Photo by LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS via THE GUARDIAN
BY ERIC ASHLEIGH As a long-suffering progressive in good standing with my own conscience, I’ve stood silently by for a decade watching each emerging call for revolution thwarted across the globe by a much more organized enemy — the forces of unapologetic greed, intolerance and state-sanctioned violence. I’ve been waiting impatiently to find a cause that wasn’t just talk, or casual activism but something that had a physical manifestation and on the endless horizon of the Great Plains, I believe we’ve found the template.
To see the remnants of a once-proud and thriving nation that was decimated by these same dark forces stand together in this modern world – unassisted, unknown and unafraid was something I had to witness. In person and not simply through the digital looking glass. Boots on the ground and the frigid air in my lungs. So I decided, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, go out to Standing Rock and get my fair share of abuse.
I departed Philadelphia early on the 4th of December with a truck full of supplies, full batteries in all my photo gear and a brand new pair of boots. It took me 36 hours and three blizzards to make the 1738 mile trek into camp. But it was the last 30 miles that took my breath away. The icy landscape in and around the Oceti Sakowin Camp was unforgettable. A few hours before reaching the camp, reports came over the radio that the Obama administration had interceded on behalf of the protesters and halted construction of the Standing Rock pipeline. Both the Sioux and the police asked all the protesters to go back home, though few of the well-meaning protesters that had come from all over country heeded that request. I figured I’d come this far, might as well press on and see what there was to see, maybe take a few pictures.
Upon arriving at Oceti Sakowin Camp, I drove through the winding ways and haphazard structures of the protest camp in quiet awe. It felt as though I had traveled back in time – or forward perhaps, to a place where racial and social divides no longer mattered, and this hugely diverse culture of protesters worked together for the good of each other, and the cause.
Lining the hillsides all around camp were law enforcement convoys of black and white SUV’s, as well as military vehicles, communications towers and the blinding glare of spotlights 24 hours a day. There was the constant whir of helicopters buzzing the tops of the trees that surrounded the camp. Some of the protesters spoke of military airplanes spraying chemicals from high altitudes. On behalf of giant fossil fuel corporations, the might of the U.S. army was arrayed against a ragtag band of American citizens standing up for what they believe a just and noble cause, and not one person in the protest camp was armed. Welcome to the front lines of Corporate Warfare.
Upon closer inspection, the protesters camp was not the utopia of my first impression. It took me all of a day at camp to come to the dispiriting conclusion that the efficient and effective organization of resources and volunteers I had read about must have left with the Sioux, who had departed shortly before my arrival. Meetings did not happen on time, if at all. The kitchens were running on skeleton crews, the bathroom facilities were unkempt and then disappeared completely, and if major steps weren’t taken to shelter from the extreme cold, protesters would freeze to death. There might have been some of the most beautiful, well-intentioned souls I’ve ever encountered at this camp, but I also feel as though they are relying quite heavily on good intentions and magical thinking, and not nearly enough on an actual plan for how to weather the winter, not to mention the incoming Trump administration. So I got back in my truck and commenced the epic 1,738 mile journey back to Philadelphia.
During the long, cold lonely hours of the drive I kept mulling this one thought over and over in my head: This is REAL, this is NOW and this is LIFE. This movement is bigger than water – it’s bigger than any one person, group or even nation. And it will make it’s way to you, no matter where you are. At this point, it’s not overly dramatic to say that the survival of human life on this planet is at stake. Not because of a single toxic pipeline, but what it represents. We aren’t putting a halt on archaic thinking, and our antiquated reliance on fossil fuels and the overwhelming scientific evidence that they have become an existential threat to the future of life on this planet. This isn’t sustainable. This way lies doom.
Though the camp is in hibernation mode as winter has set in, what’s clear is that this resistance is the tip of the spear. If you care at all about the “American Dream” or what you were taught it could be, please understand that if THIS camp is the resistance, we will NOT prevail. Not until we ALL make real changes is this life.
Donald J. Trump IS the 45th president of the United States. And no matter how many times I read it, it doesn’t quite feel real. But I take a strange solace in the idea that what we needed in this country was an un-ignorable wake-up call to unite and undo the long term damage of a nation at war with itself since at least 1980. I pray that Trump is the nightmare that finally wakes us from the sleep of blissful ignorance and rabid self-interest and the slow, steady suicide of the species. Now that Trump has re-started the machinery of death and destruction, I will go back to Standing Rock. I can only hope that I will not go it alone this time, that we will all hear the call.