“I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for and he fought for them once. For the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor.”
— Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” 1939.
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If ever there was a “lost cause” in modern American society, it had to be the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline, a $3.8 billion project to ship fracked oil from North Dakota across the U.S. heartland to lucrative markets.
The battle pitted some of the world’s richest oil companies and their powerful political allies against what started as a small band of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, soon to be joined by other indigenous tribes, environmental activists from all over the country, even military veterans.
The Native Americans and their allies had some powerful moral arguments: First Nation peoples had been given little or no input, the pipeline cut through land that tribal citizens believe is sacred, and local residents could not abide the risk of a potential leak as the oil crossed the Missouri River, their sole source of clean drinking water.
In the hardened world of political punditry, the odds of stopping the project looked highly unlikely. The opponents had entered the battle late; much of the pipeline across four states has already been built, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had granted at least tentative approval to finish the rest. Despite this, the Standing Rock Sioux were willing to put their bodies on the line for the things that mattered: respect for indigenous people and their rights, as well as the right to clean water. The foes called themselves “water protectors,” a name that resonated with all who learned of their struggle.
The protest followed a classic pattern. First, the politicians and the national news media ignored it. They seemed to view North Dakota as if it were Outer Mongolia, an exotic and inaccessible land. Then, when the protest was dramatized by one intrepid journalist, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, people switched to ridiculing it, these Native protesters and their naive belief they could defeat Big Oil and the political establishment. Then officials fought it, with vicious security dogs that nipped at and injured demonstrators, by arresting or charging journalists like Goodman or anyone else who tried to document the protests, by attempting to blockade the protest encampment, and firing water cannons at the group in subfreezing temperatures.
And when all seemed lost, when a bitter cold winter was descending on Standing Rock, when authorities seemed ready to clear the camp and the rabidly pro-oil administration of Donald Trump was just weeks away from moving into the White House, they won.
Sunday’s stunning announcement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — ordering a halt on work to complete the pipeline and a new plan that would reroute it away from the Standing Rock Sioux and require an extensive environmental review — was a stunning victory for people power. And it came right at the moment when fear for the future of American democracy was at its greatest.
“I cannot describe how good I feel right now,” Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said on Facebook, as reported by the Bismarck Tribune. “It is a tremendous victory for Standing Rock, for the Oceti Sakowin [Great Sioux Nation], for the countless tribal nations, indigenous communities and the millions of Americans and people across the world who hit the streets in support of Standing Rock, in support of protecting water.”
How’d they do it?
For one thing, the protesters were unbelievably determined to fight, even as the brutal prairie temperatures dropped below freezing and snow fell on their encampment. They were well-organized and patient. Their persistence forced the authorities into blunder after blunder. In early September, that use of attack dogs against the Native protesters conjured images of similar attacks against civil rights protesters in Alabama in the 1960s — and that swayed public opinion to the side of the Standing Rock Sioux. Again and again, local officials, sheriff’s deputies and pipeline operators overplayed their hand — the ridiculous “riot” charges lodged against the journalist Goodman, or the overly militarized response to peaceful protesters.
Although the protesters had solid facts to support their case, including the hundreds of damaging pipeline spills across America in recent years, they won the battle with an emotional appeal to the nation’s heart. For centuries, the American government has broken its promises to Native Americans, often with brutal violence, while expropriating their lands. The Dakota Access pipeline felt like more of the same, and it just felt wrong to many people. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders may have summed it up best for the growing opposition when he posted on Twitter: “Native Americans have been cheated for hundreds of years. The time to change that is now.”
Indeed, the tipping point may have come over the weekend when about 2,000 military veterans — who saw the values of the protesters the same as those they’d fought for during their time in the service — arrived at the camp just ahead of threats to shut it down by force.
“Violence will not end violence,” David Hulse, a 34-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago who served in Iraq, told ABC News. “Peace will end violence.”
Faced with a possible clash against military veterans, native peoples and hundreds of their allies, the government blinked. It didn’t hurt that the president — for the next 47 days — is a man willing to listen to pleas from everyday people and not just from billionaire businessmen. President Obama deserves enormous credit for what his administration did.
The irony here is that what drove the Standing Rock protests is arguably that flip side of the same volatile coin that elected Trump president just four weeks ago. In both cases, there was a feeling that regular people in forgotten corners of America were ignored, that powerful interests were trying to impose their will on the “little people” and that the politicians were not listening. There is, of course, a vast difference, too: Trump is a huckster who manipulated those passions and tried to whip up people’s darkest fears. The victory at Standing Rock is, instead, a song of hope — of what people can accomplish with unity, determination and that one simple rule: Love thy neighbor.
There may be new battles ahead, as Trump — who once held stock in the pipeline builders and received major backing from the project’s main CEO — tries to undo what just happened there. But I believe the Dakota protesters have offered a beacon of hope to those who are determined to resist Trump and the threat he poses to democracy.
Victory was not easy. It meant weeks of persistence, not just marching on a Sunday afternoon here or there. It meant taking enormous risks, of arrest or even physical injury. It meant that groups that came to the protests with very different agendas and backgrounds — tribal councils and environmentalists — had to overcome their differences and work together (unlike the ongoing bickering among the different factions that oppose Trump). But ultimately, despite ridiculously long odds, they convinced millions of people and finally the current government of the justness of their cause.
Although this was not their intention or their goal, the people of Standing Rock have already taught many valuable lessons to those of us determined to resist Trump as he prepares to take office. And they have already given this burgeoning political movement the most priceless gift of all.
Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may e-mail him at email@example.com.