Protesters and protectors

(Editor’s note – This column was originally written for posting Dec. 7.)

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Waving signs for a cause on a busy street corner in the city is a common sight on the nightly news. The causes are legion, and the legions turn out. The First Amendment to the Constitution includes “. . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This part of our freedom of speech is one of the true privileges of our democracy, and to stand and protest contributes to something maybe big, maybe not so big but something exceptional and important for whatever cause you’re passionately for or against. The camaraderie of congregating with like-minded people makes for a feeling of purpose that is both inspiring and comforting.

And sometimes it actually makes a difference.

Sunday, I joined about 60 people in a solidarity vigil for the Sioux Indians of Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Since April, Native Americans and friends from around the country and the world have been resisting an oil pipeline heading near Sioux sacred burial lands and beneath their water source, the Missouri River. The gathering of devotees numbers into the thousands. Even now, as winter attacks, they’re still there, living in teepees and motor homes while the wind blows and the snow swirls.

Late Sunday afternoon, Energy Transfer Partners LLC and its sidekick company Sunoco Logistics Partners (SXL) were ordered to cease work on the Dakota pipeline until deeper environmental studies can take place. The oil transfer companies are crying foul and condemning the government for stomping on the rule of law; besides accusing the Administration of “currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency.”

When the rule of law was broken by law enforcement itself on behalf of the oil folks, it seems to me that this act was what turned the tide. Harsh tactics — high-powered water cannons leveled at a peaceful crowd of protestors in freezing temps — ticked off the whole country and half the world.

And it appears obvious that “a narrow and extreme constituency” sounds more like stockholders than the wide swath of folks who are standing up for the Standing Rock Sioux.

The Justice Department had to step up. It did. And the government, redressed for grievances, took the high road, even if only for a little while.

We don’t know for how long — oil companies and their backers have a lot of power — but it is heartening: America’s Indian nations have been shat upon since the first Europeans came to this continent.

One of the Indian chiefs said that the oil companies would continue to try to get the pipeline through, but that somebody had to take a stand. “We’re protecting the water, we’re not protesters,” explained Lay Ha, who is Arapaho, Lakota and Shoshone — a litany of lineage that dots our history like a sound of poems said aloud. To Lay Ha, as to the rest of the Native peoples, the protective action is purposefully nonviolent and taking place in the spirit of prayer. He told reporters from the Bill Moyers group that protection of water is built around their belief in the sacredness to them of all of it, the water and the land. So it is to them much more than a protest; it is indeed a protection.

There in frigid North Dakota, protectors from the Great Sioux Nation; from Indian tribes across the country; from U.S. military veterans; from church groups; from ordinary citizens wanting to do something positive and tired of the 1 percent manipulating them; from indigenous tribes from Ecuador who have had to fight oil interests to preserve their forests and streams and came to help their indigenous brothers and sisters in North America — a lot of folks are making a righteous stand against the use of fossil fuels and for the breakthrough of sustainable energies like turbines, geothermal and solar.

We all use gasoline and oil — it is the culture of the world, after all, and we are all complicit — but it is past time we make the change. How much will it take to be of goodwill and compassion to anyone who lives near oil extraction or transportation? How difficult will it be for us to be smart, to un-sicken the earth itself? It might have been okay and wonderful and ingenious at first to use dead dinosaurs to propel our vehicles and heat our homes and turn our world into plastic. But now we know our world-wide addiction is ruining the air and water and thus the very health of our days and souls — not only by its use but even more so now by its extraction.

Can we work together for a plain and simple future that includes us all, not just a high lifestyle for the richest of us? Part of that “us” is the planet we love, the only source of life we have. Can this government of ours whose sole reason for being is to work for us recognize this most grievous of grievances put forth with such protective spirit by our indigenous peoples?

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