When Earth Quaker Action Team began in 2010 in a living room in Philadelphia it faced a fundamental question: How can a small group leverage maximum power to forward climate justice?
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 they are. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), while still small, launched campaigns that attracted others who together made a difference. That was one example of many in which the 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.
Given this model of how to act powerfully when up against enormous odds, EQAT (pronounced “Equate”) therefore needed to choose a campaign. When it comes to environment, the economy, and climate justice there are many tempting options. We realized that we needed to choose one only.
Each of the EQAT founders knew groups that scatter their energy by trying to work on multiple issues at the same time. Without focus, such groups have no power and satisfy only their members’ wish to be righteous. EQAT members 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!
We were aware that the enormity of climate change was arousing despair in many informed people, and that despair is itself an obstacle to change. Stopping Exxon/Mobil from producing oil would be terrific for the climate, but in the short run a hopeless cause. Why set ourselves and others up for despair? Campaigning for a meaningful carbon tax would likewise be futile, since the fossil fuel companies arguably have already bought Congress. The majority of Americans who, when polled, want to take major steps away from carbon pollution already believe they are politically powerless. (Two-thirds of voters stayed away from the polls in 2014). Is it the job of campaigners to reinforce feelings of futility?
We looked, therefore, for a step that would be significant for people and planet and at the same time would be winnable. Already there was, 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, and is widely seen that way. Mountaintop removal coal is not central to the economy. Maybe, we reasoned, we could help tip the scales with our small campaign and assist the long-suffering Appalachian people to get some relief.
Wise strategy for small groups uses the concept of division of labor: what could EQAT do that no one else is doing, but would harmonize with others? We could find a target that plays a significant role in mountaintop removal and focus our attention on removing its participation. (We join the Midwest Academy’s use of the word “target:” the person or group that is a “decider,” and could therefore make a different choice.)
High school civics textbooks emphasize the role of government in deciding major issues, so an obvious target would be federal legislators or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the federal executive branch. Federal legislators are, as mentioned, already controlled by the fossil fuel companies.* The EPA, however, is controlled by the President, and we believed President Obama was already (cautiously) on the side of the people and mountains of Appalachia.
EQAT chose to target a bank that was one of the major financiers of mountaintop removal, PNC Bank. The bank 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 the result of mergers, and one of the founding banks was a bank that was started and run by Quakers for many years. PNC made much of its brand as a “green bank.” PNC’s 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.
PNC was aggressively acquiring new banks across the country and counting on its branding to establish itself well in new communities. We knew that a high PNC official was vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major force inside the Beltway that gave trouble to President Obama when he stood for the people. 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 – the “deciders” are clear. 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.
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 U.S. 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 learned to tolerate the discipline of focusing on only a single campaign, the group made an exception. EQAT was fighting a form of “extreme extraction,”
and the national campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline was fighting another: exploiting the Alberta tar sands oil in Canada. The pipeline issue was reaching a
critical point in Washington. 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 sometimes need coordination. EQAT catalyzed Keystone work in the Philadelphia area, running a series of trainings for the national Pledge of Resistance and leading a major civil disobedience action at the federal building.
Once fulfilling its commitment, EQAT returned to the carefully-boundaried work on Bank Like Appalachia Matters! that led to victory.
*In April, 2014, Princeton University released a study by two political scientists based on research on public issues in the period 1981-2002. They found that when the majority of Americans wanted a change and mobilized through electoral means for their point of view, but the economic elite didn’t want it, the elite vetoed the change. The BBC coverage called it “the oligarchy study.” EQAT’s first website previously shared the observation made by billionaire Warren E. Buffett to the New York Times in 2006 when asked about power dynamics: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
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