OCETI SAKOWIN CAMP, Standing Rock Reservation—The moral soul of this continent is at Standing Rock, and at the moment that soul is being beaten, maced, pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, and locked up by a militarized police force acting on behalf of foreign oil companies.
As North Dakota police lock up and abuse peaceful “water protectors,” members of a growing resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline slated to transport oil under the Missouri River, it becomes clear that the fight over the tribal land of Standing Rock is not only the primary battleground for indigenous sovereignty; it is the center of the fight for clean water, to fight climate change, and to ban hydraulic fracturing. At its base, this is a struggle between the people and a government corrupted by corporate power.
Wes “Mekasi” Horinek, an activist with the water rights group Bold Alliance was arrested during a camp raid by local police. He described the atrocities he’s witnessed: “peaceful protesters were hooded, put in stress positions, strip-searched. We were placed in dog kennels with numbers written on our arms for hours. Elders were kept in cages in the basement of the police station for days.”
They’re the type of images that evoke the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib. North Dakota police have been accused of destroying sacred objects—eagle feathers stripped off religious leaders, peace pipes broken, and during an Oct. 27 raid in one of the camps, tribe members were ripped out of sweat lodges and arrested. “Our teepee flaps were forced open with the muzzle end of an M-4 rifle,” remarked Floris White Bull, a prominent activist and the great-grandniece of the legendary Lakota Chief Sitting Bull.
The scene at the front line is surreal. There are 40 or 50 water protectors—young people from all over the nation who have come to protect this watershed from the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the water—40-degree water; North-Dakota-in-November cold-ass water—standing there shivering with Mylar blankets, holding hands, praying, unable to reach the shore that is guarded by a line of 60 or 70 or 100 police in riot gear.
Cold, half-naked, prayerful, and peaceful, the protectors speak directly to the police gathered from five different states. “Please leave our watershed. Leave our sacred burial grounds. All we want is clean water,” they say.
Even while periodically being shot at with rubber bullets, they keep their grace, their composure, their prayers, and entreaties for peace. This is the kind of bravery I have never seen; the willingness to be 100 percent vulnerable in the face of state licensed violence. I felt like I was watching the Salt Mine Protests lead by Gandhi himself, where hundreds of Indians allowed themselves to clubbed and beaten in protest of the British Empire. I wondered whether I was witnessing another tottering empire about to fall—an empire set up to defend the dying petrochemical industry, one becoming less legitimate with each water protector beaten, sprayed, and arrested.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is proposed to carry crude oil—fracked out of the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota—across both Dakotas, Iowa, and eventually to Illinois. The pipeline is being challenged at every point along the route. Farmers in Iowa have been arrested by the busload, objecting to what they call “eminent domain for private gain.” Shale oil companies have dug up their backyards to transport some of this, the dirtiest, most polluting fuel on the planet, from another Indian reservation, Fort Berthold. And the Democratic (and Republican) love affair with fracking of all kinds represents a fundamental shift in American energy policy, away from conventional oil and gas and toward what should be called “extreme energy”—energy that is more dangerous, more expensive, and worse for the planet.
The form of this extreme energy that I am most intimately acquainted with, fracking, has poisoned watersheds across the U.S., increased greenhouse-gas emissions, and put communities in peril around the world. Fracked oil and natural gas represent a new frontier in exploiting fuel reserves that must not be extracted if we are to keep civilization above water. We are so close to crucial tipping points that our foremost climate scientist, James Hansen, famously called the rise of fracking, the development of Canada’s vast Tar Sands, and other new forms of extraction as “game over for the planet.” The amount of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and methane that would be emitted by tapping these fields is so onerous that it would warm the planet well past a point where we can keep glaciers frozen and the Eastern Seaboard above the rapidly rising seas.
So, this Dakota Access Pipeline is not just an issue of indigenous peoples’ sovereignty, although that is first and foremost in the battle at Standing Rock. It represents the center of our climate-change and fracking fight as we know it in the United States.
The struggle against #DAPL, as it is called on Twitter, was first brought to light by the youth council of Standing Rock, who literally ran thousands of miles from their reservations to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City to plead their case to the public and President Obama.
Their primary rallying cry was for their water. The Dakota Access Pipeline is slated to run beneath the Cannonball River, a tributary to the Missouri and part of a watershed that supplies 17 million people. The pipeline was originally planned to go through Bismarck, but the residents there objected and the Army Corps of Engineers along with Dakota Access Pipeline LLC decided to reroute it—straight through the Native American reservation. Of course, that decision underlines the deep environmental racism that happens when the United States plans energy projects. Routing the pipeline through Standing Rock Reservation rather than via the predominantly white state capital city is emblematic of a century’s worth of housing the most dangerous energy projects in communities of color.
But this is not a just a symbolic or abstract moment of environmental grandstanding. The Native Americans at Standing Rock have a real point when it comes to the danger to their water supply. Pipelines the world over leak at an alarming rate—more than 2,000 in the last two decades. “Since 2009, the annual number of significant accidents on oil and petroleum pipelines has shot up by almost 60 percent,” according to the Associated Press. In fact, the industry exists in what I call a permanent state of criminal negligence, and spills are more often the result of decades of neglect than chance malfunctions.
One recent USA Today investigation shows that hundreds of spills have gone unreported in North Dakota alone, and there is no federal agency that is tasked primarily with monitoring, policing, or cleaning them up. Looking at just our recent history, one can see many examples of watersheds that were devastated by oil and gas negligence. The Yellowstone River spill. The Kalamazoo River spill, which several years after their spill, and millions of dollars later, still hasn’t reached any significant state of cleanup. The recent oil leak at Santa Barbara, contaminating beaches along the California coast. The rupture at Mayflower, Arkansas, where an entire town had to be abandoned because Exxon’s oil pipeline flooded out an entire town. Pictures of suburban garages bathed in oil and toxic substances and volatile organic compounds, benzene, and other carcinogens, are exactly the kind of all too commonplace messes that the Standing Rock tribe is trying to prevent.
The decision whether to move ahead rests with the Army Corps of Engineers—and that is to say, President Obama. The pipeline has snaked its way up both sides of the river. On either side of the Cannonball, there is a 400-yard corridor controlled by the Army Corps and on which the pipeline company does not have a permit to drill. (In fact, it’s treaty land that was ceded to the Standing Rock Nation in 1851, and where an ancient burial ground exists.) Engineers would have to horizontally drill underneath the river and come out the other side. They’d have to do that through the Army Corps’ land. For that, they need President Obama’s explicit approval.
So now, we wait for Obama to act—as water protectors get maced and pepper-sprayed all along the shore of the river.
The protests are set to go global. The Indigenous Environmental Network, Honor the Earth, and 350.org are calling for peaceful demonstrations at Army Corps offices and in other locations on Nov. 15. Hundreds of actions are planned in support of the Standing Rock water protectors.
Back at the riverbank, upon arrival there’s a commotion. Someone screams that a young kid has been hit by a rubber bullet. We see people rushing to an ambulance and speeding someone away. I get the firsthand report. The kid who’s been shot—it was one of the teenagers on the banks. He was speaking to one of the officers, and gathering wood to make a makeshift barricade in the water to stop the police boats from approaching the site when he was shot in the back at point-blank range. He’s coughing up blood.
Running back to see yet another barrage of pepper-spray, I hear cheers from both sides of the river. Is it possible that these folks are cheering when they are getting maced?
Along the banks, I see the first line of defenders who have been pepper-sprayed crying and choking. They cannot breathe. Their faces are being flushed with bottles of Milk of Magnesia by medics on shore. Lying down covered in Mylar blankets, they are choking and crying. Some white. Some Native American. Some black. All of them—gasping for breath and wincing past the pain.
I speak with one. I say, “Are you alright?” He says, “Yeah. This doesn’t bother me. I’ve been pepper-sprayed so many times. I’m not afraid.”
It reminds me of a conversation I had with another young girl earlier in the week, a woman who only gave her first name, Suzi. She walks up to the police barricade at the bridge on State Route 1806. She’s got lollipops and gum in her pocket. The police step out of their jeeps with their M-4 rifles, their body armor, in front of a row of LRADs—the noise cannons they use to disperse the crowd. She says, “I’m here to give you this candy.” She told me that she was going to kill them with love and hugs and sweetness. A little bit bemused, two soldiers hold out their hands. She says, “Give these to the cops that have good hearts. Don’t give them to the Dakota Access Pipeline workers. We’re praying for you. Even though you are not on our side, you’re human beings and we love you.” The police take the lollipops and bubble gum and say thank you.
Fearlessly, she walks back across the barricades, beyond the burned up trucks and cars. I say, “Aren’t you scared?” She says, “No.” I say, “Really?” She says, “What are they gonna do? Shoot me?” and I said, “Well, frankly, yes.” And she says, “Well, so what? I’ll take one for the team. I’m protected. I’m surrounded by love.”
You might call this the naiveté of youth, but that would be an insult to bravery like this. Standing Rock affirms over and over again that people need justice; they need to participate and they need to sacrifice and they need to be involved.
The greed, individualism, and consumerism that are the hallmarks of our American society now are not really what binds us together as a civilization. Our need to do good, to be good, to stand up for each other, to fight for the environment, to fight for our rights, to fight for what is right—that ends up being stronger than anything else.
So, as I race back to the front line from the ambulance taking the young boy off, I barely get my footing when I hear ka-pow! I see a crowd not five feet away from me scattering. I turn my face and my rolling camera to the right and I see Erin Schrode, my colleague in reporting, limping away. I think, “Oh my God. This can’t possibly be happening.” The cops had fired into the crowd and hit Erin in her lower back. I race to her and say, “Did they shoot you?” Wincing through tears, she nods, crying, “Yes! Yes!”
A crowd assembles around her, including Wes “Mekasi” Horinek. She’s saying, “I’m OK. I’m OK. I’m OK.” Even through her puffy winter jacket, the blow that she describes as devastating has left a huge welt just below her ribs on the right side of her back. Medical attention comes to her quickly. The medic looks at me and says, “They are targeting journalists, and they’re targeting medics.”
Later, in an interview, I ask him to elaborate. He says, “Well, last Thursday on the front lines, I was arrested while I was trying to administer medical aid to people who had been injured. I spent three days in jail. My colleague—the other medic on the scene—was literally ripped out from behind the steering wheel of our ambulance while it was in drive, causing the car to potentially lurch toward a crowd a people. We were both in jail for three days.”
There’s a pattern of repression against journalists in North Dakota unfolding every day. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman was written up on charges for her reporting in Standing Rock, where a private security firm sicced dogs on Native protesters, biting and assaulting them.
Goodman was presented with criminal-trespass charges, which were eventually thrown out. Shailene Woodley was arrested for livestreaming to 40,000 fans. Her arrest, captured on her smartphone, has had millions and millions of views. Deia Schlosberg, my producer on my most recent film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, is facing a 45-year sentence for taping an oil and gas protest in North Dakota.
And now, Erin Schrode—shot in the back, in the middle of an interview. She actually captured herself being shot. When she saw it, she immediately went into convulsions and sobbed, reliving the impact. I guess it’s not that easy to watch yourself being hit in the back. A military expert later confirmed that this was not a normal bean-bag round or what you call a rubber bullet. This was a rubber round shot out of a grenade launcher. A .37 to .40 mm round that is never supposed to be used against peaceful demonstrators—a round whose application is primarily to knock down doors. I personally saw three of these rounds being fired against the crowd.
The response from the local cops? “We are not aware of her being shot,” Lt. Tom Iverson, a North Dakota Highway Patrol Public Information Officer, said, after shown a video of Erin getting hit. “As we all know, you take what you see on social media, on Facebook, with a grain of salt. It is unbelievable, the false lies that are out there on social media.”
I don’t know which is more disturbing: the fact that police shot a reporter in the back or the fact that yes, they charged a round against peaceful protestors and have absolutely no records of incident. This is the gunboat that shot Erin Schrode.
It was the guy on the right. He doesn’t have a badge or name on his uniform because Morton County allowed these officers to go anonymous in the field—another egregious human-rights violation. Erin’s story exploded in the press and the irony of that was not lost on her. She spent the next week pointing out how it was not her story that should be reported because she was a white woman and a reporter. The story that should be reported is about how these Native tribes are being abused every single day.
If we are going to stop a Trump administration from ravaging our country and our climate, we are all going to have to leave our house a lot more to go to demonstrations, to stand in between the fossil-fuel industry and their jack-booted thugs. It’s going to take great personal sacrifice and political will on the ground in the form of people in the streets. Don’t let the water protectors’ sacrifices be in vain. It is as if American history is being played out in miniature. On one side, the terrible legacy of the genocidal Indian wars of Manifest Destiny, atrocity, and slaughter. On the other side, the great American tradition of equality, egalitarianism, the Bill of Rights, democracy, the fight for human rights. The collision course of history couldn’t be clearer than it is at Standing Rock. On one side, the descendants both genealogically and ideologically of General Custer and on the other side, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Wounded Knee. The ghosts of history dance in front of us on the water. The vapors of tear gas and pepper spray menacing their legacy. It is the fight for the climate, for the Bill of Rights, and for all of America standing there shivering in the water. We owe it to all that is right and just to be moved by this struggle and to participate.
The very next day, just after dozens were treated for pepper spray and tear gas and several were shot with rubber bullets, the water protectors went back out to face dozens of riot police. As usual, they were unfazed, prayerful, loving, and fighting for all of us.