‘Bodies on the line’: why climate protesters risked arrest to block BlackRock

NYPD officers arrested protesters who gathered outside BlackRock headquarters in Manhattan on September 13th, 2023.

Demonstrators blocked traffic outside the entrance to BlackRock headquarters ahead of a key climate summit in New York City.

Alfredo Angulo is the last person standing in the middle of the street, defying police to block the entrance to BlackRock headquarters in New York City yesterday. Emblazoned in red on their green T-shirt: a family standing between homes and an industrial building billowing smoke. It’s a scene Angulo’s all too familiar with, having grown up in the refinery town of Richmond, California.

“I could see the refinery from my kitchen window, see the smokestacks,” Angulo, who’s in New York City for events surrounding United Nations conferences this month, tells The Verge. “I’m here as a frontline community member to say that we will not be a sacrifice for the benefit of the rich.”

It’s Wednesday, and Angulo and some 50 protesters are blocking traffic in front of BlackRock headquarters in New York City to push the world’s largest money manager to stop financing new fossil fuel projects. The hour-long blockade eventually leads to several arrests, including Angulo’s.

“Climate leaders from across the country are here to disrupt business as usual and demand that the world’s largest investor in climate destruction clean up their act,” Angulo says. They’re pushing for an end to fossil fuel projects ahead of a UN Climate Ambition Summit on September 20th and also as the UN General Assembly convenes in New York City.

The aim is to put pressure on governments and companies to meet goals set under the Paris climate agreement, which aims to limit global warming to less than a degree Celsius more than the planet has already warmed since the Industrial Revolution. Researchers have found that developing new fossil fuel projects runs against that goal. BlackRock controls enough cash to influence what path the world takes, managing more than $9 trillion in assets, equivalent to nearly a tenth of the global GDP.

BlackRock holds at least a 5 percent stake in nearly all of the world’s S&P 500 companies, according to a 2019 paper. That includes Chevron, the oil giant Angulo grew up seeing from their window. An explosion and fire at the refinery in 2012 sent 15,000 residents nearby to hospitals for medical treatment, mostly because of breathing issues, Angulo remembers.

“We need to break this dependence that we have on Chevron, like many other communities around the United States,” says Angulo, a campaign manager at the California-based organization Communities for a Better Environment. “[I see a future where] we don’t have a threat of explosions looming over our head.”

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has tried to cast the powerful asset manager as a leader on climate and ESG investments. But protesters say BlackRock has started to waffle on its environmental commitments while pollution and climate change worsen.

Fink wrote a letter in 2020 to CEOs of the world’s largest companies that said “climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects” and that BlackRock would “place sustainability at the center of our investment approach.” In the years since, however, some Republican-led states in the US have pulled their money from BlackRock funds in response.

“If Blackrock doesn’t divest fossil fuels, New York City shouldn’t be doing business with them,” says Wallace Mazon, a climate campaigner with New York Communities for Change. BlackRock manages more than $50 billion in pension funds for New York City.

In July, BlackRock appointed the CEO of the world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, to its board of directors. “It was an alarm for us … a signal that they want to be closer to the fossil fuel industry,” says José González, a senior director for data and research on corporate campaigns for the nonprofit organization New York Communities for Change (NYCC) that was one of the groups involved in the demonstrations.

“Civil disobedience: it’s not something that people do lightly,” González told The Verge before the protest. “The problem warrants that kind of sacrifice. People putting their bodies on the line.”

“Larry Fink, shame on you, we deserve a future, too!” a line of activists chants. Inside the offices, a line of people in suits are gathering on the second floor, looking through the windows and down at protesters, some shaking their heads and chuckling. Between the two groups stand New York Police Department officers, clutching zip ties they would later use to haul demonstrators into a police van.

A man wearing an orange T-shirt and baseball cap holds a bullhorn in his hand.
“Civil disobedience: it’s not something that people do lightly,” says José González. “The problem warrants that kind of sacrifice. People putting their bodies on the line.”

With a bullhorn, González yells a roll call for groups that gathered for the demonstration. “A lot of different groups — why? Because BlackRock has its hands in everything,” González says. There are big-name environmental organizations like Greenpeace and 350.org. But there are also people calling for affordable housing and other advocates who want BlackRock to renegotiate poor countries’ debt.

“Debts should have climate clauses,” says Gaya Sriskanthan, who leads a global climate justice campaign for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. “If a country is hit by disaster, the debt should be paused at the very least. We shouldn’t have a debt system that hooks countries into debt.”

BlackRock didn’t immediately respond to The Verge’s request for comment. Demonstrators from around the world are expected to take to the streets again for a climate march through New York City on Sunday.

Photography by Justine Calma / The Verge

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