Protesters shut down the Wells Fargo bank in downtown Duluth on Friday morning, when three men in a crowd of about three dozen protesters locked themselves to entrances for the bank.
One man placed a U-shaped bike lock around his neck to secure himself to the customer entrance security gate prior to the bank’s opening, effectively keeping the bank closed.
The men were cut loose by city firefighters in a tense and claustrophobic scene that saw protesters crowding against a human wall of police in the building at 230 W. Superior St. The three protesters were arrested without incident shortly after noon.
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken took the lead in negotiations with the three men.
“We asked them for compliance first,” Tusken said, “but they wanted to be arrested.”
The protesters, calling themselves water protectors, were demonstrating against Wells Fargo and calling for the banking company to divest itself from fossil fuels and Enbridge, in particular. Enbridge is seeking to build a new Line 3 pipeline replacement through Minnesota.
Some protesters played drums and sang tribal songs throughout the roughly three-hour demonstration, while others shouted anti-oil and anti-pipeline slogans. Many of them were recording and live-streaming the demonstration on social media.
“People have to understand where their money is being spent,” said Ernesto Burbank, one of the protesters who was locked to a secondary entrance. “It’s being used by companies to desecrate our lands even more.”
Burbank identified himself as a member of the Navajo tribe, which is located in the American West, primarily in Arizona and New Mexico. But many of the protesters appeared to be local.
“I know a lot of these people by names and faces,” Tusken said, adding that they had a right to protest provided they did so peaceably.
Once the men agreed they weren’t going to unlock themselves, Tusken said the Duluth police went to work on arranging to have the men cut loose. The police sought counsel with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, which Tusken said operates a “cut team.”
Douglas County developed the team during the course of encountering a series of similar lock-down protests dating back to August, when the water protector resistance began holding direct-action protests on Line 3 construction already approved in Wisconsin.
Direct-action protests seek to do more than inform by also disrupting business.
At its peak, about 20 Duluth police officers arrived at the scene of Friday’s protest. Tusken praised their composure in the face of mild hostilities, including name-calling, lecturing and more.
The man who locked his neck to the gate, Scott Bol of Duluth, called for passersby to divest from Wells Fargo. Bol said he wasn’t afraid of being arrested and cited Martin Luther King Jr. being jailed 29 times.
“We have to move to alternative energies,” Bol said at one point. “We know they work.”
At times, protesters and bank employees on the inside of the gate engaged in heated back-and-forth debates. Tusken said some of the bank employees expressed to him being frightened by the sudden disturbance in routine. Local officials refused comment, deferring to a Wells Fargo communications team based in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“Like a large number of other banks, Wells Fargo has a relationship with Enbridge as well as other energy companies across the conventional and renewable energy spectrum,” said spokeswoman Staci Schiller in an email to the News Tribune. “We respect all those engaging in the conversation surrounding fossil fuel exploration and development as well as renewable and alternative energy.”
The arrested men were lodged on 12-hour holds at the St. Louis County Jail, Duluth police reported in a news release, and face misdemeanor charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process.
Wells Fargo has been the site of similar protests before - once in each of the past two years.
Only a handful of people attempted to conduct banking with the gate still down. One of them was LeRoy Henderson, who said he needed cashier’s checks.
“They might be right,” Henderson said of the protesters, “but they shouldn’t be here. People have got to do business with the bank.”