The victory of Standing Rock protesters over the Dakota Access pipeline displays a microcosm of the social forces realigning themselves in the struggle against the rapacity of corporate America. The US Army Corps of Engineers finally denied permission for the section of the pipeline that would run under the Missouri river near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, saying there was “a need to explore alternate routes.”
The media has minimized the significance of the victory, like the Washington Post which editorialized that “these pipelines, at their core, are nothing more than routine infrastructure projects, thousands of which underpin the U.S. economy.” But like the blocking of the Keystone XL project, the protests have come to symbolize social resistance to corporate hegemony and have brought together many strands of struggle against state oppression.
The protesters had resisted not only the fossil fuel industry’s drive for the pipeline’s construction, but also the militarized local police and private security contractors who had unleashed attack dogs, water cannons (in subfreezing temperatures), rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas grenades in unsuccessful efforts to clear the “water protectors” off the land, resulting in the hospitalization of a number of people and the permanent maiming of Sophia Wilansky and Vanessa Dundon. Police use of military-grade equipment, including landmine-resistant trucks and armored personnel carriers, prompted Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II to appeal to the Justice Department to investigate civil rights abuses.
According to one eyewitness, “I watched as grandmothers with red feathers in their hair, Oglala elders in ceremonial regalia, and teens astride horses were teargassed, tased, and arrested. Cops fired rubber bullets at protesters and blasted them with earsplitting whines from Long Range Acoustic Devices. As the police marched down the highway, the crowd, echoing Black Lives Matter protesters, held their arms in the air and shouted, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’ ”
The optics of these attacks, recalling nineteenth-century slave patrols and military massacres of native peoples, galvanized a large contingent of US veterans to travel to North Dakota to defend the protesters against an expected intervention by the authorities on Monday December 5, the deadline set by the army corps for the protesters to vacate the site. They joined with representatives from over 200 native American nations, indigenous peoples from Norway to New Zealand, and environmental activists.
[UPDATE:] Wesley Clark Jr., the veterans’ contingent organizer, writes that upwards of 4,000 veterans arrived at Standing Rock to fight the pipeline, twice the number expected.
The announcement of the pipeline permit’s denial was a vindication of the nonviolent strategy advocated by tribal chairman Dave Archambault, who had used all his moral authority to prevent a confrontation between more militant native Americans and the police, insisting that the camp was a place of prayer. However, not all protesters believe that the path through official channels will result in their favor – citing years of bad experiences with the authorities.
The pipeline is being built to carry 470,000 barrels per day from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois. It was originally set to cross the Missouri ten miles north of the state’s capital, Bismarck, but local fears of water pollution led the construction company to move the path south to a point less than a mile from the Sioux reservation.
Some media accounts emphasize that the Army Corps’ decision could be overturned by president-elect Donald Trump after his inauguration on January 20. But this is not as certain as might be assumed from his general support for fossil fuels. In the first place, the economic justification for the pipeline is fast eroding. It was started when oil prices were high as $100 a barrel, and shale oil production in North Dakota was projected to expand considerably. However, oil prices are now down to $50 a barrel and producers are likely to use the opportunity to shed their financial commitments to the pipeline.
The Economist reports: “The developers are rushing to finish the construction of the controversial pipeline because they are under financial pressure, not because of a need for increased local pipeline capacity, argues Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute, an environmental-research institution. According to court documents oil drillers have the right to void their contracts with ETP if the pipeline is not finished by January 1st, which could result in steep losses for the developers. … Mr Williams-Derry argues that the pipeline is a superfluous project being built to preserve the favourable contract terms negotiated by its developers before the oil price tanked.”
Secondly, if Trump were to send in state forces to push through a pipeline in which he himself has a financial interest, overriding the legal process set in motion by the Army Corps, that would establish his administration from the get-go as so corrupt as to warrant his impeachment. And thirdly, this would set him up against the federal bureaucracy, and given that his appointments to office have been selected from the wildly incompetent to the spectacularly inexperienced, he needs its cooperation. He will find it difficult to reverse years of federal law by executive fiat.
As climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote in the Guardian: “Trump, of course, can try and figure out a way to approve the pipeline right away, though the Obama administration has done its best to make that difficult. (That’s why, instead of an outright denial, they simply refused to grant the permit, thus allowing for the start of the environmental impact statement process). But if Trump decides to do that, he’s up against people who have captured the imagination of the country. Simply spitting on them to aid his friends in the oil industry would clarify a lot about him from the start, which is one reason he may hesitate.”
The company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, now says it doesn’t need the permit from the Army Corps and they will continue to build, anticipating support from the future Trump administration. However, the lawyer representing the Standing Rock Sioux, Jan Hasselman, pledged continued court battles in that event. “If an agency decides that a full environmental review is necessary, it can’t just change its mind with a stroke of a pen a few weeks later. That would be violation of the law, and it’s the kind of thing that a court would be called upon to review. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.”
On Monday a hugely symbolic forgiveness ceremony connected the veterans with the Sioux nation. Wesley Clark Jr., son of the retired Army general, apologized to an assembly of tribal elders for actions of the US military against Native Americans, kneeling and begging forgiveness. “We took your land,” he said, “We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills.” While the veterans who joined him there had little interest in electoral politics, the reasons they gave for being there “demonstrate a commitment to fundamental American rights: to defend the Constitution, to protect innocent civilians, to protect water. They may have lost their faith in our politics, but their actions are still plenty patriotic,” commented Slate magazine.
Arthur Woodson, a Marine veteran from Flint, Michigan, told ABC News that he views the purpose of the growing veterans’ protest movement as being able to “stand up to the elites and the 1 percent.” The next destination for the group is going to be Flint, he said, where people still have to drink bottled water because of the high lead levels in the municipal system. “We don’t know when we are going to be there but we will be heading to Flint,” Wesley Clark Jr. said. “This problem is all over the country. It’s got to be more than veterans. People have been treated wrong in this country for a long time.” A surplus of bottled water that was donated to Standing Rock protesters could not be used, and will be rerouted to the Michigan city.
The multiracial alliance that has taken form at Standing Rock projects the future of resistance to right-wing corporate rule, uniting veterans with African, Latino and Native Americans. Trump is adept at seizing the headlines of the gullible media, but he is not going to win over Americans who remember his false promises and attacks on union officials. What is needed is clear opposition from leading Democrats to Republican efforts to dismantle Medicare and the remaining social safety net. They were notably missing from support for Standing Rock protesters, apart from Bernie Sanders and Hawaiian representative Tulsi Gabbard – although local Democratic party branches gave moral and material support – but nothing was heard from Hillary Clinton or even Elizabeth Warren, despite her claims to native heritage.
Opposition to the Trump agenda is going to come from within all layers of society, including the federal bureaucracy itself. Sanders’ supporters should get over their shock from the presidential election result, and make sure this opposition is expressed within the Democratic party as well as outside it, building multiracial alliances to defend the American public against the Trump administration’s expected onslaught on the $15 minimum wage, unions, civil rights, working class rights and environmental justice.