We had decided to break the rules. Not a big thing for people whose temperament or life experience leads them to a defiant attitude toward authority. But we happened to be mostly middle-class people, heavily-conditioned to fit in, to obey the rules. Our socialisation had led to professional and, for the students, academic success.
And here we were, with a priority that required breaking the rules. For us, a big thing.
Twice before, Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) members had gone to the annual shareholders’ meeting of Pennsylvania-based PNC Bank and obeyed their rules, spoken out during the allotted time in the meeting, expressed our concern about PNC’s large role in mountaintop-removal coal mining and the climate crisis.
We’d supported people from the Appalachia region to be there, speaking to PNC’s board about the injury and death that stems from PNC’s choice to put profits first.
[Appalachia stretches from the state of Alabama in the south-east, through many other states including Pennsylvania, up to New York state in the north-east. Most mountaintop removal coal-mining takes place in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky – eds.]
We’d brought the 80-year-old grandson of one of PNC’s founders to tell them an evil banking practice was not what his grandpa had in mind.
We even walked 200 miles across Pennsylvania, witnessing in PNC bank branches along the way (see photo in PN 2547-48), to lift up to Pennsylvanians the full reality of the ‘green bank’ that ‘helps children grow up great’.
This time, in the shareholders’ meeting place in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, our hearts were beating fast.
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture was closed to visitors so the beautifully-coiffed, dark-suited shareholders could survey the coffee, juice, and artistic goodies arrayed for their enjoyment.
We’d bought shares, too, but were mostly too nervous to enjoy the pastries. I noticed a hushed atmosphere that matched the subdued tones of the architecture; no one seemed to be there to party.
The 16 of us, organised into pairs, dispersed ourselves through the auditorium.
We’d dressed up for the occasion, although the steely stares of the also-dressed-up security officers seemed to look right through us. My dark blue blazer, I thought, wasn’t fooling anyone. I’m not really a PNC loyalist, or even, come to think of it, that loyal to the 1% that was slowly filling the room.
A very tall man who I later realised was chief of security came over to me, alongside a shorter man wearing glasses and the obligatory suit and tie. Our plan included presenting an award to outgoing CEO James Rohr for his failing to bank like Appalachia matters and financing instead the ruination of the region.
The shorter man, somehow already knowing this, told me that when I presented the award I could give the framed certificate to him because he would represent CEO Rohr and hand it to him later.
Holding our own meeting
The tall one facilitated our brief conversation, sizing me up, so I noted to him as we parted that he and I were probably the tallest guys in the room. He smiled.
I joined my partner for the morning, a Haverford College senior, to sit on the end of a row about halfway back from the stage. I wanted room to manoeuvre because I was to be the first to break into the PNC agenda to start our own, Quaker, agenda.
This was our consultant Daniel Hunter’s idea. Quakers are as accustomed to meetings as bankers are, so we would come from our strength, create an agenda, and hold our meeting while PNC was holding its own.
James Rohr called his meeting to order and the shareholders stopped chatting and looked to the stage where Rohr sat flanked by William Demchak, his successor, and corporation secretary George Long. Our Quaker meeting would go into silent worship, out of which would come my vocal ministry in the form of the award to be presented to Rohr.
I was grateful for our silence and the opportunity to sink into it. I was aware of James Rohr outlining his agenda and calling for the reading of the minutes while at the same time I prayed for the courage to rise when the inner bidding came.
A steadiness emerged within me at the same time as a rising sense that the moment had come, just as it does for me before sharing vocal ministry back home in Central Philadelphia’s worship.
I know the attitude of defiance well – that’s a familiar part of my life – but that’s not what was going on now.
A legacy of strength
Before standing, I flashed for a second on the seventeenth-century Friends who interrupted church services with their own ministry, and I thanked God once again for that centuries-old legacy of strength and courage.
Then I rose, stepped into the aisle and made the inaudible Quaker meeting prominent in the auditorium. I took my time, addressing not only the stage but also the assembled shareholders, looking many of them in the eye before introducing Brandon from West Virginia who spoke about the pain, cancer and desolation brought by mountaintop removal coal-mining.
James Rohr frequently tried to return the meeting to PNC’s agenda, but security people on heightened alert were not asked to enforce his efforts.
Amy Ward Brimmer pointed out that already over $3,000,000 has been moved out of PNC because of its wilful refusal to bank like Appalachia matters.
Other EQAT members addressed board members by name, asking whether they would now commit to a full sectoral exclusion of mountaintop removal. After each of those individual board members had been addressed from wherever in the auditorium that EQAT member was, we all sang softly together, ‘Which side are you on?’
We took a break at a point where our agenda and PNC’s coincided.
A representative of Boston Common Asset Management advocated for a shareholders’ resolution that called on the bank to note the existence of climate change and to set up a study commission to consider how the bank will respond to increasing crisis.
This shareholders’ resolution was joined by Friends Fiduciary Corporation, a Quaker agency that invests funds of Quaker groups and meetings.
PNC management had refused to accept the shareholders’ resolution for its agenda until the Security and Exchange Commission ruled that it must.
Boston Common’s representative noted the bank’s effort to green itself through vegetated roofs on its branches and fluorescent lights, but said if it came to a choice, she would rather see it give up the far more significant mountaintop removal.
As in most corporations, PNC management controls the majority of stock. Rohr declared that the majority of the shareholders voted down the resolution to set up a study commission on climate change.
The Quaker meeting agenda then continued to unfold so consistently that Rohr projected a promotional PNC video on a large screen on the stage, cranking up the volume.
For the most part we declined to compete with the video, which was soon concluded.
We then went on to call on additional board members (who were seated in front of us in auditorium seats) to accept individual accountability, for which they are well-rewarded by the bank, and take a stand for conscience’ sake in the presence of people from Appalachia.
After each board member was addressed by name, we again sang from many parts of the room, ‘Which side are you on?’
James Rohr threw up his hands and declared the meeting adjourned.
Ingrid Lakey began to sing ‘This little light of mine’, we joined in, and sang joyfully as we slowly left the room along with the other shareholders.
On the way out of the room I looked into the eyes of two of the plainclothes police officers, a man and a woman, and saw the coldest, meanest eyes I have ever seen.
I have twice been confronted by men with knives drawn, but their eyes were alive with passion. These two, in their dark suits and hidden guns, gave me the most chilling looks of my life.
But then, evil is not really a new thing for Quakers to confront. It’s in our cultural DNA, whether we’ve seen it in Puritan fanatics in Massachusetts or Gestapo officers in Germany or racists in southern US lunch counters.
Nor is there anything wrong with evildoers being met by an attitude of defiance, whether it’s expressed on a picket line by angry workers once again deprived of justice or by college students seeing boards of directors who prefer business as usual to acting decisively in joining a movement to save the planet.
What I found yesterday, however, was a sweetness in defying without defiance.
I watched widely-respected Quaker women like Ann Yasuhara and Carolyn McCoy – brought up to obey the rules – simply making the truth more important than fitting in.
I watched students act on their own behalf, insisting that institutions respect their future rather than protecting the dead hand of the past.
And I enjoyed the solidarity and cooperativeness of EQAT’s group culture, which is learning to let go of class-instilled pretence, let go of class-trained timidity, and simply to act as though life is more important than obeying the rules.