Quakers March for Eco-Justice

On November 18, 2010, I walked into the Martin Luther King Jr. room of Friends Center in Philadelphia, Pa., where I was immediately greeted by Ingrid Lakey, one of the organizers of a group called Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT (pronounced "equate"). The purpose of this gathering was to run a "victory lap" around the PNC bank on Market Street in Philadelphia. I asked Ingrid what EQAT was celebrating, and she told me about its ongoing struggle to get PNC to live up to its claim of being a "green bank" by putting pressure on them to pull funding from companies that participate in Mountain Top Removal (MTR). Indeed, PNC’s claim of being a "green bank" is made questionable by its support of this ecological devastation. In the Appalachian Mountains the situation is dire. By 2011 it is estimated that MTR will destroy 1.4 million acres of land, and over 800 square miles of mountains are already gone. All of this is being done for the sake of mining coal. Not only does it deform the landscape but it also poisons water and destroys habitats for all kinds of wildlife.

As a Quaker group, EQAT is focused on PNC because this bank is the result of a merging of several banks, one of them previously known as Provident Bank, which was a Quaker bank before it was a part of the merge. Because of PNC’s past ties to Friends, EQAT has taken it upon itself to "be there every step of the way looking over [PNC’s] shoulder until they live up to their commitments," Zachary Hershman, staff organizer for EQAT, declared in a rousing speech. One way they are doing this is through their organisation BLAM! (Bank Like Appalachia Matters!)

Only a few weeks before the November 18 meeting, EQAT joined Appalachia Rising, the first mass nonviolent direct action in Washington, D.C. to oppose mountain top removal. At this protest in late September, four members of EQAT were arrested at a PNC bank in Washington, D.C., for entering the bank and placing a pile of dirt on the lobby floor. At the meeting in Friends Center, a video of the arrest was played on a giant projector screen in the MLK Jr. room while protesters on the video sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" hauntingly in the background. The protestors intended to clean up the dirt, once they were given the opportunity to speak to someone in authority. That opportunity was not granted. Instead, the police were called and claims were made that the protestors were "causing a crisis." However, the arrests ended up backfiring because they garnered national media attention for EQAT and its cause. A short while after this incident, on October 25, 2010, PNC announced a new policy that they "will not provide funding to individual Mountain Top Removal (MTR) projects, nor will PNC provide credit to coal producers whose primary extraction method is MTR." EQAT was victorious, although they see the victory as only the first step in pushing PNC to live up to its audacious claim of being the "greenest bank in the business."

PNC is not EQAT’s only target. On November 18 it teamed up with a group of students from Swarthmore College to march to the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to demand that the administrator, Lisa Jackson, veto a permit that had been issued to level more mountains in West Virginia for the creation of the Spruce Mine. Protesters gathered outside chanting "EPA do your job!" while the Swarthmore students came with cardboard props to act out the hoped-for moment when Lisa Jackson tears the permit to pieces.

The protest drew attention from passers-by. Many seemed confused as to the purpose of the protest, many made faces of scorn, and some stopped to ask questions about what was being protested. Most who took the time to stop and discuss the matter were favorably impressed by the cause. The security guards at EPA stood outside, bracing themselves for a moment when the protesters did something that required a police response. When the group noisily marched from the EPA building to PNC, the demonstrators were gawked at and people rolled their eyes without taking time to find out what was being protested.

As the group approached the massive, looming PNC building, the security guards inside ran to the doors to lock out the protesters. That did not stop the determined group from making themselves heard. They spoke with a megaphone, congratulating PNC for making a step toward disassociation with MTR and urging it to take further action. They completed their November protest by delivering a letter to the regional president of PNC, J. William Mills. In it EQAT stated, "While we recognize that your current policy will limit your funding of MTR, any MTR coal is too much. Therefore, we are committed to challenging PNC to fully withdraw support for MTR. We are going to keep shining the light on PNC Bank’s connection to MTR and, in our Quaker tradition, we will continue to engage in nonviolent direct action when necessary!"

These actions have proven effective for EQAT before, and hopefully will continue to be effective. It is unlikely PNC would have begun the process of disassociation with MTR if not for the pressure EQAT had been putting on them for the past year, staging actions about once a month in which they got a little bit bolder each time, the culmination of which was the incident in the District of Columbia.

I left the demonstration feeling lighter inside and walked back to the Friends Journal office with a spring in my step, excited to share my experience with the staff and other interns. EQAT is an electrifying organization with youthful, passionate, and emotional energy. The future of the ecosystem depends on a great many things including grass-roots organizations like EQAT. With the support of the citizens who care deeply about the mountains, streams, animals, and a healthy future, EQAT may continue to be successful in their pursuit of eco-justice.

Lazare Sofia

Sophia Lazare, a recent graduate of Ursinus College with a BA in English, is currently working as an editorial intern for Friends Journal.