Ben Jealous, executive director of Sierra Club, speaks to climate protesters at a rally in Franklin Park on Tuesday before a march to downtown D.C. branches of Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
Ben Jealous, executive director of Sierra Club, speaks to climate protesters at a rally in Franklin Park on Tuesday before a march to downtown D.C. branches of Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

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If you heard that hundreds of protesters marched in downtown D.C. to rally against big banks and push for action on climate change, who would you picture in the crowd?

The first image that comes to mind may not include dozens upon dozens of gray-haired retirees, grandparents and great-grandparents leading the charge. But that’s who showed up on Tuesday, March 21 for a rally and march organized by Third Act, an advocacy group focused on mobilizing seniors in the climate fight. They joined elders across the country for a day of action that included more than 100 events in over 30 states. Activists called on big banks to stop investing in expanding fossil fuel projects.

Some of the seniors protesting in the District sat in rocking chairs in front of four banks—Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America—throughout the night in a 24-hour demonstration that began on Monday. They called themselves the Rocking Chair Rebellion.

“I grew up in the Civil Rights Movement, in the women’s movement,” said Elise Bryant, a 71-year-old labor activist and Montgomery County resident who sat in front of Chase on Tuesday afternoon. “How could I not be pro-climate, and pro-green economy?”

Third Act’s choice to focus on banks in particular is a strategic one: baby boomers own over half of U.S. wealth. Retirees, therefore, may represent a bigger threat to financial institutions than millennials or Gen Z’ers.  The four banks targeted by demonstration were identified as the biggest investors in fossil fuel projects by a 2022 report from Rainforest Action Network and other green groups.

The fired-up crowd downtown on Tuesday had little resemblance to the usual image of old folks’ calmly passing time in their rocking chairs. People cheered raucously as others cut up their credit cards, vowing to pull their money out of accounts rather than continue indirectly supporting climate pollution. Colorful, oversized puppets joined the usual signs and banners in protesters’ hands. 

In front of each bank, activists—two of whom wore full-body animal costumes—performed a skit, with lines shouted over a microphone and drums providing sound effects. 

“We are acting with urgency in our drive to net-zero!” declared an advocate representing the big banks, echoing many corporations’ talking points.

“Liar! Liar! Liar!” the crowd responded.

While Third Act led the national day of action, the crowd in D.C. hailed from a wide range of environmental and progressive organizations. Partners included many local groups and DMV-based chapters as well as national environmental leaders such as Ben Jealous, who took on the mantle of executive director at the Sierra Club early this year; Ebony Twilley Martin, co-executive director for Greenpeace USA; and Reverend Lennox Yearwood,  President and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus.

Yvonne Huntley explains why she came to the protest with other union retirees. (J. Pamela Stills/The Washington Informer)

“When organized people come together, we don’t lose,” Yearwood said to the crowd at a rally in Franklin Park that preceded the march to the banks. “Organized people beat organized money every time.” 

Because of the various partnerships, the march in D.C. included many students and other young people in addition to the Third Act protesters. The crowd showed a microcosm of today’s environmental movement demographically: while a large majority of the senior protesters were white, the groups of younger activists showed far more racial diversity. 

“The rally today is [made up of] senior citizens—in many ways, it reflects where the movement was 40 years ago. These are folks who grew up in this movement,” Jealous said in an interview following the Franklin Park rally. “When you go out to our chapters today, what you see is a very different room. And that room is made up of people who are engaged in local fights, environmental justice fights, land preservation fights, fights for urban parks.”

“Whether you’re in Alabama or you’re in Los Angeles, California,” Jealous continued, “what you see is a much more Black and brown Sierra Club, a much more diverse Sierra Club– and that’s the state of our movement today.”

Kayla Benjamin photo

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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