A smear against solidarity at Standing Rock

December 1, 2016

Rene Rougeau, who has written extensively on the struggle in Standing Rock for Socialist Worker, responds to a new tactic in the attacks by police on protesters.

VIDEO OF attacks by police and private security on the Standing Rock water protectors and their supporters have spread around the Internet and shocked the world.

Both Native and non-Native protesters are putting themselves on the line to try to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and the stakes are high. Because of the violence of police, one young woman may lose her arm, and another could be blinded for life, and that's only so far.

But the latest "warning" from the Morton County Sheriff's Department isn't about threats to health and safety, but about the Oceti Sakowin Camp being taken over by "outside agitators"--more specifically, by "too many white hippies" supposedly looking for another festival like Burning Man to attend.

Law enforcement is picking up on reports that have circulated among some leftists on social media. But the complaints are overblown, based on my own experience, having traveled to Standing Rock twice to stand in solidarity.

There has been an influx of tens of thousands of people to Standing Rock over the past several months, and especially during the Thanksgiving holiday period at the end of November. Those who come to Standing Rock aren't unwelcome intruders--they are responding directly to calls from the water protectors to mobilize support.

Police crack down on peaceful water protectors with rubber bullets and pepper spray
Police crack down on peaceful water protectors with rubber bullets and pepper spray (Red Warrior Camp)

The influx has created new logistical problems for the encampments, which should be expected when thousands of people arrive anywhere. The Oceti Sakowin have responded by organizing daily orientation meetings that introduce newcomers, Native and non-Native alike, to Lakota culture and protocols. We can expect that there will be a learning curve for people meeting each other for the first time in solidarity, and that some will be unable or unwilling to abide.

But we are talking about a very small subset of people who have acted disrespectfully, violating the prohibitions against drugs, alcohol or weapons in a prayer camp. They, in fact, face the consequences now of being ignored by tribal leaders and water protectors who will not allow their actions to be a distraction from the struggle.

The stories about "white hippies" are in contrast to the hundreds of medics, construction crews, labor organizers, Indigenous rights groups and other individuals who hit the ground running at Standing Rock to offer whatever help they can. Last month, some 500 clergy came to the camp, and on December 4, more than 2,000 military veterans are self-deploying.

There is no "Burning Man crisis" in Standing Rock. There is far too much work to be done.

This story is actually insulting in its suggestion that sovereign Native Nations aren't capable of democratic organization or leadership, or are so fragile in the face of cultural differences that they can be overwhelmed by a small group of people belonging to an even smaller subculture.

And when the cops start picking up an argument that the problem at Standing Rock is "too many white hippies," we need to think seriously about why they would do so.

Why would Morton County sheriffs suddenly have an interest in speaking on behalf of Native Americans after almost a full year of human rights violations? How can a few examples of some disrespectful white people get so much coverage in comparison to the much more common acts of solidarity and cooperation? What do we gain by dissuading that solidarity?

ONE REASON why the police are suddenly concerned about the welfare of the camps when they're threatened by hippies is because they hope to set water protectors and supporters against each other.

Mostly, the Morton County sheriffs, the National Guard and private security forces working for Energy Transfer Partners have been content to employ brute force: dogs, rubber bullets, water cannons in sub-zero conditions, concussion grenades and more used against peaceful protectors.

The level of human rights violations committed by the state of North Dakota on behalf of a private corporation is appalling. It has attracted the attention of groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which sent teams to witness and report on abuses.

But law enforcement and security agencies have simply rebuffed investigators, claiming that they have already made up their mind and are using appropriate tactics to keep Native Americans and their supporters "safe."

One only needs to watch the dozens of videos of water protectors being blasted with water cannons, concussion grenades and billy clubs to imagine how "safe" water protectors are in the care of the police.

Consider Sophia Wilansky, a 21-year-old from New York City who was acting as a medic when her arm was blown to pieces by a direct hit from a concussion grenade on the night police attacked at Backwater Bridge. Or Vanessa Dundon, who on the same night was hit in the face with a rubber bullet and may be blind for the rest of her life as a result.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of stories just like these about vicious and potentially fatal brutality being used in the name of "safety."

The idea that the police are there to protect protesters or uphold the rights of Native American people is farcical--yet it has picked up momentum, particularly in the local media. Water protectors are frequently described by North Dakota news outlets as violent rioters impeding the progress of jobs and energy self-sufficiency.

Some local residents and officials have gone so far as to start labeling protesters as terrorists--as if being armed with drums and prayers comes anywhere near the militarized equipment deployed against them by the state of North Dakota.

To millions across the country, these depictions are obviously racist and rooted in centuries-old colonial stereotypes about restless and backward savages. So for supporters of the #NoDAPL movement, such portrayals are easily recognized for what they are.

But the subtler lies of the Morton County sheriffs about a "takeover" of Standing Rock encampments by "outside agitators" is getting a wider hearing. The net effect will be to impede solidarity. We know that from the experience of Occupy Wall Street, when the media complained about "agitators," too.

It is beneficial to the state of North Dakota to have potential supporters guilted out of providing solidarity when the Oceti Sakowin are directly asking people for just that. This is especially with the looming threat of eviction and evacuation from Gov. Jack Dalrymple in the middle of a North Dakota blizzard.

In fact, we should be highlighting and supporting examples of solidarity and be wary of any "problem" pointed to by the repressive apparatus of the state and a news media invested in protecting the profits of private oil corporations. They have never been on our side, and have never spoken in anything but their own interests.

Solidarity is what strengthens our struggle and what will win the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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