We can't drink oil

SW contributors report on actions in a number of cities in September to draw attention to the ongoing struggle, led by Native activists, to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline march through downtown San Francisco  (Peg Hunter)Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline march through downtown San Francisco (Peg Hunter)

AFTER AN early September crackdown during which private security forces unleashed dogs on Native and environmental activists fighting to halt the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), people in cities across the U.S. held demonstrations to show solidarity with the protests and send the message: "We can't drink oil. Keep it in the soil!"

The protests against the pipeline project--which would run more than 1,000 miles from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois--are concentrated at crucial point along the route where the pipeline would pass close to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Since mid-August, an estimated 2,000 people have come to the Camp of the Sacred Stones and the Red Warrior Camp at their height. At issue is not only the potentially devastating environmental consequences of the pipeline, but the right of Native groups to control their tribal lands and keep them free from pollution. In addition to passing through burial grounds, the pipeline would run under Lake Oahe, a crucial source of water.

Though a federal judge in early September denied a request by activists to halt the pipeline, under growing pressure from activists, the Army and U.S. Justice and Interior departments announced that they would ask the energy companies behind DAPL--including Energy Transfer, Phillips 66 Co. and Sunoco Logistics Partners LP--to temporarily stop work on a portion of the pipeline.

On September 16, a federal appeals court ordered construction within 20 miles of the Lake Oahe to be halted while it considers the tribe's appeal.

In the coming days and weeks, keeping the pressure on--and standing in solidarity with Native activists putting their bodies on the line--will be important, as protesters around the country made clear with their own demonstrations.

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-- In New York City, 2,000 people gathered in Washington Square Park on September 9 in opposition to DAPL.

The atmosphere was electric. Hundreds held homemade signs bearing the slogans "Mni wiconi" ("Water is life," in the Lakota language) and proclaiming solidarity in English, Spanish and Arabic. In addition, demonstrators brought eight dumpsters' worth of donations to send to the Camp of the Sacred Stones and the Red Warrior Camp.

The rally was organized by the NYC in Support of Standing Rock Committee, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizers mainly based at Columbia University, New York University, the New School and City University of New York.

New York stands on Lenape territory, but the presence of Indigenous people in the city often goes unacknowledged. In this sense, the rally was especially powerful as a large, diverse group came together to affirm and defend Indigenous sovereignty. "This rally demonstrated that Indigenous people matter; we are holding the line," said Professor Audra Simpson, one of the event's co-organizers.

Support and resources from Black Lives Matter and Palestinian rights activists were especially key, according to Professor Jaskiran Dhillon, another event co-organizer. Dhillon said:

Settler-colonial violence affects Black, Brown and Indigenous people all across the globe, as well as being deeply harming the planet. There is a clear sense that we have to stand in unity against the power of the settler state, and people are starting to make these linkages--not just intellectually, but by actually doing the work together.

When asked why she attended, Jessica Patterson said:

It's my first protest. A week before, I was browsing on the internet, and I came across this video about the protest [at Standing Rock]. There was this one clip where this woman was using dogs against the protesters. It gave me a flashback to the civil rights movement. I was shocked by the total disregard for human beings.

The New York demonstration was so successful that people immediately organized follow-up actions. Within a week, there was a protest at a TD Bank, one of the three main banks funding the pipeline's $3.8 billion dollar price tag. Two days later, organizers set up a fundraiser featuring over a dozen Indigenous activists, musicians, dancers and speakers.

The fight is far from over. According to Dhillon and Simpson, several of the event co-organizers are developing a syllabus for those interested in teaching and learning about DAPL and related issues. They are also planning teach-ins for several of the city's universities, starting with Columbia in October, followed by the New School later this fall. Supporters are encouraged to follow #NYCnoDAPL for updates.

-- In Oakland, California, approximately 400 people gathered at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza on September 13 as part of a national day of solidarity with those at Standing Rock.

Large banners that read "Stand with Standing Rock" flanked the stage, and another banner facing the amphitheater read, "Keep it in the Ground." About a dozen people spoke to the crowd, many from Indigenous nations, calling on people to stand up in solidarity with the "protectors" at the Sacred Stone Spiritual Camp. As one speaker said, "We value the earth and water that sustains life. We can not drink oil."

The human necessity of water and the power of such a struggle to connect all of us was a common theme, with speakers drawing parallels to the lead crisis affecting the water for residents in in Flint, Michigan, and speaking out against crude oil trains that run through the Bay Area.

Other speakers shared recent experiences at the Sacred Stone Camp, holding up the atmosphere at the camp as one of real spirit, with everyone there doing what they can to help the community.

One protester, indigenous to the Horn of Africa, proclaimed, "This is a human rights issue," and spoke about a similar crisis from her home town--where people are being forcefully removed from their land, the water and land are being poisoned, there are unsafe labor conditions, and 500 people have died in last eight months.

Another rally on September 16 drew a crowd to the Federal Building in downtown Oakland, where City Council member Rebecca Kaplan announced that she would submit a resolution to officially declare Oakland in opposition to the pipeline.

Organized by groups including 350.org, speakers included a member of the California Nurses Association, who demanded that the Obama administration stop the pipeline. A representative from Standing Up For Racial Justice announced a "phone-jam" lunch-hour action to demand the pipeline be stopped.

-- In Chicago, a September 16 rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline drew more than 500 people at its height.

The event was organized through a series of open public meetings called by a few Native individuals who launched a Chicago solidarity Facebook page and Twitter handle. All three of the organizing meetings leading up to the rally were attended largely by people who had never been to a protest before, let alone been on the ground floor of organizing one.

The rally started ‪at 4 p.m. at Daley Plaza and opened up with a prayer before moving onto speakers. Speakers included prominent Native activists and some who reported back from their experience of visiting Standing Rock.

What was most clear were the politics of solidarity, resonating especially with the comments of one Black Lives Matter speaker. Nearly every speaker discussed the need to involve more people in the fight against DAPL.

A speaker from the International Socialist Organization drew links between the assault on Indigenous lands and the militarization of the police, Obama's legacy of warfare and the Keystone XL pipeline--and argued for the need to build solidarity with people of all backgrounds.

The rally concluded with a march down State Street that quickly took the street with minimal police interruption. Protesters chanted "Mni wiconi," "White, Black, yellow, red, without water we're all dead" and "You can't drink oil, keep it in the soil." Activists marched to offices of the Army Corps of Engineers, the branch of the government that initially fast-tracked the pipeline and ignored tribal provisions.

Environmental and community activist Olga Bautista spoke about the connection between corporations and environmental destruction on Chicago's South Side and the battle against toxic pet coke produced by the oil industry.

"The broad support in Chicago for Native sovereignty at Standing Rock demonstrates profound possibility for Native liberation and multinational unity," said Nick Estes of the Red Nation.

-- In Portland, Oregon, some 350 people rallied at the Pioneer Courthouse square in support of the Standing Rock protesters. Elders and other members of Native tribes spoke in opposition to the pipeline, declaring that everyone deserves clean water--especially the original human inhabitants of the land.

Tribal dancing and drumming were a part of the action as well as chants like "Keep it in the soil---we can't drink oil." Signs were passed out, many painted with "Mni wiconi." Many of the speakers discussed the importance of protecting the world for future generations.

A poem read by one of the speakers declared: "The lesson: If you are alive it is because you are a descendant of a people who refused to die. There is nothing more precious than you."

Another solidarity action is planned for September 25 at 2 p.m. at SW Ankeny and SW Park streets.

-- In San Diego, Native activists, environmental activists, union members and organizers, and many others joined a crowd of 150 people on September 13 to stand in solidarity with the Native and non-Native Standing Rock Water Protectors.

Sylvia Sherbert, a member of the Pala tribe, spoke of the need for communities across the country to stand in solidarity, and how the fight against the pipeline is a fight for all people:

We want the people of North Dakota to know that we stand with them. This is not a game. This is not something that is going to go away...Those at Standing Rock are standing up for us here, for our future...so I love them and I appreciate them from the bottom of my heart.

Gina Tiger-Madueno, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe and part of a group of activists who planned to bring donations to Standing Rock, cited the temporary federal halt of pipeline construction as a very limited victory, and declared that activists have a long fight with the political establishment ahead.

"The fight is far from being over," she said. "Today, they arrested 22 people, and sorry, but the Obama administration did nothing...This is not just a Native fight. This is not just a fight at Standing Rock. This is a fight for all of us. "

Masada Disenhouse, an organizer for the San Diego chapter of 350.org, said that solidarity is more critical and more powerful than ever:

We are here in support of the water protectors of Standing Rock. We are here to fight for environmental justice. But the fight for environmental justice is never far from the fight for Black lives, or the Fight for 15, or the fight for immigrants rights. We know that we are stronger when we stand together.

-- Some 50 people gathered in Greensboro, North Carolina, in front of the International Civil Rights Museum on September 14 to rally and march.

The rally featured speakers from Sí a las Licencias, Black Lives Matter, the Queer People of Color Collective, Marea Socialista and the International Socialist Organization. Speakers addressed the crowd in English, Spanish and Mixtec and argued for the right to Native American self-determination and sovereignty. A number of speakers from different North and South American nations made connections to struggles in their own countries, including the Arco Minero plan in Venezuela that opens up 12 percent of that country's national territory to open-pit mining, and current struggles in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Connections were also made to local struggles. A statement from a local coalition of activists made up of members of Black Lives Matter and the Queer People of Color Coalition who traveled to Standing Rock read:

The battle against the oil industry and the pipelines that stretch across this country is a continuation of the fight against colonization and manifest destiny. We live in a day and age where our government has chosen to profit off of extractive economies instead of investing in local communities. They are depleting our natural resources and deeming us disposable, which is something we are familiar with in the fight to keep the White Street Landfill closed here in Greensboro.

Following the rally, the crowd marched through downtown Greensboro with protesters chanting "Water is life," accompanied by the radical drum line, Cakalac Thunder.

Camille Avian, Anderson Bean, Claire Douglas, Yoni Golijov, Ellie Hamrick, Rene Rougeau, Casie Stone and Nikki Williams contributed to this article.