Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Standing Rock Triumph: The Dakota Access Pipeline Protests Make History
- Eric Shapiro
- On December 7, 2016
By Eric Shapiro
On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened the water supply and burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux in South Dakota. This decision on the part of the Obama Administration came in response to months of protesting by activists. Donald Trump is likely to take a different approach, but before that happens, it is worthwhile to reflect on why what just happened is so important.
Every so often, history conspires to test the moral character of a nation. Sometimes, it is clear from the beginning what is at stake. When Syrians began fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s butchery, Angela Merkel and the German people faced a stark choice: let them in or let them die. Merkel and her government made the moral choice and they are now paying for it politically. The UK (or at least England) chose Brexit over staying in the EU, risking disastrous social and economic consequences. America faced a monumental choice in the 2016 election over whether to pick a competent president or a bigoted demagogue with strong authoritarian impulses. It chose wrong. The consequences of a Trump presidency will likely be dire.
But sometimes, nations are tested in smaller ways, in ways that reveal their full moral dimensions with time, sometimes only in retrospect. Against the backdrop of historic disaster, the Dakota Access Pipeline is one such test. The human impact of the pipeline, which would desecrate the Standing Rock Sioux’s burial grounds and could poison their drinking water should it burst, could be a small-scale. It is also worth opposing any project that would contribute to the world’s ongoing climate disaster, even if its carbon footprint is a relative drop in the bucket. But, viewed in proportion, in light of all the suffering in America, why does the Dakota Access Pipeline justify the emotional investment of so many both on the ground in South Dakota and far away? Why have so many risked their freedoms and their lives to protest the construction of one pipeline? The media has, predictably, not paid much attention to the trials and travails of the Standing Rock Sioux and those who have joined with them to fight for the rights of indigenous peoples. It has devoted even less time to honestly investigating their motivations, instead turning the whole affair into a spectacle.
And yet, the protests, partially subsumed in election coverage, have stubbornly clung to the periphery of America’s collective consciousness and now seem poised to storm center stage. What’s going on? What is it about this one pipeline in the North Dakota that so captures the imagination of so many Americans at a time when the country stands on the edge of a much larger, Trumpian abyss? The answer is that the moral struggle, despite its political undertones, transcends politics. It is not, at its core, about left vs. right or Republican vs. Democrat, although ideological and partisan factors are of course present for those who want to emphasize them. Rather, it is about right vs. wrong. It is about “the people” vs. “the system,” a perfect microcosm of the populist forces that have burst to the forefront in America in recent times.
Ironically, these are the same forces that, in their right-wing manifestation, swept Donald Trump to power. A further irony is that anti-establishment sentiment may have compelled some of the Standing Rock protestors to vote for a third party, contributing to the election of a man who has no respect for the environment or indigenous peoples and every incentive to serve the interest of big energy. And yet, it seems almost beside the point to think of the Dakota Access pipeline struggle in political terms. It is fundamentally a moral rather than a political struggle. It is already possible to imagine Standing Rock’s place in the architecture of history. No matter how it ends, today’s victory likely guarantees that the demonstrations will serve not as a cautionary tale, but rather as a rallying cry for those who would risk everything in the name of defending something sacred.
Just bringing to light the existence of this struggle, which is all too often buried beneath the never-ending horse race of politics, is something of a victory. Trump may be poised to reverse today’s victory and ensure that the trail of tears that is America’s policies towards indigenous peoples grows a little longer. But it is also likely that Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline, has unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box of activist energy. The DAPL, like Keystone XL before it, may ultimately blow up (no pun intended) in the faces of big energy barons who would degrade the planet and the heritage of those who live upon it. Demographics aren’t destiny, but if the moral arch of history does indeed bend towards progress, their days of dominance and oppression are numbered.
Reprinted by Special Arrangement and with the permission of Just Off Kilter Blog.
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