Confronting the 1 percent directly

    How a group of environmental justice activists gave the directors of a bank no choice but to listen.
    The author speaks at the PNC Bank shareholder meeting on April 23. (Facebook/Earth Quaker Action Team)The author speaks at the PNC Bank shareholders meeting on April 23. (Facebook/Earth Quaker Action Team)
    The author speaks at the PNC Bank shareholder meeting on April 23. (Facebook/Earth Quaker Action Team)

    When do activists get to confront the 1 percent directly, in a situation in which we can lay out our case and challenge them to answer? I don’t mean a situation buffered through the mass media, or politicians — not a situation when they are insulated from us by police, but one in which we meet them face-to-face?

    Some of us had that rare experience in Pittsburgh on April 23 when we, outnumbered by 1 percenters and police, forced them to end one of their meetings rather than listen to us any longer.

    The Earth Quaker Action Team had twice before attended the PNC Bank’s annual shareholder meeting, and each time we had obeyed their rules, using the time allotted to speak truth about mountaintop-removal coal mining. Once we had with us the 80-year-old grandson of one of the bank’s founders, and he scolded the board for what it was doing. The previous encounters were satisfying in their way, but PNC continued to abuse the Appalachian people, destroy their environment and escalate climate change.

    This time, therefore, we made two decisive shifts. First, we would create our own Quaker-style business meeting and conduct it at the same time and place as PNC was trying to pursue its agenda. Second, we showed that we would henceforth hold individual PNC board members accountable until they begin to “bank like Appalachia matters.” We did that through simultaneous actions inside and outside the PNC meeting.

    Acting out of class scripts

    Stepping it up required letting go of deeply ingrained social class scripts. While the participants included many non-Quaker students and others, the majority of the activists had been brought up middle and upper-middle class. That class background conditions people to feel an obligation to fit in. Some activists may rebel in a moment of rage and break the rules, but it is after all a rebellion; the conditioning remains, ready to reclaim most children of the middle class when they finally settle down. EQAT (pronounced “equate”) decided that, instead of fitting in to PNC’s order of business, we would conduct our own meeting in the same space, with our own agenda.

    Our agenda violated another class script.

    The economic function of the middle class is to manage, teach and shape up the working class in the interest of the owning class. The worry that most middle class people feel — “Am I doing enough? Well enough?” — is an expression of the loyalty expected of them by the owning class. The direction of accountability is clear. One place you can see it these days is on college campuses, where even tenured faculty find unthinkable the idea of disloyalty to their masters, the 1 percenters who sit on the board of trustees.

    This time, in the PNC shareholder meeting EQAT reversed the class script.

    The well-prepared bank management

    PNC didn’t become one of the biggest banks in the United States by being unprepared for conflict. The 18 of us who had bought a share of stock or held proxies entered the auditorium of the August Wilson Center of African American Culture in pairs. PNC’s public relations director, Fred Solomon, immediately came to me, accompanied by the head of security.

    “When you give your award to Mr. Rohr,” he said, referring to our plan, “I’ll step forward to accept it on his behalf since he’ll be up on the stage at that time.”

    It was good to know they knew about our plan. Our nine pairs dispersed throughout the space and settled ourselves for our meeting. I joined my partner for the morning, Haverford College senior Samantha Shain. We sat on the end of a row about halfway back from the stage. I wanted room to maneuver because I was to be the first to break into the PNC agenda to make visible our own Quaker-meeting agenda.

    A few minutes later James Rohr himself, the outgoing CEO who was working the room before the meeting started, sauntered by to say hello to me and chat about nothing in particular, something I’m also pretty good at.

    By that time the board members had come in and occupied the first few rows of the auditorium. Rohr took his place on the stage, flanked by incoming CEO William Demchak and corporation secretary George Long. We EQAT-ers settled more deeply into our own silent meeting while the men on stage did the early part of their meeting’s agenda.

    I felt the intense inner prompting that I do at my Quaker meeting before I rise to speak, so I rose, holding the already-framed certificate, and very loudly announced our “award” to James Rohr for failing to bank like Appalachia matters. I looked into many shareholders’ eyes as I explained why we were so deeply concerned, and introduced Brandon Nida from West Virginia who went on to describe in a moving way the impact of PNC policies on his people.

    CEO Rohr intermittently tried to get his meeting back on track, but Amy Ward Brimmer didn’t make it easy when she stood to declare that, already, protesting depositors have moved over $3 million out of PNC.

    A part of PNC’s meeting we were happy to support was the shareholders’ resolution introduced by Boston Common Asset Management’s Meredith Benton. She called on the bank to recognize the reality of climate change and set up a study commission to consider how the bank will respond to the increasing crisis. Earlier, PNC management had refused to accept the shareholders’ resolution for its agenda until the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that it must.

    As with most corporations, PNC management controls the majority of stock. CEO Rohr declared that the majority of the shareholders voted down the resolution to set up a study commission on climate change.

    The roll call begins

    From another spot in the auditorium, Matthew Armstead announced that we would ask each board member if they would vote for sectoral exclusion of all mountaintop removal funding. At that point I expected that some of us would be arrested, considering the 20 plainclothes police surrounding us, supplemented by PNC’s own security. After an EQAT member called out a board member, we sang from our various parts of the room the old labor song, “Which Side Are You On?”

    As Jim Rohr tried repeatedly to re-focus the meeting on his agenda, our roll call of board members continued, with the familiar song repeated each time softly, Which side are you on? Rohr decided to drown us out with a PNC promotional video projected on a giant screen on the stage, cranking up the volume.

    We subsided during the video, then picked up our thread. I watched widely-respected Quaker women like Ann Yasuhara and Carolyn McCoy — brought up to obey the rules — make their truth more important than fitting in. I watched students act on their own behalf, insisting that institutions respect their future rather than protecting the dead hand of the past: “Jane Pepper, will you vote to end mountaintop removal funding?” Which side are you on?

    Rohr threw up his hands and declared the meeting adjourned. Ingrid Lakey sang the gospel and civil rights song “This Little Light of Mine,” and the rest of us joined with spirit as the shareholders slowly filed out, a few of them singing with us.

    Over 45 news outlets carried the story of the action, including Business Week and several front pages of newspaper business sections. Then the breakthrough came.

    1 percenters on the defensive

    After two and a half years of “no comment,” PNC finally felt forced to defend itself in the media. Readers will find in the Global Nonviolent Action Database quite a few campaigns by environmentalists forcing corporate change, some of which took five years and longer. The campaigns reached their breakthrough when the corporation realized that it could no longer brush the campaign aside but must respond.

    Gandhi once said — and I’m paraphrasing — “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a tent with a mosquito.”

    Now EQAT is ready to shift to individual accountability, following board members as they make their public appearances and holding them accountable for their choices — reversing roles with the 1 percent.

    We realize that doing so requires acting outside middle class conditioning. Of course we could energize our behavior by turning to rage, or self-righteousness — both of which I personally have in abundance. My big lesson from this spring, thanks to the 40-day fast that EQAT conducted to prepare ourselves for the confrontation in Pittsburgh, is that there is a third source of energy that jumps the middle class track.

    Instead of counting on rage, or self-righteousness, we can open the gate to solidarity, allowing deep caring and self-respect to lead us.

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