The Front

“Let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution…”

-Benjamin Franklin

All photos accredited to Elizabeth George.

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It was after dark on the evening of November 20th when someone cried out, “All Water Protectors to the barricade!” I turned to the camp cook and said, “I’ll clean my bowl when I get back.” This was the best food in camp. The chef was a former computer programmer who had gone luddite. He wore a scuffed red cowboy shirt with pearl snaps. He didn’t use Federal Reserve currency and he wore blue blockers to stop the floodlights in the north, set up over the Dakota Access Pipeline, from affecting his pineal gland and serotonin levels. But the soup – amazing. It could have anything in it. Venison, bison, elk, and every vegetable if it made sense. He only used good, pink salt, and too much coriander. But the spice was perfect.

I jumped in a random car and headed to the barricade.

The road veered left towards the bridge passing over the Cannon Ball River. Cars were haphazardly parked along the shoulders. People were walking to the front. I rounded the bend and saw the soft blue floodlights shining down onto a mob of water protectors standing on the bridge. The barricade was two army troop carriers left in place on the far side of the bridge. I pulled out my camera and started capturing.

Frost was forming on the guard rails and the river had started to freeze. A semi was parked at the nearside of the bridge. I asked someone why it was there, and they told me it was to pull the barricades out. The windows were spidered from shots fired at them. People were rushing all around in the eerie blue light and shadows, getting ready to push against the barricades and create the supply lines. This was all so hectic compared to the other actions in Bismarck and elsewhere to oppose DAPL. Why had this happened now?

Earlier that day, I had been at a meeting of the Native Elders in Oceti Sakowin, the largest camp of Standing Rock. An elder explained that the drilling had begun to a vertical depth of 200 feet at the rate of 12 feet a day. This was legal, but horizontal drilling was not. On the bridge, I asked a protector in a face mask why this was happening. He told me they had begun drilling on both sides of the river. I pulled up my mask and concealed my media badge to avoid being targeted, as media, medics, and natives often are.

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Up at the front people were shouting. There were makeshift shields made of half garbage cans, plastic tote lids, and particle board from camp. Some had military grade gas masks, painters mask, medical masks and goggles. Protectors spread out along the razor wire opposite armed police in riot gear. Two sound cannons were stationed centered between the floodlights. Then the third wave began.

A concussion grenade exploded in the front, followed by a firehose full of bear mace. Tear gas charges launched to the eastern side of the bridge to catch the westward wind. Protectors ran down the embankment to hurl the hot canisters into the river and back over the line. Nylon beanbags filled with heavy gravel and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd. Tear gas drifted into us like an unknown menace.

Tear gas feels like having an asthma attack with intense nausea, along with burning of the eyes, sinuses and lungs. The crowd panicked and turned back to escape the sensation of drowning. The involuntary desire to breath is enormous, but utterly dangerous. Everyone was frightened. Someone shouted over the chaos, “It will pass! You’ll be alright!”

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The undiscovered canisters lit fires in the grass. Protectors would run to extinguish them while under fire. The next day, Morton County Sheriff would report that protectors lit over a dozen fires that evening. Over the next two hours, four camp fires were lit by water protectors. One on the south side in a lower ravine. Another midway on the bridge. And two were lit on the far east side down by the river where the razor wire terminated on the water.

People shouted for medics and as disabled were carried in from the frontline. The injuries ranged from headshots to limbs from beanbags and rubber bullets or canisters. Over the course of the night, over 140 people were treated by medical personnel and seven were taken to hospital. One woman, late in the night, was shot with a concussion grenade while retreating. It was reported to Oceti Sakowin Camp Media that she is undergoing surgery to save the arm from requiring amputation.

The firehose began to spray water that steamed in the frigid air. Behind the line, a mob of headlights began to arrive and hundreds of police poured toward the front. They fanned out along the razor wire along with the National Guard in military fatigues and hummers. To the west was a large frozen marsh where protectors had begun to flank to. Police rallied out and set up their own encampment across the field. Down the center line of battle, the fireless police encampments in the northwest and the fireside protector encampments in the southeast created the shape of a yin-yang.

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Three separate fires broke out in the hills across the Cannon Ball River. No one knew who started them. Two cars sat overhead that were not Protectors. Our drone, operated by an independent media observer, flew over the entirety of the battle. Police took aim to down it, but it escaped their shots.

Icicles formed on the razor wire and the frame of the burned up barricade. Each time I returned to the front they would stretch longer like hanging glass teeth. Protectors at the front stood up with their arms raised high, letting the water drench them triumphantly to the pride of those behind them. Another grenade went off and a second volley of canisters flew into the crowd. The Cannon Ball River had frozen and could not be extinguished there. A cloud of green brown smoke settled upon us once again. I carried out a grown man who had been deeper in the front and was worse off than me. He wretched on the ground trying desperately to expel the poison – only taking in more. Police and Guardsmen fired at people attempting to help other people and the defiant. On the eastern horizon, a yellow quarter moon followed Orion the Hunter into the sky.

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The air became colder. A woman to my left was struck in the skull by a rubber bullet and collapsed. Crying, she was carried off. A native man took a shot in the leg. He walked it off, turned around, and retorted, “F*** you!” at the cop who shot him, who then shot him a second time. He and his buddies laughed it off, in a combination of bravado and slapstick satisfaction.

Blankets and hot food came in from camp. People who’d been drenched becoming hypothermic. Down on the eastern embankment were two large fires surrounded by protectors. The firehose attempted to douse the nearest flames, but the crowd put up tarps on their backs to protect the embers. A man carrying a tray of teacups on a silver platter and a thermos of puerh tea crossed over to them, came around, and stuck his head up between the flames and the besieged tarp holders.

“Would anyone like some hot tea!?”

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There are people out here with real lives and real careers that have been put on hold to fight this perceived and certain evil. I met a ballerina on her way to joining cirque de sole. Any strike from one of these projectiles could cost her everything she has worked for. She walked up to the front lines, and spoke frankly to the police. She told them she understood that they were suffering too. We were doing this for them too, and 18 million others jeopardized by the pipeline. With a show of real character, she told them she forgave them. To risk everything she has to make this heartfelt statement across the divide reminds me to not hate the police for serving their duty. Over 90% of their time is spent keeping communities safe from injustice. Here, it’s obvious many of them do not like hurting people for fun – Others seem sadistic.

When I say sadistic, I am referring to the tendency of police to go beyond the wartime principle of proportionality, and into the realm of police brutality. One counter argument of this is, like Hiroshima, brutality breaks the will to fight – after all, it’s war, right? It can be said that those who are injured knew the risks of standing up to DAPL. What’s a lost arm, or a ruined career over one pipeline among the 2.4 million miles of lines currently carrying oil across the US?

The problem with this situation is that it isn’t dissuading fighters – it’s emboldening them. As the bodies take an unjust punishment, the insult in their hearts become a powder keg.

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That evening, several rocks were thrown over the barricade. To our deep shame, those rocks flew to tarnish the claim of a purely non-violent resistance. Tensions are not always channeled by prayers. It only takes one person to damage our good faith. Officers in Mandan claimed two deputies were injured by the rocks, compared to the two-hundred Protectors who were injured that night. One woman, struck in the head, lost partial use of an eye.

When the Protectors do not escalate, and instead stand their ground, DAPL supporters pick the stories that cast the movement as corrupt, such as the rocks, lending to smear campaigns against the movement. Rumor spread in Bismarck that water protectors were paid over $30 an hour by the railroad industry because they will lose business over the pipeline. This follow-the-money reasoning is quaint, and wholly false.

If it isn’t, I want my overtime.

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The police swept waves of beanbags and rubber bullets between the firesides in the southeast and the center line followed by the hose. The density of people at the front began to wane around 11pm. It would go on until around 4am. The quarter moon beamed white and Orion began to set. The terror of the situation challenged the resolve of weaker hearts, and emboldened the steadfast. Choking on gas and seeing limp bodies carried away chilled my politics. My thoughts became fragmented and illogical. Why is this important to do? I thought of lists, of names, of fascism and civil rights, and I understand why the Preamble of the Constitution begins on that declarative note, “We the People…”

It is not “Me the Person.” We the People is a single object in solidarity.

That declaration was keyed to address this moment and others like it. The idea that We the People will face obstacles to our livelihoods from both foreign and domestic subversion. For this movement to prevail, we must strive to be as One.

 

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