28 Jan

What Do We Want? Divestment

I had never gone to a protest before, until last Saturday. Things being what they are, I went to my second rally in the same week. Yesterday, I went to a “divestment block party” in downtown Sacramento.

I was hesitant to go protest in the middle of the work day. Ultimately, I decided that doing whatever I want in the middle of the day is my prerogative as someone who works from home. I arrived downtown early. Unnecessarily early, but I was nervous. I brought a backpack full of snacks and warm clothes, but I stupidly forgot my wallet. After debating about whether to go home to get it, I paid for parking using the car’s emergency stash of  quarters.

I walked around the block to the courtyard in front of the Well’s Fargo building, where the protest was scheduled to take place. I sat on a bench to wait, cold in the tower’s shade. Because I was so nervous about being early and didn’t see anyone else around, I texted the organizer to ask if people had met somewhere else, he told me they would arrive soon. Before the rest of the protesters showed up, a few cops on bicycles rolled in. Several Well’s Fargo employees came outside, joking that the protesters must have already come and gone.

A bike covered in knitting bearing a sign that says "Make America native again."

“If you’re not knitting bike cozies, you’re not paying attention,” one woman quipped to me.

People began to trickle in: two young women, another pair of women toting babies, a handful of professionally dressed people wearing neon green caps proclaiming them impartial legal observers, an old lady with a bicycle covered in knitting. I had never met the protest’s organizer before, but I sensed that the man with a bullhorn and a giant drum must be the guy. He said we would start soon, once the sound system arrived.

In the meantime, the police approached to let us know the rules. The protest organizer was not interested in speaking with the police, but a legal observer jumped in. I edged closer to find out what stance the cops were taking on the event. They told us we were not allowed to enter the bank or block the sidewalk. Because we didn’t have a permit, we were technically not allowed to be there but, the officer generously added, as long as we kept the noise level to a “dull roar,” they would let us stay.

The sound system—an amplifier in a wheelchair, with speakers perched on boards atop the armrests—arrived and the rally started in earnest. Another organizer started us in a round of chants. A woman handed out pieces of paper with lyrics.

Street by street, block by block, Sac stands with Standing Rock.

We got a good bit of a ruckus going, people started chanting louder, some were waving banners and signs with messages like “It’s easier to change banks than to clean water” and “Mni wiconi” (Lokotan for “Water is life.”). Once we were warmed up, an elder of the Lakota Sioux came to speak to us. He prayed in the Lakotan language, which was really interesting for me. He spoke to us about what is happening in Standing Rock, describing the actions there as domestic terrorism. As he talked, a women waved a type of incense around the group, in what I believe was a sort of blessing. Then, a woman of the local Miwok tribe spoke. She told us that native people here are also suffering. She said we need to focus on conserving water and that, after they are done attacking our water supply, the food supply would be next. She encouraged us all to use grey water systems and plant gardens. Then, she taught us a warrior song. Singing the song with the group felt powerful. I don’t know if it was the fact that we learned it from someone who has suffered, or because we were singing it together in a group, but it felt important.

Listening to native people speak about the oil pipeline affected me deeply. I admit that I have maintained a only surface level awareness of the DAPL protests in the last few months, but I had not looked too deeply into it. Maybe I knew that if I did, I would be horrified and I would need to act. You know what they say about ignorance. Hearing directly from native people about their connection to the land and how their lives are being destroyed was impactful. We learn so little about native peoples in school. What we do learn has a museum quality to it. This is what they believed, this is how they lived. But they live and they believe now.

After these speeches, they asked if anyone was ready to divest from Well’s Fargo. Two young women came forward and they were asked to kneel before the group. They bowed as if in prayer. We chanted and sang more. They asked if the women intending to divest wanted to say anything. One did. She held up documents from her new bank. She told us she feels she is a good person and she can’t stand by while her bank funds hate. She was on the verge of tears, and caught in something akin to religious zeal, she encouraged us all to leave our banks in search of banks that use their money to help people.

The women rose and the protesters walked them to the front door of the bank. A news camera sidled along the group. I stayed towards the edge, since my boyfriend begged me not to end up on the news during work hours (“It’s a long lunch,” I’d told him. “Still …” he demurred).

What do we want? Divestment!
When do we want it? Now!

The bank did not allow the women to enter. The police stood in front of the door. “They’re customers! Let them in” People shouted. Bank employees flitted about their fishbowl office. The young women held up their Well’s Fargo bank cards in front of the door. “We’re customers! We are your customers!” Soon a new chant swelled, “Let them in! Let them in!” People surged towards the door. The woman with the “It’s easier to change banks than to clean water” sign shouted at employees visible through the glass.

I saw three men wrench the bank door open from my spot at the back of the group. I had decided the best use of my person was to chant loudly, from the diaphragm, demanding justice. These men had decided their bodies were best used in a demonstration of force. I think at least one of them got arrested because I didn’t see any sign of the organizer after that, only another man toting the drum.

The door open, the bank employees yielded, welcoming the women inside. A cheer went up and a new chant began.

A people united will never be divided!
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

The crowd pulled back from the door and reestablished itself in the center of the courtyard. The mood was ebullient. The woman with the microphone asked if anyone had something they would like to say. One native woman asked the elder who had spoken earlier to sing the Native American national anthem. Then the son of another elder took the microphone. He was angry, angry that his dad was in the hospital, angry that the government continued to deny natives their rights. I don’t blame him. If I were protesting an oil pipeline and the government did what they’re doing in Standing Rock, I’d be pretty fucking mad too.

The women emerged from Well’s Fargo after what seemed like an hour. One held her bank reciept aloft. The crowd cheered again. Then, we were directed to march across the street to Bank of America whose funds also go to the DAPL.

You can’t drink oil. Keep it in the soil!

Bank of America is my bank. I’ve had been considering switching banks, but hadn’t yet done more than research. When we reached the bank, they asked, “Who is ready to divest?” I raised my hand and so did one other woman. “Let’s get you inside!” she declared. It was then I remembered my forgotten wallet. “Actually, I don’t have my wallet today. I feel really dumb,” I admitted before the crowd. We sent the other woman in alone and I held her bullhorn for her in a silent apology for my uselessness. Unlike Well’s Fargo, Bank of America gave its customer no trouble, perhaps because we hadn’t been causing trouble at their door for the last two hours. She was in and out in five minutes, announcing “They take your money fast, but they give it back just as quick.”

A building with a long banner reading "Divest No DAPL" hanging from the roof

The DIVEST banner hanging from Well’s Fargo

The march continued. We moved to the sidewalk across from Well’s Fargo. When we approached, we saw that someone had unfurled a banner heralding the cause: “DIVEST No DAPL.” Then the marchers grew truly excited. “We have support on the inside!” they hollered.

I decided that was a good time for me to leave.

This was an interesting experience. I knew it wasn’t going to be anything like the Women’s March, which was huge and had no trouble with the police. I didn’t know what to expect but it was great to feel like I was accomplishing something. I would think that 50 or 75 or however many people showed up does not look like much to a bank like Well’s Fargo, but the people inside sure looked worried. Only three people closed bank accounts that day, but I wonder if anyone else was influenced to take their business elsewhere. Just participating in this processed pushed me from “This is something I’m seriously considering” to “This is something I need to do right now.”

In fact, I’ve already started divesting myself from Bank of America. I’ve been talking to other people about ditching their bank. My sister said she would look at moving her direct deposit to her credit union account. My boyfriend is thinking it over too. These are small changes. I’m one person with less than $10,000 in my accounts. I would like to believe that these small actions are adding up. I went to the protest thanks to a small action. I saw that a friend was interested in going on Facebook and I decided that I should go. That’s why I have decided to write about the experience. I will also write about my experience of getting a new bank account after that is finished.

It seems like so much is happening so quickly right now, but all these current events are the culmination of years of work by right-wing jerks to dismantle what I consider to be civilized society. Let’s all take some small actions and get out of our comfort zones. We’re going to need all the help we can get.