A public bank is not a promise to keep San Francisco’s money green

Montgomery Street echoed with the Lakota cry, “Mni Wiconi!” — “Water is life” — on Saturday as Native Americans and their allies painted a giant thunderbird outside Wells Fargo. The symbol of power and protection was a demand to the San Francisco-based bank to stop financing projects that threaten the environment and indigenous people’s rights. Protesters said the bank agreed to extend $1.5 billion to the developer of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Many there had fought numerous pipeline projects, including the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota. Sioux grandmothers were tearful as they recounted the brutal treatment inflicted by law enforcement officials at Standing Rock. Some resisters were held in dog kennels. Others said they were shot at with rubber bullets and live ammunition. They withstood attack dogs, pepper spray and water cannons in freezing weather as they peacefully fought for their ancestral homeland and clean drinking water.

“It was a struggle because not only did we have to fight DAPL, but we had to survive there,” said Cokaptiwin of the South Dakota Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.

The desire to cut ties with pipeline developers, as well as provide banking services to cannabis businesses and undocumented immigrants, inspired the Board of Supervisors to reconsider a public bank last year. Unlike the big commercial banks The City currently uses, a city-owned bank could better embody San Francisco’s values. It could stop funds to pipelines, while helping public works projects, affordable housing and small businesses.

Goldinfeather Avelino, a “Res Dog” and resister at Standing Rock, stands alongside volunteers protesting Wells Fargo’s financing of pipelines on Saturday in San Francisco. (Robyn Purchia/Special to S.F. Examiner)

But a public bank is not a promise San Francisco’s money will stay green. The Bank of North Dakota (BND), the only existing public bank in the United States, has progressive roots, but the state used it to suppress the resisters at Standing Rock. Ensuring San Francisco’s public bank remains grounded in equity and environmental justice is not easy.

BND was established in 1919 to hand power back to the people. The Non-Partisan League, a party organized to protect farmers and laborers from big capitalists, had gained control of the governor’s office and legislature. North Dakotans were sick of big banks charging double-digit interest rates and grain companies cheating them.

Over the last century, BND has remained profitable while providing money to North Dakotans. As Americans suffered through the Great Depression, the bank ensured teachers received their full pay and farmers kept their land. During the 2008 financial crisis, North Dakota enjoyed a budget surplus. BND helped Grand Forks recover from floods in 1997, and Minot and Bismarck in 2011.

The bank also funded the state’s efforts to demoralize and subdue peaceful protesters at Standing Rock.

“As the state’s bank, BND provides financing to other state agencies in times of crisis,” Janel Schmitz, a Bank spokesperson, told me. “BND in this case provided funds to Emergency Services to deal with activity during the DAPL protest movement.”

BND is a reminder that a public bank is not economic reform; it is a government tool. It could do great things for The City and help us break free from profit-driven, Wall Street banks. But it could also exacerbate already contentious debates around gentrification, homelessness and housing development. It could help environmentally harmful businesses flourish. It could punish the powerless.

Last week, members of San Francisco’s Municipal Task Force, the group convened by Treasurer Jose Cisneros to research the viability and opportunities of a public bank, met for the first time. They seemed to recognize the challenge ahead. Numerous members stressed the importance of incorporating equity and environmental sustainability into the bank’s overall mission. They wanted to ensure the bank would allow everyone to participate and prosper.

“I am confident that the Municipal Bank Task Force — comprised of a top-notch group of advocates and banking experts — will provide me and other city leaders with well-researched and reasoned proposals that align with San Francisco values,” Cisneros told me.

Right now, what happened at Standing Rock doesn’t reflect San Francisco’s values. We also believe water is life and want to distance ourselves from Wall Street and corporate greed. But San Francisco changes with its skyline. Our public bank should adapt to these changes while maintaining its heart.

GREEN SPACE Q&A

“How about Chapstick or something similar? If you scrape out the last of the product, can you recycle the tube?”
— Judy Kelly

Yes! But it’s important to get all of the product out.

China, historically the largest buyer of recycled products, has tightened the limits on impurities it will accept in recycled paper and plastic. According to Recology, San Francisco’s recycling company, the Chapstick product could contaminate both paper and plastic. The company recommends using the entire greasy stick and cleaning the container before putting it in the blue bin.

To reduce plastic consumption, you can also buy lip balm in a metal container. Recology will recycle metal or you can reuse it to make your own balm. It’s easy: just melt beeswax, shea butter and coconut oil, add any essential oils you wish and let cool.

Please send me more sorting questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com. I’m learning a lot!

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

Robyn Purchia
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