One hundred flags lining either side of the road lead us into the Standing Rock, North Dakota, camp. Each flag represented a different tribe or an oppressed communityâ€”a United Nations united by occupation.
I spent a weekend as a participant in the Standing Rock pipeline protest after meeting up with members of the Native American Women's Association at my school, Washington State University. What I witnessed there was a collection of human beings organized and prepared to make legitimate change. With minimal funds, the camp had set up a communal kitchen, a medical station, and was in the process of building a school during my time there.
I asked the guard when we entered the first camp how long he was planning on staying there. He replied, "this is my home now."
On my second day I attended a community meeting in a long brown tent on top of the hill that overlooked the entire encampment. While I sat on the dirt floor, legs crossed and cramping, I experienced solidarity in spoken word. Even when disagreements were vocalized, every turn was ended with a plea. Every speaker asked their sisters and brothers to accept two things: first, that any disagreements we had with each other was minimal in the face of the giant we were fighting and second, that this was not about the pipeline. The struggle was beyond that.
What we struggle against is a system that unrepentantly disenfranchises people of color, women, the queer community, religious minorities, and the poor. This is not a flaw in the system; it is the point of the system. The system we live in now does not only thrive on exploitation, it survives because of it.
We left our encampment in the middle of the day to visit the nearest construction site. The dusty road led us for only a few minutes until a few large yellow machines caught our attention. On our left, barred behind a fence hanging with protestors' signs, was the construction site. A wasteland of seemingly abandoned pipes, excavators, and other supplies discarded on a pocketed earth, like some young boys lost interest with their sandbox and toys. On our right was a small camp, occupied by no more than twenty people. The housing was made from what looked like discarded scraps of wood and metal.
"Behind us is a burial ground. Thousands of our ancestors rest here," one of the residents, a young Native American, told me. I asked if they were really going to bulldoze the land and try to lay down the pipeline here.
"They already did a little. We were able to set up camp here, though, so now they're working somewhere else," he said.
The history of the American nation that we were taught about in school is not the reality of that which actually existed. America's history, the one that is hidden from its people, is one in which dissenting voices are silenced. From groups such as the Black Panthers and the Chicano Movement in the mid-twentieth century to the Water Protectors and Black Lives Matter Activists of today, those who have made legitimate criticisms of the foundational structure of America have always been targeted; in many cases they've been met with acts of state-sponsored violence. Simply put, America has never been great.
While some American citizens reside in mansions and make more money in a week than some will make in a year, even more citizens are wondering if they will be able to simply drink clean water tomorrow. We watch our family members die from treatable diseases simply because we cannot afford the cure and then defend the system that says you must be rich to survive. The biggest flaw of every generation is the acceptance of the status quo, but the status quo is what brought us hear in the first place.
- The status quo is oppression.
- The status quo is the silencing of people who deserve to be heard.
- The status quo is allowing our government to respond to indigenous people's demand for clean water with rubber bullets and flash grenades.
- The status quo would lead us to believe that if we simply vote the right way or buy the right things, all of our problems will be fixed.
We, especially those of us who hold privilege, must start paying attention. We are living our lives seemingly oblivious to that the system, "the status quo" we continue to uphold, is one that leads the majority of our population into destitution.
My generation has continually been seen as selfish and spoiled. Demanding access to clean water is not selfish. Demanding that cops stop killing unarmed people of color is not spoiled. We do not have to accept the world for what it is; we can create a new one. The Native Americans at Standing Rock have started that new world. Like so many before them, they are the harbingers of change.
My plea is that this generation, my generation, looks to the past and present and says, "we can do better, and we can do it differently." We do not have to follow in the footsteps of the past. This is our world now and we get to decide how things are done. It's time to start acting like it.
That's exactly what the water protectors at Standing Rock have done. According to TIME, Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline, has been denied access to continue by the Army Corps of Engineers; they now must lay their pipeline through an alternative route.
It's imperative that we do not forget the last five months. This victory came only after thousands of citizens rose to their feet and refused to sit back down. They were sprayed with water in sub-freezing temperatures, they were shot with rubber bullets, and they were caged in dog kennels. But they did not waver.
This is what true progress looks like. It has never come from the ballot box. At the very least, it never starts there. True progress always comes from a group of individuals so fed up they take their signs and they take their voices (and sometimes they even take their tent), and they use it all to heave a wrench right in the gears of society. The Native Americans leading this fight risked their bodies to show us a picture of what life is like under occupation.
The least we can do is open our eyes and look.
Guest author Jackson Ferderer is a political activist and student at Washington State University. He is currently the Editor in Chief of LandEscapes, WSU's literary magazine, and Vice President of WSU's Men for Social Change.
All images by Emma Hall, used with permission
The New Civil Rights Movement from time to time publishes personal stories, like this one, to share experiences from the diverse progressive community.
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