George Lakey, Lang Center Research Associate

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

An activist since the Vietnam War protests and an author of seven books, George Lakey is a Research Associate at the Lang Center of Swarthmore College. In this interview, Lakey speaks with the Gazette about the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) he helped found.

The Earth Quaker Action Team is a Philadelphia-based non-profit-in-the-making engaging in non-violent direct protest toward the goal of better environmental practices. They are currently protesting mountaintop-removal coal mining, a common practice in Appalachia. Specifically, they are challenging PNC Bank’s investment in the coal industry. They recently did three major protests: one outside the PNC sponsored Philadelphia Flower Show, another on “Fossil Fool’s Day” (April 1st) outside a Philadelphia branch, and most recently, a protest and memorial service outside the bank in honor of the 29 miners in Virginia who lost their lives (arguably) in a mine-disaster at a heavily-cited mine site run by Massey, the largest producer of Central Appalachian coal.

Daily Gazette: How you decide to begin EQAT?

George Lakey: There are a bunch of us Quakers who are very concerned about climate change. We had a bunch of meetings in Philadelphia throughout the fall, during which I kept asking the question: what is the specific way [to make a difference in this issue]? We get much more powerful in our work if we focus on a specific thing. We decided that mountain top removal was the best one for us, particularly in the Delaware Valley region. One reason for that is the presence of PNC bank. PNC used to be a Quaker bank, so we Quakers feel a responsibility toward it. Especially, because they still use Quaker values in their branding: people around here often make that connection to prove their integrity. So we thought, well, Quakers have a responsibility to monitor the degree to which integrity is really being kept.

Also, PNC says it’s a green bank… and there it is, up to its ears in mountain top removal, which is probably the most extreme attack on the Earth that you can do: blowing up the tops of mountains and pushing the dirt into the valleys, where it contaminates the water and hurts the people who live there. What could be worse that than? It’s poisoning people and destroying the earth. So, we thought, this is the way in. We also felt that because this movement already existed, and is growing, it might help this movement reach the tipping point if we joined our efforts. Though they are very modest at this point, sometimes one new effort is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. We want to break the backs of the power holders, of the greedy ones, who are willing to put people at risk and destroy nature to make money. We’ve named our group Earth Quaker Action Team as a way of signaling that we’ll do campaign after campaign. So, after this is taken care of, we’ll take on something else, then something else. Each time, using the modality of non-violent direct action.

DG: How would you define non-violent direct action?

GL: It is—by definition out of the box—outside of the conventional means of pressure. It’s not lobbying, it’s not holding rallies, it’s not petitioning, it’s not advertisements in the paper—it’s people power. People being in the streets, in the bank lobbies, wherever we would not be expected to be, doing things people would not expect us to do. It’s going beyond the accepted. And of course it’s non-violent, we’re not trying to threaten anyone with injurious force.

DG: Could you talk more specifically about the issue of mountain top removal?

GL: Some of the coal that lies in the mountains is hard to get at using the traditional tunneling method. So, companies find it convenient to buy the mountaintop, and then just blast off the dirt that is above the seam of coal, and then go in there with enormous steam shovels that can excavate the coal. It’s cheaper than hiring more manpower, but they move massive volumes of dirt into the valleys below and impact the watershed. And the thing about that is: when you excavate the earth, you bring up arsenic, you bring up chemicals below the soil. You’re injecting that into the water supply. And then people turn on their faucets and find black water coming out of their kitchen faucets. Nasty stuff is coming out in the water, which they are bathing their children in. Aren’t there restrictions on affecting people’s water supply?

Yes, the Clean Water Act forbids it, but the U.S. government is notorious for breaking its own laws when powerful interests are involved. Most recently, the George W. Bush administration was giving the green light to [engage in mountain-top removal], and refusing to enforce the law put in place by Congress. So then when President Obama came to office, he told the Environment Protection Agency to hold back on issuing permits for mountaintop removal. Obama wanted them to do an honest job of reviewing the applications. So then when they continued issuing permits, the environmentalists jumped all over him. And so it has become clear that this is not an issue of Republican or Democratic leaders: it is an issue of the incredible muscle, given by money, to the companies that do that kind of thing: it’s people power versus money power. Nothing new about that, but each generation has to be reminded that they need to set things right. We need to get President Obama, who I believe is our ally, to do the right thing, but he needs a countervailing pressure that makes it possible for him to say no to the powers that be.

DG: And for that you need a strong grassroots movement?

GL: Exactly.

DG: Could you talk some more about PNC’s involvement?

GL: They have loaned money to coal companies. They loaned money to Massey, for example, which is the company that killed the 29 miners in Virginia a couple of weeks ago. They have been involved with Massey for many years. PNC owns a substantial hunk of an enormous brokerage firm called Black Rock, which is heavily involved in coal and other fossil fuels. Black Rock is this enormous investment instrument through which PNC makes money, and has for a long time. It used to have the number one interest in Black Rock.

We have been to see PNC’s regional president here in Philadelphia. We told him we’d been reading up [on their business practices] and he said, well we’re not an investment firm. And while it’s true that PNC Bank is oriented toward depositors, rather than like, J.P. Morgan that is oriented toward financiers, it nevertheless does put money into stuff. If you are a depositor and you give your money to PNC, it invests it. And so while it cannot be called an investment bank, it is a bank that invests and it invests in coal big time: including mountaintop removal and including investments in Massey, which has been called a rogue coal company by the union head of mine workers.

DG: What other issues were brought up in the meeting [with the PNC regional president]?

GL: Well, one member of EQAT told the President that it would help if we understood what their definition of green was. And they said: buildings. Meaning, they very often build new branches that have vegetative roofs, and they really try, in their branches and their headquarters bank in Pittsburgh to practice green techniques. So we of course are calling on them to be thoroughly green, to get out of the coal business entirely.

DG: What do you think of that dichotomy in business practices? Does building green branches really make a difference when you are investing in billion dollar coal companies?

GL: Well it’s very much a contradiction.

DG: So what is “Fossil Fool’s Day”?

GL: It is a national action started by people who are networking around the country about coal and oil. They said, let’s have, on April 1st, a Fossil Fool’s Day [to call out un-green businesses]. The EQAT team was asked by local activists to take on this protest. I wasn’t there myself, but people wore costumes, and had, it had kind of a light-hearted flavor, but they were basically saying to any depositors that came into PNC and to people walking by, “don’t be fossil fooled.”

DG: What about the protest in front of the Flower Show before that?

GL: Well that was our introduction, our first appearance. And the reason why it was so important for us to do that was it seemed to us that PNC was engaged in self-contradiction. On the one hand it has been the major sponsor of the flower show for many years. We told the regional manager that we appreciate that. We love the flower show. However, we also know that it’s part of their corporate branding to say, “We are on the side of life, we are on the side of growing things.” And people come to the flower show, and associate PNC with flowers, with life, but they need to know what the contradiction is.

And so we were handing out small cards that on one side said, “Where have all the flowers gone in Appalachia?” with a picture of a mountaintop with flowers, and then on the other side said, “Ask PNC where all the flowers have gone.” That was our signal to people coming to the flower show, that when you come to the PNC kiosk inside, go on to the PR people and say, what is this we hear about mountaintop removal and PNC? People we were telling were in disbelief. We asked them ourselves, and they all professed total ignorance to any connection. We told the president we were going to do that, because our style as Quakers is transparency. Our job is to shine the light on PNC business practices.

One of things Swarthmore students in particular did was decide, this movement needs a choir. So they spent a lot of time, I’m told, in an apartment somewhere, coming up with all these great songs. So they came in with banjo, guitar and flute. One of my favorite parts of that whole weekend was watching a mother and son just standing there for the longest time enjoying the student’s music. So I went over and introduced myself and asked why they were so interested. They said it was their first time at the flower show, but their favorite part, in fact, was just watching these young people singing. I found that very moving.

DG: What kind of reaction have you met from PNC?

GL: They are officially ignoring us. Do you know what Gandhi said about that? First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, and then you win. So we are at stage one. [Laughter]

DG: What other reactions have you gotten to your efforts?

GL: We are very new. The people who have heard of us are so glad we are joining this struggle, especially because the Quaker name still does mean something. I mean, some people think it’s just the funny guy on the box of Quaker Oats. And so, bringing the faith dimension to this, and a legacy of three centuries of non-violent direct action is very meaningful among the allies. The people of Appalachia themselves, who we’ve been in touch with, are very pleased. This coming weekend (of April 23-35), a couple of us Earth Quakers plus a bunch of Swarthmore students, are taking a van and going to meet with a bunch of people in Virginia who are impacted by mountaintop removal. They are very excited about meeting us. It will be our first face to face and we are very much excited about this.

DG: Could you tell me more about the memorial service for the Virginia miners?

GL: The tradition for Quaker memorial services is silent prayer. So we lined, next to the bank, holding our umbrellas because it was raining and stood in silence. We were in vigil: I cried, I know some other people who cried. We were standing there thinking about these children who lost their dads, or grandfathers. And knowing that it only a couple of hours before the blow up [of the mountaintop] that the mine inspectors had told the management of the mine that this was dangerous, that they were being cited [for improper practice], that they ought to get the men out of there. The mine management refused to do that. So basically, it comes down to needless deaths, families left fatherless. We did have signs explaining why we were there, and we were handing out leaflets as well.

DG: Is there anything else that you would like to say about the PNC bank issue?

GL: I think it is important for people to know that Swarthmore College uses PNC Bank. My paycheck comes from PNC. I believe that is because PNC used to be a Quaker Bank called Providence Bank. And so, all kinds of Quaker institutions started using it, and therefore residually, still do. It is valuable for people to be aware of the connection between PNC and the college, and to be thoughtful of it. It may be the time will come when Swarthmore College, or individual depositors, will want to get together and say to PNC, we demand that you be accountable. You can’t just blame Massey for the 29 deaths; PNC is part of Massey, despite its massive violations.

The other thing we are telling PNC is that an engineering study has been done in West Virginia to find out if it would be possible to create a wind farm on top of the mountain range. They found that if that if the farm were built, more jobs would be created than are created by mountaintop removal: that’s one of Massey biggest arguments, that their involvement in the poor region creates jobs. And also, these farms would generate more electricity. So we say to PNC, why do you prefer coal to a renewable and clean energy source that creates more jobs and electricity? Tell us more, about this commitment you have, to dirty sources of climate change that hurt everyone.

In the short run, they are hurting the people of Appalachia. We do care about the short run, that’s why our campaign is called Bank Like Appalachia Matters, or BLAM. The people of Appalachia have our hearts, so we want to have their back. But also in the bigger picture there is this climate change issue that’s affecting the whole planet, Obama and all his heads of state cannot deal—we have to do this.

As we told the president of PNC, as individuals, we can do things like insulate our homes, take shorter showers—I love Earthlust’s campaign for that by the way. However, you are the big player at this table, your choices have humongous impact on the future, as compared with our choices—so do the right thing.

DG: Last time we spoke, about the Casino-Free Philadelphia protest, you said something to the effect of the action is in the power of doing the thing that makes the difference, being in the street, protesting. Could you tell me some more about your philosophy of action?

GL: I am a very spiritual person. And I never, not even as a boy thought that spirit was divided from body, that old dichotomy that imagines humans to be of two parts. It never made sense to me—my experience of life is the interconnection between body and spirit. I don’t know how to perceive without the use of my body, and I don’t know how to express spirit without the use of my body. My body is me. My spirit is me. And while I understand that as intellectuals, we often like to distinguish parts. The intellectual problem that has arisen is that people get so carried away with analyzing parts, that they begin to think that is the ultimate process—and that is way off.

For me, to have an attitude toward an issue, such as mountaintop removal, is only half the game. Unless it’s incarnated, it doesn’t mean very much. On the other hand, if my body is in spasm, and there’s no meaning I can make of it, I’m not impressed by that either, like sex without meaning for example. It is the combination of meaning making with bodily experience that is our human birthright and triumph. And so to me, a politics without my body in motion is just, not worth writing about.

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