Here's the thing Standing Rock protesters did differently — and won

Here's the thing Standing Rock protesters did differently — and won

December 09, 2016


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CANNON BALL, N.D. — Last Friday, Hawaiian activist Andre Perez faced a crowd of about a hundred Standing Rock newbies standing halfway to their knees in snow. Most of those assembled were freshly arrived volunteers at Oceti Sakowin Camp — the northernmost of the three camps in the area and the closest to the front lines with police. If volunteers wanted to go to the front lines, where police were using concussion grenades and tear gas, they had to get through Perez's training.

"I'm gonna need a couple of rent-a-cops up here," Perez shouted over the crowd. "This next one is called a snatch-and-grab."

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As Perez and 10 volunteers played the part of the cops — with safe words if things got a little too rough — those in the crowd clasped arms to create a human barricade, sitting low in their center of gravity to make the formation stronger. The Indigenous People's Power Project, a group of indigenous organizers from around the world, ran the training every day at 2 p.m. 

The victory at Standing Rock didn't happen haphazardly. It happened because organizers understood that effective protest is a learned skill. With a series of daily training sessions, the organizers at Standing Rock taught excited volunteers a traditional model of activism based on organization, leadership and discipline. The organizers at Standing Rock say it's time to bring that approach to sovereignty struggles across the country.

The trainings ran for two hours, beginning with a review of the principles organizers had adopted listed at the head of the room on a whiteboard: "We are protectors, not protesters," "we are peaceful and prayerful" and "no weapons."

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Trainers at Oceti Sakowin Camp were adamant about nonviolence, instructing people never to put hands on the police and never bring weapons to the front lines. There's always the risk that youthful zeal and righteous anger could cause things to pop off. All the police would need in order to escalate their use of force would be one good excuse.

"We've got young bucks here who are itching to do something, and fight for freedom," Jackie, an indigenous woman from Wisconsin, told Mic at Oceti Sakowin Camp. "But we can't have that at the front lines. We've got to stay peaceful, or else we're hypocrites."

After learning how to handle an afternoon on the front lines, wash pepper spray out of another person's eyes and deal with legal matters if you're arrested, other trainers would lead the group outside to practice protest formations and how to form human barricades.

"We've got to stay peaceful, or else we're hypocrites."

The informal course was based on work by the Ruckus Society, an organization that helps activists with nonviolent protest training and tactics when called upon to help. The Indigenous People's Power Project is an offshoot of Ruckus, built to visit communities like the Lakota Sioux people of Standing Rock and offer their services, which includes building custom activist training based on a community's needs. Ruckus often holds training camps that go on for up to a week at a time, but the constant influx of new hands at Standing Rock required something more light and flexible.

"If we keep people tied down for six hours, the actions might get held up," Sharon Lungo, the executive director of the Ruckus Society, told Mic. "Nobody's asking for folks to put themselves in harm's way or get injured. It's not about sending people to jail. It's about how we strategically intervene."

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Those 2 p.m. action trainings weren't the only meetings. Oceti Sakowin Camp had a robust schedule of daily programming, updated throughout the day on white boards around the camp. At 9 a.m. each day was general orientation, where volunteers who just arrived learned the camp rules: no photographing sacred fires and ceremonies. And, the camp values: be of service, put indigenous people at the center. And at 6 p.m. were the meetings about decolonization, a word that's bubbling up into the mainstream a lot now that indigenous struggles are back in the news.

Before the declaration of victory on Sunday, the camp was receiving hundreds of new visitors a day, packing each of these sessions to the brim. By the time December came around, it was clear to the organizers the camp's population had more volunteers and guests than it did indigenous people.

"When our white folks come in, we ask them to take a look at themselves, and look at everything they've gained on the backs of our communities — not to come in with great guilt and apology, but to understand that their privilege buys them leverage and the legal system and media," Lungo said.

The trainers at Standing Rock emphasized that this means putting indigenous people back at the center, and for white allies to ask themselves how they can be of service. Barring that, Lungo said that if white allies can't "come correct," they're free to leave.

"Are you here with the best intentions, or are you here with your own agenda?" Lungo said. "This isn't about taking selfies and hanging with Indians. It's our job as outsiders to check ourselves. That's why training organizations exist."

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The day after the Army Corp of Engineers announced the Dakota Access Pipeline would have to consider alternative routes — a short-term victory for the water protectors — a blizzard tore through Standing Rock. There were over 127 cases of hypothermia, and tribal elders asked the visitors and nonessential protestors to head home, at least for the harsh North Dakota winter. With brutal winds battering the tents and small structures at Oceti, hundreds of people evacuated for their own safety.

"This isn't about taking selfies and hanging with Indians."

But Standing Rock isn't the only fight, and the point of training people in organizing and tactics is building a network of leaders so that those who stood at Standing Rock can take the fight home with them. Even as the protest will likely rage on in North Dakota, activists at home focused on the banks behind the pipeline project, like Citigroup and Wells Fargo, protesting at offices and keeping bank employees from entering their buildings.

"This isn't the only pipeline, this isn't the only dirty energy project," Lungo said. "Carrying that momentum into your community and applying it is just as important as having a physical presence out there."