We must stand with Standing Rock

October 31, 2016

Brian Ward reports on the latest wave of repression and mass arrests aimed at the anti-pipeline protesters in Standing Rock.

ON OCTOBER 27, police unleashed a wave of brutality on Native American water protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota, who had recently moved their encampment directly in the path of Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) construction. Protectors were maced and beaten at the hands of the police, and some 141 people were arrested.

This latest assault on protesters comes less than a week after another crackdown, when nearly 130 water protectors were arrested on October 22-23 and charged with crimes including aggravated assault, participating in a riot and resisting arrest. These attacks come after a federal appeals court lifted a temporary injunction against construction on October 9, opening the way for Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the pipeline project, to resume construction--but the water protectors have vowed to keep up their protest. Protectors set up barricades with cars and old tires to try and stop officials from moving in.

Officials claim that the protectors are violent, but it has been the police, private security and National Guard forces who have repeatedly attacked. In this latest assault, some 300 highly militarized police with armored vehicles and riot gear reportedly joined with 80 military personnel and 150 DAPL workers to unleash rubber bullets and bean bag rounds on the water protectors. More than 40 protesters suffered injuries, including welts and broken bones, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II said during a press conference on October 29.

Militarized riot police crack down on the water protectors at Standing Rock
Militarized riot police crack down on the water protectors at Standing Rock

Reports say that the Morton County Sheriff's Department personnel have been strip-searching every arrestee, and leveling charges against them that include trespassing on private property and inciting a riot.

The state's protection of a private pipeline instead of the Lakota people's treaty rights recalls the way officials were more concerned about the destruction of a gas station rather than human lives following the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It also is reminiscent of the history of the U.S. Cavalry, which trampled Native treaty rights across the plains.

In the days leading up to the latest arrests, prominent activists, including actors Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Susan Sarandon and Shailene Woodley, along with Rev. Jesse Jackson, traveled to Standing Rock in support of the protest against DAPL. This has helped bring some much-needed media attention to the ongoing protest, which has suffered from a media blackout in the mainstream press.

Tara Houska, the national campaigns director for the Native activist group Honor the Earth, described the brutality on Democracy Now!:

What you can do

Visit Nodaplsolidarity.org for information about how to get involved and support the Standing Rock protesters.

There were police walking around everywhere with assault rifles. Directly across from us, there was actually a policeman holding his rifle trained on us, directly on us. Bean bag rifle assault--bean bag non-lethal weapons were also aimed at us. Every time we put our hands up, they'd put them down. As soon as our hands came down, they would aim back at us. Police officers were smiling at us as they were doing these things. There were police officers filming this, laughing, as they--as human beings were being attacked, being maced. I mean, it was a nightmarish scene. And it should be a shame to the federal government, it should be a shame to the American people, that this is happening within U.S. borders to Indigenous people and to our allies, to all people that are trying to protect water. Yesterday was a really shameful moment for this country and where we stand.

Videos of the scene resembled a war zone. While the tensions were high, a herd of buffalo came around the hill and protesters stopped and watched in awe. It was a powerful symbolic moment--historically, buffalo were slaughtered by the U.S. government because they were a primary source of food and a sacred symbol to the Lakota.

As the police closed in on the water protectors, they drew inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot." Black Lives Matter activists have expressed their support for the Standing Rock protesters--sending a delegation to Standing Rock over the summer and, this week, calling for renewed solidarity in the wake of the most recent repression.

This solidarity is growing. Among those calling for support of the Standing Rock water protectors are Palestinian rights supporters and several labor unions, including the Communications Workers of America and National Nurses United--despite a shameful defense of DAPL by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

In the wake of the latest attack on the Standing Rock protesters, activists in several cities also have begun to organize small but important solidarity demonstrations and the passage of resolutions in support of the protesters.

ACTIVISTS HAVE been calling on the Obama administration to step in more forcefully on the side of the protesters. So far, the administration has largely waffled--although feeling the pressure from activists, it recently renewed calls for Energy Transfer Partners to "voluntarily" halt construction.

On October 25, just days before the latest attack on protesters, the Justice Department, Department of Interior and Department of the Army reiterated the call for Energy Transfer Partners to voluntarily cease construction in the 20-mile corridor leading to the pipeline's proposed crossing at the Missouri River. Legally, the pipeline should not be built underneath the Missouri river while waiting on an environmental report, but the pipeline's backers want to complete as much construction on the project as possible before winter begins and temperatures become too frigid for building.

With the presidential election less than two weeks away, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has been largely silent about the pipeline and the protests against it, while Donald Trump's campaign, it was recently revealed, has received $100,000 from the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners.

Last week, the Clinton campaign released a statement for the first time about the pipeline and the protests--but it refuses to take a side. While calling vaguely for "respect" for protesters' rights, the statement emphasizes that "all voices should be heard"--as though the conflict between Energy Transfer Partner's profits and protesters' right to clean water are somehow equivalent. It states:

We received a letter today from representatives of the tribes protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. From the beginning of this campaign, Secretary Clinton has been clear that she thinks all voices should be heard and all views considered in federal infrastructure projects. Now, all of the parties involved--including the federal government, the pipeline company and contractors, the state of North Dakota, and the tribes--need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest. As that happens, it's important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators' rights to protest peacefully, and workers' rights to do their jobs safely.

On the left wing of the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders has been outspoken against the pipeline and has called on Obama to stop it. While it's good that Sanders has spoken out, his call to vote for Hillary Clinton as the "lesser evil" will have the effect of blunting criticism of Clinton's stand on the issue.

But the water protectors are making sure that Clinton faces pressure on the issue. On October 27, young protesters from camp Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires and the Standing Rock Sioux Nation flew from the encampment to Clinton's campaign headquarters in New York. The campaign refused to meet with the delegation of water protectors, who responded by setting up a tipi in the middle of Clinton's headquarters.

"As a young person I want to know what the next four years are going to entail," activist Garrett Hairychin said in a statement. "Is Hillary going to be focused on protecting our land? I want to know if my younger family is going to be safe. Our present situation is in dire need of a leader that still remembers that our kids are here. We want to protect the future for the young ones that come after us."

SO FAR, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is the only major candidate to have taken an unequivocal stand against the pipeline and in support of protesters. Stein traveled to Standing Rock in September, and has condemned the violence directed against the water protectors, pointing out that it resembles the violence that Indigenous people have faced in this country since its inception.

"We condemn the violent repression of the peaceful protests against DAPL as human rights abuses...These are not the actions of public servants sworn to protect and serve the community, but the unconscionable oppression of an occupying army against the original inhabitants of this land," a recent statement from the Stein campaign noted. "For hundreds of years, the U.S. government has stolen land from and brutalized indigenous peoples across this continent, prioritizing resource extraction for private profit over the public interest."

Ironically, on the same day of the latest arrests and repression directed against the Standing Rock water protectors, Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five other right-wing protesters who participated in a 41-day armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon were acquitted on firearms charges and conspiracy to impede federal workers.

The Bundys and their right-wing militia took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge with guns, calling on the U.S. to give "their" land back. The hypocrisy is staggering: When Native Americans stand in peaceful protest to protect their own treaty lands they are maced, beaten and arrested, but armed right-wingers that take over public land are set free.

The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is a continuation of struggle in defense of the environment and of tribal sovereignty that touches on the settler-colonialism at the heart of the founding of the U.S. and the historic genocide of Native Americans. In the days and weeks to come, we have to stand united with the Standing Rock water protectors against ongoing repression from the state--and call for full Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

Ragina Johnson and Rene Rougeau contributed to this article.

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