The Oceti Sakowin camp, near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, in November 2016.
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The encampments by Native Americans at Standing Rock, N.D., from April 2016 to February 2017 to block construction of the Dakota Access pipeline provided the template for future resistance movements. The action was nonviolent. It was sustained. It was highly organized. It was grounded in spiritual, intellectual and communal traditions. And it lit the conscience of the nation.
Native American communities -- more than 200 were represented at the Standing Rock encampments, which at times contained up to 10,000 people -- called themselves "water protectors." Day after day, week after week, month after month, the demonstrators endured assaults carried out with armored personnel carriers, rubber bullets, stun guns, tear gas, cannons that shot water laced with chemicals, and sound cannons that can cause permanent hearing loss. Drones hovered overhead. Attack dogs were unleashed on the crowds. Hundreds were arrested, roughed up and held in dank, overcrowded cells. Many were charged with felonies. The press, or at least the press that attempted to report honestly, was harassed and censored, and often reporters were detained or arrested. And mixed in with the water protectors was a small army of infiltrators, spies and agents provocateurs, who often initiated vandalism and rock throwing at law enforcement and singled out anti-pipeline leaders for arrest.
The Democratic administration of Barack Obama did not oppose the pipeline until after the election of Donald Trump, who approved the project in January 2017 soon after he became president. The water protectors failed in their ultimate aim to stop the construction, but if one looks at their stand as a single battle in a long war, Standing Rock was vitally important because it showed us how to resist.
In November of last year I spoke with Kandi Mossett, one of the water protector leaders, when I visited the North Dakota encampments. We were standing over one of the sacred fires.
"He starts throwing rocks at police," she said of an infiltrator who shadowed her and pointed her out to law enforcement for arrest. "When he throws rocks I see a few other people throw water bottles. One of our women says, 'Stop throwing sh*t!' So people stop. But there's instigators and infiltrators. We've had, here at this fire, two women who were called bikers because of the way they were dressed. When they lifted up their hands with everybody, people saw they had wires on. [Water protector] security went to them. They said, 'We see that you're miked.' They took off running. Went over the fence. And a car came zooming, picked them up, and they took off. It's not easy to keep [infiltrators] out. They can roll under the fence. They can come from under the security gates. We know they're here."
The corporate state, no longer able to peddle a credible ideology, is becoming more overtly totalitarian. It will increasingly silence dissidents out of fear that the truth they speak will spark a contagion. It will, as in China's system of totalitarian capitalism, use the tools of censorship, blacklisting, infiltration, blackmailing, bribery, public defamation, prison sentences on trumped-up charges and violence. The more discredited the state becomes, the more it will communicate in the language of force.
"This world is heading towards economic systems that continue to eat up life itself, even the heart of workers, and it's not sustainable," Native American and environmental leader Tom B.K. Goldtooth told me when we spoke at one of the camps last year. "We're at that point where Mother Earth is crying out for a revolution. Mother Earth is crying out for a new direction."
"As far as a new regime, we'll need something based on earth jurisprudence," he said. "A new system away from property rights, away from privatization, away from financialization of nature, away from control over our ... DNA, away from control over seeds, away from corporations. It's a common law with local sovereignty. That's why it's important we have a system that recognizes the rights of a healthy and clean water system, ecosystem. Mother Earth has rights. We need a system that will recognize that. Mother Earth is not an object. We have an economic system that treats Mother Earth as if she's a liquidation issue. We have to change that. That's not sustainable."
"If the pipeline is built, is that a defeat?" I asked him. He replied wryly, "That oil is going to run dry a lot sooner than they think. Maybe that corporation is going to go bankrupt. Who knows?"
"I talk about the need for young people to have patience, to put the prayer first, rather than just jumping out there and putting their energy into action," he said. Angry reaction is "what the corporations want. That's what the government wants. They want us to react. They want us to feel that anger. When the anger escalates, our feelings, frustrations, it goes back to that rage. The rage of the machines. It's also unhappy. It feeds off the unhappiness of people."
George Lakey, the Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change emeritus at Swarthmore College and a sociologist who focuses on nonviolent social change, talked about Sweden and Norway's response in the 1920 and '30s to the rise of fascism and compared it with the response in Italy and Germany. We live in a historical moment similar to when fascism was ascendant between the two world wars, he argues. Lakey was a trainer during the civil rights movement for Mississippi Freedom Summer and co-authored "A Manual for Direct Action: Strategy and Tactics for Civil Rights and All Other Nonviolent Protest Movements," one of the seminal texts of the civil rights movement.
"Fascism was a definite threat," he said of the situation faced by Sweden and Norway. "And they were also experiencing [economic] depression. Norway's degree of depression was even worse than Germany's. It was the worst in Europe. The highest unemployment in Europe. People were literally starving. The pressure, the pro-fascist setup that the depression brings, was very present both in Sweden and in Norway. What the Nazis did there -- what they did in Germany and what the fascists did in Italy -- was provocation, provocation, provocation. 'Bait the left. The left will come. And we'll have street fighting.'"
Street violence, he said in echoing Native American elders, always "strengthens the state."
"It puts more pressure on the state -- which is presided over by the 1 percent -- to step in more and more forcefully, with the middle class saying, 'We care about order. We don't want chaos,'" he said. "That's what happened in Germany. It was a strengthening of the state. This happened in Italy as well. That's what the game plan was for fascists in Norway and Sweden. It didn't work. It didn't work because the left didn't play their game. They didn't allow themselves to be baited into paying attention to them, doing street fighting."