It’s been almost six months since Seattle announced a break-up with Wells Fargo over their financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline and other unethical practices. Alameda, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Berkeley, New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles have since followed. But have these cities actually divested? The short answer is no.
Each city has a unique set of laws and politics for divestment activists to untangle. Oakland tried to fully divest in March, with city council members voting to drop J.P. Morgan Chase as the city’s bank. But when they realized that city employees and contractors wouldn’t get paid without a different bank to replace Chase, they reneged on their vote and decided to stay with Chase for another year. Even if they had dropped Chase that evening, the city may have ended up making Philadelphia’s mistake by swapping out one Wall Street bank for another. Nearly all of the Big Banks are involved in one form of unethical practice or another—pipelines, prisons, other fossil fuel projects, weapons manufacturing, you name it. Therefore, the trick for divestment activists is to implement policies that direct the city away from Wall Street altogether.
So what are we moving, exactly? City monies are often split into two categories, similar to checking and savings accounts. The cash that is used for ongoing expenses, like employee paychecks, are kept with Big Banks. Seattle has $3 billion of cash flowing through Wells Fargo accounts annually, San Francisco has $8 billion in Bank of America accounts, LA has $8 billion in Wells Fargo accounts, and so on. All other funds not necessary for short-term use are invested or brokered. To the best of my knowledge, only San Francisco and Los Angeles have passed divestment legislation affecting investments. All cities are focusing on where to move the cash. There are a few options to move the cash, and Mazaska Talks is sorting out the best option with partners like SF Defund DAPL Coalition, Divest LA, and Defenders of Mother Earth-Huichin (Oakland).
Credit Unions – Credit Unions are non-profit entities owned by the depositors, who each have a vote and thus, a means by which to hold the governing board of the credit union accountable. A city could invest in a credit union but the investment would be limited to $250,000. That is the maximum insured by the FDIC, not nearly enough for even a small city’s daily cash needs. For example, San Francisco would need more than all the credit unions that exist in California to house the city’s cash.
Community Banks – Community Banks are for-profit but have pro-social or pro-environment missions, but like credit unions, they also have only limited coverage from the FDIC. These banks are not yet mainstream enough and thus not wealthy enough to have enough evidence of security to guarantee large deposits.
Other private banks – there are banks that do not fund the Dakota Access Pipeline, other pipelines, or private prisons, but they are still for-profit and not owned by or accountable to ordinary citizens. A good rule is, the bigger share of the market they have, the worse they are for indigenous people and the Earth.
Public banking – a public bank is a non-profit entity that is owned by the public. Only one has survived to 2017, and that is, ironically, the Bank of North Dakota. North Dakota is the only state to be in continuous budget surplus since the banking crisis of 2008. This is the option divestment activists are exploring today.
One argument against public banking contends that the Bank of North Dakota (BND) is only successful because it relies on fossil fuel investment. This is only a partial explanation, according to public banking expert Ellen Brown. An increase in access to credit via BND has allowed the state to keep money and banking reserves in the state. The rest of us keep our money in large private banks, which often “lend the funds out-of-state, invest them in speculative trading strategies,” and do not return any of their earnings back to the state treasury.
Yes, BND is a friend of the fossil fuel industry, and backed the militarized law enforcement at Standing Rock, but this is because there is no ethical framework in the Bank’s founding documents. That does not have to be the case for our municipal banks. We can ensure that the bank’s charter outlines what a pro-Earth, de-colonial, and pro-human rights bank would look like. Another challenge to keep in mind, though, is the riskiness of the legislative process and its outcomes. Indigenous people are no stranger to American governments’ tendency to write one thing on a piece of paper and do another. It will take sustained political pressure in the charter-making process for human and environmental rights to be honored in the future dealings of a public bank. Public pressure on specific government officials are most effective here.
The effort to establish a public bank is bound to encounter hurdles. Politicians who craft economic regulations are often beholden to big banks with lobbying power. However, it is important to remember that the divestment movement has proven that politicians can be swayed by public pressure. We are uniquely positioned in this moment to incorporate human & environmental rights into a bank’s charter. This includes a commitment to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples and to the sanctity of the Earth.
As well, indigenous people must model the change we are asking of others. Tribes need to be either creating their own banks or, at least, contracting with another Tribal-owned bank as a matter of Tribal sovereignty, economic development, and tribal dignity. Tribes must stop giving money to banks that violate their own self-determination. Here is a list of 18 Indian-owned banks that could provide advice to tribes looking to start their own banks.
Whether we’re on- or off-rez, all of us must continue to be seen as knowledgeable, strategic, and driven opponents by these institutions, matching their aggressive greed for profits with at least the same strength of determination our people showed at Standing Rock.