Our Greatest Organizers Win Big At Standing Rock, But The Fight Goes On

09/10/2016 11:07 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2017
Native Americans march to a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (D
Native Americans march to a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River nearby, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Protestors were attacked by dogs and sprayed with an eye and respiratory irritant yesterday when they arrived at the site to protest after learning of the bulldozing work. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

For the last few weeks many of the finest organizers in North America have been gathering in a remote camp near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation along the Missouri River. And yesterday they won a battle that -- though temporary and tenuous -- should stand with what happened at Selma and Birmingham in the annals of America's protest history.

The backstory is fairly simple. Oil companies wanted to build a pipeline to get some of the crude that they've been fracking out of the Dakotas to market. The pipeline originally was set to cross the Missouri at Bismarck, but people pointed out that a spill there would endanger water supplies for the state capitol. So they decided to endanger water supplies on the reservation instead. The Army Corps of Engineers -- which has a long history of doing bad things to Native Americans, not to mention the environment -- granted permits for the pipeline, over the objections of other federal agencies.

The tribe went to court to block the construction -- and, as is usually the case, the tribe lost yesterday in a federal courtroom, where a judge did what judges have been doing for hundreds of years to Native Americans.

But happily that's not all the tribe did. Much more importantly they went to the court of public opinion. Native Americans from across the continent poured into the camp at Standing Rock, in a show of tribal unity not seen -- well, maybe not seen almost ever. And their protest began to resonate with the world outside.

That resonance increased last week, after the pipeline company did two very stupid things. One, it dug up a bunch of Sioux sacred sites, a day after the tribe provided the court with a list of those locations -- it was the rough equivalent of knocking over a couple of dozen churches and maybe a corner of Arlington Cemetery. And two, when protesters tried to put their bodies in the way of that desecration, the company used attack dogs on them.

The color pictures of those snarling German shepherds were almost identical to the black and white pictures from Birmingham in 1963, and they shocked people around the country. Even around the world. In Laos, three days ago, the president was holding a 'town hall' with young Asian students. I'm pretty sure the last question he expected to get was on why his government was wrecking Indian land and watching idly as Indian bodies were bitten and beaten.

As a result of that activism and that courage, yesterday -- literally seconds after the court released its predictable result -- the federal government did something pretty unprecedented. It said it was not going to let the company build the pipeline under the Missouri River. Not for now, anyway -- not until there'd been far more consultation. It was the right thing for President Obama to do. Here are some of the things it means:

  1. The rest of us now have the time to come to full support of the tribes in their battle. There are solidarity actions scheduled across the country on Tuesday -- Bernie Sanders will headline the one in D.C., in one of his first big speeches since the end of the primary campaign. They are more important now than ever.

  • We need to ask for much more than a temporary halt. The reason the Obama administration got in this mess in the first place was that they "fast-tracked" the review process for these pipelines. In an effort to appease oil companies and pipeline unions when they were forced to halt the Keystone pipeline, they started 'expediting' review of almost every other thing in the country. That has to end.
  • A real review would look not only at the impacts on water if something spills. It would look at the impacts on the climate when that oil gets burned. New federal rules announced a couple of months ago enshrines that 'climate test' as government policy; it should be followed here, since the same communities that will suffer from pipeline spills also pay an outsized price as our climate changes.
  • It sure would be nice if Hillary Clinton actually said something about any of this. So far she's been a cipher on it, apparently unwilling to buck the banks and oil companies that have poured more money into her campaign than even into Trump's. That is... sad.
  • Mostly, though, today is a day to gaze in wonder, at the amazing organizing by native groups across this continent. As in so many battles in recent years, they have been in the vanguard and on the message that matters. In a season of political blather and bluster they spoke from the heart, and they were heard. For those of us too young to remember SNCC and SCLC and Dr. King, these past weeks have given us some sense of what it must have looked like.