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:
- 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.
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.