Responding to grassroots pressure, DC Council takes step toward public bank

A day before a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration’s rushed approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline violated environmental laws, Washington, DC took a small step toward exploring a new financial system that, if established, would replace the District’s reliance on the corporate banks that fund the pipeline with a community-owned alternative.

Rising Hearts Round Dance

On June 13, the DC Council voted to approve a budget that includes funding for a study to assess the feasibility of establishing a public bank in the District—a move that residents organizing locally to divest the District’s taxpayer funds from corporate banks like Wells Fargo and reinvest in responsible financial institutions greeted with cautious optimism.

DC currently holds several major contracts with Wells Fargo, a choice that has brought the Council increasing pressure from District residents angered by Wells Fargo and other banks’ investments in the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, the private prison industry, and lending practices that discriminate against low-income black and Hispanic communities.

Divestment isn’t enough on its own. DC must invest in efforts to end police brutality, pursue a just energy transition, and support justice and self-determination for our communities.

“It wouldn’t be a victory if DC simply switched from Wells Fargo to another large bank. Wells Fargo isn’t the only bank funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, and it’s certainly not the only bank perpetuating injustice in our communities,” said Sebi Medina-Tayac of Rising Hearts, an Indigenous-led group and one of nine members of the DC ReInvest Coalition. “‘Reinvest’ is in the coalition’s name because divestment isn’t enough on its own—DC must invest in efforts to end police brutality, pursue a just energy transition, and support justice and self-determination for our communities.”

“The District has $2 billion in funds deposited in mostly Wall Street banks, including Wells Fargo. A public bank could hold and leverage these deposits into safe investments in affordable housing, small businesses, and environmentally sustainable projects like energy efficiency and solar energy,” said Steve Seuser of the DC Public Banking Center, a grassroots group who pushed to include the feasibility study language in the budget.

If established, the DC public bank would be modeled closely after the nearly 100-year-old Bank of North Dakota. The public bank has helped North Dakota’s economy to remain more resilient to downturns than most other regions of the country, since the Bank of North Dakota continues to lend into the main economic sectors of the state—including agriculture, small business, housing, local infrastructure, and student loans—even in times of recession.

Meanwhile, a separate resolution that recommends the District cut ties with Wells Fargo—introduced by Councilmember David Grosso with support from the DC ReInvest Coalition—is stalled in the Committee on Finance and Revenue, due to Committee Chair Jack Evans’ refusal to give the resolution a hearing.

In response to the latest developments from DC Council, and buoyed by the news of the surprise ruling against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Rising Hearts is planning a “Round Dance for Human and Climate Justice” street action on Thursday, June 15.

“The round dance will further highlight the Coalition’s divestment efforts and press the Council and Mayor to commit to upholding the Paris Agreement. That commitment should include divesting from fossil fuels as a means to protect the climate and the people,” said Jordan Marie Daniel, co-founder of Rising Hearts.

Following the lead of Native communities after the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, several cities across the country—including Seattle, Philadelphia, and most recently, New York City—have already cut ties with Wells Fargo over its pipeline investments.

The feasibility study is a commendable step by the DC Council, led by Councilmember Grosso—but it only happened thanks to pressure from local grassroots groups. Now, DC residents who still have a lot of work ahead to keep pushing our city to manage our money in a just way that benefits our communities. And until that vision is realized, local organizers aren’t going anywhere.

More information:

Check out details for Thursday’s round dance action in DC here.

Learn about the DC Public Banking Center and sign their petition to support a public bank here.