Standing Rock: A Study in Nonviolent Resistance

BY SHARON GILLESPIE, LUTU MEMBER

As the earth teeters on the brink of irreparable climate change and mass extinctions, Standing Rock has shown us that people worldwide are inextricably connected, and it is this connection, through our cooperation, that may yet save us. Governments by and large collude with the extraction industries as they hurl us toward climate destabilization and disaster. Since we cannot expect their help, it is incumbent on us to save ourselves. As Harold Frazier, chair of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has put it, “All we have is each other.”

So how does a movement begin? The key is to adopt a simple message based on clear moral authority, repeat it often, and never veer from it. Standing Rock framed it beautifully. It couldn’t be more obvious than “Water is life.” And it’s an expansive message that ripples out to embrace the concept that humans of necessity must be stewards of our home, the earth — and the more radical notion that conveniences born of fossil fuels must yield in favor of life-giving water.

But a message without a voice is not enough. Mainstream media outlets brazenly ignored Standing Rock’s struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). So the tribe reached out to independent journalists and social media, and they heard the call, as did clergy, celebrities, activists, and veterans; as did indigenous tribes across the Americas and around the globe; as did you and I, the hundreds of thousands who participated with donations, disruptions, and Facebook shares, hoping to bring the pipeline giant and its financiers to their knees. In the process, we learned that the indigenous people of Standing Rock are not alone. The American people and the world want clean water and renewable energy, not infrastructure to justify the extraction of tar-sands oil, in this case, or fracked gas, in another. From common purpose comes community, and the message that we are all in this together is implicit.

As with other peaceful movements, Standing Rock has its protestors: water protectors, as they’re called to help frame the message. To ensure favorable public opinion, protestors must remain nonviolent in the face of violence. Under threat, they rely on both courage and discipline, as well as their spirituality, to maintain acute focus on nonviolence. When protectors were besieged by water cannons in near-freezing weather or by attack dogs while defending ancestral burial grounds, the worldwide audience viewed them through a sympathetic lens: Armed only with prayer, water protectors — historically abused and impoverished Plains tribesmen — engaged in the battle for survival over extinction, pitting their bodies against a pipeline bully, its amoral bankers, and the government-owned, militarized thugs who do its bidding. The optics of David versus Goliath captured the imagination of humanity and won our hearts, giving Standing Rock an overwhelming advantage on the world stage.

In essence, Standing Rock is waging a campaign — a pacifists’ war, if you will — of diversified tactics. The tribe has strategically planned and employed these tactics on various fronts simultaneously, not waiting for one to fail before engaging in another. From nonviolent direct actions to lawsuits and administrative appeals, it has taken the long view and held fast. Since an unforeseen event could defeat DAPL at whim, delaying construction is vital, and each day the pipeline remains unfinished is an invaluable achievement. Impressively, in alliance with the cause, spontaneous actions have arisen from the general public. All those who’ve closed bank accounts with Chase or Wells Fargo, for example, or protested outside the many banks financing DAPL have joined the front lines to kill the Black Snake.

In this battle to save the earth from greed, the indigenous people of Standing Rock and their allies have been maced and pepper sprayed, strip searched, and kenneled. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has brutalized them with near-lethal concussion grenades and rubberized bullets. Though they are no longer visible, two missile launchers were recently pointed at the camp. With the presidency of Donald Trump, who himself owns an interest in the pipeline, and the rise of fascism across the nation, the tribe can expect escalating violence from increased militarization and advanced weaponry. As Standing Rock and its allies continue to put their bodies, lives, and freedom at risk to protect the already imperiled Missouri River, this is not the time for us to stand down — it is the time to hold strong in answer to their ongoing call for help.

Regardless of the outcome for Standing Rock, its fight — in the words of Naomi Klein — has shown “people everywhere that organizing and resistance are not futile.” In the face of overwhelming odds, there is honor — and victory of sorts — in standing up for what you believe. To do otherwise concedes defeat without engagement. In this battle to save our mother, the least empowered among us delivered a glancing blow, and the world watched the giant as it reeled. And while we watched, we began to see that the assault on Standing Rock is an assault on each of us, and we began to see what was possible.

In solidarity, Mni Wiconi!