How a small group can take a long walk — and make a difference

Preparing for EQAT's PNC Windmill Action in January. Via EQAT's Facebook page.

I just walked 200 miles across Pennsylvania in Earth Quaker Action Team’s Green Walk for Jobs and Justice. The Patriot-News, which serves Pennsylvania’s capital of Harrisburg, called us “a multimillion-dollar threat to the sixth-largest bank in the nation.” I wouldn’t claim that this young group should be taken as an exact model for others to follow, but there might be a few ideas from our story that could be usefully borrowed.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I’ve always thought her statement is a bit of an exaggeration, but she knew at least that people in the United States obsess about size. I’m glad she put it so strongly. Her sentiment emboldened a handful of Philadelphia-area Quakers who were deeply concerned about eco-justice to tackle climate change by using direct action. It spurred us to ask: How can we be most strategic in using our limited numbers and resources?

In scanning the political environment, we first looked for people under immediate threat — for an issue that’s easily understood, a target available to us, and a goal that could be achieved. The people of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia are threatened with continued mountaintop removal coal mining, and for over a century have endured a colonial relationship with the rest of the United States — their natural resources exported with poverty as their reward.

Anyone can understand the injustice of blowing up mountains in order to extract coal, especially when it means releasing toxics into the air and water so as to double the cancer rate for the local people, increase joblessness, and reduce ancient and biologically-diverse mountains to a lunar landscape.

One of the top funders of mountaintop removal is in our neighborhood (now stretching from Florida to Indiana): PNC Bank. It is a depositor-oriented bank and needs its good name. It presents itself as a “green bank,” even while being up to its ears in coal mining and hydrofracking for natural gas. We realized that we could be in solidarity with people in coal country while opening a new front in the struggle by targeting an opponent of theirs where we live.

Why target a bank rather than, for example, the EPA or Congress? Because, as a former White House occupant used to remind himself, “It’s the economy, stupid!” The banks brought the United States to the edge of the cliff, and they continue to disgrace themselves in the eyes of those we want to reach. By weakening their power, the goal of ending mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia becomes achievable, if the movement continues to grow as it has been. The Appalachian people already have allies in the White House and Environmental Protection Agency.

Ours was largely a group of novices at nonviolent direct action, so we wanted to join an already-existing movement rather than start from scratch. The Appalachian culture of resistance wanted allies, and Rainforest Action Network could mentor us, so we could do our Quaker thing in a larger and supportive context. Before long, we were ready to name our first climate change campaign: Bank Like Appalachia Matters! (BLAM!)

While the particulars of Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT, pronounced “equate”) are inevitably different from those of other small groups starting out, the questions that we discussed can be powerful questions for any group: What people are under immediate threat? Is there an issue that can be easily understood? Is there a target available to us? Do we have an achievable goal? Is there a movement already started or resources available to support our learning curve?

When all the talk was done, we finally got started.

First, we told the president of the regional PNC headquarters that we wanted to see him, and he refused until we told him we were about to protest a PNC-sponsored event. Then he wanted to see us. From there, we escalated at a big PNC-sponsored flower show by coming in black T-shirts that said “Flower Crime Scene” and wrapping the PNC information booth with crime scene tape, accompanied by singing, leafleting, signs and speaking. We expected to be arrested but at the last minute were not.

We created a people’s court and held a trial in the headquarters building lobby, demanding that the president come downstairs and defend his bank against the charges. He declined to come down, but it seemed that all the other suits did come down to inspect our spectacle, where once again we expected to be arrested. I had a physical collision with one official, when he jumped in front of the moving picket I was leading; he threatened to sue me for assault, but didn’t. Our clearly-asserted nonviolent commitment worked every time in protecting us from dirty tricks and assisting us to hold the moral high ground, which is where every strategically-smart activist wants to be.

The Rainforest Action Network and Reverend Billy and the gospel choir from the Church of Life After Shopping joined us for a sit-in at a PNC bank near the White House. That was during Appalachia Rising in 2010. We built a small dirt mountain-top on the carefully-protected marble floor, had a joint worship service, closed the bank for hours and finally four of the 16 participants were arrested. In the internal organizational culture of PNC, this action was called “terrorism.”

Students have been attracted to our actions, and we’ve worked with groups in nearby colleges and universities. There’s not space here to detail all the many actions we did at many bank branches, but EQAT’s website includes videos and interviews with members. You’ll see, for instance, the time we built two faux-windmills in the headquarters lobby; two of the “Windmill Five” will be on trial for that on June 7.

Our choice to ground our strategy in nonviolent direct action increased our confidence, skills, numbers and funding so we could challenge ourselves with a long walk to Pittsburgh, home of the (LEEDS-certified) towers of PNC’s corporate headquarters. We arrived on May 16, having done actions at over a dozen PNC branches along the way. More than 250 people participated in the Walk for some period of time; Gail Newbold and I walked every day. My daily blog is available here.

The mass media gave us great coverage, and PNC looked worse and worse as it rigidly stuck to its “no comment” strategy. Over a year ago, PNC told all its branch managers not to talk to us — we never met a low-level employee who already knew about PNC’s dirty business — so it sent regional managers to meet us at various local branches across the state, plus additional security guards.

The Green Walk for Jobs and Justice was as much for organizing as for direct action. At almost all our stopping points we arrived at a local church or Quaker meeting in time for a potluck supper with local members; we showed a video about mountaintop removal and discussed our campaign; we were taken by members to their homes for bed and breakfast; we converged on the local PNC branch for an action; and we walked the 11 to 20 miles to the next stopping point for a repeat of the pattern.

The Walk provided people in towns and farms with easy ways to support our direct action, through hospitality and accompanying us to the action at their local bank. Meanwhile, EQAT walkers were developing their assertiveness skills, meeting strangers day after day in their homes and churches, in multiple rest stops along the way, and in bank branches. The result: A Philly-area group built skills and gained a statewide network.

Further, we were unfolding a larger narrative: a long, slow walk to Pittsburgh to confront the 1 percent on their corporate home turf. (Sometimes drama, like love-making, works best at a slower pace, rather than in a quick spasm.)

The unfolding narrative heightened the dilemma for the bank leadership: if it tries to defend itself it looks bad, and if it continues to give “no comment” it looks bad. How does a bank defend erasing jobs, poisoning people, and destroying ancient mountains?

The Green Walk also serves as the beginning for the next phase of the campaign: the Green Your Money initiative, in which groups of people will accompany PNC account holders to their local branches to close their accounts, starting on June 1 if PNC doesn’t reverse its policies before then.

The Global Nonviolent Action Database contains many cases in which small groups had a large impact. The overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic started that way. A small group orchestrated the closing of all U.S. ports from shipping guns for dictator Yaya Khan in Bangladesh in 1971. Most of the civil rights victories were initiated by small groups. The Liberian women who successfully intervened to stop civil war in 2003 started small. The dictatorship of Argentina began to unwind when a small group of mothers of the disappeared began their campaign. A small group of Quakers and allies started the Abolition Committee to stop the British slave trade in 1787, and 20 years later they succeeded.

For a more general outline of what works in organizing a dynamic action group, including tips based on half a century of experience, see my manual, “Starting an Action Group.”

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