On Friday two bank branches in downtown Portland, one belonging to Bank of America and the other to Wells Fargo, were visited by around 30 activists concerned about the banks’ investments in dirty energy projects. If you didn’t already know, both banks are major lenders to Arch Coal, the second biggest coal company in the United States. Along with Austrialia-based Ambre Energy, Arch is responsible for a proposed coal export terminal on the Columbia River which would send tens of millions of tons of coal abroad each year through a port in Longview, Washington. Arch also owns the Otter Creek coal mine in Montana, which the company hopes to use as a source of coal to be exported.
Train loads of coal on their way from Otter Creek and other mines to the proposed coal port in Longview would expose Northwest residents to coal dust, diesel fumes, and noise pollution. It’s thus only fitting that on Friday two of Arch Coal’s major financers got a taste of what it feels like to have a coal train arrive on your home turf. A multi-car human “coal train” assembled by Reed College students burst through the doors and made the rounds of the bank lobby area, temporarily disrupting business as usual inside. Climate activists chanted “Hey hey, B of A: Stop investing in coal today!” And later, “Hey hey, Wells Fargo: You say coal, we say no!” Here’s what it looked (and sounded) like:
Just in case bank customers and employees were unclear about the reasons for the visit, a representative of the group read aloud a statement explaining how Wells Fargo and Bank of America are enabling Arch Coal’s dirty energy binge. Bank managers were also handed a letter from Reed College students asking the banks to pull their financing of coal export projects.
To me one of the best things about Friday’s action, which was a joint project of Portland Rising Tide and the Greenboard student group at Reed College, was the positive reception we got from people while marching from Portland’s Pioneer Square to the two bank branches, and even once inside the banks. Though I’m sure the action ruffled a few feathers in the banks’ management (that is sort of the point, after all), many customers seemed downright intrigued. We even got some interested smiles from bank customer service employees – who are not responsible for their employer’s decision to invest in coal, and may not even know the company they work for is financing coal export projects.
At no point on Friday did the atmosphere become seriously tense or antagonistic. Though Bank of America apparently had got word we were coming and posted a security guard outside, the guard made no attempt to stop us from entering the bank, and never challeneged the right of activists to express their displeasure with the Wall Street player’s invetsments. Yet while Friday’s action turned out to be a fun time for most people involved, the message climate activists were delivering is deadly serious.
To residents of the town of Longview and other communities impacted by coal export terminals and associated rail traffic, the fight against Arch Coal and Ambre Energy is no laughing matter. Organizers in these frontline communities are actively resisting the export proposal, and we activists in urban centers like Portland owe it to them to do our part. Sometimes this means working directly with frontline communities like the one in Longview. Sometimes it means zeroing in on the companies financing coal projects and holding them accountable.
That, of course, is exactly what Rising Tide and Reed College students did on Friday. Though we’re a long way from ending the destructive financing of Big Coal, a couple of bank branches in Portland certainly got the message that afternoon. And oh, yeah – now that Reed students have a human coal train costume in storage, downtown banks just might expect to see it again….