This blog post is by Geoff Gardner of West Fairlee, Vermont. Geoff is a member of a No KXL activist group in the state’s Upper Valley.
This is a story about the first action, last June 16th, of our little NoKXL affinity group in the Upper Valley of Vermont. But it’s also a story about a kind of event activists can’t e
xpect to happen every time they hit the streets but find inspiring whenever anything like it does occur.
Our group is made up of twenty or so people most of whom have signed the pledge—sponsored by Rainforest Action Network, Credo and The Other 98%—to risk arrest resisting the Keystone XL pipeline. Most of us have also attended one of the non-violent direct action training sessions held in our part of Vermont early this spring and last fall.
On the expectation that the State Department and the White House would decide to issue—or not issue—the pipeline permit some time in May, our plan was to assemble as many people as possible in Montpelier, the Vermont capital, if and when the announcement to issue the permit was made. Our idea was that after rallying at the State House we would march the few blocks to TD Bank, where members of our affinity group would block the entrance to the bank, risking arrest.
TD Bank is one of the ten largest banks in American and is a member of the TD Bank Group conglomerate, owned by Toronto-Dominion Bank, the second largest banking institution in Canada. Taken together, TD Asset Management and Toronto-Dominion Bank own more than $1.8 billion in TransCanada stock, making TD the company’s second largest shareholder. TransCanada is the company that is exploiting tar sands in Alberta and seeking to build the Keystone XL pipeline across the U.S., to carry tar sands from the Canadian/U.S. border to the Gulf of Mexico where it would be shipped out to enter the global oil market.
TD Bank is also the most important way the State of Vermont is implicated in the environmental damage and destruction caused by TransCanada’s tar sands extraction in Alberta and in the enormous human and environmental hazards posed by the Keystone XL pipeline here in the U.S. This is because Vermont deposits most
of its cash, some 66% of it, in TD Bank. In 2013 alone, Vermont paid TD Bank more than $787,000 in fees. This is why we wanted to demonstrate at the Vermont State House and then risk arrest at TD Bank if and when the KXL pipeline was approved in May.
But then in the middle of April, the White House and the State Department announced the permit decision would be delayed, quite possibly till after the November mid-term elections. The reasons they cited for the delay were their need to review the unprecedented 2.5 million public comments submitted on the issue as part of the permitting process and the need to await an appellate court’s decision on a Nebraska case that could result in relocating the route of the pipeline. With this delay in mind, our group’s consensus was that we should delay our plan to risk arrest until a decision to permit the KXL pipeline was issued, whenever that might occur. At a meeting in May, we decided that in preparation for this we would build a context for our act of civil disobedience by educating the public as well as we can about TransCanada’s
extreme extraction of tar sands in Alberta, the Keystone XL pipeline, TD Bank’s participation in both and the State of Vermont’s use of TD Bank. To do this we agreed to demonstrate in Montpelier as frequently as we can, raising and explaining all these issues.
June 16th was the date we picked for our first demonstration. In preparation, members of the group made signs, learned a song to sing, produced a huge banner a
bout the pipeline on one side and about TD Bank’s involvement in it on the other side, and wrote up an informational leaflet, again about the pipeline on one side and TD Bank on the other. A number of the artists among us also invented and produced a huge protest puppet on wheels, dubbed Mama Keystone. All this done, we were ready to go.
In this state where weather can be one kind of challenge of another in all four seasons of the year, we had the best possible luck. June 16th was a brilliantly sunny, clear and beautifully warm spring day. We assembled a while before noon on the sidewalk in front of the State House, being careful to keep off the capital lawns as the lone security guard on the scene asked us to do. Soon we were ready to hand out our leaflet and raise our banner and our signs. We got Mama Keystone up on her wheels, began to sing our song as we headed off slowly down State Street toward TD Bank at the corner of State
and Main. Walking slowly and pausing from time to time to sing and display our message to the lunchtime crowd, we were cheered by the large number of passers by who offered words of encouragement and the many passing drivers who honked and waved at us. I think we were all happy to see how many people seemed to be well informed about the KXL pipeline issue already. And I for one did not hear a single person challenge or jeer us on the issue. A number of people freely grouched and grumped at us for the room we were taking up on the sidewalk as they rushed along to do their lunch hour errands—understandable enough in a town and on a street where nearly every day one group or another demonstrates on every issue imaginable.
When we reached Main Street, we lined up at the curb in front of the entrance to TD Bank. From this vantage point, the windows of the bank looked opaque and the building rather forbidding and impenetrable. I found myself wondering if the people inside the bank, and especially the bank officers, were even aware that we were outside demonstrating—and demonstrating specifically against their bank. And then something quite remarkable happened.
Here’s how it seemed to happened from my end. I asked one of our organizers whether he thought it would be a good idea to go into the bank and give the manager one of our fact sheets. He hesitated and then asked if I thought it was a good idea. I said I thought it was a great idea. I took one of the flyers and headed to the door just a few steps away. As I approached it, I found I was right behind Nina, my oldest friend in our group. We seemed to have had the same idea at exactly the same minute. This made me laugh.
“Oh good!” I said. “I’d like to leave one of these leaflets with you. I’m with the demonstration outside, and I think you’ll be interested in this information.” I turned the flyer over and pointed to the TD Bank logo up at the top of the page. His eyes opened wide and he began to read.Then I noticed that Nina apparently was heading inside with a young woman just ahead of her who had a very determined look on her face and in her bearing. Once we three were inside the bank, the young woman took her place in line for the next teller, and Nina told me she had handed one of our leaflets to this young woman, who said she knew all about the pipeline issue, had been to Washington to demonstrate against KXL and was in complete agreement with us. Nina had then turned the fact sheet over and asked, “But do you know this?” The young woman was startled by TD Bank’s involvement in TransCanada. She said she was heading into the bank anyway and now was going to withdraw all her money because of the pipeline. Nina waited in line with her, and I headed down in the direction of the offices and the bankers sitting at desks with their computers and their clients.
In the very last room in a corner, a man in his early forties and dressed very casually was sitting at a computer his back turned toward me. I walked into the room and stood at the far end of the conference table between us. He turned, smiled pleasantly and asked if he could help me. I asked if he was the manager. Rather proudly he said, “Yes, I’m the manager and a vice-president.”
I went back out to where Nina was waiting while the young woman was negotiating her business with the teller. Soon the manager/vice-president came out of his room and walked toward us. As he walked behind the counter to where the tellers were, he asked if the could do something for us. I said we were with the young woman. In a pause, I pointed him out to the young woman and said he was the manager and vice-president and maybe it would be a good idea to tell him what she was doing. She nodded happily in agreement.
Nina and I went back outside and rejoined our demo. A while later, I saw the young woman come out of the bank. She didn’t see me, and I didn’t notice if she and Nina had any further conversation.
Walking back to the State House with Nina and her husband Doug once the demo was over, we paused outside a café just short of the bridge across the river on State Street. We stood there talking for a while, and before very long that same young woman came along down the sidewalk and approached us. She stopped and happily told us she had in fact withdrawn all her life’s savings—$15,000—from TD Bank. She even showed us the teller’s check in her bag. As she was also happy to tell us, she made a point of informing the manager/vice-president about what she had done, explaining her action in relation to the bank’s involvement with TransCanada and the pipeline. Apparently he wrote down as much as he could of what she was telling him and said he would bring it to the attention of his higher-ups. She asked where we thought she might best deposit that big check of hers, and Doug suggested whatever credit union was closest for her. She took another one of our flyers and may eventually be in touch with us. This hasn’t happened yet, but she already is on the 350.org list.
It was the courage and spontaneous decisiveness of this young woman that impressed us most. But I think we all were also inspired by the obvious fact that our hour on the street had informed and sparked at least one person strongly enough so that she took an action of her own that sharply and immediately brought to the bank’s attention our presence, why we were there and the possible consequences for the bank of our presence on their corner.
I think the next time we arrive, TD Bank will be quite a bit more aware of us, and that manager and vice-president may be smiling a little less pleasantly than he was in June.