Nick Estes and Ragina Johnson interviewed by Khury Petersen-Smith, Socialist Worker, January 25, 2018
One of Donald Trump's first acts as president was to sign executive orders to push through construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and Keystone XL Pipeline. Both projects were flashpoints of Indigenous resistance, especially DAPL, which sparked a rebellion at Standing Rock that galvanized months of protest and political action around the country.
Last week, on February 22, 2017, water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin camp, the primary camp of Standing Rock, were evicted by the Army Corps of Engineers in a military style takeover. A peaceful resistance that began with a sacred fire lit on April 1, 2016, ended in a blaze as some of the protectors, in a final act of defiance, set some of the camp’s structures on fire.
The millions of people around the world who have stood in solidarity and empathy with Standing Rock now stand in disbelief and grief, but the forced closure of the encampment is simply the latest chapter in a violent, 500-year-old history of colonization against the First Nations. It is also the latest chapter in the battle between an extractive capitalist model and the possibility of a post-capitalist world.
Of course, the ongoing struggle will not go down in the flames at Oceti Sakowin. We should take this opportunity to remember the enduring lessons of this movement, and prepare ourselves for what is to come next.
Three nights ago, 19.37 million television viewers watched the opening game of North American professional baseball’s so-called World Series pitting the Chicago Cubs against the Cleveland Indians (the latter team won 6-0). I made it through the second inning before I had to switch to radio out of disgust at the Indians’ jersey and ball-cap team logo – a wild grinning Native American caricature best understood as a modern-day Red Sambo. It’s bad enough that the Cleveland team retains (well into the 21st century) the name “the Indians.” First Nations people (the Canadian term) in the United States are more properly called Native or Indigenous Americans – not a name imposed on them by white conquerors who mistakenly thought they’d “discovered” “the Indes.”
But the logo is really beyond the pale. Imagine a team called “The Baltimore Blacks” or “The New Jersey Negroes,” with a ball-cap showing a racist caricature of a “Black Sambo.” Or imagine a German football (soccer) team named the “Buchenwald Semites” – or an Austrian team named the “Vienna Hebrews” – with a jersey bearing the crudely exaggerated caricature image of an old stereotypically hook-nosed Jewish man. That would be unthinkable in Holocaust-haunted Germany, of course.
Native Americans suffered their own Holocaust on the lands that were swallowed up as the United States. By some estimates more than 15 million First Nations people inhabited North America (most of them on land later seized as U.S. territory) before Columbus. Thanks to white-imposed disease, displacement, eco-cide, and murder, the number of “Indians” alive in the United States fell to less than 250,000 by 1890. But team names bearing images and/or names of Indigenous people who experienced genocide – the Washington Redskins (yes, “redskins,” which the Black comic Chris Rock once analogized to naming a team “The New York Niggers”), the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Blackhawks (named after a famous Sauk Nation warrior whose tribe members were butchered en masse by Andrew Jackson’s U.S. Army), the Kansas City Chiefs, the Fighting Illini, the Florida State Seminoles, etc. – live on with impunity in the U.S.
Meanwhile, up in the northern Great Plains, predominantly white and heavily militarized local and state police are attacking the civil rights and bodies of Indigenous people fighting heroically to help humanity (including the mostly white folks watching the World Series) avert environmental catastrophe. The remarkable prayer, protest, and resistance camp set up by North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux tribe is dedicated to blocking Energy Transfer Partner’s eco-cidal Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The pipeline is a “giant black snake” being laid to carry 470,000 barrels of hydraulically fractured (fracked) crude oil daily from the North Dakota Bakken oil field under and near the Missouri River (under twice), the Mississippi (under once), and numerous other streams, lakes, rivers, and aquifers.
Note: The new, updated 2016 edition of Jeremy Brecher’s Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, from which the following is drawn, can be now be downloaded for free at the author's website here.)
The Lilliputian defenders of the earth’s climate have been winning some unlikely battles lately. The Standing Rock Sioux, supported by nearly two hundred Native American tribes and a lot of other people around the globe, have put a halt, at least for now, to completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that threatens their sacred burial sites and the water supply for 17 million people—not to mention the world’s climate. Before that a seven-year struggle terminated the Keystone XL pipeline. Other fossil fuel extraction, transport, and burning facilities have been halted by actions around the world.
But as Bill McKibben has said, "Fighting one pipeline at a time, the industry will eventually prevail." Is there a plausible strategy for escalating today’s campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure to create an effective challenge to the escalating climate threat? How can we get the power we need to counter climate catastrophe? My book Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (download) grapples with that question and proposes a possible strategy: a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency. Now that strategy is being tried – and may even be overcoming some of the obstacles that have foiled climate protection heretofore.
This article first appeared in New Labor Forum. It has been updated to reflect the rising level of union opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labor federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.
In a recent video interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them…no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”[i] Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that a growing number of unions have opposed the DAPL, among them the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU); SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. Union locals (branches or chapters) have also opposed the DAPL, among them, GEU UAW Local 6950 and Steelworkers Local 8751.
These unions have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents well established AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, APALA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”[ii]
The “Dakota Access” Pipeline (DAPL) is a $3.8 billion, 1,100 mile fracked-oil pipeline that is currently under construction running from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota to Peoria, Illinois. DAPL is slated to cross Lakota Treaty Territory at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where it would be laid underneath the Missouri River, the longest river on the continent.
Construction of the DAPL would impact many sites that are sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux and numerous other indigenous nations. DAPL would also, engender a renewed fracking-frenzy in the Bakken shale region, as well as endanger a source of fresh water for the Standing Rock Sioux and 8 million people living downstream.
For the past six months, at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, history has been made at one of the largest international gatherings of indigenous people in recent history. Representatives from well over 100 indigenous nations and thousands of people have camped, prayed, and taken action in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on and near the tribe’s sovereign land in North Dakota.
“There is a time,” Mario Savio famously said just more than half a century ago, “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
That’s easier said than done, but you’ve got to make a start.