After eight months, starting with a few hundred young Native Americans and swelling to up to 15,000 people in the sprawling encampments of Standing Rock, North Dakota, a victory was celebrated.
The US Army Corps of Engineers denied a request for an easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and their “family” of logistics corporations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. The pipeline was an eminent threat to the water supply and sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux.
The Army Corps of Engineers will further require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for pipeline, which usually takes months and sometimes years, to reconsider granting the easement.
DAPL is a $3.7 billion joint venture between ETP, Enbridge, Inc., Energy Equity Partners, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Sunoco LP and Phillips 66. The project would link 1,200 miles of pipeline carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota through the Midwest and eventually to the East Coast and South.
The sunny and wind-swept prairie of Standing Rock reveals the absurdity of building fossil fuel infrastructure that will further harm the planet when renewable energy is everywhere, waiting to be developed.
The December 4 decision came immediately after 4000 US military veterans joined the water protectors, as they are called, at Standing Rock. The vets formed a human shield protecting the water protectors from the myriad local law enforcement officers who work on behalf of the interests of the private oil and gas industries. Several of the vets said that, after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their effort to protect Standing Rock was the first time they actually felt they were protecting the American people.
After almost 500 years of white settlers and the U.S. government stealing land from Native Americans and forging divisions between them, over 200 Native tribes have coalesced to protect Standing Rock. The history of government-sanctioned genocide and colonialism are recurring themes in this struggle.
The main road in the encampment is called Flag Row, a long dirt path lined with hundreds of colorful tribal flags from all over the Americas, signaling tribal unity. Strict rules of decorum prevail—no drugs, alcohol, or weapons of any kinds, total non-violence, respect for decision-making by the tribal council and for elders, and dedicating the encampment to non-violent prayer. “Water is Life” is the encampment’s motto. Thousands of indigenous peoples from all over the world and tens of thousands of non-indigenous peoples have come to Standing Rock to defend indigenous rights and to protect Mother Earth. They want to kill the “black snake” DAPL. There lie the seeds of unity and dissent.
Mother Earth and Sovereignty
Indigenous activists such as Tara Houska, Anishinaabe lawyer for Honor the Earth and Tom Goldtooth, Navajo leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, see fighting the pipeline as more than defending the tribes; they see it as defending Mother Earth. Fossil fuel infrastructure is a threat to the future of all humans on earth. They want to see the development of renewable energy and the end of fossil fuels.
Dave Archambault, II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and primary spokesperson for the coalition of tribes, will be satisfied if the pipeline is re-routed away from the Sioux orbit. He has told the water protectors camping on the grounds, to go home to their families for the winter: their jobs are done. He has repeatedly stated that he is not opposed to infrastructure projects or to “energy independence” but rather is opposed when indigenous peoples are not consulted and when the pipelines go through their lands and waters. Many Native Americans, many desperately poor and denied opportunities, have sold mineral rights to their parcels of land to fossil fuel developers. This is a basic contradiction within indigenous societies: those who see Mother Earth as their responsibility to protect for the next seven generations (an indigenous mantra), versus those who want to alleviate their own poverty which seems much more immediate.
Months of battles with brutal local law enforcement have left hundreds of water protectors facing arrests, rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, water cannons used in sub-freezing temperatures, serious injuries and brutal treatment when incarcerated. Images of this police brutality against indigenous peoples and their supporters have galvanized support for the protests and brought thousands of people to the camps that make up the sprawling Standing Rock encampment. Tribal elders have often looked askance at many of the “unofficial” actions advanced by the “Red Warrior Camp” and their allies because they have drawn so much violence against them. Nonetheless, the tribal leaders decry the violence and the partisan nature of the “law enforcement” savage response. Red Warriors see these direct action confrontations as the reason that Standing Rock has gotten publicity and won the hearts of radicals and human rights advocates across the world.
Naomi Klein, in her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything, asserts that the climate movement can only be successful if it addresses racial, gender and economic oppression as its main strategy and if it takes leadership from those most affected by climate change and the savages of capitalism. Without so much explicit language this is evidently what is happening at Standing Rock. The power of this strategy impacts everyone who enters the camp and the movement; the pull of this approach is enormous.
Life at Standing Rock: Building Liberated Spaces
Standing Rock has developed into multiple camps, replete with many cooking tents each serving hundreds at every meal, large-scale donation operation, legal, medical and psychological counseling services, schools, orientation sessions and direct action trainings. Each morning and evening people gather around sacred fires and hear information, speeches, music and dance and feel the power of unity. The encampments have captured the imagination and support of hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, from the indigenous Sami peoples of Norway to workers from all over the United States who are angry at the lack of support from organized labor, specifically the AFL-CIO.
The presence of youth is immediately noticeable at the camps though there are plenty of elders and children as well. Supporters mostly camp out and help to winterize the teepees, yurts, army tents, recreational vehicles, camping tents, vans and school buses that create a small city of protest. They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent. The pull of such a liberated space is all the more meaningful in the face of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. The encampment is simultaneously an historic throwback and a futuristic village of care and commitment for a more egalitarian and caring world.
What Lies Ahead?
On December 4 and 5, over 15,000 people celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny the permit to complete DAPL as planned, but the struggle is nowhere over. Several factors make for a complex web of possibilities that underscore the necessity of the encampment and wide support to continue.
First, Trump can overturn Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision and force them to grant an easement to ETP. That will be challenged in court as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal agencies cannot change a settled ruling of a federal agency that is based on facts when a new administration takes over. The US Supreme Court declined to take up this ruling, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision to prevail. If Trump tried to get the permit without an environmental impact statement he would have an immediate lawsuit on his hands that would prevent the easement from taking effect, at least immediately. Additionally, Trump’s reported investments in DAPL may create a conflict of interest he cannot navigate. Other lawsuits against ETP are already in the courts and proceeding, further slowing down the process.
Further, Trump has talked about privatizing over 56 million acres of Native American reservations in order to facilitate exploitation of the natural resources of those lands. Indigenous reservations cover 2% of US land but contain an estimated 20% of its oil and gas plus vast coal reserves. That fight will ignite much more organizing and fight back.
Second, and perhaps most important, are the specifics of the contracts between ETP and Sunoco Logistics, their partner organization in this project, and the dozens of major financial institutions that have invested in DAPL. These contracts can be negated and/or open to re-negotiation if the pipeline is not completed by January 1, 2017. At that point the financial institutions will have the legal right to back out of or diminish their investments. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of groups in the United States that are pressuring these very financial institutions to drop their investments in DAPL. Many of the pension funds of public workers and others are invested in these financial institutions and supporters are mounting campaigns to uncover them and demand divestment.
Supporters have been cutting up their credit cards and closing their accounts from banks investing in DAPL The Sightline Institute did a study of DAPL financing and found them to be “rickety”. They found that the value of crude oil has declined by about 50% since these contracts were signed, making the windfall profits from this venture much less likely. A sharp decline in oil production may signal no further need for the pipeline. For some of the investors, DAPL is looking risky on many levels.
Third, ETP has a way to sneak out of the job as well. Their contract indicates that they are not liable for project completion if “rioting” takes place. ETP along with their allies in local North Dakota law enforcement have been calling the direct action by water protectors “rioting,” setting the stage for a possible exit from liability. The demonstrators have been peaceful if sometimes provocative and a great deal of video evidence indicates that the violence has emanated from the law enforcement officers, not the protesters. But “rioting” is the language ETP and the cops use for specific purpose.
Fourth, popular support for Standing Rock seems to grow with each day and each report of violence against the water protectors. There are similar challenges to fossil fuel pipelines in many parts of the US, gathering people to protest. The model of encampments, of creating liberated spaces that protect the activists, land, water and movement, has taken hold. From the fight to halt Spectra Energy’s AIM Pipeline, slated to go under the Hudson River and immediately past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station, to the activism of the Black Mesa Water Coalition in the U.S. southwest, struggles to reject fossil fuel infrastructure and build a sustainable energy economy are numerous.
A new solidarity is emerging. One that has a great deal of potential to unite the left against the oppression of people, particularly people of color, and the oppression of the earth itself. Hope lies in navigating that unity with a vision of solving both oppressions simultaneously. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many. While its opponents are on the ascent, the struggle continues. Compassion, respect, clear demands and decision-making and solidarity can guide the way.
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America.