The extreme state violence unleashed on the indigenous protesters at Standing Rock, North Dakota, is not only shocking, but should also be very instructive to all Americans who care about social justice and democracy.
The capitalist state has demonstrated just how far it is willing to go to ensure its profits are secure. Those like the Sioux Standing Rock tribal nations who valiantly stand in the way of corporate profits through their ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will find themselves on the receiving end of the full force of the state.
In the words of the malicious apparatchik, O’Brien, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back.”
Consider that the U.S. capitalist state’s unofficial slogan.
The protesters—who refer to themselves as “water protectors”—include the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe along with dozens of other native tribes and non-native activists. They have been camped out at the Sacred Stone campsite for months now to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) which would carry about 500,000 barrels of dirty crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil shale to Illinois. The $3.8 billion pipeline would run directly through the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s treaty-protected land, as well as sacred burial sites. It would also pose a considerable threat to the Missouri River, tribe’s water source.
Rebecca Solnit, writing for The Guardian in September, calls the burgeoning protest movement, “extraordinary,” and “possibly transformative for native rights, Sioux history, and the intersection of the climate movement with indigenous communities.”
But the protest has been met with vicious repression by local police forces in riot gear and the National Guard, along with heavily armored private security forces assumed to have been hired by Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation funding DAPL. In a highly disproportionate display of force similar to the state’s response to largely peaceful protests in Ferguson, Missouri, police have used tear-gas, attack dogs, pepper spray, and sound cannons on the water protectors.
The police violence reached a frightening crescendo on Nov. 20, when a protester, 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, was severely injured by what eyewitness accounts claim was a concussion grenade hurled directly at her. Wilansky’s left arm was grievously maimed during the explosion, which destroyed arteries, soft tissue, nerves, muscle, and bone, according to the Guardian. It remains to be seen whether she will need to have the arm amputated.
Officers are now denying they ever used concussion grenades on the protesters, claiming instead that protesters set off the explosion. Wilansky’s father, Wayne Wilansky, calls this account, “bogus nonsense.”
Video recordings of the night of Wilansky’s injury show the police and Morton County Sheriff’s Department officers using water cannons on protesters in sub-freezing temperatures.
Make no doubt about it: This is a terrifying act of carnage against peaceful protesters.
And where is President Barack Obama during this assault on American citizens…? It is a good question. He and the Democrats–still licking their wounds after their stunning surprise electoral defeat in this month’s presidential election–have been conspicuously silent about Standing Rock.
Earlier this month, Obama addressed the stand-off in his typically aloof, bureaucratic manner. In an interview with Now This News, in which the president tepidly broached the prospect of having the pipeline re-routed, he said:
“We are going to let it [the standoff] play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”
Obama went on to criticize “both sides” in the struggle, falsely suggesting that the First Nations protesters and the state forces are equally to blame for the escalation of violence.
“I think that my general rule when I talk to governors and state and local officials,” Obama said, “whenever they are dealing with protests–including, for example during the Black Lives Matter protests–there is an obligation for protesters to be peaceful, and there is an obligation for authorities to show restraint.”
He went on,
“I want to make sure that as everybody is exercising their constitutional rights to be heard that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt.”
But this assessment of the situation at Standing Rock is a disingenuous false equivalency. “Both sides” are not at fault, here. There is really just one side in this conflict that is employing violence and disproportionate force: The state forces, in the form of the police and the National Guard.
Furthermore, the law enforcement officers have military-grade weapons, including water cannons, rubber bullets, attack dogs, tear gas, mace, and grenades. The peaceful water protectors, meanwhile, have signs, banners and … some tribal drums. Thus, even if we are to accept Obama’s false claim that both camps are equally guilty of engaging in violence, this conflict hardly constitutes a fair fight.
As cultural studies philosopher, Theodor Adorno wrote, “Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities.”
All of this is to acknowledge that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the state is not a neutral arbiter in instances of class struggle. We are taught in school that the U.S. government operates with a system of “checks and balances,” to ensure the equitable distribution of power among competing groups (women, minorities, labor, business, immigrants, etc.).
But the state actually has a self-serving objective: The advancement of capitalism–at any cost.
As Marx and Engels observed in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist state is little more than a “committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
Or, as Paul D’Amato writes in his socialism primer, The Meaning of Marxism:
“In a society based upon massive concentrations of wealth on the one end, and poverty and low wages on the other, one billionaire has more political clout than even millions of workers.”
The point here is that the state (or, more specifically, the fossil fuel corporations like Energy Transfer Partners, which essentially control the state) has a clear financial interest in building the Dakota Access Pipeline. If it must maim–or even kill–unarmed citizens in order to achieve this end, so be it.
This is why piecemeal reforms are ultimately not sufficient to curb capitalism’s relentless thirst for ever greater profits. The entire system is incompatible with human needs–including the maintenance of a healthy, sustainable planet habitable for human life. Capitalism is literally killing the planet. It must be dismantled.
And that is why supporting the water protectors at Standing Rock, in whatever manner one is able to, is the most important thing progressives can do right now.
“Without clean water we are nothing,” one activist said. “You can’t live off of oil. You can’t drink oil.”