TRAHANT REPORTS—A line of trucks and commercial vehicles on North Dakota’s Highway 6 on October 22 was a speeding train. One vehicle after another. Traveling too fast and too close. Then, still on track, the entire train turned left and began racing down a rural dirt road.
It was clear why: This is where the Dakota Access Pipeline is being constructed. Fresh dirt marks where the pipeline has been and where it’s supposed to go. Construction is on a speedy timetable. As the company has testified in court it wants the 1,170-mile, $3.8 billion project up and running by January 1, 2017.
Yet the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and several hundred people camped near by are determined to slow down that train, protect the waters of the Missouri River, and ultimately, help the country begin the most important conversation of this era about energy, climate and survival. (Previous: From Paris to Standing Rock, it’s about the climate choices ahead.)
So the machinery of the state of North Dakota has been engaged to stay on schedule. To be clear: North Dakota is acting as the trustee for the company, using what it considers the powers of state, to make this project so.
How far will North Dakota go?
Look at where it has been. The state has been an ally instead of a referee. Helping to craft a regulatory approach that avoided regulation. There is this crazy notion that the company did everything it was supposed to do so leave them alone. Yah. Because the plan was to avoid pesky regulation. It’s so much more efficient to be governed by official winks instead of an Environmental Impact Statement.
Even now the Dakota Access Pipeline figures the state (with allies in DC) will give in and sign the final paperwork. As the Energy Transfer Partners attorney told the court: “The status quo is that we’re in the middle of building a pipeline.” So, according to Oil and Gas 360, “the next step will be for ETP to acquire easements to drill the pipeline under Lake Oahe. In the most probable scenario, the Corps will grant permits while District Court litigation will continue. ETP would ‘likely get notice on easement status by the end of October and would take 60 days to drill under the lake with a full crew and no major disruptions.'”
No worries. The state’s machinery is supposed to make it so.
How far will North Dakota go?
They’ve already tried intimidation, humiliation, and the number of arrests are increasing. Pick on protectors, elders, journalists, famous people, anyone who could make the state appear potent. The latest tactic is to toss around the word “riot” as if saying it often enough will change its definition. “Authorities arrest 83 protesters during a riot Saturday,” Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier posted on Facebook. “Today’s situation clearly illustrates what we have been saying for weeks, that this protest is not peaceful or lawful. It was obvious to our officers who responded that the protesters engaged in escalated unlawful tactics and behavior during this event. This protest was intentionally coordinated and planned by agitators.”
What’s extraordinary about that statement is the sheriff’s own pictures show a peaceful protest. As Mel Brooks once wrote in Young Frankenstein: “A riot is an ugly thing.” This was not.
But the key phrase in the sherriff’s words is fuel for the state’s machinery, the words “… or lawful.” That is the important phrase because the state would like a protest that lets the status quo continue building a pipeline. The idea of civil disobedience is that there are unjust laws (or in this case, rigged laws) and there are people willing to go to jail to highlight that injustice. The state lost its moral claim when it moved the pipeline route away from its own capital city to near the Standing Rock Nation.
Again, the question is, how far will North Dakota go?
Is the state ready to arrest hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? And then what? The illogical conclusion to that question is too terrible to think about.
Yesterday a call went out from the camps for more people. People who, as Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said, are willing to get arrested. People who will interrupt their lives so that this pipeline will go no further. It’s a call to a higher law than the one that’s codified by North Dakota. And for every water protector arrested, there will always be someone else ready to be next.
Goldtooth reported Sunday on Facebook that a new camp is going up. “First tipi is up. Directly on the proposed path of the pipeline. We are directly between the pipeline and water now.” That will press the issue.
How far will North Dakota go? The military-style law enforcement base at Fort Rice sends its message: Whatever it takes. Status quo must have its a pipeline. That’s frightening.
Except. There is an antidote to those fears. It’s found among the people at the Standing Rock camps who continue to use prayer as their status quo.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports.