Some of my friends and readers know I took a fairly impulsive trip to North Dakota last November, leaving the day after the election. While I am a progressive and proud of the values for which I stand, like many others after this election I’m finding myself, perhaps out of necessity, learning as I go how to be an activist. I wrote this account of my trip to Standing Rock as it happened and filled in a few blanks in the past couple of months, trying to relate my own struggle as honestly as possible. During this time I’ve wondered how (or if) I might share this struggle, but have decided finally to just post it here. I perhaps don’t look so great at times, but again, I’m learning as I go. As the Corps of Engineers closes the Oceti Sakowin camp today with possible raids by the morally bankrupt Morton County PD and leadership discusses how to build on the movement, I’m also sharing some of my photos for the first time.
On October 28, I posted this hectoring message to Facebook:
"Every person cheering the Bundy verdict in Oregon needs to now direct your energy to defending the protesters at Standing Rock. If you are truly for defending land rights against an oppressive federal government and big business, THIS IS YOUR FIGHT."
It was an impulsive post, wrought mostly by frustration at what I saw as an obvious incongruence on the American right. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was originally planned to run through Bismarck, but after the city confirmed the substantial risk of water contamination the pipeline presented, the company moved the path of the pipeline through the Standing Rock Reservation to its south. This is a move straight out of power broker Robert Moses’ playbook, cutting through the land with a meat cleaver and finding the path of least economic resistance to hack away. Like Moses, Energy Transfer Partners obviously consider themselves above the law, simply ignoring court orders and paying the fines, illustrating what Robert Monks found in 1933, channeling Baron Thurlow in the late Eighteenth Century, to be the cardinal error of corporate personhood: “They have no soul to save, and they have no body to incarcerate.”
I didn’t expect much of a response. In fact I got only one, from my childhood friend and bodyguard Bill. We became close in the fifth grade after I started paying him half my lunch money to keep me from getting beat up by all the boys and some of the girls in our lower-lower income school district in Kansas. He’s been in and out of prison since high school, and now resembles Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty in both look and temperament. An ardent Trump supporter, he’s gone round and round with me for the past year, our lifelong bond mostly preventing us from stereotyping each other—he the misanthropic ex-con Trump supporter, and I the college professor liberal scum Bernie-then-Clinton supporter. I was surprised, then, to see his response: “I have been from day one! This is just crazy! This is complete disregard for anything but the dollar!” I then defensively challenged him: You go, and I’ll go.
A week later, we hatched plans to road-trip to Standing Rock, in solidarity with the Dakota and Lakota tribes to help defend their water against the Army Corps of Engineers’ and state and local police’s collusion with the corporate interests behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. We both agreed to risk arrest. I would document the trip as we went, and we would leave the morning after the election.
I mentioned the trip to my friend David, a mostly-retired colleague with an extensive knowledge in indigenous history, and he asked if he could come. Sure, I said, thinking he could moderate Bill and me. I figured Bill would be in a sour mood after what was assuredly a Clinton victory.
I’ll spare my readers the next plot point, except to say that I was operating on less than two hours’ sleep, having had the shakes all night as I sat in front of the TV, then on social media, then curled up in bed. I’d talked to my sister about whether I’d allow my mother and stepfather, who voted for Trump, to mention him to our children. I wrote H.L. Mencken quotes like “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard” on my Facebook wall and watched Bill gloat on social media. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that he viewed this election a lot like he views football games—if you win the fight, if your team wins, you talk trash. That might be what he empathizes with most in Trump.
As I was getting a coffee the morning after the election before setting out from my South Slope apartment, I ran into the mother of my four-year-old daughter’s friend. Neither of us had slept. Her eyes were red, and she gazed at me looking for a sign of welcome, then broke down silently sobbing.
“How can this happen?” she said. “How can a rich, white, arrogant man say anything he wants to anyone, and we make him President?”
I had no answer.
“Last night we made signs,” she said. “This morning, when I told him…It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Bill would undoubtedly think this was all way too dramatic, the world didn’t end or anything. I guess he would be right.
As I headed out of New York with David, I found myself grasping for direction. David had worked the ballot box all of the previous day, and he wore a stoicism that had me wondering when it would actually hit him.
As we headed toward the Holland Tunnel, I got a text from Kansas:
"Hey John, this is Kim, Bill’s wife. I just got a call that Bill is headed to Southeast Kansas to his elderly aunt’s house to help her. Her house was broken into and vandalized early this morning so he won’t be able to go with you to Standing Rock."
A few days later Bill would tell me it was “due to Trump haters breaking into an elderly family members house and garage.” At that moment, the reaction I was ashamed to admit out loud was, Wow. Lost the election and my story.
I spent some of the ride contextualizing Trump’s victory with the Standing Rock movement. Trump is deeply and mutually invested in the construction of the pipeline the Sioux are protesting, so deeply in fact that Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, has guaranteed that the DAPL will go through once Trump is in office. Trump also has expressed interest in his campaign to abolish the EPA, and has now, since my return from Standing Rock, taken definite steps to defang the agency by appointing climate contrarian Myron Ebell to direct its transition [and now fossil fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to lead it]. In short, Trump is no friend to the water protectors at Standing Rock.
About six hours into the 30-hour trip, I began communicating with protesters who were already at the camp on Facebook groups. A person who told me about a police blockade on the north side of the main camp friended me on Facebook for approximately ten minutes, responding to three of my post-election threads before messaging me, “you are too much for me im an empath and extremely sensitive I have to unfriend you…guidance.” An indigenous trans asked for a ride from Chicago, offering even to “just hold space and pray together before you continue your travels.” It was actually very sweet, but David refused to stop at 2:00am to pray with a transsexual hitchhiker off the highway in Chicago.
We both lost cell service close to Bismarck, left with an AM radio diet of plummeting crop prices, reports on the Carfentanil epidemic in Winnipeg, Rush Limbaugh demanding that Obama bow down to president-elect Trump, and George Jones (Thank you for the respite, Country 1130). Driving to camp from Bismarck on Highway 6, we saw the pipeline snaking through the dead grass in a giant brown ditch over the horizon. Its imposition on the landscape can only be described as brutal, violent. I then understood why so many water protectors had dubbed it the Black Snake. It was perhaps the most haunting image of the trip.