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Pipeline protesters arrested after chaining together at Amherst bank

  • Clockwise from left, Aly Johnson-Kurts, Marc Osten and Giovana Castro chain themselves into the lobby of the TD Bank branch on Triangle Street in Amherst the morning of Dec. 16, 2016. GAZETTE STAFF/Carol Lollis

  • Harrison Greene, back, and Paxton Reed chained themselves to the door of the TD Bank on Triangle Street in Amherst protesting the bank's stake in the Dakota Access Pipeline. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marc Osten, back, Aly Johnson-kurts and Giovana Castro chained themselves to the door of the TD Bank on Dec. 16, 2016, protesting the bank's involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Travis Poston, a customer at TD Bank, talks about the protesters and the TD Bank's involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline on Dec. 16, 2016. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Casey Ray protesting the TD Bank's involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline on Dec. 16, 2016. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Adam Bothamley protesting the TD Bank's involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline on Dec. 16, 2016 in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Casey Ray protests the TD Bank's involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline in Amherst on Dec. 16, 2016. Four protesters were arrested during the event. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2016

AMHERST — Five protesters opposed to building the Dakota Access Pipeline chained themselves inside the two entrances to the TD Bank on Triangle Street Friday, blocking access for customers for several hours before four of them were arrested early in the afternoon.

“I’m here to stand with the water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota, who are standing up for their land and their water that’s being put at risk by the Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Aly Johnson-Kurts, a Smith College senior who chained herself with University of Massachusetts student Giovana Castro and Amherst resident Marc Osten shortly before 8 a.m.

“Today we’re putting pressure on TD Bank because they are funding the companies that are building the pipeline,” Johnson-Kurts said. “They are loaning money to them that is allowing the pipeline to be built.”

The activists support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their concerns about the oil pipeline being built by Dakota Access. TD Bank is partly financing the project with a $365 million investment. Blocking the entrance is part of a national effort that steps up other tactics that have included vigils and rallies, encouraging people to pull their money from the bank.

Dineen O’Rourke, a Hampshire College student who helped organize the Defund DAPL Amherst effort, said TD Bank is a target because it has also supported other oil projects, including the cancelled Keystone XL Pipeline that would have transported oil from the tar sands in Canada.

There is also concern that the incoming Trump administration may change Obama administration policies, even after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced it had rejected the proposed route for the pipeline through a dammed section of the Missouri River by the reservation.

Despite that victory, anti-pipeline activists worry that the project will be revived by Trump, who has expressed support for it.

“This is not done at all,” O’Rourke said. “This is still a big issue.”

Osten said it is important to not only unite behind the tribe affected, but the 20 million people who live downriver who could be affected by the project and any effect it has on the environment and drinking water supplies.

“We are here as allies,” Osten said. “We do not speak for indigenous peoples, but they’ve asked us as allies to step in in our localities to shut down TD Bank. It’s happening all over the country.”

“This is exactly what is needed to wake people up,” Osten said.

Police officers arrived at the bank at around 8:15 a.m., about 20 minutes after the blockade began, with Lt. Gabriel Ting telling the protesters that, while he sympathized with their cause and their right to protest, they would be arrested within 30 minutes if they didn’t leave.

But the three protesters at the main entrance, joined by Harrison Greene, of Northampton, and Paxton Reed, of Osterville, at the back entrance, remained inside the bank. Police officers and members of the Fire Department were seen entering the building through a side door to speak to employees about how to handle the disruption.

Around 1:30 p.m. firefighters and officers finally moved in on the protesters.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said he had seven personnel on scene to make sure that a good plan was put in place and that no one got hurt during the removal of the protesters. Nelson said his staff is trained in dealing with situations that are both peaceful and ones that could turn violent.

A firefighter first talked to the protesters at the main entrance and asked them to unlock the doors and remove their chains. When they refused, a firefighter took out a 3-foot by 3-foot window to enter the lobby and then safely cut away the chains, the PVC pipe and the fabric fastener connecting Johnson-Kurts, Osten and Castro.

“As soon as they were free, we broke away, and it became a police issue,” Nelson said.

Greene and Reed then voluntarily opened their door, Nelson said.

Even though the protest was peaceful, Nelson said he had to call in five off-duty personnel to make sure that ambulances could continue to run and that his department would be ready for any other emergencies.

Johnson-Kurts, 22, Osten, 55, Greene, 30, and Reed, 19, were all arrested and charged with trespassing, and will be arraigned in Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown on Monday.

An employee who answered the phone early Friday afternoon at the branch said no comment would be offered about the latest protest, which followed a peaceful protest held in front of the same branch Dec. 5.

Judith Schmidt, vice president and head of corporate medial relations for TD Bank, said in an email that the bank endorses responsible energy development and has been listening to concerns about the pipeline.

“We support efforts to ensure the sustainability and safety of the Dakota Access Pipeline site,” Schmidt said. “And we respect the rights of those who wish to voice their opinions in peaceful protest.”

A letter was delivered by the protesters to TD Bank’s manager and employees expressing the concerns.

“We demand TD Bank broaden the care and integrity you reserve for your customers, shareholders and employees to include the people who these investments actively harm. When investment decisions affect the climate, we are all stakeholders. When investment decisions affect the drinking water of millions of people in this country, we are all stakeholders. And when investment decisions perpetuate historical and colonial violence, it is our duty to stand up in opposition,” the letter stated. 

O’Rourke said the hope was for arrests to be made, with a lawyer ready to support those taken into custody.

“By taking this to court, we’re going to bring this issue even more media attention,” O’Rourke said.

Protesters handed customers trying to enter the bank a sheet with information other credit unions and banks. “We’ve developed a list with every local credit union and bank and the phone numbers and locations in the Valley,” O’Rourke said.

Pioneer Valley resident Hayden Daiber said protesters would also speak to customers.

“We will be talking to customers about withdrawing their money,” Daiber said.

Other protesters held signs in front of the bank reading “Solidarity with Standing Rock” and “Divest DAPL.”

O’Rourke said not everyone appreciated the protest, but that several drivers passing by honked horns, presumably in support. “The inconvenience to the community is nothing compared to the inconvenience of the water protectors at Standing Rock,” he said.

The message was compelling to customer Travis Poston, of Philadelphia, who said he intends to pull his remaining money from the bank. Poston said he sees moral flaws in the support for the project, and is concerned about the aggressive tactics used to drive protesters away from the site in North Dakota.

He praised those who were willing to be arrested in Amherst.

“They're trying to send a message of change to make things fair and equal for all people,” Poston said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.