December 28, 2016 News » Cover Story

Activism before and after Standing Rock 

Occupy America

And now it's winter

Winter in America.

And ain't nobody fighting

'Cause nobody knows what to save

— Gil Scott-Heron

Our elders have told us that if the zuzeca sape, the black snake, comes across our land, our world will end. Zuzeca has come — in the form of the Dakota Access Pipeline — and so I must fight.

— Iyuskin American Horse

click to enlarge Fight the power: A Lakota woman at Standing Rock. - MIKE VANATA
  • Mike Vanata
  • Fight the power: A Lakota woman at Standing Rock.

Darkness descends upon Standing Rock, and the first of two Arctic storms fast approaches. On a nearby hill, a silhouetted police surveillance team turns on high-wattage spotlights to watch over the thousands of tents and teepees encamped below.

Occupy Veterans encampment leader Evan Duke sits next to a campfire with a half-dozen fellow activists at the Oceti Sakowin protesters' campsite. Some 4,000 Native Americans, veterans and environmental activists have been camping out here, many of them for months, in an attempt to bring a halt to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The $3.78 billion project was originally intended to run along the outskirts of Bismarck, a North Dakota town with a 92 percent white population. But after community outcry over the risk of water supply contamination, a new plan was devised to run the pipeline under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, where it would run through Native American burial grounds and pose the same safety hazard to the Sioux Indian Reservation.

A Seattle-based activist in his mid-40s, Duke was among the organizers of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York; he later brought a contingent of Bernie Sanders supporters to picket the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Pennsylvania. Now, he's beginning work on the Washington, D.C., Occupy Inaugural action.

But our current topic of conversation is Duke's bizarre afternoon phone conversation with the soon-to-be-infamous Wesley Clark Jr.

The son of a retired Army general, Wesley Jr. may be best-known as the co-host of the online news show The Young Turks. He also spent four years in the Army, and the Internet Movie Database lists him as the co-writer of a little-known 2008 horror film called The Objective.

A week from now, on Dec. 3, Clark will arrive at Standing Rock with a battalion of several thousand veterans, whose intent will be to serve as "human shields" to protect activists from a potentially violent eviction.

Duke dryly refers to Clark as "Wesley Clark... Junior ... IMDb screenwriter." During the phone call, he says, Clark touted his plan to dress in a cavalry uniform while delivering a public apology to the tribal council for his ancestors' sins. Clark closed the conversation with a reminder that this is "all about Jesus."

In the glow of the campfire, it seems reasonable to assume that Duke is joking, or at least exaggerating. Then again, much stranger things have happened, and soon will.

click to enlarge Serial activist Evan Duke: Next stop, Occupation Inauguration. - MIKE VANATA
  • Mike Vanata
  • Serial activist Evan Duke: Next stop, Occupation Inauguration.

Black snake moan

As 2016 comes to a close, Standing Rock and other protest movements can offer lessons on how progressive activists might make a difference as the Trump administration assumes power. What's becoming more and more clear is that the way to move forward is by forging new alliances, ones that set aside partisan issues to focus on a greater good.

Back in May, war correspondent and filmmaker Sebastian Junger published the book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. In it, he draws upon the experiences of returning veterans and displaced Native Americans as they grapple with the near impossibility of finding meaning in a society where community and sacrifice are no longer valued. (For Junger's take on the current Standing Rock situation, see our interview.)

"Humans don't mind hardship," writes Junger. "In fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary."

Power and purpose — or the lack thereof — has been part of the American experience since its beginnings. It's also something that Junger has felt since his youth, growing up on the outskirts of Boston. "The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb," he writes, "left me hoping — somewhat irresponsibly — for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us all to band together to survive."

America's current state of political and social upheaval could provide an opportunity to do just that.

The whole world is watching

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, a throng of Democratic National Convention protesters in Chicago chanted "the whole world is watching" while being beaten with nightsticks and dragged through the crowd into police vans. There was no 24-hour cable news, no social media to offer real-time coverage, just afternoon broadcasts of regularly scheduled soap operas and quiz shows.

Yet, despite all that, millions of viewers would see this dramatic footage on their half-hour nightly newscasts. Over time, these images of violence, both at home and abroad, would reverse public opinion on what's become known as our country's first "living room war."

Times change. Last month, police at Standing Rock used tear gas, rubber bullets and high-pressure water cannons, in below-freezing conditions, on protesters who were attempting to occupy the bridge to the pipeline construction site. Meanwhile, CNN pundits were debating hot-button issues like whether Donald Trump had shown a "lack of transparency" by not inviting the press pool to follow his family to a Manhattan steakhouse.

How does cable network television account for such sins of omission?

"A lot of us do want to cover a lot of different stories, and we try our best to do that," CNN correspondent Sara Sidner told social media critics. "I don't think you saw a lot of national coverage when it comes to the last few months, because there was this thing called the 2016 election."

While that is true, it's worth noting that TV networks are dependent on advertising dollars, including big money from the world's largest oil and pharmaceutical companies. To show just how deep oil company pockets are, consider this: According to a report by the policy institute, the Center for American Progress, during a 10-month period in 2010, Exxon Mobil, British Petroleum and the American Petroleum Institute spent a combined $300 million on energy and environment ads. That's a lot of money to convince us that oil companies really do care about seagulls and baby seals.

Whatever the cause, the end result is essentially the same. In place of actual reporting, networks now provide endlessly looped 30-second video clips combined with Jerry Springer-style grudge matches between partisan pundits.

"In real life, you wouldn't tolerate a friend, co-worker or even a spouse telling you the same story over and over again," wrote critic Tim Goodman of this 24-hour news cycle. "That's the domain of 6-year-olds and sadly addled seniors."

click to enlarge The war at home: Pipeline protester in Colorado Springs. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • The war at home: Pipeline protester in Colorado Springs.

Strange bedfellows

Come January, America will transition from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to George Orwell's 1984. At that point, it will be all the more critical that progressives choose achievable goals and reach across gender, racial and ideological boundaries.

Consider one historical precedent: In the 1960s, the militant Black Panther Party forged an ad hoc alliance with groups that represented Puerto Rican nationalists and poor white migrants, forming what one activist later described as "the original Rainbow Coalition." Decades later, Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton wrote to the NAACP, arguing that affirmative action quotas should be based on class rather than race. "It will still be dominated by blacks," he said. "Who else is more economically and educationally disenfranchised?"

Similar alliances have arisen throughout the history of political movements. Returning Vietnam soldiers joined draft dodgers in anti-war marches. Blacks and whites intentionally sat together at segregated Southern lunch counters, knowing the violent consequences that would often follow.

Today, there are new and growing coalitions. Labor unions and environmentalists — two factions that have long been at odds — have recently banded together in the BlueGreen Alliance. The diversity of protesters who demonstrated after the November election will again be mobilizing for next month's presidential inauguration. This time, they'll include Occupy Inauguration and the Women's March on Washington.

That said, the question of where and when such protests will be allowed remains in play. During the 2004 presidential conventions, protesters were exiled to so-called Free Speech Zones far removed from the two parties' convention centers, a practice that's been repeated many times since.

The idea of designated Free Speech Zones may seem incongruous in a country where the First Amendment is held in nearly as high regard as the Second. Yet more than a decade after it was first coined, the term was again invoked by North Dakota authorities to describe a designated protest site far removed from the pipeline construction site. Standing Rock demonstrators instead chose to stand their ground and remain at the encampment outside the Sioux Indian Reservation.

Calm before the storm

On Dec. 2, as law enforcement aircraft continued their routine of circling camp, my friend Sierra — with whom I'd driven up from Colorado Springs on her second supply run — alerted the rest of the Occupy Veterans encampment that women who'd been holding a silent vigil were now marching toward the same bridge where violence broke out two weeks earlier.

By the time I arrived, protesters and police were already facing off midway across the bridge. Between them was a barrier of razor wire, cement blockades, and an elevated "sound cannon."

A drone soundlessly hovered above the crowd as demonstrators and riot police stood in complete silence. After a tense standoff, the women leading the march turned away from the police and toward the men who'd followed. The men parted to let the women pass through as they led the march back to camp.

Moments later, a heavy rain began to fall. Within hours, a blizzard would cover the camp, and the whole region, in a foot of snow.

The power of stereotyping

While the immediate threat of riot police may loom large on activists' minds, there are more subtle ways to disempower upstart protest movements. Using the media to undermine their image can be one of the most effective.

The Occupy protesters who took over a Lower Manhattan park in 2011 were quickly turned into poster children for 20-something privilege, young people who had no clue what their movement actually stood for. Actually, most were far from clueless when it came to their political agenda. Like the Bernie Sanders campaign, the movement's key goal — both in New York and at the upcoming Inaugural Occupy encampment — is to bring economic injustice into the national conversation. It's a subject that's been largely taboo in America, a country that still clings to its Horatio Alger dream of working hard, playing by the rules, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to join the One Percent.

Black Lives Matter had been similarly dismissed, most often with the facile response that "all lives matter," as though there was a limited supply of "mattering" to go around. In essence, "black lives matter" has been conveniently misinterpreted to mean "black lives matter more." But the deaths of unarmed blacks at the hands of police officers demonstrate otherwise.

Meanwhile, the misinformation continues. Sanders supporters were routinely dismissed as nothing more than "Bernie bros," with Gloria Steinem adding fuel to the fire by insisting that the women who attended the candidate's rallies were just interested in meeting boys.

Even at the less-frequently covered Standing Rock, activists were widely stereotyped. A week after the violent bridge confrontation, a British writer for an "extreme fashion" magazine used a handful of tweets to "report" that encampments were overrun by Burning Man party animals.

It was a contention the writer would likely have abandoned had she traveled to North Dakota and seen the solemnity and resolve exercised by protesters under the leadership of the Sioux tribal council, whose rules included a prohibition against drinking and drug use. In this era of fake news, it's no surprise that the story went viral overnight.

click to enlarge Be prepared: Standing Rock activist ready for tear gas. - MIKE VANATA
  • Mike Vanata
  • Be prepared: Standing Rock activist ready for tear gas.

Send in the cavalry

On the weekend after Thanksgiving, TV camera crews finally came to Standing Rock.

What lured them was a larger-than-anticipated influx of some 5,000 veterans, who doubled the camp's residents overnight. From a ratings perspective, the prospect of a conflict between police and the people our country has sent to war proved irresistible.

But then everything changed.

In an unexpected turnabout, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it was halting construction of the pipeline, effective immediately, pending a full environmental impact study and likely re-routing.

What exactly prompted this sudden government intervention?

Wesley Clark Jr., IMDb screenwriter, would likely tell you that it was him, were it not for the fact that he'd gone into hiding after claiming to receive death threats upon his arrival.

But while his behavior became increasingly erratic, Clark did not leave without fulfilling his promise to Duke and other on-site organizers. Dressed in cavalry gear, he made his public apology to tribal chiefs: "We tried to eliminate your language that God gave you," he declared, at one point dropping to bended knee as he invoked the Christian deity with what was, at best, tone-deaf reverence. Meanwhile, the fate of more than a million dollars in crowdfunding money that Clark has raised for the campaign remains in question.

Last week, North Dakota temperatures plummeted to 30 below zero; the camp population was reduced to less than a thousand activists, most of them veterans and Native Americans.

Meanwhile, Energy Transfer Partners — whose investors have included President-elect Donald Trump — has vowed to "complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe." Trump, who conceivably could reverse the Army Corp of Engineers' decision when he assumes office, has declined to comment.

And while oil company spokespeople continue to assure people that there's nothing to worry about, a leak in another North Dakota oil pipeline, two and a half hours from Standing Rock, was discovered just a few days after the Army Corp of Engineers brought the Dakota Access Pipeline to a halt. Within days, it had spilled some 4,200 barrels of crude oil into a creek and surrounding countryside.

Breaking camp

I did not plan to write about any of this.

But, as sometimes happens in life, nothing really went as planned. I'd camped out for three days, but the friend that I drove out with — who's half Cherokee-Blackfoot and felt that Standing Rock was her spiritual home — stayed on a week longer.

She spent much of her last week driving people with hypothermia-related illnesses to the emergency trauma center in Bismarck, before coming down with pneumonia herself. After her release from the hospital, she drove home to the Springs, the town where she'd grown up, and felt the same sense of culture shock as many others. Two days later, she moved to Southern California.

Looking back, my most vivid memory of Standing Rock was listening to a Native American chant, off in the distance, while I stared out across the sea of army tents, grazing horses and morning fog. It looked no less like a mirage than it had when I first arrived.

I remember my friend coming over to tell me that she was taking a van to Bismarck to buy construction materials. She asked how I was doing, and I said that I didn't know, that I couldn't tell whether I was looking at the beginning of a civilization or the end of it.

What you're looking at, she said, is just the beginning.


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