Cash Withdrawal

Grassroots movement urges city to divest from Wells Fargo, which funds Dakota Access Pipeline

Come the fall, the city government could sever ties with a bank that’s helping to fund the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Santa Fe in 2013 approved a four-year contract with Wells Fargo, agreeing to pay the bank about $449,000 over the period for fiscal agent services. But the city is free to sever ties with Wells Fargo in October, due to a clause in the agreement that allows either party to terminate the contract 60 days before the end of 2017.

In an interview with SFR, Mayor Javier Gonzales threw his support behind such a change.

"When the city has money involved with banks that invest in projects harmful to our community and counter to the will of our city, we need to look at viable alternatives," Gonzales said in an phone call from Washington DC, where he's meeting with the US Conference of Mayors. He also reiterated his support for a study on the feasibility of establishing a public bank to manage Santa Fe's finances.

A coalition of local activists last week asked the City Council to divest from Wells Fargo over the bank's investments in the pipeline, following a national movement to boycott financial institutions that fund the construction project. Gonzales previously demonstrated outside Wells Fargo as part of a national day of action on Nov. 15.

The council's second-highest-ranking member also hinted at support in an email to SFR. "I think we would all feel more comfortable using a local institution," said Mayor Pro Tem Signe Lindell.

The city maintains 15 Wells Fargo accounts, adding up to holdings of about $46.8 million, which covers payroll, general liability insurance claims, workers' comp claims, savings, utilities and other functions.

Wells Fargo is among the 35 institutions bankrolling the Dakota Access Pipeline or the companies overseeing its construction. The bank has pitched in about $500,000, according to a study by Food and Water Watch, a progressive research group.

About two dozen Santa Feans spoke in support of the effort during last week's council meeting on Jan. 11, commandeering the chambers during the evening's public comment session. Earlier in the day, the activists demonstrated outside the downtown Wells Fargo branch on Washington Avenue.

Since last spring, thousands of activists have swarmed a campsite north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the construction of an oil pipeline near the tribe's land. Tribal members worry a rupture in the Dakota Access Pipeline could contaminate their water supply, as the proposed route runs beneath the Missouri River.

Over the summer, the protest camp near Standing Rock became something of a mecca for environmentalists and supporters of Indigenous rights. Social media users circulated footage of police crackdowns on the site, including one episode in which law enforcement sprayed cold water on the protestors in freezing temperatures.

The City Council late last year passed a symbolic resolution supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and condemning excessive force on protesters. It also called on "local financial institutions to divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline Project and invest instead in life-supporting projects and renewable energy projects."

But Santa Fe should offer more than gestures to the self-described "water protectors" camping out at Standing Rock, said Jeff Haas, a civil rights lawyer who is representing a number of anti-pipeline activists. "I'm not asking for a symbolic statement of support," Haas told councilors. "We can make a difference." "The record on spills is consistent," said activist Margaret Kuhlen. "Pipelines break."

The actions last week were sponsored by Earth Care, the environmentalist organization, and Retake Our Democracy, a progressive organizing group that grew out of the local campaign supporting Bernie Sanders for president. Jeff Ethan Au Green, a former City Council candidate who now lives in Colorado, rode a bus here last week to help direct the campaign.

Paul Gibson, co-founder of Retake our Democracy, says his volunteer corps of about 50 people will research viable alternatives to Wells Fargo for the city's fiscal agent. That effort likely got a boost from city council on Dec. 14, when the governing body lowered the collateralization requirement for Santa Fe's fiscal agent from 102 percent to 50 cents per dollar.

Another proposed change would require the city to consider as criteria social responsibility before selecting a fiscal agent, inspired by a resolution currently being considered by Seattle's City Council. Alongside Wells Fargo's pipeline investment, the bank recently came under fire for a high-profile scandal wherein the bank's employees created thousands of fake accounts to meet sales quotas.

The campaign against Wells Fargo represents the first high-profile cause championed by Retake Our Democracy since the November elections. Gibson said City Council should be prepared for more. "This is all part of a larger plan that recognizes that right now, given the changes in Washington, the best avenue for progressive change and policy change is at the local level," he said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the mode of transportation used by Jeff Ethan Au Green to travel from Boulder to Santa Fe. He rode a bus, not a personal vehicle.

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