Obama Pipeline Plot Twist Is Not a Victory—And Could Erase the Struggle
All Native struggles in the United States are a struggle against erasure. The poisoning of our land, the theft of our children, the state violence committed against us — we are forced to not only live in opposition to these ills, but also to live in opposition to the fact that they are often erased from public view and public discourse, outside of Indian Country. The truth of our history and our struggle does not match the myth of American exceptionalism, and thus, we are frequently boxed out of the narrative.
The struggle at Standing Rock, North Dakota, has been no exception, with Water Protectors fighting tooth and nail for visibility, ever since the Sacred Stone prayer encampment began on April 1.
For months, major news outlets have ignored what’s become the largest convergence of Native peoples in more than a century. But with growing social media amplification and independent news coverage, the corporate media had finally begun to take notice. National attention was paid. Solidarity protests were announced in cities around the country. The National Guard was activated in North Dakota.
The old chant, “The whole world is watching!” seemed on the verge of accuracy in Standing Rock.
And then came today’s ruling, with a federal judge finding against the Standing Rock Sioux, and declaring that construction of the pipeline could legally continue. It was the ruling I expected, but it still stung. I felt the sadness, anger and disappointment that rattled many of us as we received the news. But then something happened. Headlines like, “Obama administration orders ND pipeline construction to stop” and “The Obama Administration Steps In to Block the Dakota Access Pipeline” began to fill my newsfeed, with comments like, “Thank God for Obama!” attached to them.
Clearly, a major plot twist has occurred. But it’s not the one that’s being sold.
To understand that this isn’t the victory it’s being billed as, you have to read the fine print in the presently lauded joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior:
“The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws.”
Note what’s actually being said here, what’s being promised and what isn’t.
What is actually being guaranteed?
But this next section is a little more promising, right?
“Therefore, construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time. The Army will move expeditiously to make this determination, as everyone involved—including the pipeline company and its workers—deserves a clear and timely resolution. In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahu.”
So things are on hold at Lake Oahe until the powers that be think it through some more—with no assurances about how they’ll feel when it’s all said and done. The rest is a voluntary ask being extended to the company.
Let’s reflect on that for a moment: A company that recently sicced dogs on Water Protectors, including families, who stepped onto a sacred site to prevent its destruction, is being asked to voluntarily do the right thing.
But the thing is, they probably will. For a moment. Because what’s being asked of them isn’t an actual reroute. Right now, all that’s being asked is that they play their part in a short term political performance aimed at letting the air out of a movement’s tires.
Presidential contender Hillary Clinton was beginning to take a bit of heat for her silence on the Standing Rock struggle. Between Jill Stein’s participation in a lockdown action, broadening social media support for the cause, and the beginnings of substantial media coverage, #NoDAPL was on the verge of being a real thorn in Clinton’s side. And with more than 3,000 Natives gathered in an unprecedented act of collective resistance, an unpredictable and possibly transformational force was menacing a whole lot of powerful agendas.
So what did the federal government do? Probably the smartest thing it could have: It gave us the illusion of victory.
As someone who organizes against state violence, I know the patterns of pacification in times of unrest all too well. When a Black or Brown person is murdered by the police, typically without consequence, and public outrage ensues, one of the pacifications we are offered is that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will investigate the shooting. It’s a deescalation tactic on the part of the state. It helps transition away from moments when rage and despair collide, creating a cooling off period for the public. “Justice” is still possible, we are told. We are asked to be patient as this very serious matter is investigated at the highest level of government, and given all due consideration.
The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of investigations taken up by the DOJ Civil Rights Division end in dismissal – a batting average that’s pretty much inverse to that of other federal investigations. But by the time a case gets tossed at the federal level, it’s probably not front page news anymore, and any accumulated organizing momentum behind the issue may have been lost — because to many people, the mere announcement of a federal investigation means that the system is working. Someone is looking into this, they’re assured. Something is being done. Important people have expressed that they care, and thus there is hope.
So how is this similar to what’s happening with Standing Rock?
It’s the same old con game.
Federal authorities are going to give a very serious matter very serious consideration, and then… we’ll see.
The formula couldn’t be clearer.
As the joint statement says, “This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”
How many times have marginalized people been offered further discussion when what they needed was substantive action? And how often has the mere promise of conversation born fruit for those in a state of protest?
But this is a great moment for the Democrats. A political landmine has been swept out of Hillary Clinton’s path, and Obama will be celebrated as having “stopped a pipeline” when the project has, at best, been paused. After all, an actual pause in construction, outside of the Lake Oahe area, assumes the cooperation of a relentless, violent corporation, that has already proven it’s wiling to let dogs loose on children to keep its project on track.
But Dakota Access, LLC probably will turn off its machines — for a (very) little while. They’ll wait for the media traction that’s been gained to dissipate, and for the #NoDAPL hashtag to get quieter. They’ll wait until the political moment is less fraught, and their opposition is less amped. And then they will get back to work — if we allow it.
Here’s the real story: This fight has neither been won nor lost. Our people are rising and they are strong. But the illusion of victory is a dangerous thing. Some embrace it because they don’t know better, some because they need to. We all want happy endings. Hell, I long for them, and I get tired waiting. But if you raise a glass to Obama and declare this battle won, you are erasing a battle that isn’t over yet. And by erasing an ongoing struggle, you’re helping to build a pipeline.
Kelly Hayes is a queer Native writer, organizer and movement photographer currently working as the social media manager for Truthout. She is a direct action trainer and co-founder of The Chicago Light Brigade and the direct action collective Lifted Voices.