipeline protests come to Wall Street: Native American activists hope to pressure big banks to back off

Native Americans and supporters take to New York's City Hall in the first wave of a nationwide divestment campaign

Published March 8, 2017 9:59AM (EST)

 (William Alatriste/ NYC City Council​)
(William Alatriste/ NYC City Council​)

In less than 60 days in office, President Donald Trump has set back the nation and the entire planet at least 30 years when it comes to the looming environmental challenges we face from climate change and increasing fresh water scarcity. Imagine Trump as an evil version of Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown, the mad scientist in “Back to the Future” who offers Marty McFly a joyride into the past in his DeLorean, while clad in a snappy Make America Great Again baseball cap.

The global tragedy is that even as we divert ourselves with the Trump reality show that has taken over the White House, polar ice sheets continue to melt and energy extraction industries bore deeper into wild places, destroying water sources and abusing the planet’s indigenous people in the process. North Dakota is just one of many places in the world where the water supply for local residents is being put at unnecessary risk so that the energy industry and its financial backers can reap billions of dollars in profits.

In Trump’s first days in office he green-lighted the Dakota Access pipeline, made it easier for America's coal companies to pollute the nation’s waters, started the ball rolling on defunding the Environmental Protection Agency and handed the day-to-day conduct of U.S. foreign policy over to Rex Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO. And it's not even April. Can’t wait to see what Orwellian device the White House uses to co-opt Earth Day.

At least back in 2015, when unrelenting heat was melting the pavement in India leaving thousands dead, we were talking the talk of combating climate change. That year close to 200 countries signed on to the Paris climate accords. Last year there was a recommitment to the global consensus by China and the U.S., the world's two greatest industrial powers. Now even that fragile rhetorical progress, which took years to build, is imperiled by the recklessness of the Trump agenda.

As the Trump offensive on the environment sends stock prices soaring, many activists have concluded that the place to make a do-or-die stand in order to save our beleaguered planet is in the financial markets themselves. The media and public tend to focus on electoral politics, but we can't wait four years to confront the rout of environmental values set into motion by the reign of Trump.

That’s why the recent convergence of Native Americans on the steps of New York City Hall, in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock, represents an important new phase of the struggle. Native American protesters were demanding that the City of New York divest its pensions from banks like Wells Fargo that are funding the Dakota Access pipeline.

The goal is to make it shameful and impractical to profit off projects like the Dakota Access pipeline. Activists hope to tie the pipeline's investors to the tactics of physical violence used against Native Americans who are practicing nonviolent civil disobedience in an effort to convince our society to come to its senses and end our addiction to fossil fuels.

Cedric Goodhouse of the Lakota Nation at Standing Rock told the City Hall crowd there was a straight line between the Wall Street banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citibank that are bankrolling the pipeline and using dog kennels for the detention of peaceful protesters at the pipeline site, where work has resumed. “Mace, water cannons, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, batons — this is real stuff that is hurting people," Goodhouse said. "That’s what this is paying for: grandmas, children, people my age and older getting hurt just to pray because water is sacred and water is life, not just for me but for all of mankind."

“What’s going on in the Dakotas is corporate terrorism and the onset of American fascism,” said Dwaine Perry, chief of the Ramapough Lenape, whose ancestral lands straddle the New York-New Jersey line. “They are destroying our water. They are destroying our ancestors' homes. They are destroying our people and it is simply a road test to see if it will fly.”

“Mother Earth does not need another pipeline," said Betty Lyons of the American Indian Law Alliance. "She needs a lifeline.” Lyons called on local governments and the public to shift their deposits from the Wall Street banks that are backing the pipeline to nonprofit credit unions and local community banks. “These huge corporate banks, they don’t care about the individual. They just want money. It is all about the bottom line. They are not vested in making this a better place to be as a whole. The mindset must change here.”

Over just a few months, this new movement has gained traction. In February New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote Wells Fargo a letter asking the bank to reconsider its role in financing the pipeline.

As a trustee of pension funds that are long-term investors in your institution and Mayor of a coastal city threatened by climate change, I am writing to express my deep concern about your involvement, and the involvement of other banks, in financing the Dakota Access Pipeline. This project could have negative consequences for the people of Standing Rock, for the well-being of your bank and for the health of this planet. Therefore, I urge you to withdraw your financing, or failing that, to use your position as a lender to press your client to negotiate a reasonable resolution that removes the threat to the Tribe's concerns.

Wells Fargo's sordid record during the foreclosure crisis and its recent scamming of 2 million unsuspecting customers should make the bank a portfolio risk even without its Dakota Access pipeline baggage. The bank makes quite a greenwashing effort on its website.

Under the heading “Supporting a lower-carbon economy," Wells Fargo sells itself as  a “leading global financial-services company” that is “providing thought leadership and delivering practical solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges" with a focus “on three priorities: diversity and social inclusion, economic empowerment, and environmental sustainability.”

The Seattle City Council is not buying it. Earlier this year it voted not to renew the city's contract with Wells Fargo and opted to pull $3 billion from the bank. Similarly, Norway’s largest private investor has divested from three energy companies with a stake in the Dakota Access pipeline project.

Some of us are old enough to remember that this strategy has worked before and helped to upend the seemingly invincible race-based power structure of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Localized divestment activity reached a transformative tipping point such that, even in the rarefied air of Ivy League colleges and other institutions of wealth and privilege, continuing to hold stock in companies linked to that racist tyranny became a badge of dishonor.

That was about ending dreadful policies in one nation. This campaign is about nothing less than the fate of our planet.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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