It was approaching midnight on Friday, Dec. 2, when Halim Nurdin decided to take a break from his political science paper. The subject of his essay: democracy and inequality. The 24-year-old former Marine corporal, three years into a history degree at Long Island University, began scanning social media to see what his friends were up to when an item in his Facebook newsfeed caught his eye.
Less than 24 hours later Nurdin stepped off an airplane in Fargo, N.D. The following evening, his rented Chevrolet Cruiser rolled into the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The first snowflakes of a blizzard were beginning to fall, but fireworks lit up the sky.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters have worked to prevent a multibillion-dollar consortium, Energy Transfer Partners, from installing an oil pipeline on their land. Part of a 1,172-mile project intended to carry oil from the Great Plains to Mississippi River ports in Illinois, the Dakota Access Pipeline was slated to travel through burial grounds the Sioux hold sacred. It would also have passed beneath the Missouri River — the reservation’s only source of drinking water. What began over the summer as a small protest camp established by the tribe to impede construction blossomed over the fall into a tent city with 15,000 inhabitants.
“Visually, it was just astounding how enormous it was,” recalled longtime activist Nancy Romer, a retired professor of psychology at Brooklyn College who visited the encampments in November. “There were all these teepees and yurts and tents and RVs and school buses.” A half-dozen camps sprouted up, dozens of kitchens and schools, supply and medical tents. Tens of thousands of people travelled through Standing Rock.
“It was a liberated zone built by people who shared politics,” said Romer.
Nurdin was part of a deployment of veterans to the reservation that weekend. About 2,000 were expected to turn up; more than 5,000 arrived. Many, including Nurdin, had never attended a protest in their lives, but decided to take part as word spread on social media that they were needed.
“The road leading into the reservation was backed up for miles,” Nurdin said. “My expectation was that on Monday we would form a line in front of the protesters, but it turned out our presence alone did more than enough.”
The vets’ arrival at Standing Rock proved to be the final push needed in the protracted battle for public trust between Energy Transfer and its opponents.
In September, video shot by Democracy Now! of security guards siccing German shepherds on peaceful demonstrators — water protectors, as the Sioux called themselves — went viral. Later, when Americans by the million were traveling for Thanksgiving — a holiday intended to commemorate the relationship between our continent’s original inhabitants and its colonizers — news of Native Americans being blasted by water hoses in subfreezing weather emanated from airport televisions and car radios. A young woman from the Bronx, Sophia Wilansky, was forced to undergo multiple surgeries after local law enforcement unleashed a torrent of rubber bullets and concussion grenades at the protectors, destroying bones in her arm.
Such acts of brutality harkened back the 1960s, with its images of Alabama police attacking civil rights demonstrators with clubs, dogs, and fire hoses: uniformed men treating people like dirt to be washed from the face of the earth. It was as if the results of the presidential election were manifesting themselves even before Donald Trump took office.
“We took an oath to defend America from foreign and domestic threats,” Nurdin said. “People have a right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech, and they were being brutalized, being told to shut up. Shooting water at people in freezing temperatures, throwing stun-grenades and tear gas canisters at them — that’s a domestic threat.”
On Sunday, Dec. 4, as more veterans streamed into Standing Rock, word came down that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied Energy Transfer a permit to drill beneath the Missouri. Celebrations erupted in the camps.
“What happened at Standing Rock was to me one of the most profound manifestations of people struggling for their rights, for sovereignty and for the earth that I have ever seen,” said Tarak Kauff, a member of Veterans for Peace who served in the Army’s airborne infantry from 1959 to 1962.
Yet throughout the rest of the nation, a different story has unfolded in recent months, perhaps the greatest victory the forces of ignorance, bigotry, fear, misogyny and violence in America have scored in decades. The rise of barbarism from beyond Standing Rock could nullify its accomplishments, if the lessons learned within the encampments go unheeded.
The good news, you might say, is that Donald Trump has finally stripped away the last vestiges of respectability from American politics. America is the champion high-school quarterback who can’t read; its presumed sense of predestined glory and “exceptionalism” all hollow posturing. Trump demonstrates unequivocally that there is no inherent dignity in any office, including the highest in the land.
Contrast Trump’s celebrity feuds, his shameless self-promotion, his talk of “grabbing pussy” and his racial incitement with the displays of resolve witnessed at Standing Rock. A people pushed to the brink of extinction by “Manifest Destiny” held their heads high and refused to back down as all manner of state-sanctioned violence bore down on them. They demonstrated that persistent, collective acts of peaceful dissent can overcome concussion grenades, rubber bullets, schutzhund packs, tear gas, mace and the wealthiest corporations in history.
For decades the political right billed itself as the party of patriotism, family and faith. The left recoiled from these notions given how they manifested themselves — endless wars, bombed abortion clinics, scandal-tarred evangelists like Jim Bakker. Now, the “party of values” has elected an American Père Ubu (French playwright Alfred Jarry’s embodiment of all that is gross, greedy, and piggish) as an instrument of its evangelical god. In so doing, it has presented an opening for progressives to conquer and replenish moral high ground long ago ceded to the Republicans who have desecrated it.
Veterans for years have been frequent pawns in the GOP’s patriot games. “Hearing the word ‘veteran,’ the first thing that comes to my mind, and I think a lot of people’s minds, is sacrifice, selflessness, giving to your country, fighting for freedom,” says Halim Nurdin. But at Standing Rock, taking a cue from the camp’s indigenous leadership, a new vanguard flipped the script. Veterans demonstrated a way in which the left can answer the GOP’s “values” by reinterpreting them
“Resistance at Standing Rock was primarily nonviolent and done in the spirit of prayer because they recognize that everything is sacred,” says Tarak Kauff.
Kauff was arrested for blocking pipeline construction at Standing Rock in October and traveled there again for the mass veterans mobilization. In the wee hours of Dec. 5, the tent where he and around 30 other veterans were sleeping caved in during a snowstorm, exposing them to snow and gale-force winds. They sought shelter in a nearby medical tent. Later in the day, they were among the droves of protectors who took refuge from the storm in the nearby Standing Rock casino. There, a ceremony took place involving 500 former military personnel.
“At one point, all the Native veterans, there were about 80 to 100, they came around and were shaking our hands and hugging us in the spirit of oneness and brotherhood and sisterhood,” Kauff said. “They realized that going forward, if they don’t forgive, then bitterness and hatred will poison them. They’re not going to forget the theft, the broken treaties, the genocide. They don’t want anyone to forget. But they realize if you carry animosity in your heart, it eats you up. We have to do what’s necessary even if it’s at the cost of our lives, but we don’t need to do it with hatred.
“We’re fueled by love, compassion, community. We’re not going to win this battle intellectually. We’re going to win it on heart-power.”
How Love Actually Trumps Hate
Remember “love trumps hate”? The slogan made its rounds during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer, popping up on placards as if strategically placed there so that Hillary Clinton could use it in her acceptance speech and echo the masses. Trump supporters cynically folded the signs to read “love trump.”
Love, after all, is a four-letter word. Actions give it substance.
In October, when tribal leaders sent Clinton a letter urging her to speak out against the violence at Standing Rock, she called for “all of the parties involved … to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest.” It was a statement that signified nothing. Now, as she put it in her concession speech, Clinton is keeping “an open mind” about a Trump presidency. Likewise, President Barack Obama, in his own words, is “rooting” for Trump.
What politicians greasing the levers for a smooth transition of power miss is that Trump is not just another politician. When we talk about Trump, we’re discussing a man who incites racism and xenophobia for political gain; who surrounds himself with segregationists, Nazi sympathizers, climate deniers and vulture capitalists; a man who, in one month, will be the most powerful person in the most powerful country in the world.
Conversely, we’re also talking about the complete failure of American liberalism to offer an inspiring alternative to Trumpism.
As our political leaders falter, the left’s ability to muster strength from outside the corridors of power will become more important than ever. Movements long siloed — feminism, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, climate justice — are converging, rightly seeing in Trump a threat to their very existence. And yet we must avoid the tendency to see protest as an end in itself, rather than a means of achieving power.
A lack of organization rendered Occupy Wall Street incapable of sustaining itself against repression, notes Nancy Romer: “There would be 10-hour meetings that didn’t serve anyone except people who could sit for 10-hour meetings.”
At Standing Rock, by contrast, all activities were oriented toward achieving the protectors’ political goals. “The camps were highly structured,” Romer says. “There were very clear orders when you entered the camps. Security told you, ‘No drugs, no alcohol, no violence.’” Infiltrators were surrounded by security and forced to leave the camp.
Amid the constant threat of state violence, clear leadership on the part of tribal elders helped maintain discipline and decorum — two more values the left must reclaim from the right to steel itself for the days ahead.
Short-lived autonomous zones aren’t going to be enough against the multiple threats of Trumpism. Shortly after the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners permission to transgress on Sioux grounds, members of Trump’s “Native American Affairs Coalition” announced plans to privatize 56 million acres of Native lands for oil and gas exploration. While the land held by the Bureau of Indian Affairs amounts to just 2 percent of the U.S., it contains one-fifth of the nation’s estimated oil reserves, an amount valued at $1.5 trillion. Furthermore, Trump has vowed to put the Dakota Access Pipeline back on the path to completion once he’s in office.
It will take a Standing Rock nation to hold him back.