As people from around the country continue to converge in Standing Rock, and less than a week after police blasted water protectors with water cannons in freezing temperatures while gassing them in a confined space, the Army Corps of Engineers has lived up to a long-held tradition of the United States government — the displacement of Native peoples. In a letter addressed to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, the Army Corps outlined its plans to remove water protectors from their frontline encampment areas on December 5. In what we can expect to be a violent spectacle, reminiscent of the violence we have already witnessed during this struggle, Indigenous people will once again be faced with forced relocation for the sake of white wealth. While the government has at times voiced sympathy for the protectors, such actions are, of course, both historically consistent and arguably predictable, but that doesn’t dull the pain.
When one is serially battered, no previous beating makes the next punch to the gut hurt any less, and I am hurting tonight. But as we process this news, and contemplate what it means for the safety of the protectors, among many other concerns there are some things we must remember.
First and foremost, this is a struggle that has made the shape and function of colonialism quite clear.
The ubiquitous and socially comforting belief that our oppression was just another tragic aspect of our country’s distant past has been blown apart with concussion grenades and other instruments of war. Our society can no longer pretend that the atrocities against us have ended, and with that knowledge comes a renewed accountability. If you believe you would have actively opposed the policies and norms that killed a hundred million of our people, you are now answerable to the realities of the present.
Everyone who has born witness to this struggle, up close and from afar, is now faced with a choice —a choice you will have to revisit again and again, because for many of you, these battles are wholly optional.
As this standoff nears a climactic moment, will you fight in every way you can to help us write a different ending than the one this government just penned? Will you keep raising your voices for us, no matter how bleak things may appear? Will you commit, as we have committed, to keep on fighting until we can't fight anymore? And will you now bear witness far and wide to the constellation of Native movements that have always been all around you, though rarely seen? Will you uplift those movements as well?
These events should also reinforce to everyone the realities of state violence, in all its forms. Native people are killed at a higher rate by police than any other group in the United States. The culture of policing where we are concerned has continuously been affirmed in Standing Rock, as protectors have been beaten, tortured, attacked by security dogs, shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed and blasted with water that actually froze to razor wire as our people choked on tear gas and endured hypothermia. We must acknowledge that the all-too-familiar images of police violence during the Civil Rights movement are not relics of another time. As we have witnessed with police attacks on the movement for Black lives, structural violence is cyclical. Today’s police violence against oppressed peoples is not an aberration in an otherwise evolved society. It is a remix of old atrocities and abuses. It is the character of law enforcement, born of slave patrols and indian constables, on full display, and we must not pretend otherwise.
In addition to seeing us, I sincerely hope you have seen the opposition, and clearly. We must see structural violence for what it is if we wish to halt harms and create safety. The Army Corps and Obama have repeatedly invoked politicized language of empathy and concern. To feign such concerns, while doing absolutely nothing to protect our people, is a mockery of those who are once again being battered and displaced for the sake of progress. In his letter to Archambault, Col. John Henderson of the Army Corps stated: “This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area.”
Let’s be clear about what this means. Our people have been attacked again and again by people I can attest from experience do not look at Natives as human beings. While our people have converged in peace, police from around the Midwest have also converged, to play their role in this moment of colonial and anti-colonial struggle. Morton County law enforcement and the police who have traveled from afar to join them have done everything short of killing our water protectors, and the only solution to this aggression that officials can produce is to further repress us.
The Army Corps letter also states that officials are worried about “death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.” Such pretense would be laughable if this situation weren’t so tragic and enraging. The government has proven at every turn — including its approval of this pipeline route —that it has no concern for our well-being or survival. Any claim to the contrary is a spineless PR maneuver, though some will surely latch onto it, so as not to see this shameful moment in U.S. history as President Obama’s swan song.
But if either Obama or his friends believe he will not be tainted by the memory of their behavior in this matter, they are mistaken. The pages of history are already being written, and everything that has happened and everything that has yet to unfold will be told and retold.
We are not simply protectors and warriors. We are storytellers, and we will not allow the indulgence of forgetting.
Lastly, I want to reinforce that this is not over. As Chairman Archambault stated in response to the Army Corps letter Friday night, “Our tribe is deeply disappointed in this decision by the United States, but our resolve to protect our water is stronger than ever.”
Our people have not backed down, and I do not anticipate any such action. Elders, children and other vulnerable individuals will likely be evacuated when an eviction attempt seems imminent. These evacuations have happened effectively in the past, and I trust the best efforts of our people on the ground will safeguard many. But we, as resisters, do not believe in done deals. Our people will continue to resist in and beyond this moment, as this is but one front in the wars being waged against us. The question at hand is: Will you fight with us?
Kelly Hayes is a direct action trainer and a co-founder of The Chicago Light Brigade and the direct action collective Lifted Voices. She blogs at TransformativeSpaces.org, where this article originally appeared, about U.S. movements and her work as an organizer against state violence.