While the news cycle remains fixated on Washington politics, the biggest story in America is unfolding in a remote region of North Dakota. In the small town of Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation, activists are defending sacred burial ground and their community’s water supply against construction of a major oil pipeline. Militarized police and private security forces are there to ensure the project is completed, arresting reporters and assaulting protesters.
In America’s hotly divided political and social climate, it’s rare to find a conflict in which one party is so clearly right and the other so clearly wrong. Actions taken by police on behalf of Big Oil have been so appalling that the UN and Amnesty International dispatched observers to the area. Protesters have been teargased, pepper sprayed, clubbed, attacked by dogs, shot at with rubber bullets, locked in kennels, and branded like concentration camp prisoners. Hundreds have been arrested.
All this is to allow construction of a $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline from western North Dakota to south-central Illinois. Several thousand jobs will be needed to complete the project, but once it’s done only about 40 permanent positions will be kept to maintain it. The pipeline will daily carry enough crude oil from fracking to produce 8.9 million gallons of gasoline. When burned, this is enough to add 89,000 tons of carbon to the air every day.*
The pipeline is set to run through Lake Oahe, a large reservoir which serves both as sacred burial ground for the Sioux and a major source of their drinking water. Thousands of men, women and children depend on the water from Lake Oahe for their survival. Oil leaked into a water supply causes health problems from skin sores to stomach cancer and is unsafe not just to drink, but to bathe in and wash with.
Pipelines break all the time. Wikipedia catalogs 26 leaks and accidents for 2016 alone, resulting in dozens of injuries and evacuations and tens of thousands of gallons spilled. Just in October, Alabama declared a state of emergency after a pipeline explosion, a high-volume pipeline was shut down in Oklahoma due to a leak, and a pipeline in Pennsylvania ruptured and spilled 55,000 gallons of gasoline into the Susquehanna River.
By treaty with the US government, the Standing Rock land belongs to the Sioux. Energy Transfer Partners, the company trying to build the pipeline, is attempting to claim the land under eminent domain. This much-abused concept refers to the government’s right, granted under the Constitution, to pay a fair price for private land and convert it to public use. What’s happening in North Dakota is precisely the opposite – an unconstitutional seizure of land for private purposes, enforced at gunpoint by police and military forces.
Not only are the protesters being criminalized for defending their own land, but journalists are being punished for covering the story. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! was charged with criminal trespass and inciting a riot. Both charges were dropped, but the attempt to intimidate the press is transparent. Documentary filmmakers Deia Schlosberg and Lindsey Grayzel have been charged with conspiracy merely for taping the protests, and their charges are moving forward.
Mainstream press has largely ignored the story, and the coverage they have given it is shameful. CNN framed the conflict as an upstanding, job-creating oil company against the oppressive force of Native Americans: “…the pipeline would bring an estimated $156 million in sales and income taxes to state and local governments. The developer also says it will add 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs. But [Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David] Archambault said his tribe will settle for nothing less than stopping the pipeline’s construction.”
Originally the pipeline was set to run north of Bismarck, but residents there rejected it for the same reasons the Sioux now do – they worried about its environmental and health hazards. Rerouting the pipeline through Lake Oahe is a textbook case of industry dumping unwanted pollution in poor and minority communities. This situation is escalating at the very same time as members of the Bundy clan, white ranchers who staged an armed occupation of a federal wildlife building to demand free grazing rights on public land, were acquitted.
While the criminal justice system lets white insurrectionists go scot-free, political support for the Sioux is scant. Bernie Sanders has been a high-profile supporter, but he is virtually alone in Washington. Hillary Clinton, who could use this opportunity to distinguish herself as a leader and bolster her floundering presidential campaign, instead released a statement saying absolutely nothing: “It’s important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators’ rights to protest peacefully, and workers’ rights to do their jobs safely.” President Obama said the Army Corps of Engineers would look for an alternate route, but also declared his intent to let the standoff “play out for several more weeks.”
Even without political support, there is enormous popular support for the Sioux. More than 1.3 million people checked in at Standing Rock on Facebook to show solidarity. Millions of dollars are coming in from all over the world and thousands are volunteering their bodies at the site, tying themselves to construction equipment and taking the brunt of police and military aggression. Against the allied forces of corporate America, the judicial system, militarized police, and a completely dysfunctional media, they have a difficult battle ahead.
Forcing this heinous project on the Sioux through state violence is a chilling callback to this nation’s founding – from Columbus’s perpetration of genocide to the Trail of Tears to the massacres at Wounded Knee. Native Americans have always been treated by the pillagers and colonizers of this land as standing in the way of progress, and progress has been defined as clearcutting forestry, tearing up mountainsides for coal, and building dangerous pipelines, all for the glory of private profit.
America has no business building any new oil infrastructure, let alone a pipeline through the water supply of a community that doesn’t want it. This isn’t progress and it isn’t job creation – it’s textbook oppression. The police, agent provocateurs, and government officials who stood against the Sioux and tried to force the world to accept another poisonous, polluting piece of earth-defiling machinery will find themselves, just as their forefathers were, on the wrong side of history.
*This figure was calculated using a couple of online tools. The widely-reported claim of 470,000 barrels a day was multiplied by the Energy Information Administration’s estimate that each barrel of crude produces 19 gallons of gasoline. This figure was then multiplied by 20 pounds, which is how much weight in CO2 each burned gallon of gasoline produces.