Snow blanketed downtown Seattle on Monday and delayed until Tuesday a much-anticipated city council meeting. One day later than planned, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution divesting its $3 billion operating account from Wells Fargo Bank. Cheers went up after the Seattle divestment vote was taken. Native activists and other #NoDAPL supporters stood and began chanting, “Water is Life!” and “Mni Wiconi!” in the council chamber.
Four inches of snow delayed the expected victory, almost as if Native ancestors of the water protectors knew the Army Corps of Engineers was going to announce on Tuesday it had changed its mind and was now allowing DAPL construction to continue. This gut-wrenching announcement after months of conflict was softened by news of the victory in Seattle, softened, it seems, by the snow.
We ain’t playin’
“We need to send these banks a message,” Standing Rock Sioux member Matt Remle said in a live broadcast from the council chamber just prior to the Seattle divestment vote. “We need to send Energy Transfer a message that we ain’t playin’.”
Remle, a longtime Native activist in the Northwest, co-authored the original bill along with Council Member Kshama Sawant. It was introduced to the council on December 12, then went to the city’s finance committee, subsequently receiving several amendments intended to beef-up the city’s policies for doing business with only ethical companies that do not invest in fossil fuels.
As an editor and writer for LastRealIndians, Remle has been at the forefront of the movement in the Northwest opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline and also helped organize divestment demonstrations at many Wells Fargo branches. As he spoke before the meeting, his dedication and passion were evident.
“This is piggy-backing on the announcement by the Army Corps that they’re granting easement to drill. And while it’s not an unexpected decision, it’s a hard one.”
Remle’s eyes glistened and his voice hesitated. Months of effort to organize, inform and encourage Native people in the Northwest to stand up and peacefully fight back against the pipeline pushed his passion briefly to the surface.
“It’s a real call for other cities, other tribes, to go... and do things... like this,” he said, pointing to the full house inside the council chamber waiting for the meeting to begin.
What is divestment?
Divestment is a form of boycott and boycotts have a long, honored tradition as a way of bringing about social change. In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi opposed British rule in India and promoted a boycott of British clothing, encouraging his followers to buy only goods made in India. In 1955 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. headed a boycott of the busses in Montgomery, Alabama after activist Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving her seat to a white person. Both boycotts were considered successful by historians.
Divestment is the opposite of investment. When you invest, you put money into something to make money, in this case a bank. When you divest, you take your money out. Anyone can divest. Individuals can pull their money out the same as city governments.
The key concept with the divestment movement is that it can potentially do much more damage than a simple boycott. By urging cities and tribal governments to divest from Wells Fargo, much more money could potentially be pulled out than with an ordinary boycott. Divestment is a turbo-charged form of boycott.
Celebration after the Seattle divestment vote
Native supporters including Seattle activist, storyteller and musician Paul Cheoketen Wagner of the Vancouver Island Saanich tribe and Standing Rock Sioux member Olivia One Feather gathered in the lobby of Seattle City Hall after the vote and sang the AIM Honoring Song. The gathering of well over 100 supporters sang as a way of giving thanks to the city council. The cloud of disappointment about the Army Corps of Engineer’s decision dissipated like mist in the morning sun as the gathering sang.
“If you can’t be on be the front lines at Standing Rock,” Matt Remle said in his pre-meeting LastRealIndians live Facebook stream, “you can go to your city council. You can go to your tribal council. You yourself can divest your money from Wells Fargo, Bank of America or U.S. Bank.”
The pain of being burned by the Army Corps of Engineers, who said one thing in December and then did the complete opposite in February, was soothed by the cool, healing balm of the Native victory of the Seattle divestment. Remle says his team of divestment activists are currently speaking with other city governments about divestment in Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Monday’s snowstorm in Seattle was perhaps a sign. Had the victory been held Monday, the singing and celebrating would have been ruined the next day when the Army Corps made its announcement. But the snow bumped it back one day, providing encouragement in the face of defeat, letting the water protectors know they are not fighting alone.