Trying to write about my experience of the week I spent at Standing Rock, North Dakota is difficult. There are so many emotions that come with what I saw and experienced, from inspiration and hope to despair and anger. In many ways this is one of the most important movements of my generation, whether we realize it or not. But this is not anything new, as this fight has been taking place for 500 years on this land as colonizers have long bullied, raped, and pillaged indigenous cultures. This is merely a continuation of the genocide that is taking place here in a place that we allegedly value ideas like equality, life, liberty, and justice. However, those values don't mean anything if we continue to support American Empire and toxic capitalism that has become embedded deep within our culture.
This blog will go through my week in Standing Rock, and my observations of the militarization that has taken place to stop any sort of democratic practices from the water protectors. Also, thank you very much for reading this reflection, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE go listen to indigenous voices and definitely look into the history! I will provide some resources and links throughout and at the end of this post.
(There are many details I am intentionally leaving out of this summary, mostly to protect the camp and people who are still at the camp. More will be discussed on this later)
Preparing for the trek
I probably should have put off the trip as I was not originally in a good mind space to make this trip. I have been professionally frustrated with trying to find a tenure track position in a shrinking market, overburdened with work as I try to survive as an adjunct professor, all while trying to continue to be productive as a political theorist. I was doubly frustrated with my personal life as I was struggling with a relationship that I really hoped would be fruitful, only to have it come crashing down days before I left. But at the end of the day I thought that the trip would be a good distraction from it all, which in many ways was very selfish of me; but it was what it was, I had been planning this trip for a long time and was determined to go learn, listen, and stand with those in North Dakota.
I had spent the prior weeks talking with friends who had been up there and those who were heading up there. I had also spent a lot of time reading as many articles as I could, the Facebook pages of organizations working up there, and other bits of information I could get my hands on. I listened to my colleagues about some of the experiences they had working with different native groups and tribes. I spent time making sure that I knew what I was walking into, and how to be respectful to those I hoped to stand with and learn from. As a white male who studies and teaches in Ethnic Studies, I understand the difficult nature of my presence, but I also understand the importance of it as well. As with any work around issues of colonization, being a person with so many dominant identities means that I need to come with an open mind, heart, ears, and ready to follow the lead of those who are most impacted by these issues.
The trip was organized by fellow veterans I had worked with in the past, mostly folks I knew from Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). More importantly to me, was one of my best friends Garett Reppenhagen, whom I had known long before my time in the military as we joined up to serve together. He and his family was spearheading this particular trip and we started a GoFundMe page, while also inviting other veterans we knew to join us. In all there would be about 6 of us veterans from Colorado IVAW heading up at the same time. While there we would meet up with a number of other veterans who have been there, as well as other veterans arriving. We brought with us cold weather camping gear that would be left for the veterans we knew who would be coming throughout the winter. We were also bringing up a wide assortment of donations from our different Colorado communities, from cold weather camping equipment to medical equipment. In essences we were laying the groundwork for future veterans and IVAW members to come and be a part of these actions for the upcoming winter.
Day 0 (Sunday November 20): Driving North
I assumed that we would be getting on the road early but with all that Garett and his family had to pack up, they didn't make it to my house in Fort Collins until about 5:30 PM. We had decided that because Garett was bringing his son that we would split the journey into two legs, so this evening we would be driving to Rapid City, South Dakota. The trip up was a mix of conversation about current events and catching up with each other. Because of my personal issues, I was a little withdrawn, but my gregarious nature pushed me to converse still; it was an emotional push and pull, that certain songs on the radio would draw me back into a dark personal space, but it was always the bonds of friendship that would refocus me to the task at hand.
As we crossed the South Dakota state line we started to hear reports of the police attacks on the peaceful water protectors that evening. A friend had sent me a live feed of action taking place. We watched as police shot tear gas into the crowd and sprayed people with water hoses in freezing temperatures. All along the police front you could see the flashes of shots being fired from the shotguns shooting beanbags, rubber bullets, and pepper-spray balls. I was also receiving pictures and messages from friends on the ground appalled by the brutality of violence from the police. The tactics of the police felt criminal to us, especially the use of fire hoses in freezing temperatures. While in the military I faced many high tension dangerous situations, but there were very specific rules of engagement that we were to follow. We followed an escalation of force model that mirrored the force being used against us. I know that many units followed this very liberally, I took it very serious (as did many I served with) as I did not wish to have unnecessary deaths on my conscious. The police here seemed to be the ones escalating the violence as they were the real threat.
We arrived to our hotel with heavy hearts and on edge of what we seemed to be entering. I made sure to check in with my friends on the ground and those I knew heading there. The situation seemed bleak, and it made us want to push through but we knew that hard charging into the situation may be more of a distraction to the work being done on the ground rather than helpful. So we uneasily went to sleep.
Day 1 (Monday, November 21): Arriving at Standing Rock
We met up with a number of other veterans and groups we knew from Colorado, down in the hotel lobby for breakfast. As we ate we shared the information we had heard from the night before, as well as different things we knew about entering the camp. It was at this time we heard about 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky who was hit by a concussion grenade, and may lose her arm due to it. Having used concussion gernades in Iraq, we knew that these were not to be used directly on groups of people as they could still cause damage, it was unclear the extent of the damage at the time, but it definitely rattled us to think of what the cops were doing to the people up there. Because cops had been pulling over people going into the camp we decided to split up and not have an obvious convoy rolling in, separate cars would be less suspicious. We would rally at the Prairie Knights Lodge and Casino, which is ran by the Standing Rock tribe; from there we would convoy in to the camp site.
Before heading up we needed to pick up firewood for our camp and to donate to those around us. We had found a listing on Craigslist for wood in Custer, SD, which was about 40 miles away. The man who owned the wood was an old retired white guy who called liberals 'special little snowflakes, who should just get over the election.' So we thought best not to tell him we were headed to Standing Rock as he seemed not to be very supportive of social justice issues. It was here that we knew we had entered enemy territory and that we would face much hostility to our cause, especially from white folks. The interesting thing here is he seemed very friendly besides a few snide remarks, that weren't really directed at us. Though I definitely got the feeling that had we said our destination, he would have told us to leave. We ended up getting a good amount of wood for $25, and headed back to Rapid City to meet up with another group of vets we knew who had left Colorado earlier that morning.
After all of our errands and lunch with the incoming group, we finally started heading North towards Standing Rock. We listened to different podcasts on the ride up but we were mostly thinking about what we were headed into. As we arrived to the casino the wind was whipping and the temperature was around 28°F. The thought of being hit by a water cannon in this weather was like a shot to the stomach, and hard to imagine why anyone use that tactic. Once everyone had arrived the group that had arrived first and set up camp led us to where we would be staying at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. As we got closer to the camp a brightness on the horizon grew. And as we crested the hill before the valley where the camp sat, we could see huge construction lights across the horizon, with many small fires spanning the valley floor. There was a clear demarcation between these spaces, whereas one was obviously the camp, the other clearly the construction zone.
Pulling in we were stopped by camp security, as it was our first time in the camp they wanted to make clear that there was to be absolutely no weapons, no drugs, and no alcohol allowed in the camp. We affirmed that we did not bring any of these with us. We knew before that these were the rules of the camp due to our research, but we weren't sure about others in our larger group, especially since veterans often turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, but we knew that we would make sure that if we saw something in our group we would address it. We drove down flag road and wound through a plethora of tents, campers, teepees, and people milling about. It was an amazing sight of how many people were there, but there would be thousands more coming over the next couple days.
We stopped on the northern edge of the camp where we could clearly see the construction lights on the hill. Two tents had already been set up for us, and we unloaded half of our gear, since we felt we may move in the morning. The main worry we had at the time was the security of the location, as we thought that perhaps because we could see the construction sites we would be camped out on the front lines, though the next day we would end up establishing our camp even closer to the front lines anyways (but we knew that in some ways, that was where we were needed most). We went to sleep with the sound of planes circling overhead and with the lights of the construction zone shining through the tents. We would later find out that the planes and helicopters would fly around the camp day and night. This is a form of psychological warfare meant to let people know they are there, they are watching, they are listening. Like the constant humming of US military drones across the Middle East, it creates paranoia as folks are constantly put in a state of fear.
Day 2 (Tuesday, November 22): On the Ground Running
We arose early in order to relocate our tents. After a bit of walking around I ran into a contact of ours with the organization IP3 (Indigenous People Power Project). Our tents were already close to their camp so we just moved them a bit closer. IP3 (The Indigenous Peoples Power Project) was running many art projects as well as spearheading the nonviolent direct action training. They asked us to help out with these trainings, as many of us had extensive experience with direct actions as well as with police and military tactics. These trainings took place daily and all who joined the camp were asked to attend these before going out and participating in different actions.
Another thing that new arrivals were asked to attend was the camp orientation. This meeting was crucial for those coming in as it worked to tell folks the expectations of the camp as expressed by the elders. This is especially important for the white folks coming in to stand in solidarity, as it was framed through a history of colonization and the ways in which white supremacy has worked to create a culture in which white folks always try to be at the center of things. They wanted to stress that everything here, all the actions, and all the work would be indigenous centered, and that it was not our place as outsiders and white folks to try and take charge. That doesn't mean that our skills would not be utilized, but it was our job first and foremost to listen and follow the lead of those who have been here for much longer and to respect the indigenous leadership and their wishes. The orientation was also meant to help new comers figure out the best ways to plug into the camp based on their skills and how they hoped to serve the camp, from the medical area or donations area to construction and winterization of camp, there was something for everyone. All that was asked was that you be considerate in that you give more than you take, especially if you were only going to be there for ashort amount of time. Finally they stressed that the actions were not protests but were to be conducted in peaceful prayer, this framing is meant to keep agitators out, and to maintain nonviolence as the key component of all actions. Also that they were not protestors, but rather water protectors, which again is an indigenous recentering.
One example of the importance of this orientation came just before I attended it. While observing the Sacred Fire at the camp, which acted as the main hub of the camp and where the elders primarily sat. In this area there is a microphone and speakers that is primarily used for official announcements, prayer, and songs. For a small offering such as tobacco, anyone can make an announcement or a respectful statement. I was listening to a Native woman grieve about the actions that took place on Sunday evening and said a prayer for a peaceful outcome to all of this that could end the pipeline. Once she was finished a white male in his mid-20's took the microphone and began to recount his actions on Sunday night. He told of grabbing an indigenous woman and stopping her from going to the front lines where the violence was taking place, and he recalled the anger in the young woman's eyes of him stopping her. He said that he didn't understand it until now, though he would probably never truly understand it because of his whiteness. He told of how sorry and regretful he felt about his actions. As he spoke my stomach turned and I got annoyed because he was taking the space of the Sacred Fire to ask for forgiveness and to express his sadness of his own ignorance. But this is exactly the sort of centering of whiteness that they want to avoid, he should not have been taking that space. As a friend and mentor once told me, 'sometimes you just gotta sit in your own shit, sit there and realize how bad it stinks.' In essence he should be reflecting on those thing, he should feel that way, but he needs to do that on his own time and in his own space; it was selfish and self-righteous of him to try and center himself and his own shit in that space. Similarly, there has been many white folks arriving at Standing Rock thinking and acting like this is some sort of Burning Man event, which is pretty sickening...
After the orientation I headed back to our camp to see what the plan was for our group. One of the other things that had dominated our week was a documentarian who was joining us for our week here. The documentary was not specifically focused on Standing Rock, but rather on activism and the colliding of different movements, which was why we in IVAW were being followed for the week. In many ways it felt odd, but the group we were working with was spectacular and once there is more information about the documentary I will post about it, as I am sure it will be wonderful. But their presence was definitely felt and many felt uneasy with the camera around especially in camp, though they went through all the proper channels, as their was media passes needed for incoming media groups, as well as prior content from the different indigenous groups we worked with. There were times and spaces that they were denied access for security reasons, but for the most part they had access to most the places we went.
The first day that we helped with the direct action training we were tasked to be the police. We had spray bottles filled with water to simulate pepper spray, and we were authorized to lightly push, pull, and yell at people as necessary. Before we started running simulations, the crowd was given a brief legal training of their rights, what they should do if arrested, and what to expect afterwards. They were supposed to then get a chemical weapons briefing that was to go over what to do if they got pepper sprayed or were hit with tear gas, all things that had already been used, however the medic had not arrived yet. We then put them through simulation training, where we put them through a number of scenarios, with us as police to try and give them pointers on what to do when confronted by police during a direct action. We yanked people to the ground, tore them away from their friends, yelled obscenities at them, to put them in the mindset of what was needed to do a nonviolent direct action, however it wasn't enough, and we knew that the training needed to be shifted a bit to make it more realistic. Which we would implement the next day. At the training, I was also lucky enough to run into one of my favorite people from my graduate program in Hawai'I, which felt a bit magical to be able to run into friends who live so far away, while also showing the massive importance of this issue and how far it reaches.
After the training we received word that we would be needed to go into Bismarck to make a statement to the County Commissioners meeting; it was told to us that the Commissioners were not happy with the sheriff and his tactics from Sunday evening. We were asked primarily due to our veteran status as we looked to leverage it as many feel the credibility of veterans weighs heavy especially on conservative populations, who may discount native voices. We were also given a statement from the father of 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky to read to the County Commissioners. When we arrived there was one police officer at the entrance monitoring a metal detector. We were directed downstairs to the meeting already in session. No where on the agenda was anything about Standing Rock, nor about the events of Sunday evening. We waited and listened to the plans for the growing county, many of which seemed relevant to this struggle, though there was no input from the indigenous voices that lived in that area. As the meeting continued about a dozen police officers entered due to our presence.
Once the meeting was concluding we stood up and asked for an audience with the County Commissioners, and immediately a large man from the back ran up to the front and began whispering with the commissioners. It would seem that the man was the county's lawyer and advised them that they could hear us out but that they couldn't speak on the record so the meeting had to be ended. They relayed the message, closed the meeting, and we moved forward to have an informal conversation with them. We told them that we were veterans, and that we wished to address the militarism of the police force, their tactics, and read the letter from Sophia's father. After talking for a bit and reading the statement, we asked them to denounce and call for the resignation of the sheriff. While they appreciated what we had to say, they said that at this time they stood behind the sheriff. One of the vets in our group is a minister and she asked if they would pray with us. The prayer was very sharp and pointed, as anyone who would consider themselves a Christian would question their support of the tactics put forth by the Morton County Sheriff's Department.
A majority of our delegation then headed outside, with only 3 of us staying behind. I tried to push them to consider taking away funding from the sheriffs department if they continued to deploy military tactics with military gear, since the budget was in their purview. One of the commissioners informed me that there was a state law requiring them to make sure the police could do their job. I retorted that they could seriously reduce their budget so that they are not expanding the militarism being deployed. The commissioner I was talking with replied that 'the officers needed the equipment to ensure their safety.' This pushed me over the edge as I raised my voice letting him know that 'he didn't have to tell me about safety in hostile situations, I fought in a war, and these police are nowhere near the danger I faced. There is no reason for them to be using the equipment they have. If you come prepared for a war, a war will likely happen, cause once you are told you are a hammer, you begin to see everything as a nail.' At this point I turned around and walked out to a hall of about 8 police officers that were still waiting for us to leave. They didn't say anything, but once we headed out, they left.
Day 3 (Wednesday, November 23): Direct Action Training Redeux
The next day we had a number of meetings all over the camp with a bunch of different groups. This was a good time to explore the camp, which I will not share many details here besides some obvious facts (many of which have already been reported on). There was one hill that many had the best cell phone coverage on, called Facebook Hill. Up here you could find a number of different charging stations (one of which was a stationary bike that generated energy for a few plugs, but most others were solar). I didn't get much reception anywhere, so I avoided Facebook hill because it was colder and windier up there. I began to notice that something funny was going on with my cell phone, and I also began to hear that other people were having similar problems. For one thing, if your phone was not on airplane mode and you were using it would drain down to nothing, even if it was fully charged not long ago, but then as soon as you plugged the phone in it would jump back up to 60-70%. This may have been a side effect of the likely illegal monitoring technology that the sheriffs department has been using on the camp.
I then took a trip to the bridge that had been the center of the violence a few nights earlier. As I crested the hill it was as if I had returned to Iraq. Across the bridge there were concrete jersey barriers, concertina wire, an MRAP (Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicle), and Humvees . The police on the other side of the barrier were in riot gear. The weaponry they had visible was an LRAD (Long Range Accoustic Device) on top of the MRAP which shoots loud sonic blasts that can make one's brain feel scrambled, M4 assault rifles, shotguns, a sniper rifle, large pepper spray cans, and personal hand guns. A girl ventured out onto the bridge and from behind the barriers came a voice from the loud speaker stating, "Please get off the bridge, you are trespassing and you will be arrested." For the next 10 minutes a ridiculous back and forth between the young woman and the police would take place, with the police making statements like "what makes you think you can break the law," with the woman retorting things like "I didn't choose where I was born." Neither side really seemed to be making sense to me but the girl was not a threat. However, then about 10 police officers in riot gear came from behind the barrier and approached the bridge. This show of force was meant to be an example that anyone coming on to the bridge would be arrested. The girl eventually backed off and the police returned to the other side of the barrier. Supposedly the bridge was "off limits" for "safety reasons," as there were fires on the bridge on Sunday. According to the County Commissioners discussion from the night before, it would be off limits until tested by the Army Corps of Engineers, and supposedly they were 'afraid to check it out while protestors were in the area.' All of which seemed like utter nonsense and just a way to keep water protectors from getting anywhere close to pipeline operations.