The light from Standing Rock: beautiful struggle shows the power of protest

It is not a final victory, and there is much to fear from pipeline investor Donald Trump, but much will come of this gathering and its vision, tactics and power.

o one saw it coming. But on a Sunday, word came that the US Army Corps of Engineers was withdrawing permission to build the Dakota Access pipeline under the Missouri river, just above the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

What do you do with a victory? Many on social media cautioned that this was not the Santa-is-real everything-is-OK-forever victory and we should not celebrate. If we waited for that kind of victory, we’d never celebrate. But the people most involved seemed to realize that this is not necessarily the end of the road, but a really great milestone.

It is not a final victory, and if pipeline investor Donald Trump is inaugurated according to plan on 20 January, he’ll surely do his best to make sure that this and every other pipeline is built. But it might be a really big victory, and mid-January might be too late to salvage some of what the frenzied pipeline builders were hoping for as they raced toward their deadlines.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis notes in a study issued last month: “The broader economic context for the project has changed radically since Energy Transfer Partners first proposed it, in 2014. Global oil prices began to collapse just a few months after shippers committed to using DAPL, and market forecasters do not expect prices to regain 2014 levels for at least a decade. As a result, production in the Bakken Shale oil field has fallen for nearly two consecutive years…” The profit in the pipeline was to come from shippers who were locked into 2014 prices if the project was completed by 1 January.

Which this gift from the US Army Corps makes quite unlikely. The report concludes: “If production continues to fall, DAPL could well become a stranded asset – one that was rushed to completion largely to protect favorable contract terms negotiated in 2014.” That’s really nice news (if you’re not an investor).

There’s a lot to learn from the beautiful struggle at Standing Rock, though everyone will draw their own conclusions. Mine include the importance of knowing that we don’t know what will happen next and have to live on principles, hunches and lessons from history. False omniscience is a habit that makes people as politically destructive as they are personally annoying, and plenty of people made pronouncements about what was going to happen and what would never happen at Standing Rock that turned out to be wrong.

Another is standing up for what you believe in, even when victory seems remote to impossible. Sunday was the pipeline victory. Monday was the 61st anniversary of the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. What did those black Americans living under Jim Crow hope for? Surely more than integrating the public transit system. They could hardly have expected that they would help launch a movement that not only changed the nation and led to national legislation, but offered a toolbox of nonviolent strategies and visions to the world, used in South Africa and Egypt, in Czechoslovakia and the Philippines. They bet that the future would be different than the past and did everything to make it so. This is a moment when the civil rights movement’s victories seem to be in jeopardy – but that is all the more reason to remember that they were victories, and they were achieved in blood and pain and dedication when victory was far from sight.

And that’s another thing that matters. Consequences are often indirect. The movement at Standing Rock may yet stop a pipeline. Whether it does or not, it has brought together perhaps the greatest single gathering of native North Americans (from Canada as well as the United States) ever, and that has been a profound and moving watershed for the affirmation of cultural identities and political rights. It has demonstrated yet again that the environmental movement and human rights campaigns are often inseparable, reminded us that worldwide, indigenous people are in the forefront of the climate movement. Many things we cannot foresee may come of this gathering and its vision, tactics and power.

In this moment of rightwing and white supremacist triumphalism, we are hearing a lot about hate crimes: beatings, insults, swastikas, threats and the rest. But also rising into view is another America: the people who stand up for racial justice, for the vulnerable, for women and LGBT people, for science, for nature and for democracy. Standing Rock prefigured and modeled those possibilities and was radiant with this beauty.

I went to Standing Rock in early September, when the weather was delightful and the landscape green. The people who persevered into this brutal winter were heroic, enduring harsh conditions and risking bodily safety for the wellbeing of the river, the tribal rights and their principles.

Standing Rock reminds us, finally, that we are very powerful when we come together to defend our ideals, sometimes only in indirect ways – modeling the possibilities, providing hope and moral reinforcement for what comes later or elsewhere. Sometimes in direct ways, when we remake history. Five centuries into the dispossession and dehumanization of native North Americans, this moment when 2,000 veterans of the US military came to stand with them, when they won something big, when the world’s eyes were turned to one of those places where crimes and depredations are too often invisible: it mattered. And on Sunday the people there and those protesting in banks, writing letters, sending donations, organizing marches around the country won something worth celebrating. We are facing a lot of trouble on all fronts. Standing Rock reminds us to come together and stand up to it.


December 6, 2016