Dozen Arrested in Protest Linking Banking Industry to Climate Change
Demonstrators painted a mural at the intersection of Montgomery and Bush streets. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)
Twelve people were arrested and 200 marched through the streets of San Francisco’s Financial District, in a Monday morning protest targeting the banking industry’s ties to climate change.
Around 9 a.m., four people locked themselves together in the lobby of Bank of the West on Bush Street, forcing police to shut the building’s main entrance for almost two hours.
Outside, demonstrators chanted “The waters are rising! No more compromising!” as they painted the intersection of Bush and Montgomery streets with the words “#floodthesystem Stop Climate Chaos Profiteers.” More than 100 people occupied the intersection for over an hour, waving flags and banners. When police ordered them to move to the sidewalk, seven people remained seated with locked arms, awaiting arrest.
Scott Parkin, with Flood Wall Street West, says the French company BNP Paribas, which owns Bank of the West, is an investor in coal, and is sponsoring COP 21, the latest round of U.N. climate talks to be held in Paris. He called BNP Paribas a “climate criminal.”
“They’re a company significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, global warming. But then also they’re using the COP to kind of greenwash that image -- as PR spin to make them look good, even though they are a climate perpetrator,” said Parkin.
Jess Serrante spent the morning inside Bank of the West’s lobby holding a sign that said “Capitalism = Climate Chaos.” Because she was not locked to anyone, police let her leave before arresting four protesters and a legal observer.
“The statement that we’re making is that current business as usual, there’s no place for it anymore,” said Serrante. “We have to create a change if we are going to stop climate chaos, and Bank of the West is contributing to that problem.”
Bank of the West did not respond to a request for comment. But one of the bank’s employees was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the building, looking distressed.
“This is my worst nightmare right now,” explained Beverly Pitzer, the bank’s Community Reinvestment Act operations officer. She said she previously “dropped out of the corporate world because of the atrocities for the climate and for social justice.” But this protest had her allegiances torn.
“We are in dire straits with the planet, and at the same time I know that the group I work in has the community’s best interest," she said. "We are here to make sure that low-income people are getting loans and getting access to grants, and so that group is doing the right thing.”
Pitzer said she was on her way to work Monday morning when she received an alert on her phone about the protest. She didn’t want to enter the building through the side door, as that would have felt like “crossing a picket line.”
“Low-income communities are going to be the hardest hit, and they already are the hardest hit in climate change. So the work that my team is doing is going to have a direct positive impact,” said Pitzer. “I feel good about my work here, I feel good about the team I work for. So I’m in the middle holding both.”
The demonstration also targeted Wells Fargo and Chevron, in an attempt to link the financial and fossil fuel industries. San Francisco’s Financial District has become known as “Wall Street West” to many activists.
Parkin said the focus is also practical.
“Are you gonna actually ask an oil company to stop drilling for oil? Whereas you can ask a bank to stop financing that oil company,” Parkin said.
“We’ve got unseasonal heat waves, a lot of flooding in different parts of the world," Martinez said. "And a lot of what these corporations have been investing in or lobbying against in order to continue to build their profit is impacting everyday people and their environment."
Tayla Elom acknowledged the general public may not have made the links between financial capital and dirty energy.
“Hopefully it does ignite a conversation of ‘How is Wells Fargo actually related to the climate? I don’t understand?’… If people start that conversation, that’s a huge thing. That’s bringing awareness to something that people are unaware of in the first place,” said Elom.
By 11 a.m., the intersection was clear. Five protesters had been arrested for trespassing, and seven more for failing to obey a traffic officer.
Parkin says he doesn’t expect much from the U.N. talks in Paris. But there will be more demonstrations in the lead-up to U.N. climate negotiations in December.
“It’s part of a bigger series, which is going after these corporations for destroying our communities,” said Martinez.
“There are so many reasons to be out here today,” Elom said. “This is not just about stopping one form of oppression, but really looking at the global system we’ve created here in the U.S. and seeing how it’s not working, and how it’s dysfunctional and trying to find ways to communicate that dysfunction.”