Targets matter — why a small action group took on a mighty bank (and won)

(Facebook / EQAT)

(Facebook / EQAT)

After writing about Earth Quaker Action Team’s recent success in forcing PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, I received a number of strong reactions. Mingled with the congratulations, based on my involvement in the campaign, was a tone of surprise: How can a small group take on the seventh-largest bank in the country and win? Underneath that, I sensed the despair that unconsciously dims people’s sense of power in the United States. Americans can express rage or righteousness by protesting, but most don’t really expect to change anything.

The reactions made me realize I left out an important part of the story that proves the victory was no fluke and that U.S. activists can actually be producing far more victories in the current political landscape. The part I left out came at the beginning, in a Philadelphia living room, where Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT (pronounced “equate”) chose the goal and target for our campaign.

We knew from Quaker experience and that of the U.S. civil rights movement that small groups can organize nonviolent direct action campaigns that become bigger than the group itself. The Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, while still small, launched campaigns that attracted others who together made a difference. That was one example of many in which the direct action campaign grew larger than the group that organized it. The historical moment invited a multiplication. Growing activity generated a movement, a mass movement that had a far larger impact than the sum of its parts.

Like the civil rights movement, we knew in that living room that we were up against enormous odds in our fight for climate justice. To meet that challenge we realized that simple protest goes nowhere. We needed to design an ongoing campaign, to focus our energy and give us a chance to win something.

Each of us knew groups that had scattered their energy by trying to work on multiple issues at the same time. Without focus, small groups have no power and satisfy only their members’ wish to be righteous. We decided to focus our collective attention on one issue, and soon found that becoming focused assisted us in our personal lives to set clearer priorities and boundaries, and become individually more powerful as well. As it turned out, focused individuals bring more power and energy to a group. EQAT could therefore attract others and organize the 125 actions that pushed PNC Bank out of financing mountaintop removal.

The art of choosing a goal and target

Chasing an impossible dream does not build a movement, but combining a vision with a winnable shorter-term goal cuts the despair and gives us a chance. The majority of Americans — who, when polled want to take major steps away from carbon pollution — seem to believe they are politically powerless. After all, two-thirds of voters stayed away from the polls in 2014. The job of campaigners, therefore, should be to reverse these feelings of futility.

In that Philadelphia living room we looked for a goal that would be significant for people and the planet — yet, at the same time would be winnable. There was already in 2010 a resistance movement in Appalachia that had few allies outside the region. Mountaintop removal coal mining is one of the ugliest energy extraction practices there is. Beyond that, the coal it produces is not central to the economy. Maybe, we reasoned, we could help tip the scales with our campaign and assist the long-suffering Appalachian people to get some relief.

Wise strategy for small groups uses the concept of division of labor. So, we asked ourselves: What could EQAT do that no one else is doing, but would harmonize with others? The answer came to us: Find a target that plays a significant role in mountaintop removal and focus our attention on getting it to remove its participation.

High school civics textbooks emphasize the role of government in deciding major issues, so an obvious target — or decider — would be the federal government. Congress is, as mentioned, well controlled by the fossil fuel companies and a waste of time. The Environmental Protection Agency on the other hand, is controlled by the president, and we believed he was already on the side of the people and mountains of Appalachia. His problem was withstanding the pressure from the 1 percent, which largely determines the overall direction of the U.S. economy and a lot else.

With this in mind, we chose to target part of the 1 percent, a bank that was one of the major financiers of mountaintop removal. PNC Bank in particular tempted us for several reasons. Although its corporate headquarters was in Pittsburgh, it had a strong presence in the Delaware Valley, our home base. PNC was also the result of mergers, and one of the founding banks was a bank that was started and run by Quakers for many years. Finally, we were aware that PNC had branded itself as a “green bank” and was using that brand to appeal to customers, as it aggressively acquired new banks across the country.

These dispersed local branches gave access to multiple actions across a geographical range, similar to the segregated lunch counters throughout the South that were part of the Woolworth chain. We also knew that a high PNC official was vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major force inside the nation’s capital that has regularly given President Obama trouble when he has stood for people over profit. Further, bank campaigns are not new to organizers, and we could learn from others with experience. Another plus was that the Rainforest Action Network was willing to be our “big sister,” sharing its expertise with our neophyte campaigners.

Loaning to coal companies is determined by policies set by top management and the board — a.k.a. the “deciders.” Veteran activists who joined EQAT had trouble with this one, and kept urging that EQAT actions scatter energy by flyering passersby and other activities on the street that had no impact on decision-makers. Since the board’s input might have some weight with the CEO, we did “spotlighting actions” — crashing ceremonial occasions to confront individual board members when, for example, they were receiving an award, and even going to their houses and ringing their doorbells.

The larger reason to target a bank was the interface between the climate crisis and the economy. We believed it was no accident that the economic class that sets the direction for the United States refuses to take responsibility for climate consequences. That class already refuses responsibility for systemic injustice to people in our country who are vulnerable because of their race, class, age and gender. The 2008 Wall Street failure only underlined this reality and the culpability of banks in the broader disaster. While EQAT founders did not share a specific analysis or ideology, we could not fail to “read the signs of the times,” as the Bible recommends, and allow the larger reality to influence our campaign choice.

Making an exception

Once EQAT experienced the power of focusing on only a single campaign, the group made an exception. The national campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline was fighting another form of extreme extraction: the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands oil in Canada. The pipeline issue was reaching a critical point in the White House in 2012. EQAT was once more inspired by civil rights movement strategy — Quaker Bayard Rustin and other civil rights leaders understood that in a large and diverse country, local and national arenas of struggle sometimes need coordination.

After joining a couple of national stop-Keystone actions, EQAT catalyzed Keystone work in the Philadelphia area, running a series of trainings for the Pledge of Resistance, as well as leading a major civil disobedience action at the federal building.

For two years, EQAT participated intermittently in the national effort, adding another meaning to its emphasis on “teamwork.” However, it didn’t neglect its primary campaign and was happy to return exclusively to making it difficult for PNC Bank to do business-as-usual. The group brought busloads to the bank’s Pittsburgh headquarters and then mobilized 31 actions in 12 states and Washington, D.C., in December 2014. Its final action, requested by the Alliance for Appalachia, was “I Love Mountains Day” during the week of Valentine’s Day in February.

The following month, PNC agreed to give up financing the two largest companies doing mountaintop removal coal mining. Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, the giant Barclay’s Bank had seen which way the wind was blowing and announced its own withdrawal from mountaintop removal.

As banks withdraw from destroying Appalachia and its people, President Obama and the EPA get more cover for their wish not to grant permits for mountaintop removal. The frontline fighters get relief, the carbon pollution lessens, and people everywhere who care about climate justice gain hope. Our small EQAT group became much larger by taking on a new, more ambitious goal and target, confirming our suspicion from the beginning: the power of a campaign is related to its design.

After much partying, EQAT is busy discerning its next campaign.

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