Two cheers for the Standing Rock Sioux. They fought and they won. But they won ugly. They won by leveraging the fact that white lives matter and some white lives matter more than others. The Army Corps of Engineers folded their cards at 5:30 PM on Sunday evening, after the veterans’ color guard was formed up and moving in the direction of the police line. Another 10-15 minutes and white war veterans were going to be killed or maimed and the Corps wasn’t going to wear that. They don’t care about Indians. They don’t care a whole lot more about white civilians. But they care about their own.
Go back two weeks and the only reason the vets got involved was because the Morton County deputies maimed a white girl. Is this really the way it has to work now? Do we all have to become the International Solidarity Movement and deliberately try to get pretty young white girls injured or killed so we can leverage the sympathy when it happens?
The precedent I’m worried about is that Standing Rock is going to be the model for a lot of future protest campaigns, some Native, some not. And they’re going to know in advance, the way the Sioux didn’t know at the time, that they’re going to need to wave a child’s bloody shirt. Sophia Wilansky’s injury wasn’t incidental, it wasn’t just this horrible thing the cops did to her along the way to her campaign winning. Without it, there’s a fraction as much national press, there’s no 2000 veterans, there’s no last-minute reversal by the Army Corps of Engineers, there’s no win. That’s why I called it “ugly”. It’s an ugly position to be in, even if nobody on our side did anything wrong.
When some other group, one more willing to cut ethical corners, decides they’re going to try and replicate Standing Rock’s success, the ethical corner they’ll want to cut first is sort of obvious—they won’t tell the photogenic young true believers how much danger they’re really in. If the kids figure it out for themselves, they’ll be gut-checked over and over and over until they’re less afraid of getting injured than they are of saying no.
I’ve seen this children’s crusade stuff go on on a small scale in New York 30 years ago. I’ve seen a guy my own age just mercilessly gut-checking this 18 year old kid in the Montreal anarchist scene maybe 10 years ago. I won’t name the older guy but if I did, you’d recognize it.
I also reported on a group in Palestine who lied to and manipulated their own people on a large scale and ended up getting two of them killed. I found plenty of evidence on my own to call them “criminally negligent” but none to call them anything stronger than that. Right after I filed my half of the story I was handed the rest of it. It went far beyond just criminal negligence. They expected one of their people to be killed. They wanted her to be killed. Just so they could get paid off in sympathy.
I’m happy Standing Rock won. I wouldn’t wish that part any other way. I’m not crazy about the way the more cold and cynical operators in our movement might take it as validating their methods.
Apparently this victory confirms what I’ve been saying all along. (John, if your boy Aaron Haspel wants royalties for the phrase, he can have them. I’m going to use it that often.)
For the last 15 years I’ve been saying “Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics” and “Staying power beats firepower”. When I went off to cover the Afghanistan War, I was pretty confident the Afghans were going to win. I just needed some evidence more concrete and compelling than “Because they’re the Afghans. They always win.” I found it in the material aid drives all over Pakistan. Once I had a sense of how long and how deep the Taliban’s supply lines really were, I had something to point to that said “They are prepared to outlast us.”
Outfighting the police is no longer the winner strategy it was 30 years ago. They have better training, better gear and looser rules of engagement. But outlasting them can still work. We just saw it.
I spent my two days at the Standing Rock helping out at the donations and supply tents. Partly because it’s just what you do. If you go to one of these things, you bring all your own shit, from weather gear to drinking water. And you help out. It takes a vast amount of work to sustain a permanent camp. It’s not cool to treat it like a hotel. But I also wanted to check out their logistics from the inside. They were good. Somewhat in panic mode over the camp doubling in size in a week. Caught off guard by the number of veterans who showed up without winter clothes, bedding or tents. (Side note: If you’re an American soldier and you’re reduced to begging blankets from the Indians, you made a wrong turn somewhere. Just saying.) And they were completely overwhelmed by dozens of tons of swedow (“Stuff We Don’t Want”).
But they were coping with all of it and getting everyone what they needed when they needed it. Just about everybody working on the camp logistics was young white kids with an activisty look to them. Occupy types or else they wish they had been.
Here’s something I wasn’t saying all along. The Occupy campaign was so unfocused I never stopped to think about the skills being developed there and what they could do for a campaign with a clear, specific and achievable goal. But it’s obvious in hindsight. Thirty years ago, the movement really only had a dozen people in a single group (Seeds of Peace) who knew how to support a permanent camp of several thousand people. Now there’s hundreds of people who have done it, thousands who have seen it done, in every major city in North America. This capability is going to be as important in the next couple of decades as Black Bloc tactics were in the 1990s and 2000s.
More about the swedow thing: I get it. People mean well. Their hearts are in the right place. And you can’t be too careful when it comes to money. Can’t take the chance it’ll be stolen or misspent. It’s just . . . sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know. If you’ve spent several days outdoors in a cold climate in the winter, you know what kind of clothes and bedding that requires. If you haven’t, you probably don’t. This is specialized stuff. Nobody just has it lying around the house. And it’s not even that one person’s old tennis shoes by themselves are a BFD that cost the recipients real money. It’s those old shoes, plus a hundred thousand other peoples’ that are a BFD.
Once you’re talking about tons of material a day, it costs money to transport it. The camp was renting two of the biggest u-haul trucks there are, just to shuttle donations from Bismarck to the camp every day. They had to collect it every day because the Bismarck post office and courier companies all had their storage space overwhelmed by the volume of stuff. That’s close to $200 a day, every day. It costs money to store it out of the rain. Once the stuff is in the camp, every pair of truckloads needs one army tent (about $1500 used, that would otherwise shelter 24 people). Then it’s got to be picked through. That costs people’s time. Maybe a tenth by weight is the same items, same quality as what the camp would buy for cash if it had the cash. Maybe another tenth isn’t really up to standards but it can be made to work if there’s nothing better. Separating the usable items from the junk takes the work of dozen people for a full day. That’s a dozen people not available for building, cooking, distributing usable gear to people who need it, etc. And then the rest of the donations have to go to Goodwill. Back in Bismarck. Another $200 a day to get it there. It adds up.
p.s. There’s something a little bit obscene about burning five full tanks of gasoline just to put in a personal appearance at a pipeline protest. I’m still going, don’t get me wrong, but I just want to be clear that the irony isn’t lost on me. Somehow it never is.