Standing Rock

Imagine if law enforcement had entered the Malheur Wildlife Refuge with dogs and water cannons and attempted to drive off the so-called occupiers and for good measure shot at them with rubber bullets. I think we know what would have happened—the Bundy Gang would have shot back with real bullets and then the SWAT types would have taken over and we would have had a Ruby Ridge/Waco scenario played out again. The Feds wanted to avoid that and so they let Bundys alone, mostly, and tried to get them in court. That failed miserably. Armed white men in Carharts and cowboy hats who trespass and destroy property were told that their acts were not criminal.

Fast forward to the Standing Rock Sioux and their standoff with local and federal authorities. Unarmed, non-violent protesters are assaulted with dogs, water cannons, and rubber bullets. The use of dogs and water cannons—made infamous in the civil rights protests in the American South—was particularly shocking. People expressing their beliefs, assembling peaceably, and engaging in actual civil disobedience are attacked by not only sheriff’s deputies but by private security teams. Private security? Really? This is like the Pinkertons acting as strike-breakers! Do we unleash men with guns on dissenters? It’s bad enough when those sworn to protect-and-serve attack people under the auspices of legal authority, I can’t imagine how we can allow private outfits the license to abuse citizens. I suppose it is an outgrowth of out-sourcing. After all we out-sourced much of the Iraq occupation to private security contractors.

So, if you are a native person you are a criminal if you engage in the occupation of federal land. I don’t want this to be about race, but when armed white men can be exonerated for an illegal takeover and native people harassed, what am I to conclude? I’m saddened that the local authorities feel that their only recourse is violence. The videos from the Standing Rock protests have shown that law enforcement has indeed over-reacted and used excessive force. I’m not one to blame cops for everything—peace officers have one of the toughest jobs in the country. I’m amazed by the professionalism and cool-headedness exhibited by many in uniform. And I’ve no doubt there are protesters who lack the discipline and moral courage to remain non-violent in face of an armed response. No protest is perfect. In fact, there are episodes of vandalism, monkey-wrenching, and attacks on police. But they in no way deserve the appalling treatment they have so far received. The vast majority of those involved—regardless or how you feel about the merits of their case—have behaved properly. If people engage in civil disobedience, such as trespassing, they should expect to be prosecuted. That is, in fact, the point of such actions, to create an opportunity to be heard in a court of law. Much of the conflict is about people feeling like they have not been heard. I can only hope that the protesters maintain their commitment to non-violence and that law enforcement responds in kind.

I have no issue with the pipeline. You want to move crude oil you have four choices: rail, truck, barge, or pipeline. The oil is being pumped and it needs to get to the refineries and other sites where it can be processed or trans-shipped to other destinations. The Standing Rock Sioux feel the route choice of the pipeline is targeting them. Perhaps it is, I can’t say. It seems the people of Bismark didn’t want the pipeline either and their objections resulted in the re-routing. So it’s not like the builders haven’t been stymied before. I can understand the Sioux feel like their objections aren’t being heard while those of other folks were.

But the oil is there and it’s going to be moved in one way or another. I’d just as soon it be a pipeline, that’s probably safer and more reliable than truck or rail and can reach places where barges can’t get to. I grew up in the town of Benicia which has an oil refinery on the outskirts. There are storage tanks, rail lines, pipelines, and a port. Across the Carquinez Strait there are more of the same. Tanker traffic is a big part of the San Francisco-San Pablo Bay complex. My dad, a pipefitter, worked in every refinery in the Bay Area except Shell, which was non-union. The petroleum economy is of crucial importance to California. I understand that some see the Standing Rock protests as a refutation of our over-reliance on fossil fuels. That we should be more focused on renewable sources and be working harder to reduce our carbon footprint. I certainly agree that those should be national priorities. But our energy needs are massive and will require all of our resources. We can encourage and promote a movement toward sustainability, but we can’t just throw up our hands and say we won’t use the oil we dig out of the ground. We will use it. We’ll use it in our cars, our trucks that transport our goods, and in our power plants that make our electricity, the one thing none of us will live without.

There are bigger and deeper issues at Standing Rock than energy policy. Obviously Indian sovereignty is the over-arching theme, that once again the United States Government is siding with the developers and against the native peoples. I should note that plenty of tribes have taken advantage of their resource holdings, like the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, for example. The Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota sits on top of the Bakken Field and the tribes there have pursued oil leases for income. I’m not advocating for or against such schemes, resource extraction is risky business and subject to extremes of boom-and-bust, not a panacea by any means. I’m just pointing out that tribal issues can’t simply be lumped together as a monolithic viewpoint. Much like the so-called Hispanic voting bloc—there’s a lot of variety in such sub-groups, and it’s racist to assume all in the group think and vote the same way.

But that’s not what motivated me to write. The violence against the protesters is what set me off. Like I said I’m not really interested in the merits of their case. My research has revealed that there are a lot of variables and a lot of false news claims and a lot of disagreement over who said and did what. But this is the United States of America and we have Constitutionally guaranteed rights of speech and assembly. I don’t think any of us should tolerate the quashing of voices just because we might not like what they have to say. Dissent is part of democracy. We need to find a way to embrace disagreement, to use it to work together and go forward. We aren’t going to agree on a lot of things, that doesn’t mean we have to be divided, just that we have to work harder to make progress. I don’t claim to have the answer for the issues raised at Standing Rock. But I’d sure like to see us hammer out our problems over a table and not across a police line.


4 thoughts on “Standing Rock

  1. Good post, Mark. Here is one take, from Robert Kennedy Jr. on the conflict between oil and cleaner energy. Basically, I believe that when energy is economical, it will find it’s way to market. But it’s hard to figure what “economical” means, with the government subsidies involved. The point here is not simply to get the pipeline built to get the ROI, but also to set a precedent on the tribe’s ability to determine usage of their lands. The company has said that it won’t re-route. Not that it can’t, but won’t. You are absolutely correct. The dogs, water cannons and rubber bullets used on peaceful protestors are shocking. For every action there is a reaction. One wonders how much more people can take.


  2. Yeah even if the tribe was consulted through the proper channels and whatnot it does look really bad when the line got re-routed from where all the white folks live, even if there were perfectly good reasons. And even if the protest is illegal and involves trespass my response is “so what?” Chill out and find a solution in the courts. It’s not like the pipeline will rust in the meantime! We can’t let corporate timelines determine the action. Let the people be heard and come up with a compromise. It can’t be that hard. If they keep up the conflict it will just be harder to get people to agree down the road.


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