Rubber bullets, tear gas, then success: What Philly activists saw at Standing Rock

We reached out to locals who traveled the roughly 1,600 miles— a distance longer than the proposed pipeline itself— to support the water protectors there.

Water protectors during an action in October.

Water protectors during an action in October.

Victoria DePaul
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

David Commins, CEO of the indie paper the Philadelphia Secret Admirer, hasn’t been in town for his weekly gazette most recent editions. He’s been keeping the paper going from Standing Rock.

Since April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have dwelled in encampments near the Missouri River in an effort to halt construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. On Sunday, the water protectors and demonstrators celebrated victory: The Department of the Army announced that it would not grant the final permit needed for construction there, but rather “explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”

Many of those gathered are expected to see this out, though.

“As with everything, there’s a lot of skepticism. There’s a pretty solid number of people [who believe] they’re going to drill anyway, and face whatever fine might come later,” Commins told Billy Penn Sunday evening, adding that he personally didn’t share that view. “People are going to hang out for sure until January 1st.”

That would be the Dakota Access pipeline’s delivery deadline. Dakota Access, per court documents, claimed that not meeting this deadline would cause them to lose customer contracts for good and harm investment, estimating seven-figure losses for their company. Commins’ll be hanging out too.

“It’s been the voice from the ground here that this was going to happen,” he said. “People here have been very confident of victory. It’s not so much surprising as it is affirming.”

A map created by a cartographer who camped at Oceti Sakowin.

A map created by a cartographer who camped at Oceti Sakowin.

Carl Sack

The pipeline would’ve cut through sacred lands for the tribe in its 1,172-mile route; it would’ve burrowed beneath the Missouri River near the tribe’s reservation. Locals feared that an oil spill near the crossing would mean environmental disaster. Their movement to stop the pipeline’s construction developed into a clarion call for indigenous people and allies of other backgrounds across the country, including Hollywood celebrities Shailene Woodley and Mark Ruffalo. Philadelphians like Commins have been making the trek out to North Dakota to join them there. To get to Standing Rock, Commins took a Greyhound bus to Columbus, then hitchhiked the rest of the way. It took about six car rides.

The movement, which began as a peaceful prayer camp, grew to encompass thousands of demonstrators. High-profile standoffs with law enforcement have ended with hundreds of water protectors and demonstrators injured, treated for rubber bullets, hypothermia after being hosed in subfreezing temperatures, extreme tear gas exposure and injuries stemming from canister explosions, among other ailments. Local authorities have disputed the demonstrators’ accounts, but images from confrontations have drawn widespread criticism of the police tactics implemented.

Commins is based at Sacred Stone, the camp where the movement began. While the number of demonstrators present, in individual camps and overall, have fluctuated, reports before a blizzard hit the area last week counted some 7,000 people there. Commins was there for November 20 standoff that made national headlines. He took part in the Thanksgiving Day action. Even more recently, he and his peers defied North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple’s evacuation orders in light of the weather.

“A lot of people have left since the blizzard started,” said Commins. “A lot of people have left to regroup and get more winter-friendly accommodations and come back. A lot of people have been like, ‘I don’t know what’s up. I gotta get out of here. I can’t handle this.’ A lot of other people have been working to help those people along. We’ve been building extra shelters.”

There’s no easily found record charting how many of those gathered are from out of town. The “Philly Rides to Standing Rock Group” on Facebook, which serves as a spot for folks coming and going to coordinate rides and share advice, had roughly 260 members Sunday.

Water protectors and demonstrators face authorities on Thanksgiving.

Water protectors and demonstrators face authorities on Thanksgiving.

David Commins

We reached out to locals who traveled the roughly 1,600 miles— a distance longer than the proposed pipeline itself— to support the water protectors there. Aside from Commins, we spoke to three women who spent time at Standing Rock. All of these ladies are back; they talked about camp ceremonies, and they described interactions with police and tensions they sensed.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of different things. Tree sits, anti-war protests, Occupy and all of that stuff in different iterations in different places,” Commins said. “Over time you start to get a little more skeptical if it’s doing anything at all. I think this is going to reignite a lot of fires for activist[s] in this country. I don’t think that could’ve come at a better time.”

Still, December 4th will resonate.

“I think this will be remembered as a holiday. I really do. I think a lot of people will celebrate this every year. This moment. Even if it pans out that this wasn’t the actual deciding blow… I just think this’ll be the day that people throw a big party,” said Commins.

The following interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


Victoria DePaul, bartender, Port Richmond. Stayed at Standing Rock for nine days in mid-October.

“We drove out there in this car and we stayed there nine days. I have friends at Cheyenne River Reservation. (Note: This is also in North Dakota, roughly 80 minutes south of Standing Rock.) So we stopped there for a night. My buddy’s the second-in-command chief of tribal police at Cheyenne River. His brother’s an American Indian Movement member. His brother has been up at Standing Rock since like August.

“[My friend] gave us a hand-written map on how we could get all the way to Standing Rock without actually having to be off the reservation, pretty much straight through without risking getting stopped, which some people were experiencing.

“I was told ‘As soon as you get up there, find my brother.’ Because in Native culture, when you know someone, if you say, ‘Oh, I know so-and-so’ they call you a relative… even if you’re just a friend. So I said, ‘I know Louie.’ And they said, ‘Okay, he’s with the AIM members; he’s down there. He’s part of security. He’s in the last teepee on the block.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ I literally felt like Forrest Gump walking up to the Black Panther Party.”

 

Karléh Ashanta Wilson, on the job hunt while at Standing Rock, Northeast Philly. Stayed at Standing Rock for two days in early November.

“I have Native ancestors, so it was my duty to go. (Note: Wilson is of Black Creek ancestry.)

“It was very peaceful. There was a lot of work to be done. I went with the intention to cook. Got there in the morning. The first thing I did was attend water ceremony.

“In Native circles, we kind of understand that it’s a prayer, because it’s sacred ground. But the media is definitely messing up the message of what’s going on there. So, there are a lot of people arriving and they’re ready for war. And it’s really the opposite of what you should expect when you arrive.

“Another thing they talked about a lot in ceremony was changing the rhetoric around the camp. They were saying a lot of the elders who were veterans were feeling triggered by younger people calling it a battleground and calling it the front lines. They were like, ‘These aren’t the front lines… This is a peace zone. You come here for peace. We’re praying. We’re not fighting. We’re not protesters. We’re water protectors.’”

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Victoria DePaul

DePaul: “While we were at camp and even when we were on direct action, [we were] constantly being reminded that this was a prayer.

“And that you weren’t supposed to curse. You weren’t supposed to say anything negative about anybody at camp or anything that was happening— like say, that donations were going missing— you weren’t supposed to talk about it. You were just supposed to stay positive and prayerful.

“I was talking to one of the women, who was one of the elders at the Oglala kitchen, and I asked her, ‘What’s the deal with the cursing?’ And she said, ‘Well, when we use foul language and when we speak negatively in any way, it dissipates it. She said, ‘Right now, we need our prayer to be strong. We need it to be really, really strong. We can’t have anything that lessens its strength.’

“It’s crazy. I thought about that in terms of my own life and in terms of going back into the world… Unnecessary negativity dissipates what you’re doing. It makes sense.”

 

Wilson: “Just being able to sing Native music and practice Native rituals. Because Philly doesn’t really have a strong Native population. Sometimes I feel like I’m starved for culture a little bit.

“Seeing just how many different nations were represented there. Seeing other black Native people. Seeing other Native youth.

“To just be in prayer for 48 hours was really great. Because when you’re living your day-to-day life, especially in the city, sometimes it’s hard to take out time to pray.”

Oceti Sakowin camp.

Oceti Sakowin camp.

Jasmine Hamilton

 

Jasmine Hamilton, farmer and food justice advocate, West Philly. Stayed at Standing Rock for a week in early November.

“On one hand, it’s very beautiful. It’s buffalo out there. It’s the farms. It’s the plains. You sit out there at night and it’s a sky of stars, and shooting stars. You can look at the entire camp, you have your teepees… I thought it was really cool how the tribes are— they’re very prominent in their traditions. They sing to each other every night, so they sing to each other over the river.

“My first day, there were airplanes flying over us every two minutes. There were cop planes, there were helicopters, and there were like these other small planes.

“One night, I was like trying to sleep… [I went out] like “what is that?” because it was so loud. The helicopter was like less than 20 feet away from my tent.”

Commins: “Almost everyone there [at the Nov. 20 standoff] was tear-gassed. They were very liberal with their gas. They were launching it all over the place. I picked one up and popped into an elbow on the river. I [still] caught it real bad in the face. Had a bloody nose for about 48 hours after that.

“You know, other people got it a lot worse than I did. I got sprayed with water. That was its own fun situation. I was holding a tarp near the front… something hit me in the back of the head. But other people were getting hit with rubber bullets, and bean bags and getting their heads split open.

“The big problem with the water, the hoses and water that was being unleashed, is that it was 20 degrees and it was windy. That just immediately cuts right to your soul.”

 

DePaul:We met full militarized police force and none of us had weapons. They had riot gear, assault rifles; there were snipers on a hill… And like, an old woman with incense strapped to her chest walking with us. [Women] literally breastfeeding their babies. Like, this is who you’re meeting with a militarized police force?

“Driving back felt so totally wrong. It just felt like we should stay there and be there. Even now.

It feels wrong, you know, not being there. And I… (She pauses, choked up.) especially, everything that happened after we left. It was literally days after we left. And friends that we have there were injured. They’re fine, but sprayed with pepper spray and rubber bullets. A 13-year-old was shot off of a horse.

“Everybody was like the kid was fine, but like, they’re firing rubber bullets at teenagers? Unarmed teenagers?”

 

Hamilton: “You cook for the tribe and they’d be [getting] ready to go to the demonstration. They go to the demonstrations and they come back, and they get shot rubber bullets, they get sprayed by mace, they get beat up and all types of whatever. So you feed them, and then on the other hand, the medics have to come out and they have to support them too because they have these issues with how their bodies have been attacked by these people.

Riverside view at Standing Rock.

Riverside view at Standing Rock.

Jasmine Hamilton

“These are civilians who are paying taxes to pay police officers who are literally brutalizing them, literally terrorizing them over the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

 

Commins: “Through all of this cold, there’s always a community space in every camp where people can sleep.

“We’re trying as hard we can to make sure that no one is mortal danger right now. But there are a lot of people here who are unprepared and don’t exactly know how to deal with this weather. Because it’s maddening. You’re dealing with freezing weather for days at a time, howling winds, the snow. Being wet and cold for long periods of time. That’s a lot to deal with…

“It was generally regarded as a kind of a faux pas, that on Thanksgiving, everyone was bringing food up here. Basically, the way it has been explained to me by multiple Lakota is that Thanksgiving Day and Columbus Day are both just black days on their calendar— It’s ridiculous celebrate their own genocide. Saying Thanksgiving Day in a crowd over here? I didn’t hear it once. Everybody kind of got the hint.

“We had an action on Thanksgiving Day and that was kind of palliative a little bit. It was a bit of a celebration. Like we don’t want to celebrate this holiday, but we can have an act of resistance on this holiday. The whole Thanksgiving Day, we received so much food that for two or three days that’s all that any of us were doing: sorting and trying to figure out all the food was coming in.”

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Thanksgiving Day action at Standing Rock.

David Commins

 

DePaul: “My boyfriend and I started to set our tent up and this white couple approaches us and says hey, uh, don’t really want to upset you, but I don’t think you should probably set your tent up there. We tried to set our tent up there, and they were not okay with it. (She laughs.) I was like, actually they told us to set up our tent here.

“We were treated like family immediately. I guess I was lucky that I had this friend. But there was definitely that, you definitely bumped up against some of the sort racial tension.”

 

Commins: “The more I’m here the more I understand the layers of what’s going on. You come out here, and if you’re looking from the other side, very idealistically. Like, ‘oh, this is a fight of good versus evil.’ It’s very easy to pick up your sword and run into that. But now that I’m here, I’m seeing a little bit more in-fighting. There’s a lack of trust between specific [groups] here. People are saying this about this camp, and this, about that camp. It doesn’t feel as clean as it did from a distance.”

 

Wilson: A lot of people don’t want to listen to the elders.

“If [non-Natives] are not taking part in ceremony, and they’re not helping, they’re really hurting [the movement] more than anything.

“They’re spreading that message that it’s also a battle zone. Because they’re not in ceremony to learn that the rhetoric is wrong. They’re kind of looking at it with their own gaze.

“I just feel like when you go to Native land, it’s really imperative that you respect every aspect of Native culture. Especially, in light of that Native people cannot economically, in any way, oppress white people in this country…

“I think a lot of people with good intentions are going. They’re quitting their jobs and staying indefinitely. And that’s good. Especially if they’re committed to doing work while they’re there. But they’re also intimidating people who can’t stay long.

“There’s a lot of Native youth who go to college and they’re just going for break, like Thanksgiving break, or random winter breaks or weekends that they can go. And they’re asking them when are you going back, can you stay forever? And they’re saying, no I have to go back to school. And they say, ‘Well, I quit my job. I’m dedicated to this.’ That’s really fucked up. Very few Native students graduate from college. It’s a huge feat for them.

“I would like people to stop bullying Native youth for not being able to stay at Standing Rock forever, and bullying people at all. There’s other people, people of color, or anyone, who just can’t stay because they have family to take care of, who getting intimidated by white folks who have it made, can just quit their jobs and stay for as long as they need.

Elders at Standing Rock are not asking people to quit their jobs if they can’t.”

 

DePaul: “Most people are woefully ignorant about the actual beginnings of our country. So, I’ve always felt strongly about that, and I’ve always felt drawn to that culture for whatever reason. I learned a lot about that too, which is a whole other conversation. About appropriation, really being respectful of the difference between… support and appropriating a culture. It’s a slippery slope.

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Victoria DePaul

I heard about what was happening at Standing Rock. I just said out loud, and this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but you have to be careful about the things you say out loud, because I literally said out loud. ‘I want to go out there.’ Within less than two weeks, I was planning a trip.”  

 

Commins: “Everybody is here for a different reason. Everybody has their own idea of what we’re fighting, and what a victory will look like. That’s definitely interesting.

“There’s a lot of people here who look at this like a battle against oil in general. Like big corporations being able to do whatever they want. These are people who want to stop every pipeline, and want to stop oil as a resource.

“There are a lot of people here who are here for the battle of native sovereignty. And the fact that it’s ignoring a lot of treaties and going on native land. And that group just wants the pipeline to not be on their land.

“Then they’re other groups that are really dedicated to building a sustainable eco-village type situation.

“And there’s a handful of people who are just here because they’re people who travel around, they don’t really have a solid home. This is a thing that’s going on. They’re people who are just here because it’s a fight, and they’re disillusioned that Trump won the election. They feel like they need to be active politically because they haven’t been for a long time.”