More than a million people around the U.S. have “checked in” via Facebook to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Cannon Ball, N.D. While this began as an attempt to confuse Morton County Sheriff’s Department officials thought to be digitally surveilling activists, the check-ins morphed into a collective gesture of solidarity. They are also a measure of how deeply the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fight over the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) resonates with the American public. A similar measure is apparent in how crowd-funding campaigns set up by activists have far outpaced their funding goals—one effort to raise $5,000 ended up generating more than $1 million. Americans who are unable to physically lend their support are eager to participate in some way in the struggle against the pipeline that one New York Times op-ed writer equates with the Keystone XL pipeline fight.
The DAPL conflict is symbolic of so many wrongs and is at the intersection of so many issues that it is no wonder it is shaping up to be the most important contemporary struggle in the U.S. It embodies, in particular, the historic mistreatment of Native Americans, as well as their ongoing efforts to preserve their sovereignty. It is also a matter of environmental racism, given that the pipeline is routed under the water source of a vulnerable minority. Short-term pollution from pipelines and other oil infrastructure, as well as the longer-term pollution of greenhouse gases that affect the climate, are also part of the DAPL story.
In the massive police response against protesters, we are seeing horrifying examples of police brutality and witnessing how state power protects private commercial interest and preserves corporate domination over people. This has engendered domestic solidarity from the Black Lives Matter movement, labor groups and others who consider it a common struggle, as well as international solidarity offered by oppressed communities, such as Palestinians. Many threads are coming together to weave a tapestry of struggle.
The fight to stop the DAPL is a perfect storm of issues, a convergence of ills that represents so much of what is wrong with American society that needs desperately to be fixed. A growing list of celebrities—including actors Shailene Woodley, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth, as well as musicians Neil Young and Dave Matthews—are lending their star power to the cause and turning their fans on to it.
The fact that our elected officials are so deafeningly silent on this crucial struggle is exactly why many Americans are disillusioned by our electoral system. GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has said nothing about the pipeline project, perhaps because he has numerous business interests tied to it. But Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who ought to be a natural ally to the “water protectors,” as they refer to themselves, had to be shamed into issuing a statement. Indigenous youths from various tribes occupied her campaign office in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently to demand she take a stand against the pipeline. When she issued a statement, it was a meaningless request that “all voices should be heard and all views considered.” Her campaign chairman, John Podesta, spouted similar nonsense in a recent interview, saying, “I think she believes that stakeholders need to get together at this point. … It’s important that all voices are heard.”
Similarly, President Obama, who seems to have very little to lose by stopping the project made a vague comment about it when he was questioned at an international arena in Laos. The Obama administration simply asked Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, to consider voluntarily halting its project. The company, obviously, did not comply. However the president did suggest in an interview this week that “the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline.”
The only high-profile elected official who has taken a courageous and moral position against the DAPL is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wrote an open letter to Obama, calling on him to “take a bold stand” against the project.
It’s not just most elected officials and candidates running for office who are silent. Mainstream corporate media outlets have only recently begun covering the protests at Standing Rock, although they began in April. In September, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting called out TV networks for their “blackout” of the story. Even with increased media coverage, there has been little focus from traditional media outlets on police brutality against water protectors and journalists and the extreme felony charges many of them are facing.
The fact that the fight over the DAPL is heating up only days before a highly anticipated general election feeds a feeling that there are two parallel universes, one in which a very real set of issues are playing out, and the other dominated by an obsession with poll numbers and email scandals.
But the activists in North Dakota are on the right side of history. Their concerns about short-term pollution were emphasized in two recent, high-profile pipeline accidents: In Pennsylvania, a ruptured pipeline spilled 55,000 gallons of oil into the Susquehanna River when there was flooding from rain; and a gas pipeline in Alabama exploded, killing one worker and injuring five others. It is not a matter of “if” but rather “when” pipelines spill or burst.
In the same year the historic Paris climate accord is going into effect, it will be the water protectors in North Dakota who are taking actions consistent with climate justice, not the heads of state who signed the agreement.
The fight of the year in 2016 is not Trump vs. Clinton. It is Energy Transfer Partners vs. the Standing Rock Sioux. By extension, it is colonial power vs. the indigenous; corporate and state power vs. human beings; and profits vs. people and the planet.