Last September, as water protectors faced down militarized police in North Dakota’s rural riverlands, activists in Seattle set out to withdraw municipal money from banks backing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Above all, they sought to cut their city’s ties to Wells Fargo, the Wall Street leviathan that has generously financed and serviced the pipeline’s parent companies.
From the start, the Seattle agitators saw their effort as the spark that might ignite a nationwide divestment drive. They meant to be a model.
“We knew if we succeeded here we could create ripple effects in other communities around the country,” says Matt Remle, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a leading anti-DAPL organizer in the city.
Divestment campaigners worked with allies on the Seattle City Council, especially Councilmember Kshama Sawant, to draft and introduce an ordinance that would effectively bar the local government from doing business with or investing in Wells Fargo in the future. It was an ambitious ask: Seattle was deeply intertwined with the bank, cycling about $3 billion through the institution each year.
At first, according to Remle, the remaining members of the council were slow to take up and discuss the ordinance. The divestment organizers responded with grassroots pressure: Activists packed City Council chambers, gave testimony at public hearings, staged mass protests at Wells Fargo branches, and even held a house party where people persistently (but politely) called the council president’s phone line.
On February 7, the determined DAPL foes finally got their way. The City Council, in a unanimous vote, committed to severing Seattle’s relationship with Wells Fargo. In their ordinance, the lawmakers condemned the bank for its “dishonest business practices” as well as its pipeline dealings and declared that they would shun the financial giant when its city contract comes up for renewal in 2018. (The council has yet to select an alternative bank or credit union to do business with.)
It was a big win for anti-DAPL activists. It was also just the beginning.
Since the legislation passed, “hundreds of activists around the country have contacted us by e-mail or social media or on the phone,” says Seattle City Council member Sawant, an outspoken socialist politician and committed street activist. “They are asking us: How did you win this? What did you do to build this movement? They want to know what they can do in their cities.”