The confrontation seemed imminent.
The governor of North Dakota and the Army Corps of Engineers had both issued orders to close down Sacred Stone Camp, the main protest encampment near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, and allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed. Despite initial warnings that they’d be forcibly removed if they refused to relocate to a nearby “free speech zone” by December 5, the self-described “water protectors” vowed to hold the camp. As the deadline approached, some two thousand US military veterans arrived, promising to form a “human shield” to block any eviction.
Then, yesterday, came the Army Corps’ surprise announcement: Dakota Access would not be given the permits it needs to drill under the Missouri River, effectively halting the $3.8 billion oil infrastructure project. Auditors will now conduct an environmental impact statement and search for alternate routes.
The announcement is a tremendous victory for the water protectors — even after allowing that the delay could be temporary (the company will appeal, and Donald Trump is a pipeline investor), that the pipeline could simply be rerouted (rather than nixed), and that Trump’s “law-and-order” rhetoric is a clear sign his administration will have no compunction about cracking skulls.
The Army Corps’ about-face is especially impressive considering the level of repression protesters have endured in recent months.
In September, private security sicced dogs on protesters trying to obstruct the bulldozing of a sacred site. In October, the police, donning body armor and driving armored hummers, arrested 127 demonstrators and used tasers, pepper spray, beanbag rounds, and sound cannons to disperse a blockade that had stopped traffic for days. Last month, law enforcement sprayed protesters with fire hoses in below-freezing weather and fired tear gas and rubber bullets to clear hundreds of protesters who were blocking a bridge. Over three hundred water protectors received treatment for hypothermia, and twenty-six were hospitalized.
Yet the state’s crackdown at Standing Rock has also been more than simple heavy-handed brutality. It’s showcased the modes of repression that the state has developed in reaction to recent social movements: namely, aggressive disruption of protest; psychological warfare; and wholesale surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
At Standing Rock, we’ve seen the largest mobilization of Native American peoples in decades and an efflorescence of solidarity actions around the country. We’ve seen the further escalation of the confrontational, unpermitted protests and direct actions that Occupy Wall Street favored and Black Lives Matter intensified.
And we’ve also witnessed how the state responds when corporate power is under attack.
Containment and Control
During the alter-globalization movement of the late 1990s, police were faced with a problem: instead of negotiating with local authorities for permits, activists launched direct actions to try to shut down trade meetings.
Violent repression, while useful, wasn’t their first choice to subdue these confrontational protests. So police developed another tactic: controlling the physical movement of protesters.
In urban areas, authorities track protests with coordinated mobile police teams that use their own movement in formation and, if necessary, “less lethal weapons” to “kettle” groups of demonstrators, limiting their motion and impeding their ability to disrupt. Activists with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter quickly became accustomed to the containment methods and crowd-control techniques of police.
In rural areas, police try to physically relocate demonstrations to areas where they’ll be less disruptive. At Standing Rock, this logic was at work in the abortive effort to move the encampment to “a free speech zone” south of Cannonball River, where protests would not obstruct construction.
The goal is to disorient and disassemble, rendering previously explosive demonstrations manageable. But the authorities have been strikingly unsuccessful at Standing Rock. While they’ve consciously drawn on past episodes — a series of FEMA training modules for “field force operations” cites a litany of protest actions from recent movements by way of instruction — law enforcement has proven unable to control the movement of protesters.
Even when it’s working, physical disruption alone is not enough to tame combative protests.
At Standing Rock — as at alter-globalization demonstrations — police agencies, government agencies, and corporate interests have launched a public relations offensive to tilt public sentiment against demonstrators. Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a lobby organization bankrolled by a collection of business associations and conservative labor unions, has created the Standing Rock Fact Checker, a website that purports to promote “the truth” and rebut “misinformation about the approved — and nearly complete — Dakota Access project.”
These psychological warfare operations also mobilize older “law-and-order” rhetoric about protests. Morton County sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, for example, has described the peaceful demonstrations as “an ongoing riot.”
At one point, the sheriff’s department used Facebook to make unsupported claims that water protectors attacked journalists and built bombs. Last month, after a police grenade severely injured a water protector named Sophia Wilansky — sending her to a hospital in Minneapolis, where doctors successfully treated her without having to amputate her severely injured arm — the sheriff blamed Wilansky’s injuries on a propane canister activists had ostensibly made into a bomb. When Mekasi Camp-Horinek, a water protector and camp coordinator, challenged Kirchmeier’s assertions, the sheriff admitted he had misspoken.
Shortly after backpedaling on the propane canister allegations, the sheriff’s department shut down its (possibly hacked) Facebook page as part of a new public relations push. After a few days of radio silence, the department (now on Twitter too!) took to social media to push out its own web series: “Know the Truth,” a collection of short videos that divides protesters into a reasonable, law-abiding majority and a violent fringe “that uses them [i.e. peaceful protesters] as their disguise.”
Of course, these more subtle attempts to influence public opinion have also been supplemented by overt repression: local authorities have arrested reporters, and the Federal Aviation Administration has imposed a no-fly zone to prevent journalist-piloted drones from documenting protests. Law enforcement has even gone so far as to shoot down such drones.
The frenzied build-up of the intelligence capacities of state and local police has given law enforcement at Standing Rock another tool to quash protests. Over the last decade and a half, as a result of this multi-billion dollar investment in “counterterrorism,” American police — an army of nearly 900,000 spread across some 12,600 agencies — are now armed like soldiers, with sophisticated intelligence systems and information-sharing networks at their disposal. Today, 268 federally funded interagency “fusion centers” produce intelligence for state and local police.
We know that some of these fusion centers have monitored both Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and have some reason to believe that authorities have kept an eye on Standing Rock as well. Emails obtained by the independent media outlet Unicorn Riot included a “Bi-Weekly Cybersecurity Rollup” from the local fusion center that references media reports on actions organized by water protectors. While it’s possible that the North Dakota State and Local Intelligence Center is providing innocuous updates and nothing more, history suggests that the state has taken a more active role in surveilling protesters at Standing Rock.
Through these fusion centers and their partner agencies, state and local cops can potentially use powerful intelligence collection tools like “Stingrays,” which mimic cell towers and collect cellphone data. Police typically deploy this tool in poor, predominately minority neighborhoods. At Standing Rock, Vice reported in October, cellphones began to exhibit “telltale sign[s]” of stingray surveillance. The same month, the ACLU and NLG seemed to be on to something, sending Freedom of Information Act requests to multiple agencies, including some out-of-state jurisdictions that could potentially provide the Morton County Sheriff with access to a Stringray.
While only traces and possible outlets of sophisticated digital surveillance are visible at this point, there is ample evidence of constant intelligence collection at Standing Rock. Days at the encampments begin with aerial surveillance. If there is an action planned, the planes and helicopters fly all day.
At checkpoints and roadblocks, police and the National Guard regulate movements and compile data. They stop traffic and question drivers and passengers about their destination and reasons for traveling. They check IDs and license plates of anyone driving through one of the roadblocks.
Some arrested water protectors even claimed to have been “interrogated by a gang intelligence unit from the North Dakota Department of Corrections and asked questions about where they are camped and with whom they are associated.”
Which Side Are You On?
The repressive tactics deployed against water protectors — aggressive disruption of protest; psychological warfare; wholesale surveillance and intelligence-gathering — make their victory all the more impressive. This win, however, wasn’t an accident. The protesters prevailed because they had power. Not mere “moral authority,” but real social power. Their disruptive direct actions polarized the issue. Their refusal to abandon their encampment heightened the lines of conflict, and the Obama administration blinked first.
The protesters’ victory underscores an important point: disruptive protests open up new political possibilities by creating “elite fragmentation.” They widen fault lines, making a politics of accommodation difficult. They generate space for new alignments and dramatic policy shifts. Consider, for example, how the sit down-strikes of the 1930s midwifed the political conditions for the New Deal, or the way the sit-ins and Freedom Rides and Montgomery Bus Boycott made the South ungovernable and Jim Crow untenable.
Could Standing Rock become the wedge that drives another realignment? It’s already exacerbating divisions with the Democratic Party. And Sunday’s victory certainly provides more momentum for the forces that could effect a tectonic shift.
If the water protectors can stop pipeline construction for good, it would be a tremendous advance for indigenous people and the climate justice movement. It would further galvanize popular resistance to the Trump administration, which promises to abandon Obama’s mild reforms and launch new offensives against marginalized groups, workers, and the environment.
The coming months will be filled with more struggle, more direct action. But already the showdown at Standing Rock has clarified much about the contemporary contours of state repression — and how to beat it.