by Karlyn Hunt, staff writer
Lifelong activist and Warren Wilson College Peace and Justice professor Steven Norris paid a visit to the Buncombe County jail Dec. 1 after chaining himself to a symbolic windmill on private property. The act was part of a protest opposing bank funding of dirty energy.
Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben solicited local organizers to choreograph the demonstration following his speaking engagement at University of North Carolina Asheville the night before.
The protest began with a rally in Pritchard Park, where Norris and others spoke about the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Bank of America’s investments in the coal industry, which combined total over 25 billion dollars in the past four years. The speakers encouraged investmenting in offshore wind energy as an alternative.
Over 50 protesters then marched to the Royal Bank of Canada chanting “RBC funds dirty oil. Get those banksters off our soil.” Outside the bank, Norris’ wife Kendall Hall orchestrated a scene of street theater. Clad in a Santa Claus costume, she delivered coal to a fellow protester dressed as a banker, saying that bankers have been naughty. She passed toy windmills imitating candy canes out to the crowd.
Following the performance, sophomore Eva Westheimer read a letter addressing RBC through People’s Mic, a mode of voice amplification popularized by the Occupy Wallstreet movement in which people within earshot of the speaker repeat their phrases for others to hear. Westheimer’s letter asked RBC to discontinue funding tar sands oil.
She spoke specifically about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, an issue around which McKibben has organized mass protests. Warren Wilson students traveled to Washington, DC, twice this year to participate in these demonstrations, which influenced President Obama to postpone a decision on constructing the pipeline until 2013.
Norris feels that this local protest was a reflection of those national actions opposing the pipeline.
“These are all somewhat militant actions to challenge the U.S. government and the corporations that influence it,” he says.
Westheimer’s letter urged RBC to invest in wind energy. She and sophomore Ryan Kingrey intended to deliver the letter directly to the bank’s manager, but RBC had locked its doors. The students instead left one copy of the letter taped to the doors, a poster-sized version below it and a miniature windmill attached to the door handle.
The march took off next to Bank of America, where protesters danced a hoedown singing, “B.O.A. funds dirty coal, do-da, do-da. B.O.A. funds dirty coal. Move your money today.”
Meanwhile Norris and UNCA student Amber Williams erected a ten-foot-tall wooden windmill on a grassy area in front of the bank. The two chained themselves to the windmill, refusing to move after police warned them that they were trespassing on the bank’s property.
“We used the chains to complicate the policemen’s role a little bit and to symbolize that we are tied to the necessity of promoting wind energy,” says Norris.
Police cut the chains and arrested the two for second-degree trespassing.
“Being arrested is a symbolic action about stepping over a line. It was a way for me to say that Bank of America is criminal, but because the U.S. government won’t prosecute the bank officials, we’ll make life difficult for the government and the bank as best we can.”
Norris and Williams were held in the Buncombe County jail with four others arrested for trespassing during the demonstration, one of whom was a Bank of America costumer arrested while trying to access an ATM.
Norris was impressed with the respect he received from the Asheville police. He suspects they are sympathetic.
“I asked some of them their opinion of what we’re doing, and I actually think they agree with us. I think they understand that these problems are just as relevant for their families and their children as they are for us. They have a job to do, but they treated us with respect. It was really beautiful.”
Norris hopes to see growing opposition against the banks in response to the protest. He encourages people to perform similar actions, including those that do not risk arrest, and urges Bank of America and RBC costumers to move their money into local credit unions.
“The most I can do is try to inspire people,” says Norris, “ because the best way to make a difference is to lead by personal example.”