Essays

Why Standing Rock Matters

If it is ever finished, the Dakota Access Pipeline will stretch almost 1,000 miles across the continent- a metal capillary rocketing across the landscape. Day by day, it will funnel thousands of barrels of crude, dredged-up oil from the Bakken Oil Fields, to the industrial centers of southern Illinois. According to the politicians, it will create thousands of new jobs and revitalize economic independence.

But standing in its way, halting its development interminably—in a modern nod to the century old Indian Wars—is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The controversy of Standing Rock is has raised uncomfortable questions about our country. Are we really that democratic of a country if peaceful protesters are attacked by armed police in military-grade riot gear? Have we really progressed past our genocidal policy towards the Native Americans? Do we really value economic profits over the health of the environment?

The tribe, which existed uneventfully on its reservation in northern North Dakota for over a century, has been waging its war against the pipeline for more than seven months. The conflict began in spring this year, when Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas-based Fortune 500 company, announced the project would run directly through the tribe’s lands, whose windblown plains provide drinking water for the entire upper Missouri watershed.

Fearful of the ecological catastrophe were there to be an oil spill, and outraged at the defamation of their homeland by corporate power, the tribal residents of Standing Rock—a ragtag bunch of eager youths and leather-skinned elders, wearing jeans and flannels and bearing traditional style teepees—set up camp in the plains, smack in the path where the projected pipeline would be constructed.

In the seven months since protests initiated, a worldwide following has attached itself to the tribe’s cause, with idealistic environmentalists from around the country flocking to the reservation to partake in demonstrations. The Internet and social media have flared up with stories of the tribe’s plight, and indigenous activists from around the world have identified with their cause.

Despite this, the protesters were not received warmly by local law enforcement. When they first inhabited the preliminary construction sites—many chaining themselves to digging equipment and bulldozers—they were greeted by the attack dogs of the corporate security personnel, injuring five people. And that was only the beginning. Tensions reached a peak recently, on Oct. 28, when police in military-grade riot gear stormed the main encampment of the unarmed protesters with pepper spray and rubber bullets, buttressed by a convoy of armored cars, Humvees, and helicopters.

But they didn’t budge without a fight. Encircling their encampments on horseback, and setting up burning-tire barricades across the road, they made eviction an impossible task for the authorities. The police couldn’t arrest people fast enough- they reportedly had to bus detained individuals to prisons around the state because the local facilities were becoming overloaded. Even as the police pushed the protesters from one site, the remainder would regroup and set up camp a short distance down the road, where they would wait to be evicted and to start the process once again. It is a slow war of attrition that media from around the globe is now witnessing.

Sadly, we here in St. Augustine will likely remain indifferent to the Standing Rock conflict. Because, like most Americans outside of North Dakota, we will revert to the same litany of overused excuses: it’s too far away to be concerned about, it’s a different situation, it’s not my problem.

So let’s see whether those excuses (which few of us can deny having used, at one point or another) hold up to their weight:

Five years from now, imagine the shipping company Maersk decides it would be profitable to dredge a deepwater port in St. Augustine, which could be subsequently used to dock and unload their massive fleet of container ships. Doing so would create new local jobs, surely, and would most certainly invigorate Florida’s economy.

But to accomplish such a task they would first have to demolish Castillo de San Marcos, rip apart the bayfront walkway, and raze away all the native mangrove forests within a two-mile radius of St. Augustine Inlet. The historical and environmental significance that has made our town so beautiful, and has been magnetic for tourism, would be irrevocably destroyed.

Let’s hypothetically imagine this happens. Local citizens, outraged at the indifference of a massive corporation to the welfare of their small town, would likely band together and protest in the streets, perhaps rioting at the sight of foreign construction barges. The national media would be drawn to their plight. They love their town, and wouldn’t want it defiled for anything.

But around the country, all people can say is: “it’s not my problem” and “they shouldn’t be so damn sensitive.” Or, even worse: “It’s good for the national economy, so they should be happy about it anyways.”

Alas, you can imagine the corked fury the residents of Standing Rock feel when the rest of the United States expresses the same casual indifference towards their struggles.

While imprisoned for fighting for civil rights in Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The same logic is applicable to the case of Standing Rock, or of any case where corporate power infringes on local rights and the health of the environment.

If we let corporate power succeed in Standing Rock, we let corporate power succeed everywhere: we are giving conglomerates permission to regard our environment, our rights to sovereignty over our water resources, as if they were disposable.

Notorious images have been released of young, bare-chested Sioux, gleaming with sweat, riding their stallions tauntingly before a stolid black wall of police. They shout angrily at the officers, who will within a few minutes close in on their encampment with riot gear and batons.

The image of the young Sioux riding his horse before the police has a universal relevance we should all be aware of. After all, he’s fighting for a cause that’s a lot closer to home than we think.

December 2nd, 2016

In Praise of Protesting

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, my life and the history of the country, changed directions irrevocably.

That evening, I watched in mounting desperation with several hundred anxious students in the Student Center as the election maps, blown up on CNN on a wall projector, showed the country being voted in as overwhelmingly Republican. Hours later, after we had been evicted from the building by security and subsequently set up camp in the lobby of Lewis Hall, we were mortified to learn the impossible had happened: a misogynistic, racist, authoritarian xenophobe had been elected the leader of the free world, and we would be stuck with him for no less than four years. Donald Trump would now be President of the United States.

I didn’t sleep that night, and for the rest of the week, I was lost in a dazed melancholy. It drizzled cold rain the next two mornings, and the student body on campus seemed eerily quiet, with the exception of a few diehard Trump supporters, who were quick to imply that the wall would be built, the Muslim ban would be put in place, and America- they emphasized this last point with visible smugness- would be “made great again.”

For the first few days I felt hopeless, powerless. It was as if the world had just caught on fire, and we would have to watch it burn without being able to extinguish the flames.

So on Friday night, four days after the election, I exercised the most American of rights: I stood up against what’s wrong and protested.

Junior Caitlin Croley and sophomore Ellen Fogel of the College Democrats orchestrated the demonstration, knowing all too well that they had to get their voices heard within the first hundred hours of the election.

The group ended up consisting of a little over a hundred people, including Latinos, Muslims, gays, blacks, and women- people who’ve been marginalized by Trump’s yearlong campaign of divisive rhetoric. But also present were a surprising number of straight Caucasians- a majority, actually- people who faced no direct threats but who empathized with the minorities, who were deeply concerned about the future of a Trump-ruled America. (I was proud to consider myself a part of the latter group.)

The chants of the protesters were so loud that as I walked up to join them, I could hear their echoes several streets away.

I joined the group just as the demonstration was getting underway. They had set themselves up on the sidewalk adjacent to the Lightner Museum. They were a rowdy group, spread out unevenly, bearing posters they’d made earlier that afternoon in front of Kenan Hall.

A small number of counter-supporters for Trump had gathered on the opposite side of the road (one of whom had a sign saying “She Lost- Get Over It”), as well as an immense crowd of passers-by who’d gathered to watch the spectacle.

For the next three hours we proceeded with a series of rousing chants (“Love trumps hate” and “we will not be silenced”), our voices echoing into the stillness of the night. We took turns giving speeches, each of us stopping periodically so the crowd could repeat our words, amplifying their sound with our numbers. I had the privilege to speak before the crowd several times, and it was the most empowered, the most alive, I’d felt in a long time.

As hard as they may have tried, the counter-protesters for Trump (who unsurprisingly consisted of middle-aged white men) never managed to break our spirits. In fact, every time they approached us from across the road, insulting us and trying to obscure us from the view with their signs, we grew stronger: we would chant “do not engage the hate,” with increasing veracity, and after several minutes of fruitless yelling, they would get tired and we would continue with the demonstration.

A few times, the man with the sign would probe us with questions about Hillary, but after enough yelling we would grant him his silence, deflate his concerns, and continue with our demonstration. (After all, someone later said in a speech, if we truly believed in the 1st Amendment it was our duty to let them have their voices too).

One Trump supporter mocked us continually throughout the night, miming a dance that involved flapping his arms like a deranged chicken; at one point, he called a short old lady a b**** and challenged me to punch him in the face. But I kept my composure. We all did. We stuck instead to our joyful chant of “When they go low, we go high.”

That night, we showed to the world that no matter what happened during a Trump Presidency, we would refuse to be silenced. We showed we wouldn’t accept the vitriolic policies laid forth by Trump’s campaign, and that we wouldn’t remain silent if they were to be realized during his tenure. We showed support and solidarity for all people—Latinos, Muslims, gays, blacks. And we showed we wouldn’t support inaction and indifference on climate change.

That night, we showed that we wouldn’t stand silently on the sidelines and watch the world burn.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed it’s become increasingly popular on social media to deride protesting Trump’s victory, in any form, as “pointless.”

“It’s all pointless,” they say. “There’s no use in crying over an election that’s already been decided.”

Granted, the people who criticize protesting the election (including many of my close friends) wield a fair argument. Their logic, generally, follows as such: there’s nothing you can do to stop Trump from being inaugurated on Jan. 9, and whether you like him or not, protesting will do little, besides possibly sparking riots and deepening fault lines between different groups. The argument isn’t idiotic, but within context it bears several flaws.

Remember first that the majority (I repeat: majority, not all) of people who argue against protesting are well-off Caucasians- those who have the least to lose during a Trump Presidency.

Remember also the sensitivity of the right to protest. It’s easy to forget that protesting- arguably the most potent tool for social change- is a rare luxury we share in the United States. Challenging authority in many other countries often warrants brutal political repression, forced exile, or execution. Millions of people have fought and died so we can peacefully challenge societies status quo’s, so saying that protesting “does no good” is nothing but a weak, apathetic excuse for inaction.

Because that’s the thing- protesting does do good. It’s just hard for us to see this in the present moment.

Just because you can’t reverse an election doesn’t mean you can’t influence what happens in the country. If everyone became politically engaged in this country, we would realize that we have far more power than we actually believe.

Sure. Protesting won’t dethrone Trump. But when the rest of the world sees rivers of angry Americans pouring through the streets, they see that we don’t unilaterally support our leader- that we are not happy we our choice. When politicians see us protesting, they bristle nervously, knowing that if enough of us go to vote in the next election cycle, they’ll ultimately have to change their policies to stay in office. And when we protest, it will go down symbolically in history that we refused to stay silent when something went wrong.

I read a quote a few years back that seems increasingly relevant in our confused moral times. It went, “If you see fraud and don’t say fraud, you are a fraud.”

Trump is a fraud. I’m proud to be able to fight his policies alongside hundreds of thousands of other people, exercising my right to protest.

I’m proud to be a protester. And I will refuse to remain silent.

December 2nd, 2016