On Tuesday, word came from Washington, D.C. that the Trump administration would be issuing the final easement needed to complete the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The announcement was a deep blow to the Standing Rock Sioux. The tribe has been protesting the pipeline for months, along with environmentalists and social justice activists from around the world. Their resistance culminated in President Barack Obama’s decision to halt the project in December — a hard-fought victory seemingly wiped away in a matter of weeks.
But hours later, across the country, something different happened in Washington state. On a chilly afternoon, cheers and chants of “Mni Wiconi,” or “Water is Life,” erupted outside Seattle City Hall as news broke that the city council had unanimously voted to sever ties with Wells Fargo over the bank’s funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In deciding not to renew its contract with Wells Fargo when it expires in 2018 — effectively removing some $3 billion in city funds from the bank — Seattle became the first major city in the country to sever ties with the bank over its relationship to the pipeline.
The people behind the movement say they have two main goals: first, they want to send a clear message to the bank, which has given more than half a billion dollars in funding to developers of the project, that Seattle doesn’t support the pipeline. And looking beyond Seattle, they hope to serve as a model for other communities looking for new ways to resist fossil fuel infrastructure. The second goal already appears to be working — just hours after Seattle severed ties with Wells Fargo, the city of Davis, California, followed suit.
“One of the reasons the movement has adopted divestment as a strategy to build itself even further is because you have to hit the bosses where it hurts, meaning on their financial bottom line,” Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who co-sponsored the bill, told ThinkProgress. “But it’s much deeper than that. It’s about using tactics like divestment in order to build a far more powerful movement from below, a movement that can use victories like today to become more combative and audacious.”
As the Trump administration prepares to set in motion the pro-fossil fuel energy agenda that Trump promised during the campaign, much attention has turned to cities, which generally skew more progressive than the country at large. Along the West Coast — and in the Pacific Northwest, specifically — cities have begun looking into implementing policies aimed at stopping the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure, even as the federal government forges ahead on pipelines.
Creating a movement
Seattle is no stranger to progressive citywide politics. It was the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage, and is the only major city with a member of the Socialist Alternative party — Sawant — on the city council. It also has a relatively large indigenous population, with more 29 federally-recognized Native American tribes located in Washington state. And that made it the perfect place to lead a movement joining opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline — raising serious questions of treaty rights and tribal sovereignty — with opposition to an ethically questionable financial giant.
“It’s about using tactics like divestment in order to build a far more powerful movement from below.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline captivated national attention for months as thousands of protesters clashed with local and federal officials in North Dakota; that fight offered Seattle activists a concrete issue around which to coalesce a resistance movement. Starting in August, Native groups in Seattle began discussing what was happening in North Dakota, and how they could help draw attention to, and support, the protest movement beginning to grow there.
“At that time, there was virtually no media out at Standing Rock,” Matt Remle, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who lives in Seattle and helped plan both the initial Seattle rallies and, eventually, the banking ordinance, told ThinkProgress.
The Seattle movement started small — a group of maybe 50 people, almost all Native, rallied in a park to oppose the pipeline. The rally drew modest media attention, and garnered support from a handful of city politicians. Afterwards, Remle and other Native organizers decided to keep the momentum going by organizing rallies and demonstrations against the pipeline on a regular basis.
“We know that Seattle is a major media market and things that we do here tend to get noticed,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of media attention turn our way, and we were able to utilize that to not only increase our presence in Seattle but the visibility more broadly.”
Around the same time Remle was working to stoke the embers of a Native-led movement into a city-backed campaign, he was also looking into the strategy of divestment, as a means of both amplifying direct action and getting the attention of the companies funding the pipeline — Wells Fargo, Citibank, Citizens Bank. In October, he reached out to Sawant’s office with a question: What were the odds that Sawant would be interested in working with Remle on a bill aimed at severing ties between Wells Fargo and the city of Seattle?
It wasn’t just the Dakota Access Pipeline that inspired Remle and Sawant to draft the bill. They opposed the bank’s investment in private prisons, and it’s scandal involving phony bank accounts. And they saw the divestment push as a chance to radically alter the way the city of Seattle does business with banks, drafting language that mandates a set of socially responsible practices that must be given considerable weight when deciding which banks to do business with in the future.
“They wanted to ensure that it isn’t just we divest from Wells Fargo and then reinvest in Bank of America — they wanted to establish a criteria strengthening their preexisting socially responsible banking requirements,” Remle said. “I think that aspect is pretty amazing; it’s not only sending a message to Wells Fargo, but to other banks.”
More than a single pipeline
It took more than two months for the city council to agree to take up Sawant’s socially-responsible banking bill, which she introduced last fall, before the Dakota Access protests received much mainstream attention. That the vote to sever ties with Wells Fargo took place just hours after news broke that the final easement would be granted was pure happenstance — the vote was supposed to take place on Monday, but was delayed a day due to snow. But as much as the paradoxical timing was a stark reminder of how incremental victories can be easily wiped out by a president who, despite presenting himself as a populist, shows little regard for the will of the people, it was also a testament to the awesome power of tenacious grassroots organizing.
There is some hope that the success of the Seattle initiative will bolster the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is likely to face intense opposition both in the courts and in the streets. Protests, rallies, and marches voicing opposition to Trump and his policies have ballooned in the weeks since his inauguration, but there can be a disconnect between voicing opposition to a policy and enacting policies to counteract it. For protesters looking for a tangible way to throw sand in the gears of the Trump administration, Seattle offers a blueprint for social action turned into successful city policy.
“To my knowledge, Seattle is the first city to divest from Wells Fargo, but I don’t have any doubt in my mind that this is going to grow, not only because the #NoDAPL movement itself has been strengthening, but because this is happening in a unique political context,” Sawant said. “There is a mood of rebellion in America. The majority of working people in America are in no mood to negotiate with Trump. This movement is going to grow in that context as well.”
The movement is already growing. Organizers from Seattle are currently engaged in conversation with organizers up and down the West Coast, from Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles, helping strategize how to translate the success of Seattle’s ordinance into something other cities can replicate. Seattle organizers are also working with tribes to encourage tribal divestment. The Muckleshoot Indian tribe has already divested from Wells Fargo, and Remle expects other tribes to adopt a similar strategy.
“Seattle is not a one-time, one-shot thing,” Remle said. “Our plans all along have been a multiple city, multiple tribe approach.”
But for residents of Seattle — especially Native American residents — the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline is about more than a single pipeline, or a single bank. In the conflict over treaty rights and indigenous land, they see a struggle similar to one that they have been engaged in for years in the Pacific Northwest.
For more than half a decade, oil, coal, and natural gas companies have been eyeing the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California as potential gateways to overseas markets, proposing a rash of export terminals and refineries meant to receive fossil fuel from the center of the country and send it out to the rest of the world. And a number of those refineries or export terminals happen to fall on tribal land — or would require coal and oil trains to traverse large stretches of tribal land and travel precariously close to tribal fishing waters.
“There is a mood of rebellion in America. The majority of working people in America are in no mood to negotiate with Trump.”
“We are by no means focusing solely on the Dakota Access Pipeline or Keystone. It’s also about these projects out here on the West Coast as well,” Remle said. “It’s the new Louisiana, basically.”
Tribes in Washington have notched a series of victories against these projects in recent years — most recently, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreeing that a proposed coal terminal in northern Washington would violate the treaty rights of the Lummi Nation. But as the Dakota Access reversal shows, those victories are tenuous, especially under the Trump administration.
Remle, who heard about the decision to grant the easement while waiting to testify in support of the Seattle ordinance on Tuesday, described the moment as bittersweet. But he hopes those opposed to the pipeline — and fossil fuel infrastructure in general — will find both hope and inspiration in what the Seattle movement has already accomplished.
“We are digging in for this fight on multiple fronts and various different levels, whether in the courts or in the camps or folks bringing it to their community for divestment,” Remle said. “Getting this vote done today sends a strong message not only to supporters but to the banks, to Energy Transfer, and to this administration, that we are not backing down.”