5 New Tactics In Civil Disobedience, Taught By Standing Rock
If you've only been half-following the story of Standing Rock, you might not know much beyond some snarky Twitter memes about the cops going "a little overboard" (for instance, they nearly blew a woman's arm off with a concussion grenade). The allegations of police brutality have been serious enough that the United Nations has opened an investigation. But the most important story from Standing Rock isn't the police brutality, the evidence that protester's phones were hacked, or even that this is the largest gathering of Indigenous Americans in modern history.
The most important story from Standing Rock is that it worked like motherfucking RuPaul.
See, President-elect Trump's energy policy is bullish on pipelines. He wants to revive the Keystone XL pipeline, and he supported construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It's not a coincidence that he invested in the company building it and received campaign donations from its CEO. This isn't the last pipeline protest you're going to see in the next four years. The lessons from Standing Rock don't end in North Dakota. They have a lot to teach us all about resistance in the Age of Trump, and what kinds of protests actually work. ("Now turn to the left.") For instance ...
"Build A Small City" Is A Solid Strategy for Civil Disobedience
In the last week or so before the Army Corps of Engineers ordered the pipeline rerouted, stories like this started popping up like mushrooms on the sticky, urine spattered floor of the internet:
If you read on, it becomes clear that most of the evidence for that article came from a handful of Facebook posts, and the fact that people were putting together guides to lay out the camp rules for thousands of new volunteers. The actual connection to Burning Man is much more interesting: Both Standing Rock and the infamous desert art festival (in its early pre-police days) are examples of temporary autonomous zones, which I will refer to as "TAZ," because even if it wasn't already an acronym, it just sounds badass.
This term, invented by anarchist philosopher and sweet-ass-name-haver Hakim Bey, refers to "temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control." Building a TAZ can be a great protest tactic. You just pick a spot where your presence can disrupt something in need of disruption and build a town around it.
There was no strict hierarchy at Standing Rock. One of the first things we saw driving into the camp was a large series of tents set up as essentially a gigantic free closet full of winter wear for all who needed it. There were also camps, and sections of camps, dedicated to providing free coffee for all.
There were camps which cooked meals with donated ingredients for everyone (we ate buffalo stew and buttered vegetables), and camps that handled recycling.
There were camps where both trained medical professionals and nonsense medical professionals were on hand to perform emergency medicine, give back rubs, and do whatever the fuck Reiki is. There was a camp of legal experts and a camp full of press liaisons. They weren't hired for the event; they showed up, found other people with similar skills, and started doing whatever it is they did best. We considered starting a dick joke tent, but then assumed they already had one.
An utter lack of hierarchy works pretty well when everyone's really motivated. And if you're a paramedic or a legal assistant who takes a month off work to camp in North Da-fucking-kota, odds are you're pretty motivated. But all that decentralization also leads to a weird juxtaposition of hippy-dippy nonsense alongside sober professionalism. This was a recurrent theme in our time at Standing Rock. In an actual medical tent next to a tent for "light workers," we met "Amy," a veteran street medic of numerous protests. She spoke knowledgeably about treating injuries from police riot weapons, and explained that, "It's not top-down leadership here. For a lot of people , hierarchical organization isn't really our thing. So we use horizontal ."
And apparently a flag-based economy.
We did occasionally hear talk of "elders," which got us all excited about the possibility of learning a new Dragon Shout, but it turns out they weren't that kind of elder. One night, we heard an announcement over a bullhorn at the main fire that the elders had advised everyone to head back to their camps for the evening, since it might drop below freezing. It was advice, not an order. A liaison at a camp where U.S. Military veterans gathered to pool their skills told us they listened to advice from the elder council, "but we are here to serve the people, just as when we were deployed."
Probably the most successful TAZ in activist history was the Maidan in Ukraine, where thousands of locals built an ice city in the center of Kyiv and fought off riot police until their president fled the country. Independent camps within the city handled media relations, maintenance and fighting.
You don't have to read Ukrainian to know the gist of all those signs is "Fuck off."
Most of the folks we met at Standing Rock called themselves "water protectors." The common sentiment is that referring to them as "protesters" or any of the camps as a "protest" is improper. This was an act of prayer, which is also why they heavily emphasize the "No Drugs or Alcohol" rule. Yes, we tried to argue that we could get drunk enough to see God. No one thought it was funny.
But we don't want to paint the picture of a bunch of hippy-dippy flower children rolling in the snow and proclaiming their oneness with the Universe. Standing Rock had a lot of angry young people, as well as a good use for them.
Nonviolence Is A Must, But So Is Aggression
Most activity up at the "front" consisted of "actions." These were often marches onto land controlled by the pipeline builder, DAPL. For each water protector willing to risk arrest up at the front, there were at least 10 more people back at one of the camps, ready to provide food, medical care, and legal advice in the wake of a serious confrontation. There were at least two distinct groups of water protectors up at the front. The first group was more casual, many of them individual volunteers there for a few days or a week. The second group was made up of veteran activists, and they provided skill to match blind, shrieking enthusiasm.
We were able to attend one action held near the city of Bismarck, North Dakota. The purpose was to block a road being used to transport pipeline equipment -- or at least, that's what we gathered during our brief orientation. The protesters, several hundred in all, hopped into dozens of cars and trucks and tore ass through miles of rural North Dakota. As soon as we parked at our destination, we watched the protesters set up their first roadblock:
This first blockade gave the water protectors time to organize and unload their gear (mostly flags, bandanas, and snarky signs). They grudgingly let a guy towing washing machines through, but stopped a truck hauling construction equipment. Police vehicles followed, and a small detachment of mostly masked red-clad protesters assembled in front of the barricade, one Hugh Jackman short of a Les Miserables.
Next was a march up to an intersection of train tracks and the road. The police had assembled on the other side of the tracks, and one wave of the protesters formed up there, using conveniently downed branches to help build a mostly human screen:
And then, behind the screen, a truck full of red-masked young men rolled up, hopped out, drew knives, and systematically destroyed their own vehicle -- first the tires, then the engine, then the windows. It was like that one Street Fighter minigame, but fun.
Waving shit and shouting from barricades were the original multiplayer game.
The word "nonviolent" was emphasized repeatedly by almost everyone we met. But there were also clear outlets for people who needed to vent their testosterone. Case in point: the Spirit Riders.
The riders are a small group of 38 young Native men and women who can ride horses like a Red Dead Redemption glitch compilation video. They act as a rapid reaction force for the people on foot during actions.
"We make sure everyone is safe," one rider explained, "We can move around faster, and more intimidating. A lot more intimidating. I know how to kick, to scare ."
If you're gonna fight the power, you might as well do it with some style.
He assured me that they never got close enough to actually kick anyone. "They shoot at us first -- 50, 60 yards. That's when it starts getting tense."
Another rider I spoke with admitted to some direct industrial sabotage -- "cutting cords" to equipment set up by DAPL and then riding off before anyone could catch them. This isn't a side of Standing Rock you'll hear about often from supporters, but it was there. And it's part of why they won. Every minute of delay was thousands of dollars out of DAPL's pocket.
Be In It For The Long Haul
At its heart, Standing Rock has always been a delaying game. If the pipeline isn't finished by January 1st, 2017, the companies who have already agreed to ship oil through it can cancel their contracts. The delays have already cost DAPL an estimated $100 million, so the "water protectors" have done real damage to their enemy. But to do that damage, the camps at Standing Rock needed to support thousands of people for months at a time.
That requires power, and rather than relying on a fleet of generators, Standing Rock's power was green enough for three Irelands.
North Dakota itself was mostly brown.
One night, we met Brad Kallio, inventor, while he assembled that giant windmill in the dead of night, illuminated by an appealing pink glow (which we're positive he only used because it looked awesome).
We know it sounds like an acid trip, but see? This time it was real!
Kallio runs the Zynoc Foundation, and he's taken his scrap-metal turbine on tour all over the USA. Here at Standing Rock, it helped provide power for the media and legal camps up on "Facebook Hill" (named for its remarkable ability to sometimes have reception). Kallio claimed that, "with a 5 mph wind, we generate 100 watts of energy per second, single phase." He was excited to test his creation in the insane winds of North Dakota, the human-beings-clearly-aren't-wanted-here state.
Kallio insisted that fossil fuels are now a redundant source of energy. And in North Dakota, at least, he's right. It has the most potential wind energy of any state. He felt that using oil for power in America's windbasket would be a double-fisted set of middle fingers for the Standing Rock Sioux.
Because of North Dakota's bountiful wind and the huge number of left-wing activists who own solar panels, the camps at Standing Rock were largely power-independent. But they still needed a huge number of outside supplies to keep going -- propane and firewood for the freezing winter storms, food and sleeping bags, and enough tampons to dam a river.
... Or plug a pipeline. Holy shit, someone call the Sioux!
The donations are mostly trucked in by volunteers who gathered them in their hometowns from Facebook posts and generous co-workers. We met one volunteer from Arizona who'd brought sleeping bags bought with donations from a popular bar in her hometown. Two women brought a Yarisload of feminine hygiene products from Montana. The Cherokee Nation sent over so much firewood that we can't even think of an erection joke that'd do it justice:
It'll come to us.
The need for donations and an open road to transport them was Standing Rock's main vulnerability. Several of the water protectors we met at Sacred Stone, one of the smaller camps but also the oldest, expressed frustration at the big camp (and the elders) for a protest that ended with two burnt vehicles blocking the road:
"If they block us from another section of the road, that's all they need to starve us out," he said solemnly. But he was also resolved to stay for a very long time. He wanted to see Sacred Stone turned into a permanent eco-village. Other like-minded people were busy constructing permanent buildings, like a kitchen and a school:
We met another water protector at the big camp who was building a wigwam to be his permanent home. He'd been coming "since Sacred Stone, every evening that I can." And added, "I'm in it for the long haul."
Occupy Wall Street lasted from September 15th to November 17th back in 2011. The occupation of Standing Rock started back in August and continues right to this moment. The water protectors currently on-site are staring at a winter that might drop as low as "Fuck That" degrees Fahrenheit. And we assume they're ready for it, considering what they already survived ...
Protesters Will Face Increasingly Advanced Weaponry
Police from 10 states were drafted to stand down the thousands of protesters at Standing Rock. One Bearcat tank sat behind chicken wire along the end of the main bridge that provided access to the pipeline. Another Bearcat was present at the action we attended, equipped with an LRAD sound cannon, a weapon that sounds like it should exist in Warhammer 40,000 and not a small town police force.
One of the veterans we spoke with told us that he'd seen the LRADs most commonly fired at protesters more than 200 feet away. Any closer, and "the sound of that would be so deafening permanent hearing loss." Amy, our field medic friend, explained, "they won't turn it to its full capacity," but even at low volume, it was enough to "make people and run away." She added, "I have heard cases of damaged eardrums. We aren't able to treat that..."
From what we could tell, the LRADs were used sparingly. The favored weapons were the fire extinguishers filled with mace. But the cops had more toys than that. After we left, a woman nearly lost her arm to a concussion grenade. Hundreds were sprayed with water in the freezing cold North Dakota night. We heard stories of DAPL security intimidating protesters by shooting gunfire into the air, above heads. A horse died after being shot with a rubber bullet. The riders, and specifically their horses, were regular targets for those, by the way. And if those were safe, you wouldn't be reading this article -- you'd be out shooting your friends with them right now.
"Most of them have been shot a few times", one rider told us. He explained that the most popular anti-horse measures were also the most popular anti-human measures: mace and tear gas. One rider explained that the gas tended to make horses "jump around" and bolt, but "that's why we have saddles." Another explained, "When the horse gets gassed, it just runs. You can direct it, but you can't stop it."
We met one woman who told us, "I was maced three times in one day." She washed her eyes out with milk and stayed in the field, "It burns, but you tough it out. It's upsetting, but you stay in prayer and push through. We have songs we sing, Lakota songs. You pray through it."
This'd be a lot harder to do with oil-contaminated water.
Prayer and shame were the only offensive weapons we saw protesters use. Behind the disabled jeep they used to block the road, a semi-circle of older Natives prayed. The rhythmic thrum of their voices and smell of their burning incense was only slightly reminiscent of a head shop, and stood in stark contrast to the voice on the police loudspeaker-- "Get back to your vehicles. This is an unlawful protest."
A masked young woman stood on top of the crippled jeep, whipped out a loudspeaker, and started lecturing about the epidemic of rape and violence suffered by indigenous women in the United States. Native American women suffer rape and assault at rates far higher than any other ethnic group in America. A soul-spanking 90 percent of them have faced violence at the hands of a non-Native perpetrator. The speaker's message was clear: Where are all these cops when we're being raped and murdered?
"It's on our list."
America's police are only going to grow more heavily militarized under President Trump. Bullhorns and prayer don't seem like they should be an effective counter to this kind of hardware, but it is. Every police atrocity, both real and rumored, added to the flood of donations and volunteers. This is the nation that gave the world Star Wars, and it turns out that most of us instinctively side with the plucky drum-playing Ewoks ...
... over this guy, for whom we cannot think of a single Star Wars comparison.
We call him the Pillsbury Warboy.
Of course, counter-protest technology is always evolving. The Baltimore police have used a device called a Stingray to track protesters via cellphone data. We found evidence of a similar device being used to block internet access at Standing Rock. But protest tactics are evolving too. In fact ...
They've Found A Way To Weaponize Hippies
Remember those stories of native water protectors growing increasingly annoyed with the white-guy-dreadlocks, spend-dad's-cash kinda hippies?
Those guys absolutely exist. We heard people talk about chemtrails and fluoride in the water, and on the day of the action, one guy kept shouting, "YOU'RE JUST AGENTS OF THE ILLUMINATI!" at the police. One night, around a campfire at Sacred Stone, a well-meaning but almost supernaturally ignorant man talked about the etymology of "human" -- the sacred sound of "hu," he said (wrongly), is where the word originates. This lasted for about 10 minutes, and it was at least twice as irritating as you'd imagine.
The speaker who followed Johnny Trust-Fund's theories about language was a middle-aged native man. He noted that Sacred Stone hasn't had much of a presence in the recent actions, and urged the young people around him to show up the next day. "If you can't get arrested, for whatever reason, that's fine... but if you are arrestable, please show up," he said, before noting that many of the frontline protesters could no longer afford another arrest without risking a felony. And with that, those signs we saw on all the porta-potties made sense:
There's a lot of idealism on display at Standing Rock, but at the center of it all is cold pragmatism. Hundreds of native water protectors have already been arrested (some of them were kept in dog kennels), and at this point, many of them have pending court cases. And we should probably note that Native Americans vie with African Americans every year for the "Highest Rate of Death By Cop" trophy. Ridiculous hipsters are more than welcome if they're willing to take one for the team. It's not quite "weaponized white privilege," but damned if that wouldn't be a catchy name for it.
Being "arrestable" isn't necessarily safe. Like I mentioned before, one "arrestable" woman nearly lost a damn arm (so far, they've raised $424,000 for her care). But even after the water cannons, volunteers continued showing up at the actions. Thousands of them are still camped out in Arctic As Fuck conditions. Some of them might think fluoride is a secret plot by the Reptiloids to poison our semen, but they've all agreed on one thing: keeping oil out of the fucking water supply.
Also: adding signs to signs.
The biggest lesson of Standing Rock might be "We don't have to like each other to work together." There was a surprising amount of discord between camps. The first people we met in Sacred Stone were outright hostile to the elders at the big camp. One man said, "The elders approved the pipeline. The youth stood up. Now the elders want to give us commands?"
Standing Rock's story is like the bizarro-world version of the 2016 election: A whole bunch of people with very different beliefs and backgrounds came together to fight against one thing they all agreed was awful. A source at Sacred Stone told us "there have almost been camp wars" between his camp and the big camp, but also noted that, "We're all here to stop the pipeline."
The fact that the lights of the pipeline construction sites overlooked us at all times may have helped with the sense of unity. It's easier to find the motivation to fight the Death Star when it's looming above you.
You can donate to Standing Rock here.
Robert Evans experimented with strange traditional drugs in his new book A Brief History of Vice. Tamlin Magee is a freelance writer and technology journalist. You can troll or commission him at @posadistintl on Twitter dot com.
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