Reflections From Standing Rock
When I found out that over 2,000 veterans were heading to Standing Rock to form a human barricade between the water protectors and the hyper-militarized police, I knew something important was happening.
If veterans of good faith were willing to put their bodies and lives on the line to defend the water protectors, I had to be a part of those efforts. After all, I killed people and almost died for the same oil companies indigenous people are currently fighting in North Dakota.
After a few days of mulling over the logistical details and how I would fund the trip, I called my main compadre, Sergio Kochergin, who just returned from filming a documentary about the current situation in Ukraine, and asked if he’d be interested in going to North Dakota with me. Of course, Sergio was more than happy to oblige and immediately flew from Philly, where he resides, to Chicago.
Sergio and I first met over 14 years ago in the United States Marine Corps, where we both served in the same platoon. He eventually left the platoon and became a scout sniper. And after our unit’s second deployment, we both went our separate ways until reconnecting in 2007. Since then, we’ve testified to U.S. Congress about war crimes in Iraq and spent the remaining years working with social justice organizations and movements around the world. People like Sergio are hard to come by. My next step was to fill the vehicle with two more bodies, so I put out the word on social media and to my surprise, heard back from an old friend, Vince Lenhart, an Army medic I met back in 2008 when we were both doing work with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Vince lives in Hammond, Indiana, an area ravaged by industrialization, then deindustrialization, drug abuse and racial segregation—not unlike many of the cities and towns in our region of Northwest Indiana.
To round out our team, we were joined by one of my best childhood friends, someone I’ve known for over 20 years, Tony Bianco. At first, it wasn’t clear if Tony would be able to join us, but someone filled in for him, so Tony could go. Not only is Tony a world-class woodworker, he’s also a great amateur photographer.
The ride from the Northwest Indiana to Standing Rock is filled with, at first, smokestacks and skyscrapers, followed by long stretches of strip malls and truck stops, then the rolling hills of South Dakota, and eventually the snow-covered plains of North Dakota.
Our group was anxious to arrive at the camps. How could we not be? We’ve all witnessed the brutality of the police and understood that our primary mission, at least we thought so at the time, was to put our bodies and lives on the line for the water protectors who’ve been battling Enbridge and their hired thugs, the police and private security firms. On the way, we talked politics, life, music and what we expected from the upcoming events.
Our route to Standing Rock took us through South Dakota. Word among the vets was that the police were pulling people over and harassing those from out of town, so we came through the reservation. Eventually, we arrived at a town called Eagle Butte, two hours south of the main camp, where hundreds of veterans rendezvoused at a local community center.
The gathering of gear and processing of individuals reminded me of the Marine Corps. The veterans at Eagle Butte looked weary from their travels. Some drove all the way from Alaska. Others from as far away as Montreal. Most of them wore some form of military gear. Body armor, gas masks and extra sleeping bags, along with food items and extra propane tanks were scattered on the floor of the community center as a middle-aged woman veteran in a wheelchair gave us a run-down of what to expect over the next several days. After the briefing, we stepped outside where dozens of veterans chain-smoked cigarettes and asked each other questions about their military service. I’d say 70 percent of the vets were from the Vietnam era. A few hours later, we drove north to McLaughlin (population 663), the largest town on the Standing Rock Indiana Reservation.
The local gas station in McLaughlin was buzzing with people coming and going from the camps. I spoke to one woman whose car battery died. She was on her way back to Colorado after spending two months at Standing Rock. Her face was covered with multiple layers of dirt and the only available space in her car was the driver’s seat. The rest of her car was packed with dirty clothes, old foodwrappers and worn camping equipment.
After jumping her car, a group of local natives walked up to our vehicle and started talking with us about the camps and the amount of people who suddenly populated their small reservation town. Once they found out we were veterans, they had even more to say: “Where are you guys from? What are you vets going to do? The police are crazy, man.”
They’d been drinking for hours, and it was only noon. It was a reminder of how devastating drugs and alcohol have been to native populations. Colonization creates generational trauma. And centuries of genocide, both physical and cultural, ecological devastation, poverty and social alienation permeate native communities.
We talked with the locals for a while, even though the woman working in the gas station told them to leave us alone. I told her that we were fine and not to worry. The scene outside the gas station in McLaughlin was reminiscent of my many trips to Tijuana and Rosarito, Mexico, where the children swarm your car trying to sell chiclets and local men stumble from bar to bar.
We got lost several times on our way to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which is the main camp, but not the original. The first camp created is called the Sacred Stone Camp, and it’s much more bare-bones than Oceti Sakowin. The Sacred Stone Camp was filled with very primitive yurts and tipis mostly constructed with leftover and makeshift materials. In little crevices and natural embankments, people set up their tents and shared food around campfires.
Eventually, we found the Oceti Sakowin Camp, only to be turned around and told to go to the local trades hall where we’d be briefed by tribal and veteran “leaders.” Over 1,000 veterans crammed into the apprentice training and workshop area. Jack Healy, a reporter for the New York Times, asked us some questions. We ate beef jerky, the main food staple of Standing Rock, and reminisced with Mike and Eli, two old friends from Iraq Veterans Against the War. Wes Clark Jr., Tulsi Gabbard and various tribal elders gathered around and two native women started to talk. Immediately, we were told, “This is not a place of protest or direct action. This is a place of prayer.” At which point, many of the veterans started to look around as if to say, “Is she serious?” After all, we didn’t come to Standing Rock to pray. We came to stop a pipeline.
Then, the hammer dropped: we were subjected to a lecture about white privilege and told to simply follow the native “leaders.” I use quotations because many rank and file natives didn’t respect their so-called leaders. While the tribal elders sought prayer, many of the rank and file natives wanted to take more radical actions, as did the veterans. And I’m not talking about violence, I’m talking more about civil disobedience and/or direct actions.
Wes Clark Jr. said to the group, “We’re going to do an official apology ceremony and a symbolic march to the front line barricades.” Toward the middle of his speech, Clark said, “I can’t believe these sort of things are happening in the United States of America.”
At that point, some of us left the hanger and went back to camp for the night. That level of naïveté was really surprising, and also unacceptable, especially in our current political context. But again, this is what happens when organizations are led by personalities and celebrities as opposed to knowledgeable organizers and seasoned activists.
The problem of identity politics and a lack of leadership on the left is nothing new. Since I’ve been politically engaged, identity politics has been a driving force on the left. Obama has gotten away with murder, literally, because of identity politics. Hillary Clinton’s electoral loss could be attributed to identity politics. And many people argue one of the primary limitations of Black Lives Matter is their adherence to identity politics.
When identities take precedence over ideas, values, principles, political programs, strategies, and tactics, the left can expect to keep losing. Unfortunately, the same is true at Standing Rock, where tribal leaders talked about white privilege, whereas rank and file natives were more interested in talking about strategy and tactics and how to stop all oil pipelines, not just those running through native lands.
The fact that Wes Clark Jr. and the tribal elders didn’t seek input from rank and file activists isn’t unfortunate or a coincidence, it’s how power functions when power is centralized and unwilling to seek advice in a democratic manner.
Unfortunately, tribal leadership at Standing Rock has virtually no experience organizing political movements, let alone acts of civil disobedience or direct actions. We were told that if we weren’t native, to keep our opinions and ideas to ourselves. Again, that’s not how to organize a serious political event, let alone organizations or movements.
One of the white veterans actually said to me, “Hey, you just need to shut up and follow what the indigenous community says.” To which I responded, “There is no such thing as an ‘indigenous community.’” After all, no community is homogenous. Further, shouldn’t we have an open dialogue about what, exactly, we’re hoping to accomplish this weekend?
Without doubt, the native communities at Standing Rock are very divided. They don’t speak with one voice. There are various organizing tendencies within native communities, which isn’t surprising. Some natives are pacifists. Some are liberals. Others want to dismantle industrial civilization—and everything in between. This level of nuance is lacking in many white activists’ analyses. Often, people seek simplistic answers to very complex questions, and that’s not productive.
Many times, white people feel a profound level of guilt for what some of our ancestors have done to native populations. It’s more than clear that many white people at the camps felt the need to express this guilt.
Personally, I’ve never felt that way. My family, on both sides, came to this country on boats in the early part of the 20th century. Hence, my ancestors had virtually no interaction with Native Americans in the U.S. Most of my family fled Italy under the specter of fascism. They didn’t slaughter indigenous people and they surely didn’t exploit them. They, like most people under capitalism, were exploited for profit and power.
The only people to whom I owe an apology is the Iraqi people. And I’ve spent the past ten years apologizing in the form of activism and political organizing. Do I feel horrible for what indigenous people have endured throughout history? Of course. But an “apology ceremony” resonated very little with me, and many other veterans. We came to North Dakota to stop a pipeline. To the extent that we should apologize, my apology is my willingness to put my life on the line to stop oil pipelines and to protect native activists. As a result of this profound guilt, well-intentioned white folks often romanticize certain communities or fail to provide critiques when critiques are needed. This is a major problem. It’s especially problematic when so-called leaders don’t share the same values or vision as the rank and file. I almost died following failed leadership in the military. I won’t do it again in the activist world.
All of this reminds me of Madison, Wisconsin, where union “leaders” and Democrats moved in and sucked the energy right out of the student-led occupation. People forget, but Madison predated Occupy, and was much larger: 120,000 people marched in the streets of Madison in the middle of winter, with 6 inches of snow on the ground and graduate students camped out in the halls of the capital building. In many ways, at least in my thinking, events in Wisconsin were much more significant than what happened in New York City.
I bring this up because liberal leadership must be circumvented, broken, or overpowered if we hope to move beyond failed recall campaigns featuring centrist Democrats like Tom Barret and the temporary victories of Standing Rock.
I’ve seen the same dynamic in Chicago, where black “leaders” and union officials backed the neoliberal mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel over the progressive candidate, Chuy Garcia. I saw the same corruption, lack of leadership and cronyism during the Democratic primary between Hillary and Bernie, where, once again, the union “leaders” ignored their members’ wishes.
As soon as Tulsi Gabbard, Naomi Klein, Wes Clark Jr. and the rest of the Professional Political Class arrived at Standing Rock, the game was over. The energy was gone. Everything was filtered back to symbolism and narratives, as opposed to substance and material successes.
These sorts of people are more interested in patting each other on the back, as opposed to having difficult and critical conversations about how to build more effective organizations and movements that are capable of implementing radical change.
From my discussions and interviews with young native activists, it’s clear the majority of tribal elders function the same as the black clergy functions: namely, to quell radicalism and keep people in line. I saw this in Ferguson and I’ve seen it over the years in places such as Gary, Indiana, and the South Side of Chicago.
The story is no different in Latino or white communities. Leaders are often disconnected from their constituents. Some of the tribal elders at Standing Rock wore fancy clothes and drove $60,000 SUVs. Rank and file natives could barely afford a new pair of shoes or to fill their gas tanks. None of this is new. A lack of democratic decision making mechanisms is the primary problem. We need organized grassroots resistance to corrupt and inept “leaders” and institutions. The only way this will happen is if rank and file activists take the lead and effectively organize themselves, because no one is going to do it for us.
In fact, what I’ve learned is the exact opposite: leaders of all stripes—clergy, union officials, tribal elders—see grassroots democracy as a threat, not an asset.
On Sunday morning, I took my International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) credentials to the Press Tent, which was located at the top of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Sergio and I got there around 8:30 AM, and there was already a line 50 people deep.
After receiving a press briefing, we were told that independent journalists needed a letter from an editor or the publisher to get an official press pass, so I shot Michael Albert an email and waited.
Because the phone reception was so terrible, I stood in line and figured they would give me a press pass if I told them my personal story and what I was hoping to achieve with my reporting. After five hours of standing in the brutal cold, I entered the Press Tent, only to be told that without a proper letter, they wouldn’t provide official credentials.
Needless to say, I was quite deflated at that point, as I came to Standing Rock with two primary goals: first, to stand with my fellow veterans and provide a human shield for the water protectors (and that plan was already shot down the night before by the tribal elders), so my second plan was to use my credentials and status as a grassroots activist and writer to interview people who would otherwise be unwilling to speak to the mainstream press.
Eventually, I received my press pass. Five minutes later, the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision that pipeline construction was halted came through the loudspeakers. People cheered. Native Americans were singing traditional songs, pounding drums, and dancing around the “Sacred Fire” located at the center of the main camp. White allies held hands and joined. Others stood around and watched. I grabbed my notepad and interviewed as many people as I could.
Immediately, it became clear to me why the decision was made to cancel the permits (1) because the Obama administration didn’t want another Wounded Knee on its hands, especially at the end of his final term in the White House, and (2) because the presence of the veterans put enough public pressure on the administration to force its hand. Consequently, I was happy to play a very small role in this small victory. Minor victories, even symbolic victories, are important for activists. We’re always up against the most powerful entities in the world. That being said, many of the water protectors I spoke to were not satisfied, and many were outright skeptical.
Shortly after the decision was announced, I ran into a young military veteran and native activist who spent his time at the Red Warrior Camp, the camp located the closest to the front lines and also the camp through which most direct actions are planned and executed. Since he asked me to not use his name, I’ll simply refer to him as Angel.
“The fight is not over,” Angel said as he walked down Flag Road, the main entrance into the camp. “This is the culmination of 500 years of struggle, and it’s not just an indigenous fight.” I told him that’s not the message I heard from the tribal elders.
Angel looked at me and smiled. “All pipelines must stop. We need to defeat the corporations. It’s the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent.” That was the first time all week that I’d heard Occupy-style language in the camp, which isn’t surprising seeing that Angel was in his 20s.
Bill Whitefeather, an Oglala Lakota activist from Freedom, Indiana, told me the ACOE decision was an amazing victory. “After nine days of being here, I’m pleased to see this decision, but we shouldn’t celebrate too soon. “We need to hold the government accountable. I just hope everyone stays vigilant.”
After catching a celebratory ceremony at the Sacred Fire, I ran into a veteran in full cammo (camouflage) fatigues named Laura Long. “This is the first time I’ve ever been to something like this,” Laura said as she watched the dancing and chanting. Laura, who drove to Standing Rock from Washington state, was a Gulf and Iraq War vet who served 20 years in the Army. “This is a good decision, but it could also make us complacent.” I agreed.
After talking to Laura, I saw an old friend from VFP, Eric Lobo. We talked, shared a smoke, and went our separate ways.
Apesanahkwat, a native and a Vietnam veteran from the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, said, “I’m worried as hell the permit will be renewed.” He continued, “I’m pissed off. People need to stay and fight.” I asked him why he’d been so committed to this particular cause, “The children are my number one concern. What are we leaving them? What sort of planet?”
Apesanahkwat went on to talk about this tour of duty in Vietnam (1st of the 1st, 1968-1969), where he served as a point-man in an infantry platoon. I told him that I was also a former U.S. Marine and we talked about our friends who never came home and the people we killed— the sort of shit combat vets talk about when they meet each other under such circumstances. He told me that the Indians were the “toughest in Vietnam.” The last veteran I interviewed on Sunday was Linus Chasingbull, a native of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. “My whole family has been coming to these camps for months,” Linus told me. He’s personally been to the camps over a dozen times since the end of the summer. I asked him if this was his first protest, “Yeah, I don’t usually do stuff like this, but I’m happy to be with my fellow vets and my native brothers and sisters.”
On Monday, December 5, close to 1,000 veterans marched to the front lines of the barricades in a symbolic protest. Without question, the gesture was visually striking and significant, but it wasn’t why most of the veterans came to Standing Rock. The veterans I spoke to came to Standing Rock to be a human barricade between the police and the direct action water protectors.
Regardless of the profound disappointment many veterans and natives felt due to a lack of leadership, vision and courage, people remained motivated and engaged, which was quite inspiring. As I watched the veterans march across the highway, I was reminded that we will play a significant role in future progressive/left political movements, much like our Vietnam veteran mentors.
In the end, it’s clear that most of the people I met at Standing Rock were very fresh to the world of activism and political organizing. As a result, those of us with a certain level of experience should do our best to steer these young activists and potential organizers in the right direction and away from toxic organizing practices and the sort of mistakes we’ve made in the past.
It’s also clear that if like-minded radicals don’t take leadership positions within political organizations, communities or movements, we’ll be at the mercy of people who have no vision, strategy or courage to achieve their stated goals, if they have any stated goals to achieve.
People will leave Standing Rock with many lessons. One of the primary lessons I’ve taken away from that experience is that people are much more “tuned-in” than we often assume. For instance, if someone told us that Bernie Sanders would give Hillary Clinton a run for her money in early 2015, you’d be considered a dreamer, or a nut, depending on who you ask.
And if someone told you that over 2,000 veterans would show up to an anti-oil pipeline encampment willing to put their lives on the line for native water protectors, many people would outright dismiss you. Yet, here we are, ready to fight, and die, for something worthwhile, as opposed to imperial adventures.
The same is true of radical left politics. People, for the most part, want a radically different society, but they don’t know how to articulate those wishes. People aren’t stupid, and they’re not lazy or unwilling to put in the work. They require serious leadership.
They need a serious left to plug into. And that left simply doesn’t exist right now. There’s too much infighting and petty sectarianism, struggles for power, resources, and so on. All of that nonsense must stop if we hope to beat the most powerful corporations and governments in the world.
Events such as Standing Rock should remind us of what’s important: namely, building a serious left capable of dealing with the dire circumstances we face: runaway climate change, fascism, militarism, racism, patriarchy, inequality, etc.
I have faith in people. It’s one of the reasons I originally identified as a “leftist.” I believe most people are good. I don’t blame individuals, I blame systems and ideologies. I think we have a shot to beat these profit-crazed lunatics and militarized racists.
But we need to be humble and spend our time on ideas and projects that matter. And we’ll all need to make sacrifices in order to make these things happen. I hope you’ll join us.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer and activist who lives in Michigan City, Indiana. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333 @gmail.com.