By Loki Coyote
On February 22, I was arrested for resisting the eviction of the Oceti Oyate camp at Standing Rock. I’ve been mourning Oceti’s loss ever since, and I’m sure many others have too. It’s hard to see in the fog of grief, hard to think clearly in its clutches. But if we don’t learn from the example of Standing Rock, mistakes that could be avoided will be repeated. I want people to learn from Standing Rock, so that future water protectors are better prepared to fight to win. I hope these words are meaningful to someone. If they are, please write me! Those of us who were there for this immortal moment will keep the spirit of Oceti alive. Still, it hurts me. We fucking lost.
Those of you who are in the habit of defying authority have probably at some point heard a cop utter these words: “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” This is called a double bind, a false choice designed to make submission seem like the best option. If you accept that your only choices are the two that you’re being presented, you’ve already lost.
It was a foregone conclusion that the police would successfully evict the camp that day. No one intended to put up the kind of resistance that would actually be effective in stopping the eviction. How did it come to this? Why did the mighty Oceti camp allow itself to be defeated?
“We Must Be Defenseless!”
The day before the scheduled eviction, there was a meeting for people who had decided to stay in camp on February 22. Everyone was asked to hand over their phones and any other electronic devices at the entrance of the tent. Then, when the meeting was about to start, the facilitator announced that a journalist would be filming the meeting, so that if law enforcement later said in court that something had taken place in the meeting that hadn’t, there would be evidence to contradict them. I don’t understand why, but everyone just accepted this nonsense. I was the only one to object.
The facilitator of this meeting was a non-native woman I hadn’t seen before. I do not understand how this vitally important role fell to her. She made no pretense of neutrality or even-handedness. She began with a long speech about how we needed to be aware that the police would construe shields as weapons, and that people who chose to defend themselves were putting the lives of everyone else in jeopardy. She said the magic words: “Remember why you are here!” At one point she declared with stupendous moral conviction, “We must be defenceless!” Her words were a reiteration of a familiar narrative: We must be prayerful, to be prayerful means to be peaceful, to be peaceful means to be compliant. Defiance equals violence, disobedience equals disrespect. Besides leaving camp peacefully, which was strongly encouraged, there was only one option: symbolic arrest. The double bind.
I could barely take it. I hate being told what to do. I hate manipulative language and badly-facilitated meetings. In these situations, where there’s no question that undercover cops are present, many activists are reluctant to speak their minds. For security reasons, they don’t want to out themselves as militants, especially if they have something planned. You’ve got a room full of tension, full of distrust, and at a time when folks need a morale boost the most, they get exactly the opposite.
One “action” that was proposed was a prayer walk. The idea was to gather with drums, prayer flags, and sacred items, and march around Oceti before continuing straight on out of camp. Valorizing surrender. This idea was taken up enthusiastically by the facilitator, as if she’d been waiting for it to be proposed.
Eventually, a person gave a speech advocating resistance. He had a plan. He’d already started building a barricade. He wanted help. Then, in quick succession, several other people spoke up declaring their intentions to stand up to the police. The facilitator attempted to redirect the conversation back to her personal agenda. I asked on whose behalf she was speaking, and eventually she rattled off a few names, none of which I recognized. But the person who had been advocating building a barricade said that he had received explicit permission to build the barricade from one of the people the facilitator mentioned. “I’m going to start now,” he said. “Whoever wants to help, come with me.”
I followed him out. The plan was to fix four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood to posts in the ground. I spent most of the rest of the day digging holes. At first I felt good about what I was doing, then I started using my mind. It made little to no sense to build a barricade where we were building it. Someone left to go get the wood, but they never returned. By the time it was dark, I didn’t care about the barricade anymore. I went to bed early that night and slept like a baby.
The Pressure Mounts
Some have portrayed the resistance at Standing Rock as wildly successful, despite the eviction, despite the fact that oil now flows through the main vein of the Black Snake. These eternal optimists point to the many anti-pipeline campaigns inspired by Standing Rock. They point out that #NoDAPL has raised the political and economic cost of pipelines, and that some pipelines have been cancelled due to the new climate of resistance. All this makes me think of an archer who aims for a target, fires, misses, then paints a target around the arrow and claims to have hit the bull’s eye.
Let’s not sugarcoat things: We lost. We were trying to stop a pipeline, and we failed. Let’s learn from our mistakes, evaluate them, study what worked and what didn’t, and commit to being better prepared next time around. Not to say that the fight against DAPL is over. No war is ever won unless one side accepts defeat. Have the water protectors of Oceti accepted defeat? Only time will tell…
A lot took place that day.
Most peculiar of all was a certain quality of ordinariness. Maybe there’s only so much the mind can take before it decides to reassert normalcy. Maybe if one could just manage to ignore how surreal everything was, things would go back to normal.
I found a deflated soccer ball lying around. I joked that we should challenge the cops to a game of soccer, telling them that we’d leave if they beat us fair and square, so long as they’d fuck off if we beat them. I’ve read about how radical clowns mess with the cops in Europe, and it seemed like a good alternative to the binary of submission or violence. It makes sense to me to use humour as a way to diffuse tension.
The day earlier, the prayer walk had been proposed as an action to boost morale. I kept my distance. Later I read that the leader of this prayer walk had declared victory, telling the crowd: “We’re here to tell the spirits that we won.”
The Hour Strikes
At 2:00 pm, the time that we had been told a few days prior that police would start making arrests, a group of at least thirty people gathered near the road, many bloc’ed up, wearing masks, body armour, gas masks, goggles, and other protective gear. There were three shields. Someone had created a small barricade with barbed wire at the entrance into camp. Mad props to whoever did that, if you’re reading this.
No one had a plan. We were just a bunch of rebels who didn’t want to roll over and let the police move into a place that meant so much to us, a place of such global significance. We milled about. Two o’clock came and went without incident. Some of us started playing soccer in the mud with the deflated ball. Someone showed me where to find an inflated ball. Maybe it sounds silly, but that meant a lot to me.
A woman that I’d only seen once before wound up in the important role of police liaison. She wore a shabby high-visibility vest with the words “neutral mediator” written on it in Sharpie. She wasn’t presenting herself as a water protector, but as a third party working for some unspecified organization.
Everything she said was fear-mongering. We were told at one point that those people who wanted to be peacefully arrested were to go to the road. There was a subtle threat woven into the presentation of this option, implying that people who remained in camp would also be arrested, but face more dire consequences, such as police violence and felony charges. Later, in a variation on the same theme, the police liaison came back and told the remaining water protectors that if they didn’t leave, the police would be coming into the camp “with live rounds.” I thought this was ridiculous: Don’t police normally have “live rounds” in the gun at their hip? But energy flows where attention goes; little things like this contributed to a doubtful, indecisive mood.
Sometime not long after 2:00 pm, a handsome young man rolled in and gave an incredible performance, calling upon everyone in the crowd to rise to the occasion, to find their warrior spirit. There was a twist, though; it wasn’t a call to fight, it was a call to flight. Pacing back and forth, his whole body electric, hands and arms gesticulating furiously, this zealot gave a passionate speech about how we should all march out of camp, in the name of the movement. He invoked the spirits. He called on the thunder beings. Other than a short beginning, it was framed as a prayer. As such, it wasn’t up for debate. Who interrupts a prayer? It framed walking away from the camp as the noble thing, the intelligent thing, the brave thing. It was an incredible use of language.
One of the things that he yelled with conviction was a phrase that we’d heard many times before, in different contexts: REMEMBER WHY YOU ARE HERE!
I urge everyone to think about this phrase, because it was incredibly effective at silencing people. On the surface, it is benign, but its effect is powerful. The command “Remember why you are here!” implies togetherness—that why you are here is the same as the reason I am here, and therefore what I am encouraging you to do is what you yourself want to do. Say the words “Remember why you are here!” and then follow it with a volley of embedded commands; while the conscious mind is searching for an amorphous memory, the subconscious mind accepts the suggestions.
It was almost 4:00 pm when the police started threatening people with arrest. There was a crowd on the road, where there was a line of riot cops. The boss was ordering people to leave or face arrest. A lot of people had cameras. Some were livestreaming. Legal observers were present. The line between spectator and participant was blurry.
Then, the first arrest. A snatch squad rushed forward, grabbed someone, and pulled him back behind the police line. Some people fled in terror. I was arrested and charged with two misdemeanours Eight other people got arrested along with me. We spent the night in jail. The worst part of the experience was spending three hours in a van with our hands bound. It hurt. Last time I spoke with the legal team, they told me that dozens of misdemeanour charges had been dropped, and that there’s a good chance that mine will be dropped too. And that is where my story ends.
Some Seeds Need Fire to Open Them
Oceti meant a lot to me. It came as the fulfillment of a dream and the answer to a prayer. Before the movement at Standing Rock arose, I envisioned the anti-pipeline movement giving rise to truly sovereign territories. This is what decolonization means to me—not a shift in attitude, but freeing land-based communities from state control. It was my hope that Oceti would become an autonomous zone, where plans for a more beautiful world could be hatched.
Now that my wish has been granted, and its time has come and gone, I’m left picking up the pieces of my dreams, shards that will cut me if I hold them the wrong way. I’m driven by a maddening hunch that if I put them together the right way, they’ll spell out a secret message that will re-enchant the world.
Please, make no mistake: I have tremendous faith. I too acknowledge the magnificent beauty of what transpired at Standing Rock. The beauty of life is not diminished by death, nor is the beauty of a moment in time diminished by its ending. The spirit of Oceti Oyate will live on in the hearts and minds of all those who gave themselves whole-heartedly to it, and each of these water protectors now carries a seed within their hearts, which they will take to the four directions. And some seeds need fire to open them.
I’m profoundly grateful to have been a part of this moment in history, which will dwell in our collective memory for generations. For a time, I lived my dream of living in a society without authority, without money, rooted in a deep respect for all life. At Standing Rock, we were free. We felt part of the Great Circle of life—deeply connected to both the past and the future, drawing from a well that is the source.
Understanding the Enemy Within
I believe that Oceti Oyate was defeated because of shrewd COINTELPRO-style tactics. Divide-and-conquer tactics. Psychological warfare, spiritual warfare; whichever you prefer. Just like everyone else, I’m left guessing. The available evidence doesn’t lend itself to any tidy conclusions.
We can theorize, though, and we should. It’s only safe to assume that whatever government programs (and their corporate counterparts) have descended from COINTRELPRO are leaps and bounds ahead of their predecessor. The enemy is amongst us… sowing seeds of discord, pacifying us when it is strategic to agitate, agitating when it would be wise to stand down.
What’s worse is the thought that the enemy is within our own minds as well. Many people on our side have internalized the mainstream media narrative of “good protester vs. bad protester.” Now we have the narrative of the “good ally vs. agitator.” Certain ideologies are operational and self-reinforcing at this point—ideologies which may have been promoted by our enemies in ways too obscure to pin down. Some will consider this conspiracy theory, but I’m convinced that certain attitudes serve those in power too well to have arisen accidentally. I can’t point my finger at anyone and accuse them of being a government agent without evidence. I can tell a story, though. I can do my best to convey to others what it feels to live inside a riddle.
Make no mistake: We can be sure that state and corporate forces are at this very moment recruiting and training agents to disrupt our movement, to derail us, to pacify us, to divert our energy into useless channels. They’ll use what they learned from Standing Rock; use spirituality to divide people; use clever techniques of persuasion to promote weak ideas, tactics, and strategies. They’ll use the politics of legitimacy to divide people; use smear campaigns; use anti-oppression politics, especially the spectre of the “good ally.” If we are to prevail, we must be solid, resolute, and practice a culture of solidarity. We must be strong in ourselves, unwavering in our belief, unshakable in our determination. And we must be willing to be honest with ourselves, preferring hard truth to easy fantasy.
This Ain’t Over
To my enemies reading this, mark my words: This ain’t over. The day is fast approaching when you will realize that we are no longer resisting you. You are resisting us. A new world will be born from the ashes of your crumbling empire, and day will break on the dawn of total freedom. Your legacies will live in infamy, serving as nothing more than pathetic examples of human stupidity, sad reminders of the price of ignorance, cautionary tales about the dangers of greed. We are armed with visions infinitely more powerful than your money, your guns, and your lies. You’ve seen our movement grow, but you ain’t seen nothing yet. We’re just getting warmed up, motherfuckers.
MNI WICONI! WATER IS LIFE!
This article is meant to be part of a series reflecting on lessons that can be learned from Standing Rock. If you participated in the movement and want to contribute to the conversation, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.