Citi Asks Employees Not to Engage Protesters Swarming HQ

(Bloomberg) -- Citigroup Inc. urged staffers not to get drawn into altercations with protesters targeting the bank’s New York headquarters, a sign that activists’ protracted campaign is beginning to wear on employees and executives alike.

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Climate activists and pro-Palestine protesters have sought to blockade the entrance to the bank’s main office in recent weeks, with video footage showing tense scenes of protesters resisting police and shouting anti-Israel chants in the public plaza outside the building. Citigroup’s Security and Investigative Services team is advising employees on how to handle the events, according to a memo to staff seen by Bloomberg.

“I know many of you have been offended by some of the language and actions, as have I, but we have to keep our cool,” Ed Skyler, Citigroup’s head of enterprise services and public affairs, said in the memo. “We continue to ask that you avoid engaging with protesters, follow best practices for navigating protests and listen to directions from CSIS and local law enforcement.”

A spokeswoman for Citigroup declined to comment.

Protesters have dubbed their campaign against Citigroup the “Summer of Heat.” On a website replete with slogans such as “Hot People Hate Wall St.” and “Eat the Rich,” organizers said protesters will be “going hard all summer long. Week after week. Month after month.”

“We wish it didn’t have to come to people blocking doors and engaging in civil disobedience,” said Alec Connon, a director at Stop the Money Pipeline. “But to have any hope of reining in the climate crisis, we need banks like Citi to stop funding fossil-fuel expansion, and so we’re going to do everything we can to make this issue impossible for Citi to ignore.”

So far, protest organizers say that roughly 200 activists have been arrested as police have lined up almost daily outside Citigroup’s headquarters. Protesters had vowed to avoid physical violence, but they also say their goal is to physically prevent employees from entering the building and doing their jobs.

“While it is very frustrating when access to our building is temporarily blocked, we have to let the professionals do their job,” Skyler said in the memo. “We are grateful for the presence and assistance of local law enforcement, who have acted quickly when necessary to keep our colleagues and community safe.”

In the weeks since they began gathering outside Citigroup’s headquarters, the activists have also protested the bank’s presence in Israel.

“We denounce antisemitism, Islamophobia, acts of hatred, discrimination and prejudice of any kind,” Skyler said in the memo. “We are grateful for the presence and assistance of local law enforcement, who have acted quickly when necessary to keep our colleagues and community safe.”

Citigroup was the first international bank to obtain a full banking license in Israel back in 2000 and today says it has the largest presence of any foreign financial institution in the country. Protesters say the bank is central to a financing arrangement enabling Israel’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets from the US government.

“Please be assured that, as outlined in our Environmental and Social Risk Management Policy, any financing of military equipment for the US or its allies needs to have senior level approval,” Skyler said in the memo.

Under that policy, Citigroup says it “will not directly finance” cluster munitions or biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. The bank says it’s “rare” for it to be asked to provide direct financing of military equipment, including missiles, fighter aircraft, armored vehicles or warships.

Protesters have targeted other banks around the world for their perceived ties to the Israel-Hamas conflict. More than 15 Barclays Plc branches across England and Scotland were covered in red paint and had windows smashed in recent weeks after the British lender acknowledged it has a “corporate banking” relationship with Israeli military-technology company Elbit Systems Ltd.

“We finance some companies making defense equipment, alongside their civilian products,” Barclays Chief Executive Officer CS Venkatakrishnan said in a recent column for The Guardian. “These companies are supported by our democratically elected governments for their role in protecting the UK and allies in Europe. We will not undermine our own national security by de-banking them.”

Activists behind the Manhattan climate protests against Citigroup say they’re singling out the bank because they think they’re more likely to make an impression on the lender than on some of its peers such as JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Citigroup has already vowed to align its business with net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a commitment CEO Jane Fraser made on her first day in the role in early 2021.

For now, the bank is the sixth-largest provider of loans to oil, gas and coal since the Paris agreement was struck in late 2015, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Its fossil-fuel lending has steadily receded in recent years and, so far in 2024, it’s the 12th biggest provider of loans to the fossil-fuel sector, the Bloomberg data show.

“Citi is not the only financial institution facing these protests, and as a global bank, we remain committed to being an active member of the communities we serve,” Skyler said in the memo. “We respect the right to protest, but not at the expense of our colleagues’ safety nor when others perpetuate abuse or hatred.”

--With assistance from Tim Quinson and Miranda Jeyaretnam.

(Adds comment from activist group in sixth paragraph.)

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