The Women's March was the first big step in the resistance. But, as this writer learned from protesting with Army vets at the DAPL, to fight the power we need to sacrifice more than a Saturday.
On Saturday, millions of women across the world marched together to both celebrate a new movement which has arisen in direct response to Trump’s dangerously sexist and authoritarian stance on women, and to indicate to the new president that his actions have awakened a new and bold solidarity and resistance to the litany of change he looks set to enact, attacking women’s bodies, freedom of speech, the environment, social services and civil rights. The march reminded us that now, more than ever, our bodies must be placed on the line to be counted, and that our presence and participation is devastatingly important—a message that resonates with me more than ever since my recent trip to Standing Rock in North Dakota, and the wholly unsurprising news on Tuesday that Trump has signed an executive order to build on the Dakota pipeline which cuts right through the water source and sacred land of the Lakota Sioux Indian’s Standing Rock reservation.
Since June 2016, I’ve seen hundreds of people passionately denounce (online) the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, a huge construction to build a massive underground pipeline to transport oil across the country—and right through the sacred tribal lands of the Lakota Sioux Tribe of North Dakota. I’ve heard the chant Mni Miconi—Water Is Life—through the videos shared by friends of friends online. I’ve read about the effects of such pipelines on the eco-system and the surrounding habitat. I’ve devoured the gorgeous, almost surreal, fine art-like depictions of beautiful Native American people racing around on horses, clashing with Sheriffs, police and the Army Engineers, rubber bullets frozen in time, icy water encapsulated in high-res, hair whipping in the wind. There is a glamor and a beauty to the story of Standing Rock that appeals to the liberal consciousness. There’s a hipster chic, if you like, in the rediscovery of Native American culture and history through the heroic narrative of brave indigenous people clashing with the billionaires who care about little apart from making money. That narrative has worked to their advantage to gain followers and supporters despite the blanket blackout in American media of all news concerning the various camps on the front lines of the planned construction.
Liberal social media may promote awareness, but awareness doesn’t always translate into concrete success. As a lifetime activist myself, dipping in and out of causes depending on my time commitments and financial situation, I’m acutely aware that the ‘share’ button and the credit card is often a way to ease our liberal conscience – a way for progressives to simply offload the guilt of privilege onto an act which requires little thought, patience or sacrifice. I slept in a tent for months for Occupy. I marched on freeways while pregnant for Trayvon Martin. I stood outside City Hall with my toddler for Renisha McBride. But when I asked my friends who purport to hold the same views as me to come with me, most of them didn’t. Some did, but my university educated friends, my friends with some degree of comfort in their middle class educated multiracial lives, did not. As much as the internet has liberated our political views, it’s also chained many of us to our armchair when it comes to activism, and because of the prevalence of fake news haunting the internet, we’re in danger of becoming sadly misinformed.
All this meant that when I had the opportunity in early December to hop on a bus with Veterans Stand for Standing Rock and travel to North Dakota, I grabbed it as a chance to really find out what Standing Rock was all about. The Veterans action impressed me – not since the 1971 Veterans March against Vietnam had so many vets gathered together to make a political stand, and the action, led by Wesley Clark Jr. and Michael Woods Jr., dwarfed even that effort, with an estimated 4,000 veterans (2,000 over capacity) heading to Standing Rock, as opposed to the 1,000 who had marched on the capitol in ’71. Both Michael and Wes admitted to me that they were completely blown away by the response to their call to Vets to show up to Standing Rock and take some of the pressure off the water protectors. They themselves were inspired to organize the event after witnessing water protectors being assaulted with CS gas, water, sound cannons, and rubber bullets, with a particularly brutal onslaught occurring over Thanksgiving and captured on camera. “These people are suffering human rights abuses. They’re confined behind a bridge against their treaty. There are larger issues at stake here about human rights, treaty violations and the protection of land and water,” Wes told me. When Wes and Michael made they call on Facebook and GoFundMe, they admitted they expected maybe a hundred or so vets to respond. The 4,000 vets who answered their call and the millions dollars raised on their GoFundMe was beyond their wildest dreams.
I joined one of the buses paid for by the GoFundMe, and headed from Los Angeles to North Dakota alongside 24 veterans from L.A. Despite being one of only four civilians on the bus, I instantly fell in love with the veterans. I suppose I expected ripped young guys with shaved heads who wore dog tags espousing Republican crap. Instead I met an eclectic, unique, politically aware group of people who cared passionately about fighting in a war of their own choosing. I could sense that I was an outsider, lacking the vocabulary and experience that united the veterans, but despite this, they answered my dumb questions honestly, and by the time we’d been driving for 20 hours, I felt welcomed, as a friend. I began to comprehend the kind of community that the armed forces provides for people. Despite all my activism in the past, I had never felt like anyone had my back.
As the veterans talked about their hopes and expectations of Standing Rock—they all anticipated being wounded on the front line, as the water protectors had been—I could see that their plans centered around protecting and caring for each other. We were assigned “buddies” whom we had to account for at all times. If someone looked too tired, or cold, or sick, everyone would get involved. By the time we arrived at Standing Rock, after a hellish 36-hour journey of missed exits and near-crashes and crazy bus drivers and a vehicle with no heat through the frozen mountains of Utah, we were a family, and we were in this together.
Minutes before our bus drove into Oceti Sakowin, the main camp at Standing Rock, we all received the news that the Army Corps of Engineers had been denied their Easement – a complicated legal term which basically means their right to keep drilling and constructing through Lakota Sioux Tribe property had been temporarily halted. We rejoiced, like everyone at camp, and we got off the bus and marched into Oceti to find a party waiting for us: hundreds of Native Americans, Native American vets, civilians, and veterans of other races (and countries), standing around the sacred fire, ringed by relentless media outlets brandishing cameras and booms and mics. The camp wasn’t so much a camp as a city. A mini city composed of different villages and tribes and tents and yurts and teepees, a city that you could physically get lost within. I only saw Standing Rock when stretched to capacity, with so many people joining the community that it was stretched to its limit, but even then, the camp demonstrated an overwhelming capacity to accommodate everyone. Within an hour of our arrival, we were gingerly told that the tent reserved for us had been given to other veterans, but we were immediately offered space instead at Rosebud Camp, about a half-mile from Oceti. We grabbed our bags off the bus, and marched in the snow across the bridge to Rosebud, where we bedded down in a donation tent for the evening, and ate from the communal kitchen. The next morning, we participated in a ritual march to the bridge where the front line was located—the locus of so much violence—and watched as different tribes danced, performed and locked arms with the veterans, the drumming increasing as the sky darkened, the wind whipped and the snow whirled heavier. After an hour, we were in a full-blown blizzard, and everyone was forced to retreat back to camp, rumors circulating that this was the worst blizzard in 20 years.
The next 24 hours were simply about survival. In some ways I feel like my eight-day trip gave me little but a brief, intangible hint of something amazing and important, perhaps added some tone to a black and white print but little else. And in others I feel like I lived at Standing Rock for a decade. The relationships and community formed in five minutes with complete strangers outweighed anything I had built in seven years of living in Los Angeles. Reducing life to the absolute minimum, and devoting life to only one purpose—protecting the rights of the Lakota Sioux Tribe to their land and water—simplified a world which was complicated and mired in the bullshit which comprises our existence, i.e., paying bills, going to work, shopping, filling out endless bureaucratic forms, waiting for our lives to start, rarely realizing they already did. In Standing Rock, with people I’d known for less than a week, we got through the time in front of us and made sure other people did too, and by doing so, found a peace and a fulfillment lacking in the frenzied stresses of our big city living. But we were also putting a tremendous strain on a camp which was not built for 4,000 extra bodies, and as soon as the blizzard cleared, we packed up the donations, delivered them, and hitched a ride to the casino, leaving our tour bus behind, frozen in ice near the sacred fire in Oceti Sakowin.
Many people rejoiced at the denial of the easement, taking for granted that this meant Standing Rock was safe. We all believed it was simply a political ploy to avoid any conflict while they were at camp. Now the camp has a limited presence—only 300 to 400 estimated protectors are still there—but as Trump has made clear with his choice of nominees, particularly Rick Perry and Rex Tillerson, and the announcement to sign an executive order to proceed with Keystone XL and DAPL, his vested interests of oil and big business (he owns over $1 million in the pipeline, and yes, it’s yet another conflict of interest) far outweigh the rights of Native Americans and everyday Americans. His administration will not honor treaties and protect the land and water – and indigenous culture – of the First Peoples of this land. As Water Protector Dallas Goldtooth says in The Guardian, “These orders demonstrate that he is more than willing to violate federal law that protects the environment and protects our communities and protects indigenous rights for the benefit of oil and gas.”
We tourists who swept in for a week with donations and big dreams, knowing that DAPL was still an ever-present risk—well, we left with a new family, a family who have drifted a little further away, sucked back into school, work, relationships, family, but a family who, today after the announcement was made, made a pledge to go back and resume the role of water protectors, to supporting our Native American family as the struggle looks set to become bloody. As anti-Trump protests gain strength and forces throughout the world, not just the nation, I, like the vets, have become seduced by the idea of serving something greater than myself, making a tangible physical effort, putting my body on the line, in the coming fight against a regime which makes no pretense at being anything other than fascist.
Standing Rock wasn’t simply a protest, and wasn’t simply a movement. Standing Rock became—has become—so much more. Standing Rock, and the joint effort to protect the life giving water and lands of the Lakota Sioux Tribe—has become a community. As Trump’s first few days in office indicates, the rights of everyone who, simply, is not a white male with a million dollars in the bank, is at risk. Freedom of the press is at risk. Health care is at risk. Reproductive rights are at risk. Native American lands, treaties and promises, water, social services—the list goes on and on, but it’s clear that we now need to form ever-tighter communities around ourselves. If we’re white, we need to be even more aware and cognizant of our brothers and sisters of color. If we’re brown or black and we see a mass movement forming that might not be listening to our voices, it’s imperative that we speak louder and refuse to allow anyone who professes to be our equal to speak in place of us, for us, or without us. We need to form communities of resistance together, and we need to keep going. One march is not enough. Status updates aren’t enough. While brave employees in the EPA and forestry commissions leak information and show their own resistance in small ways, those of us who can march freely, and speak freely, and place our bodies on the line need to do so at every single opportunity. There will come a time, very soon, when a march becomes a chore, when we are so inured to the horrors of the Trump administration that instead of fighting, we shrug and turn on the TV. Soon enough trivial disagreements and personality conflicts with those who share our values might turn us away from our beliefs and make us doubt that our efforts our enough. Despair will set in to freeze our marrow and render us immobile, depressed and useless, simply waiting to rely on the voting booth to make change. It’s a frightening, the reality that the share button, the donate button, is no longer enough. But Trump’s first terrifying week in office has taught us that our bodies and our minds, our presence and participation, our voices and our pens, are needed in this fight of our lives. We can’t afford to waste time on mistakes: Our new responsibilities going forward are to fight, to listen, to support, to resist, and to change.
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