Above Photo: Protesters watch as structures are burned around them at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp before a 2 pm deadline to vacate in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, February 22, 2017. (Photo: Nick Cote / The New York Times)
Police have now taken full control of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, following an hours-long siege today at Standing Rock. A number of Water Protectors were forced to flee en masse across the Cannonball River to escape a running advance by heavily armed police. It is unclear at this time how many Water Protectors have been arrested.
Today’s raid came on the heels of additional forced evacuations yesterday in Standing Rock. Around 150 police from several states mobilized against the Water Protectors yesterday on Highway 1806 in South Dakota and forced a large number of people to evacuate from Standing Rock, using the threat of force. Police also rushed the crowd on 1806, brutalizing at least one person, and carried out multiple “snatch and grab” arrests.
Although the order for eviction yesterday was for 2 pm, the police troops from Morton County and other states waited until 4 pm to begin their forward march in riot gear holding batons. The weather was freezing with sleet coming down. Some Water Protectors decided to light ceremonial fires to burn their belongings rather than see them defiled by police, who have previously smashed and urinated on the belongings of Protectors after raids. The skies were gray with clouds and smoke from the burning buildings and tipis. By 4 pm, most of the camp had left, believing they could be more useful for the movement if not arrested. Hugs with the 60 to 80 who chose to stay were emotional.
The Water Protectors waited at the infamous Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806. The police were marching toward them slowly.
The police stopped near the camp side of the bridge about 40 feet in front of a group of around 50 Water Protectors, including seven or eight veterans. There were at least 15 independent journalists who were told they would be arrested if they did not leave, but ABC and NBC journalists were embedded with the police and had permission to take photos and notes with no risk of arrest. One of the independent journalists, Eric Poemz, was live streaming. A man next to him spoke to the police respectfully, saying they were honorable men trying to earn a salary for their families, but that because they wore masks and no nametags, they were less honorable than they should be. Working for the pipeline put them on the wrong side of history, he said, asking, “Why don’t you be really honorable and set down your badge?” Right at that moment the police charged the Water Protectors. Poemz turned and ran, and the next moment he was down screaming in pain. “I think you broke my hand,” he yelled. “I can’t walk. My hip. You broke my hip!” The police continued to manhandle him. “We gave you plenty of time to get out of here,” one of them said. “That’s what you get for disrespecting our state for six months,” said another.
ABC described the incident differently, of course: “One man complained of hip pain resulting from the arrest. The extent of his injury is not known. The other people in the group left the area following the arrests.” Eight or nine other journalists and Water Protectors were suddenly attacked in the same way. They also talked about the protesters setting fire to the buildings without mentioning the ceremonial reasons. How they rationalized their unprovoked attacks on people praying or taking videos was like this: “After the deadline passed, as many as 75 people outside the camp started taunting officers, who brought five large vans to the scene. Police took about 10 people into custody for failing to heed commands to leave.”
After the initial charge of the police and their nine or so arrests, several of which caused injuries, the police retreated for the night.
What we witnessed yesterday and today in Standing Rock was a police state in action, with human rights violations, assaults on peaceful assembly, illegal removal of Indians, choosing who gets to create the news, police brutality, state terrorism and destruction of sacred and valuable structures, many donated from supporters around the world. We also witnessed the continuing spirit of the Standing Rock movement. Although far more people on the scene in the coming weeks would make a big difference, the movement is far from dead, regardless of the loss of the main camp. Moreover, it remains a model for what we need to do to stop not only the destruction of natural life systems but also to stop fascism from coming to all of our communities.
Rising authoritarian nationalism is growing around the world. Like all forms of fascism, it has taken root in a moment of increasing disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots.” In this case, corporatism and neoliberalism set the stage, with the oil industry in the lead. The election of Donald Trump has brought the simmering movement to a full boil in the United States. What is happening at Standing Rock is an illustration of the challenges we can expect to happen in our own communities. It is also an example of what we can do to peacefully resist and bring forth miraculous solutions.
There are four main challenges facing the people of the United States, witnessed in the government’s actions at Standing Rock: oppressive legislation, suppression of truth, acts of state terrorism and divide-and-conquer tactics.
Challenge #1: Oppressive Legislation
Oppressive legislation is aimed at ending grassroots resistance, the bedrock requirement for sustaining democracy. In an op-ed in the Guardian, Douglas Williams writes that it is not just the media, judiciary or electoral systems that are being undermined: “What is ignored is the effect that the Trump administration will have on the social movements, which serve as pillars of the resistance. If these fall, our democracy will be irreparably harmed.”
In response to the “water is life” spiritual movement in Standing Rock, lawmakers in 10 states have proposed oppressive legislation. In North Dakota, a bill was proposed to let someone get away with running over a protester, after a cop on a snowmobile ran over a Water Protector. Earlier this month, the North Dakota State Senate passed a bill 33-12, making it illegal for a protester to wear a mask, whether to protect the face from cold or pepper spray. Another bill passed in response to the resistance in Standing Rock changes the lesser charge of “instigating a riot” (currently a misdemeanor) to one that carries a $20,000 fine and 10 years in prison. It essentially makes any peaceful assembly of more than 100 people a major felony. At a February 21 hearing, a North Dakota Senator asked a Standing Rock attorney what the difference was between a peaceful and a violent protest, as if they were all essentially violent.
Attacks on public dissent are spreadings on public dissent are spreading from North Dakota to those states that have sent state troopers into Standing Rock. In Michigan, two laws passed the House, causing penalties for striking workers and allowing employers to stop picketers without first demonstrating that their company has experienced economic harm. In Minnesota, a bill has been proposed to make participation in any protests on a road punishable by one year in jail. Meanwhile, Washington State lawmakers have proposed a “Preventing Economic Disruption Act,” which would similarly unleash draconian punishment against protesters who block roads, railroads and other “legally permitted economic activities.” In Indiana, Senate Bill 285 authorizes city officials to use “any means necessary” to break up a group of 10 or more protesters blocking traffic, “even to the point of costing lives.”
Challenge #2: Suppression of Truth
Continuous propaganda originating from pro-DAPL sources has filled mainstream news. It has included lies that relate to DAPL’s process for securing permits; protesters being on drugs and violent; mounds of camp garbage that could pollute the river; reasons for barricading roads; felony charges claiming that riots have been incited; denial that excessive force has been used against Water Protectors by pro-DAPL forces; claims about dangerous natural floods, etc.
There have also been false interpretations of laws and policies in ways that allow police to implement orders with impunity. One recent example is the inaccurate interpretation that was recently used against the Water Protectors who moved to high ground to stay on the property belonging to Ladonna Brave Bull Allard. This inaccurate interpretation resulted in a “notice of trespass” being handed out by none other than the Bureau of Land Management. This was ordered by the Standing Rock Tribal Council, which Allard claims even voted to authorize the current use of the property for campers on June 8, but seems to have forgotten under pressure of the new administration.
Challenge #3: Acts of State Terrorism
Most readers have likely heard of the dog attacks on Water Protectors, the use of water cannons in freezing weather and the continual use of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. In light of the nonviolent prayerful actions of the Water Protectors, these were not defensive actions but acts of state terrorism. This is only part of the story, however. State terrorism has also taken the form of a constant and illegal use of airspace whereby airplanes or helicopters fly over the camps day and night. State terrorism includes intimidating interruptions of sacred ceremony, such as the recent disruption of a women’s closing ceremony teaching people the sacred symbolism of a tipi. It includes continual intrusions on sacred burial grounds, causing emotional trauma; DAPL security shooting down drones and denying it; a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer beating a girl to her knees; and police forces preventing people from bringing sleeping bags into the freezing camp.
American Indians have long been subjected to state terrorism, and such abuses as listed above occurred at Standing Rock before Trump came into office. However, the intensity and frequency have increased since Trump assumed office. It will continue.
Challenge #4: Divide and Conquer Tactics
The famous poem by Martin Niemoller referring to the Holocaust, which begins, “First they came for the Socialist and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist,” reminds us of the dangers of not standing together. Unfortunately, the government and mainstream media’s use of divide-and-conquer tactics has been effective to some degree as relates to Standing Rock. The use of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to be part of the federal government’s effort to remove Water Protectors has helped divide people. Corporate media reports that accuse the Standing Rock Tribal Council of betraying the Water Protectors is full of half-truths. Too many people are allowing for divisions inside and outside of Indian Country.
Of course, it is unfortunate that the director of the BIA is taking a stand against the Indian people. It is unfortunate that North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, a staunch supporter of DAPL, was recently elected chairman of the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. That none of the tribal councils were at Standing Rock for the February 22 raid is a sad reality as well.
However, it is not these things in themselves that allow for the division of people. It is our failure to realize that it is only when we allow such things to take our eye off of our collective goals that keeps us oppressed under a police state. There are many reasons the numbers of people at Standing Rock diminished from over 10,000 to less than 1,000 by February 22. What is more important is that the movement itself has not quit.
A Model for Resistance: Wolokolkiciapi
With the fervent attacks on the Water Protection movement led by Indigenous peoples from around the world (but especially individuals from the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations) also comes a model for peaceful yet powerful resistance we must all learn to utilize. I refer to the remarkable degrees of respect, responsibility, persistence, courage and wolokolkiciapi (a love-based sense of internal and external peacefulness) taught by Indigenous people and quickly emulated by their non-Indigenous allies. Even when responding to the [de]ployment of tribal police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs security, who have recently been turned against their own people, the Water Protectors remain both undaunted and even sympathetic to those who follow Trump’s orders.
First Nations are familiar with divide-and-conquer strategies that have long been used to separate the stronger from the weaker, the informed from the easily misled, and the corruptible from the incorruptible. Love and understanding for all relations, including Tribal Council members who seem to have abandoned those remaining in the camps, prevails.
Many pages could be written giving examples of how the Water Protectors continue to respond to government assaults on dignity, law and human rights. Some individuals, like Myron Dewey and Chase Iron Eyes, have chosen to be public figures in spite of arrests and threats of incarceration. Many others who also risk their jobs, freedom and lives display the same controlled and respectful attitudes and emotions in the throes of antagonistic encounters. Such behavior would be considered exceptional in the world at large, but at Standing Rock, it is the rule. I have seen it first-hand in my several visits to North Dakota, but it can also be witnessed by watching live-streamed videos from the numerous postings on YouTube like this one, where Water Protectors respectfully ask a BIA official to stop Morton County checkpoints that are preventing people from entering the camps.
It is not easy to hold a peaceful attitude and talk with sincere empathy when you are told you cannot bring a sleeping bag to a sub-freezing tent, or when being sprayed in the face with pepper spray. Such personal control and sincere empathy are the rule at Standing Rock and, in spite of losing many battles, there is evidence that long-term goals might be achieved. There is also historical evidence that Indigenous understandings of interconnectedness ultimately lead to peaceful outcomes. As documented in the anthology I edited, Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America, adherence to a spiritual perspective that embraces “all our relations” allowed for more than 75 percent of pre-contact Indigenous peoples to be what scholars refer to as “peaceful societies.” Unfortunately, most have never learned such truths because of anti-Indian revisionist history and media.
This loving, fearless disposition in the face of oppression is contagious, as represented by the many non-Indians risking all to participate in the protection of life systems for future generations. It has continued over hundreds of years of genocidal practices that continue today — practices that see Indians as either expendable or dangerous.
An awakening has happened. It is bringing our original Indigenous worldview into the hearts of those who have forgotten it. We are all Indigenous to this planet and have lived according to the laws of nature and complementarity for 99 percent of our history. This is why 80 percent of the biodiversity on Earth exists on the 20 percent of the land mass occupied by Indigenous peoples.
The Indigenous worldview has been a line of defense against the destruction of the earth. We know that under the Trump administration, the oil industry will continue to pollute air and water. However, the awakening to our original Indigenous perspective has become “dangerous” to the colonizers, and we must maintain the momentum.
What happened on February 22 and 23 in Standing Rock must be shared far and wide via the videos and live streams of the independent press. It should rally us to counter the growing totalitarianism and increasing willful destruction of the environment. We must continue the wisdom, determination and courage that will continue with the Standing Rock movement. As Kelly Hayes writes, Standing Rock’s “last stand, and ours, has yet to come.” Standing Rock continues. Please join the movement. We are all Indigenous to Mother Earth. We are connected intrinsically to rivers, trees, rocks and all the creatures in relationship with us as we are to one another. With this in mind, we can make way for the seventh generation. Even when our own struggles seem overwhelming, we must remember the power of heartfelt prayers and love — like the love modeled at Standing Rock — that flows like a river.