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Still Fighting at Standing Rock

Natasha Lennard, Esquire, Sep 26 2017 - 11:45

Rattler sat on the sofa scrolling through his phone. It was a drizzling, cold spring day in Bismarck, North Dakota, but he wasn’t going outside much anyway. A great mountain of a man with thick black hair to his waist and a disarming gentleness, Rattler made the objects around him look small. The sofa on which he sat, the phone he held, the homey living room where we met, the whole city of Bismarck seemed too small for Rattler. But his bail conditions and an ankle monitor confined him to the area for over half a year as he awaits trial.

He put the phone down. "I was looking for a quote," he said, "about how the people have the right to overthrow the government if it abuses its power. Who said that?"

Sandra Freeman, Rattler’s attorney, sat with him on the sofa. She ventured that the line he was seeking might be from the Declaration of Independence. Rattler didn’t return to his phone to check. If he had, he may have noticed that Jefferson’s founding document, that vaunted proclamation of America and its values, described the land’s native peoples, his ancestors, as “merciless Indian savages.”

Rattler, 45, legal name Michael Markus, is one of six native activists facing near-unprecedented federal charges related to the Standing Rock protest camps against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The federal cases sit alongside hundreds and hundreds brought by state prosecutors, stemming from vast numbers of arrests made over the six months that the camps stood—a protest which at its height drew up to 15,000 participants from around the world and, for a short time, the dilettantish gaze of the mainstream media. The authorities razed the last major holdouts of the camps on February 23, by which point numbers had already dwindled as blizzard conditions pummeled the prairie lands. The camera crews packed up and most of the country went back to focusing on Trump.

But for Rattler, his federal co-defendants, the many hundreds of arrestees facing state charges, and their lawyers, the fight on the ground in North Dakota is far from over. They face a terrain as brutal and unforgiving as any winter on the Standing Rock reservation: a small-town court system in conservative rural counties with no experience of anything nearing this scale or political valence.

The fate of the DAPL standoff does not only reside in judicial decisions about the flow of oil. Those who stood on the frontlines for clean water, for indigenous struggle, for their ancestors and for our future, are being brought to alleged justice in an area where the very possibility of an impartial jury is in serious doubt. North Dakota prosecutor Ladd Erickson told me over the phone that prior to the Standing Rock cases, the only mass arrest incidents that these local counties had dealt with involved breaking up graduation parties of drunk high-schoolers. And while thousands flocked to the protest camps, only a few dozen lawyers and supporters remain and return to continue the arduous and overwhelming task of defending these cases in an area where towns consist of interconnected parking lots, strip mall restaurants and boxy houses, surrounded by unending sightlines of rolling grassland. At the time of writing, 140 defendants still don’t even have legal representation, according to figures from the WPLC.

“The reality is that the frontlines are in the courthouse now,” said Freeman, a former public defender who moved from Colorado to live in North Dakota full-time to fight the DAPL arrest cases. She is one among a small cadre of lawyers and legal support workers who have put their normal lives on hold in order to seek justice for water protectors facing trial in the conservative, rural midwest. “The celebration and camaraderie of the camp—that’s gone,” she said, “but we’re left to stand with people going into the gauntlet, facing incarceration for being who they are.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline is now fully built, following President Donald Trump's January order to expedite its completion, which reversed President Obama’s block on the project. In June, crude oil began pumping from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation to Illinois, under the Mississippi river and through sacred Lakota land and burial sites. There has already been one spill, albeit small. A major spill would contaminate the main water source of the Standing Rock Sioux and 17 million people who live downstream. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for approving the pipeline’s route and completion, had not adequately considered the impacts of a spill into the Missouri River. The decision is a partial victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but too little too late and oil is still flowing through the DAPL. Since February, anti-pipeline activists have taken their fight from North Dakota to new camps across the U.S., against pipeline construction and fracking operations in Nebraska, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

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