The history of America is writ large in the wars it wages on its own people. It is of course by no means alone in this; the push and pull dynamic between those who govern (by legitimate means or otherwise) and those who are governed is as old as humanity itself. Some people climbed the ladder first, burning it after their ascent; others have asked, demanded, and sometimes won, scraps from the mezzanine. Back and forth it goes.
But the United States of America — a brash, loud, and most importantly young nation — gives us so many clear, localised examples of the push-back of ordinary people against organised power and collected capital. Vital battles like women’s suffrage, labor disputes, and the civil rights struggle have all played out in visible, well-documented ways, illuminating time and time again how power relates to the rest of society.
There is perhaps no greater an illustration of the dark side of America’s nature than what might be fairly called its original sin: the ruthless decimation of the indigenous peoples of the American landmass that paved the way for the country we see today. It remains one of the most shameful episodes in human history. Remarkably we now find ourselves in the year 2016, and America’s original sin is still highly, painfully visible. Almost a century after the last pockets of organised indigenous resistance to the white man’s conquest were finally snuffed out; more than a century since the American government started to force the once numerous tribes onto ‘reservations’ — de facto ghettos scattered throughout the land — and still the jackboot of white colonial capital finds a way to tread upon the neck of some of the most mistreated people in the world.
Energy Transfers Partners is a Dallas-based natural gas and propane company seeking to build a $3.8 billion pipeline that would stretch from Western North Dakota via South Dakota and Iowa to finally connect to another pipeline already in place at Illinois. The spoils of such an endeavour would be great indeed. Half a million barrels of crude oil could be shifted per day. Climate concerns, however, seem not to enter into the equation. That we are now fully in the grip of an ecological age driven primarily by human influence doesn’t warrant a thought. That we have irreversibly passed a global carbon threshold that signals a looming climate catastrophe for our children is a buzzing gnat, barely deserving of a swat. The almost universal recognition that everything must now be done to transition to clean energy and to leave fossil fuels in the ground holds no sway here. Capital must prevail, never mind the human cost.
But the people, as they have done so many times in America’s past, have pushed back. The Bakken pipeline — or Dakota Access Pipeline — has attracted a significant amount of grassroots protest, as well as predictably limited mainstream media coverage. Beginning in the spring of this year the people of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, whose reservation sits astride the North/South Dakota border, have challenged the construction of the Dakota Access. The basis for their challenge? Federal agencies granting the pipeline a route that would include 200 water crossings, as well as running less than a mile upstream of the reservation. Any compromise to the pipelines structural integrity would mean the catastrophic contamination of the drinking water supply for 8,000 of the reservation’s residents, and millions more people downstream. The Standing Rock Sioux also sought to address the very process by which the pipeline had been conceived in the first place: with limited environmental review, minimal tribe engagement, and slippery ‘fast track’ options being used to bypass regulatory rigour — this despite organisations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation agreeing that more risk assessments were called for. Safety concerns were dismissed by the pipeline’s manufacturers. This despite a 2013 Associated Press investigation which found evidence that according to state documents North Dakota alone, ‘recorded nearly 300 oil pipeline spills in less than two years. None was reported to the public.’ On top of the potential safety and environmental concerns logged the Sioux pointed out that the pipeline would also be running through sacred burial land. The courts have not seen things the tribe’s way, refusing to order even a temporary halt to construction in order for both sides to be heard and a proper adjudication to take place. The default judicial view was telling: the corporation, seeking to maximise profit, is probably in the right. The burden of proof must lie with regular citizens.
Another revealing glimpse can be found by viewing things through that other very American lens: race. Consider that the pipeline’s original planned Missouri crossing was actually elsewhere than that currently being contested. It was found upstream of Bismarck, North Dakota’s majority-white state capital. This was deemed an unacceptable risk to the water supply, and to the citizens there that depended on it. The plans were redrawn to fold in a more acceptable risk. Consider also the revealingly timed outcome of another case of citizens protesting against the federal government: the white Oregon ranchers who holed up in Malheur wildlife refuge, armed to the teeth, openly threatening law enforcement with violent reprisals, and who walked away, fully acquitted of any crime. When the Native American protesters — or Water Protectors as they should be termed according to their wishes — saw that they would find no succor with the courts they turned to direct action, setting up camp first near to the pipeline’s route, and then directly on it when construction continued apace. Young, old, male, female, they came in their hundreds to cry out for justice when an uncaring system demanded silence. They came armed only with their voices and their prayers and for that they were met with the full might of the state. Rubber bullets, sound cannons, attack dogs, and armored vehicles amassed on the side of Energy Transfers Partners. Over a hundred arrests have been made, women and children among them, some suffering broken bones or being held in dog cages, arms marked with numbers. The police responded as they always did to a minority voice that dared raise its voice even a fraction above a whisper. They did not line up in between the two sides, holding order while it was decided who was in the right — the people or the corporation. They came to make sure people could see that there was only one side that was ever allowed to be in the right.
Through it all, as the Water Protectors were brutalised and the pipeline continued to snake its way across the land, the political class has remained largely and shamefully silent. President Obama’s one intervention was a request last month for a voluntary temporary stoppage of work on the pipeline, which held for the blink of an eye. Since then, the federal government has reiterated this call, but done nothing to press the matter. The response from the camp of Senator Clinton, for whom the expansion of natural gas has been a key energy policy issue, has been noncommittal:
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.
Now, as the bitter North Dakota winter prepares to bite and the pipeline nears the sacred Missouri river, the Water Protectors are preparing for their last stand. As has been seen time and time again, capital marches onward, arm in arm with the state, leaving brave bodies in its wake. A microcosm of the worst of American history is unfolding before our very eyes as the best of America tries to resist.
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