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Will Protesting Put an End to Fossil Fuel Funding?




For years, Milwaukee environmentalists have gathered at Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee to protest Chase Bank and Wells Fargo. These two banks are the largest funders of fossil fuels, and they happen to be across the street from one another.


Environmentalists recognize that fossil fuels are hydrocarbon-containing materials within the Earth’s crust that can be used as a source of energy. These materials include coal and oil, and when burned, the process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), which is continuing to increase and cause a “greenhouse” or warming effect.


Protestors like Julie Enslow are attempting to educate residents on the dangerous impacts fossil fuels have on our air, while also inspiring change.


“You need to physically take a stand for issues, and that’s always what’s created change,” said Julie Enslow, Lifetime Peacemaker award winner, activist, and 350 Milwaukee member. “Various issues took people on the streets to have an effect, so the physical demonstrations are part of the educational components and part of the demands and actions that need to take place.”


350 Milwaukee History


350 Milwaukee, a chapter of 350.org, is one of the many groups speaking up and acting out to put a stop to fossil fuels and build a world of community-led renewable energy. Founded just eight years ago by environmentalist Bill Mckibbens and a group of students from Middlebury College, their mission was to keep the parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere below 350.


At the time that the group was being organized, scientists recommended that 350 parts per million was the optimum CO2 level for civilization. Now just after ten years of the group’s existence, our planet has reached 416 parts per million of CO2.


By responding to Chase Bank with physical demonstrations, they educate the public, encourage funders to reconsider where they place their investments, and urge consumers to bank elsewhere.


“They are allowing fossil fuel companies to continue exploring for more fossil fuels, to drill, frack, and mine fossil fuels, and to build pipelines and infrastructure to transport them,” Enslow said. “These companies are very instrumental in continuing the production and use of fossil fuels. If we can help pull the money out from underneath the fossil fuel companies, it’ll collapse. It could probably be the most effective thing we do.”


Protesting in Action


As a result of the protestor's actions, they hope that banks are feeling pressure to reevaluate where they are investing their money. Many customers aren't aware of the bank's funding decisions, so protesting is also an opportunity for 350 Milwaukee to educate consumers arriving at these banks on the realities of fossil fuel funding. In turn, they are pressured to pull their funds and bank elsewhere.


Protesting also comes with consequences. Take the event on December 6, 2019, where protestors sat-in at Chase Bank, several of them blocking the entrance.


“The security told us to leave pretty quickly but we didn't do that,” said Terry Wiggins, 350.org member, and protestor. “Eventually they called the police on us, who watched us and let us sit there chanting. People outside were also chanting for about two hours. We were told it took so long because there was an armed robbery going on elsewhere in the city and they needed the police there for that.”


After arriving at the bank that day at noon, 11 individuals were arrested and let go around 7 p.m. that night.



The Downside of Physical Demonstrations


Without the knowledge of legal rights prior to protesting, the movement can become ineffective and be perceived negatively. According to the 2022 American Civil Liberties Union, you have the right to speak out in front of public properties such as plazas and government buildings. However, blocking access to buildings or interfering with the property can become unlawful.

Though protesting can be a cost-effective way to encourage the defunding of fossil fuels, another limitation is the possible fines. In this case, the protestors received fines set at $187 with the charge of trespassing. Yet, the group made use of their tickets by challenging them in court.


“About half of them decided to pay the ticket, and the others decided to take it to court and challenge it before a judge to explain why they did the actions and make use of the courtroom as another area of education and publicity,” Enslow said.


Signs of Hope


While protests like this occur often in Milwaukee, there are more environmentalists around the world putting their bodies on the line as well. Both JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have announced plans to stop financing companies pursuing new fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic.


Though employees at Chase Bank aren’t allowed to comment on the protests, they were thanked by the 350 Milwaukee protestors, Including Julie Enslow and Terry Wiggins. Despite being arrested, Wiggins continues to interact with these companies.


“The local Chase Bank people know who we are,” Wiggins said.“In fact, we delivered letters to their employees thanking them for their decision that their management made to stop funding drilling in the arctic. Their manager told us to leave, or they would have us arrested.”


Messages Matter


As the protests continue, 350 Milwaukee members are also focusing on new ways to promote action. Rather than solely telling the banks what they shouldn’t be doing, Enslow explains the benefit of using encouraging signs to tell people what they should be doing.



“The signs that we hold on the corner of Water and Wisconsin every Friday might say ‘Chase Bank: put your money towards solar wind.’ This gives them this other vision of what we really need and so it’s not just about ‘stop doing something, it's start doing something too,” Wiggins said.


Greg Walter, also a 350 Milwaukee member, uses the platform to protest as an opportunity to educate the public on where they should be banking instead. “During the Friday protests, people who indicate they are customers at Chase Bank occasionally engage with us saying they will move their accounts, they are thinking about moving, they won’t bank there, or have never banked there,” Walter said.


Virtual Protesting


Since the Coronavirus outbreak has limited the public’s ideal way of living, 350 Milwaukee has suspended their physical Friday protests. However, they have made their events virtual, partnering with environmental justice organizations that help promote new ways to come together and keep the pressure on politicians to end new fossil fuels and adopt a green deal.


Alternative Actions


Ultimately, the decision to find alternative options is not just up to the companies that fund it. Outside of regular protesting, there are other actions and education people can take on. “We suggest looking at local banks and credit unions,” Walter said. “They often mostly invest in local community businesses and mortgages.”


Interested parties can navigate to the 350 Milwaukee website and scroll to the ‘Moving Your Money’ section. There are several resources available to help consumers decide which banks to support. Also provided are the community actions taking place, detailing their impact on building a world of community-led renewable energy.


The question still stands: Will protesting help put an end to fossil fuel funding? Enslow summarizes the outcomes that community education and protesting can have on fossil fuel funding and climate change.


“In this case, civil disobedience is not about unjust laws, it’s about unjust policies. Putting yourself in a position of sitting in, risking arrest, and getting publicity gives you a voice to explain why you are doing it, and what the cause of the problem is,” Enslow said.


 

Meet the Author

Jeana Prudhomme


Jeana Prudhomme is a Communications professional, as well as the Founder and Editor of Respect Your Mother Magazine. She received B.A in Communications from Alverno College in 2017, and a M.A in New Media and Professional Writing in the Spring of 2022. After years of focusing on solutions journalism and non-fiction writing related to feminism and sustainability, she has created art from her passions in the form of this ecofeminist magazine.

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