Earth Quaker Action Team models rapid-fire escalation at Power Shift

EQAT outside the PNC headquarters in Philadelphia in April 2010. (Flickr / Blaine O'Neill)

EQAT outside the PNC headquarters in Philadelphia in April 2010. (Flickr / Blaine O’Neill)

The young climate activists who gather in Pittsburgh, Pa. this weekend for the Power Shift 2013 conference won’t have to wait long to get back on the streets and take action. On Monday, Oct. 21, Earth Quaker Action Team plans to lead the biggest bank branch action in history. Starting with relatively calm silent occupations at several Pittsburgh PNC branches, then disrupting the bank’s lunchtime business around town before an action where some will risk arrest, the day will mark another step in Earth Quaker Action Team’s escalating campaign to get PNC to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining. It will also serve as a model of rapid-fire escalation for youth at Power Shift.

Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT (pronounced “equate”), was founded on a belief that to win a just and sustainable economy will require smart strategy. That is why we chose PNC as our target to begin with. PNC is not only one of the largest funders of mountaintop removal coal mining (and fracking), it is also a Pennsylvania-based bank with Quaker roots, still the bank of several Quaker institutions. As a small group founded by Philadelphia Quakers, we saw a strategic opportunity to threaten the green image PNC has tried to promote.

Believing that an escalating campaign helps a group build both credibility and muscle, EQAT members did not begin by chaining ourselves to the bank doors. We began with a letter to the bank, followed by a meeting with PNC’s regional head to discuss our demand that they stop funding mountaintop removal coal mining. We were cordial while delivering a clear if-then threat. If PNC did not clean up its investments, we would make sure the public knew about it.

We have kept our promise. In the three-plus years since then, we have gradually increased pressure on the bank, moving from low-risk actions — like flyering and singing outside the PNC-sponsored Philadelphia Flower Show in 2010 — to bolder actions like having several people risk arrest by setting up a “flower crime scene” inside the Flower Show a year later. In various PNC lobbies, we’ve sung Christmas carols with lyrics about PNC’s policies, built a small mountain of dirt, put them on mock trial and built windmills — all actions that were creative, fun and demonstrated graphically what we cared about.

While our core members grew in courage and skill, we also wanted to expand our core geographically. The Green Walk for Jobs and Justice in the spring of 2012 pushed us to find new allies as we walked 200 miles across Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, where we conducted a civil disobedience training on the sidewalk in front of PNC’s corporate headquarters. One of our allies said, “Our people would never actually do this, but seeing you all do it will make us bolder in the things we do do, like speaking up at a hearing.” That was precisely what we hoped to hear, as helping people grow in boldness was a core part of our plan.

The next major initiative after the Green Walk was to train more of our supporters to become action leaders themselves, so that by Dec. 1, 2012, we could pull off 15 bank actions in five states and the District of Columbia, demonstrating a major expansion of our capacity. When we returned to Pittsburgh the next April, we intended to make it impossible for PNC’s annual shareholders’ meeting to proceed as usual, even though that meant risking arrest. Although police outnumbered the 16 of us in the meeting, our protest led the CEO to shut down his meeting. For the first time, the bank publicly defended its investment policies, a sign that we were making an impact.

In 2013, we also adopted new approaches designed to pressure PNC decision-makers. Targeting PNC board members and high-ranking bank officials, we have been showing up where they least expect us — from charity events to a breakfast in Britain, where British Quakers confronted Philadelphia-based PNC board member Jane Pepper about the bank’s financing of mountaintop removal. We publicly challenge the bank’s good-corporate-neighbor image, staging creative actions at events that it sponsors.

Now we’re coming back to Pittsburgh during Power Shift with our most ambitious plan yet. It was hugely exciting to realize that — even on the other side of the state from our core base in Philadelphia — we had a deep enough leadership pool to achieve waves of multiple bank actions, assisted by allies like Rainforest Action Network.

We believe in designing actions that create a dilemma for the bank — if they let us do what we come for, we win; and if they shut the bank to keep us out, we win by demonstrating our power to affect their business. For this reason, our intentions are not secret, though we are not disclosing the specifics so as to increase PNC’s suspense. We will meet at the Pittsburgh Quaker meetinghouse on Monday morning by 8 a.m. and then fan out to 10 different branches, where we will hold silent occupations with electric candles. Some may think of it as a silent vigil or a Quaker style “meeting for worship,” but it is our intention to make our prayerful presence felt. None of us are planning to risk arrest at these actions, which will ground us for an increasingly confrontational day.

By late morning, we expect the youth of Power Shift to be out in force, with many more joining our mid-day silent occupations. Although still not risking arrest, these participants will make an even greater impact on the PNC branches they occupy through sheer numbers, thus escalating the pressure on PNC.

Throughout the lunchtime business rush, there will be many more Power Shift participants deployed to slow down PNC’s business through a fun and legal activity, which will be joined by allies in other cities. Our final action of the day will involve civil disobedience. Activists will risk arrest to tell the truth about PNC’s role in destroying Appalachian mountains and communities. Whether they choose to arrest us or not, we will demonstrate the courage of our convictions and highlight the destructiveness of PNC’s practices.

We are optimistic that strengthening our ties to students from around the country will only strengthen us and prepare us for further escalation, until PNC realizes that the money it makes from mountaintop removal coal mining is not worth the cost to its corporate image. We are confident that we are ascendant, while coal is not.

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