May 19, 2024

Getting the Story from Standing Rock

I think it was in August when I read something online saying “Did you know that the largest Native American demonstration in history is going on right now, and no one is reporting on it?” So I read on to find out about the Dakota Access Pipe Line. At that time, I think someone shared it in my usual atheist feeds as some group of “prayer warriors” trying to defend supposedly sacred lands against further exploitation by Big Business. I could have stopped there and scoffed at the futility of all of that, but I immediately saw this as a much bigger and more important conflict than anyone had yet recognized in writing.

This wasn’t a band of religious traditionalists standing in the way of progress. This was a 3.8 BILLION dollar project. It’s going to go through and nobody’s prayers are going to stop that. It didn’t matter that there were thousands of people representing hundreds of tribes literally standing in opposition. Worse, this pipeline is being funded by the entire list of corporations said to be the oligarchy which now controls the United States, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and several other financial institutions. Trump has a million dollars of his own money in this too. So even though the Army Corps or Engineers have since ordered that construction be suspended, it’s not stopping. Even though the United Nations’ investigation determined that the pipeline is unsafe and that construction should be halted, it’s still going. No one can stop this, not even our beloved president; not because he’s a lame duck, and not because an executive order wouldn’t work, but because these corporations own and control him too.

I realized at once that this isn’t about anything that is supposedly sacred. To me, it’s not about the water either, though the “water protectors” do have legitimate concerns about that. It’s not even about environmentalism and how urgently America needs to abandon fossil fuels, though that is yet another legitimate complaint here. This was much bigger than any of those things: because if this story got out, it would be the moment when Americans would see that a corporatocracy really does exist: that it is gonna do whatever it wants, and that it no longer matters what We The People have to say about that. Because we are no longer a Democratic Republic. A couple of Ivy League studies had already announced that earlier this year. But this is the clearest illustration of that fact. I thought that what was happening at Standing Rock might be the spark of an actual revolution: not the type of peaceful progressive political revolution that Bernie wanted, but a real one, a revolution in the more traditional sense.

I host the Ra-Men podcast, who’s motto is that anyone can complain and everyone does. Anyone can shoot down or ridicule any attempted solution to any problem, but I want to talk to the people who are not only finding solutions but enacting them: who are taking action and actually doing something to fix things and make it better. That is what what the Sioux are doing, and their story needed to get out. By that time, there were few people who were even aware that this was really even happening. That’s how little press it was given. In fact the Morton County Sheriffs Department had reportedly arrested over a hundred journalists, trying to keep a lid on this. So right away I tried to contact someone associated with this stand-off -to see if I could get their story out in my own way.

I found some contacts with the Cheyenne River Reservation pretty quickly, but try as I might, I could not arrange to have any number of people join me in a Google Hangout. I was told that living on a reservation is like living in a third world country. Most of the people didn’t seem to have computers either. The few people willing to talk to me seemed limited only to their phones. At one point, I thought I could get a couple different people together in one place for a podcast, but it seemed that not that many people had a reliable internet connection. That seemed impossible to me, but I was told that “things are different on the Res”. They were certainly different at the Standing Rock camp itself -where there usually isn’t any signal at all.

No one wanted to talk to an atheist activist either. What would I care about sacred land? What would I say about their solidarity in prayer? That would be a fair point, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about, nor why I wanted to talk to them. I spoke with a few different people but could not get anyone to agree to a podcast. They wanted mainstream media. But it seems that CNN did NOT want to talk about anyone opposed to anything financed by Goldman Sachs. So that wasn’t going to happen. Finally I was told that if I want to interview anybody up there, I would have to go there myself.

My wife and I were keen to do just that, but there was another delay. I had already scheduled a 7,000 mile road-trip book-tour of 18 cities in seven states over five weeks. Once I got back from that, Democracy Now had finally broken the story, and The Young Turks and Redacted Tonight were talking about it too. I even found some slightly-spun mentions of it on one or two mainstream sources. Isn’t it odd that Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and the entire cast of the Justice League, (the actors portraying Bat Man, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman) had all been to Standing Rock and yet we still weren’t seeing much press? By the way, Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk -showed up to donate solar panel trailers to provide these people some power. That was helpful! I take that as evidence that Marvel is better than DC.

Myself, Anas Siddique, and Tracy Savage at Standing Rock

Even before I returned from my book tour, we had already arranged another 3,000 mile road trip. Tracy Savage, co-founder of The Secular Latino Alliance flew in from San Diego and we drove from Dallas to Omaha Nebraska. There we picked up Anas Siddique, a student of Journalism who had flown in from Toronto. He brought professional cameras with him. Savage actually knew several of the people involved with Standing Rock. Without her, no one would have spoken to me or Siddique.

Along the way we heard news that there was some military involvement now, and that the police had raided one of the camps. Children were reportedly being evacuated from one area because of rubber bullets in the air and snipers on the hill. One 16 year-old was shot in the lung and had to endure a very long ride to the nearest hospital, some thirty or so miles away in Bismark. People were forcibly removed from teepees which were then damaged, and this was just another day of escalating brutality against peaceful assembly.

It took another whole day to drive from Omaha Nebraska to Eagle Butte South Dakota where we met our contacts in a room suitable for recording. But there were other problems. I was just recovering from a week-long run of laryngitis, and my beloved Canon Vixia HF M31 was crapping out on me. Used to be, I could record four hours straight from its hard drive. But now it was limited to the thirty minute capacity of its SD card. Both of Siddique’s cameras were limited to SD cards too. He had to keep resetting them every half hour or so.

I’m sure people will complain about the dim lighting. We couldn’t fit extra lights into the car or on the plane. Somehow the data from one of the cameras was subsequently lost altogether. So we have only mine and Nas’ main one, and mine didn’t have a spare card. I had ordered another Canon Vixia, (an HF G20) but it hadn’t arrived in time for the trip. So we did what we could with what we had.

Tracy arranged for us to meet with her friend, Terri Hulm, who was connected to everyone and everything going on at Standing Rock: same with Jim Barbosa, a Cheyenne River tribal leader. We were fortunate to be joined by Cody Hall. He is one of the most central characters in this stand-off. He also personally escorted Green Party presidential candidate, Jill Stein, and journalist Amy Goodman from Democracy Now, all of whom subsequently had warrants issued for their arrest.


After this interview, we drove several more hours to a hotel in Bismark, North Dakota. There we re-charged. Just a few hours later, we headed out to the main camp of Oceti Sakowin. This was November 3rd. There were unexpected road blocks, occupied both by state police and some branch of US military. We were forced to take a detour through a barely perceptible goat-trail of a road through twenty some-odd miles of dusty nuthin’. I was surprised at one point to see nine semi trucks coming the other way. Big rigs on an unpaved goat trail? Of course they were all carrying pipe. They were supposed to have stopped working, having no valid permits at that time. But of course, they’re gonna do what they want to anyway, right?

We crossed the pipeline route three or four times before we found ourselves on a normal road again. We came to another police blockade, but this one was letting people through. I guess there was no way they could legally stop everyone by that point.

Remember that the reason we were there was to get the story out. But on that particular day, there was a ban against all new journalists. I don’t know why. That never made sense, and I know that some of the organizers were outraged over that. Savage and Saddique said they were going to try to get clearance to interview people anyway. I had originally intended to go to the front and “stand with” Standing Rock literally. But the only “action” happening on that day was one reserved for clergy, and I would not qualify even with an ordination from the Church of the SubGenius. So expecting that there would be another organized action later on, I took a class in how to get arrested.

We were instructed in how to be difficult to push-back or to separate or to carry: that if it takes two cops to drag one person away, that’s better than walking with one and making it easy for them. We were cautioned that we should have eye protection since they were using tear gas now, and ear plugs because they were also using sound canons. One of the camps was cleared using concussion grenades too. We had no provision against that. I was also warned not to go to the front with my wallet or any personal items, as I would not get them back if I were arrested. No one was getting IDs or personal items returned. Some people were simply stripped naked, sometimes kept naked, and sometimes released wearing jail clothes because they didn’t have any of their own stuff anymore. So leave your wallet and all that with someone who’s not on the front line.

I had already heard about the trucks spreading some sort of liquid in the grass nearby, where a fire just happened to erupt the next day. But the wind carried it the wrong way, so that an airplane had to come by and put it out. And of course we’ve all heard of the illegal security company using attack dogs on crowds that included children and elderly. While I was there, all I saw was one aircraft circling continuously hour after hour over head.

This was one of the most important things going on our part of the world today, and I’m glad to have been there. But sadly none of us could stay. We’d gotten the interview we came for, and we had to go.

That night we learned that a hundred or so collective clergymen of different religious denominations had been bussed to the capital to plead their case with the governor -only to be arrested. They put the capital building on a security lock-down. They want so much to pretend that this is a riot.

The next day we got the news that helicopters with spotlights kept lighting up the camp all night long to keep everyone awake. Then we heard that cops were stopping cars, not to take their camera and such -which they had often done before. But now they were taking people’s groceries too. So you can stay as long as you like, but you can’t bring in any food? Now what were people to do?

I understand that this pipeline is NOT safe. That we’ve had hundreds of expensive and dangerous leaks in various pipelines recently, and several of them currently. This pipeline must not go through. More than that, we HAVE to get away from fossil fuels -especially from fracking, which is the source of this oil. And it’s not even for the US. It’s to be used in China. Everything is wrong with this situation, and it must be stopped.

While we were still on the road back home, we heard that the Army Corps of Engineers demanded again that construction halt for at least six weeks; that a legal team was being assembled to fight for the water protectors in court, and that Erin Brockovich was among them. That seems appropriate as exposing polluted water was how she got famous. Then Barack Obama said that the pipeline should be re-routed. So did Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. So it looked like there was finally a ray of hope.

But of course construction continued regardless, and then Trump won the election. Now what the fuck do we do? Since then, one woman had her arm blown apart by a police grenade and another was blinded by a rubber bullet. Dozens have been drenched by a water cannon at temperatures well below freezing, and then someone reported crop dusters started dropping unknown chemicals on the campsite at night. The only good news was that hundreds of veteran service men would soon arrive as much-needed reinforcements against the corporation state. But now the  Army Corps of Enginners says they’re closing the camp and evicting the Sioux -from their own land, which was never ceded.

I couldn’t guess what will happen next, but I guessed one thing right in the very beginning. This stand-off is a powder-keg situation, and it has already exposed -to the whole world just how corrupt our government, the corporate oligarchy of these now deeply-divided states has become.

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