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When Johnny Went Marching Home Again

The recent decision by the U.S. government to put aside for now the plans to build the $3 billion Dakota Access pipeline near the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux nation was a tremendous People’s Victory — a good example of how the forces of nonviolence and “prayerful” spirit-power can stand up to the economic and political bullying of the mightiest nation on Earth, and win.

What brought about such an unlikely victory? It may be a good time to study and reflect on that very question, for it will surely come up again in the future somewhere, someday in the USA. But without out a doubt we can chalk up the immediate victory over the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) construction to the dedication and commitment of the proud, courageous self-dubbed “water protectors” of the Sioux and other Native nations of North America. Without them, the pipeline would already be going under the Missouri River and getting ever closer to completion.

But one factor we must not overlook is the urgency that many former U.S. military veterans — Native American and non-Native veterans alike — brought to this fight over the building of the pipeline. Without them, too, there might well have been a bloodier and more tragic confrontation at Standing Rock by now. Before Johnny decided to come marching home again to rural North Dakota, the authorities responded the way they always had to Native peoples: with warnings to get out of Dodge before sundown
or else….

22 August 2016 — Construction sites of the Dakota Access pipeline are blocked at Cannon Ball, North Dakota by water protectors and their allies from Indian Country and beyond. A state of emergency has recently been declared by the governor.

3 September — On the anniversary of the infamous Whitestone massacre of 3 September 1863, in which more than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux nation were killed by the U.S. Army, private security guards for the Dakota Access pipeline spray the demonstrators with pepper spray and set guard dogs upon them, causing several injuries. Comparisons are made to the use of attack dogs by the police on unarmed crowds during the U.S. civil rights (read: human rights) era of the 1950s and 1960s.

27 October — Nearly 150 water protectors are arrested in escalating clashes with police, who fire upon the unarmed crowds with bean-bag grenades, douse them with pepper spray and blast them with a sound cannon. The number of arrests since the anti-pipeline actions rises to about 400.

20 November — In scenes that were witnessed around the world via social media, police fire water cannons at the protectors in sub-freezing weather and shoot at them with grenades and rubber bullets. Police deny having taken such brutal action against the protectors.

25 November — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is attached to the U.S. military, issues a deadline: All water protectors have until 5 December to vacate the areas where thousands are camped out in support of the Standing Rock Sioux against the building of the pipeline, or face arrest. There is talk among the water protectors of a massacre approaching — one of many such atrocities committed against Native peoples throughout American history. The water protectors, risking serious injury or death, refuse to leave.

28 November — Tensions rise as the governor of North Dakota orders the “mandatory evacuation” of the base camps of thousands of water protectors, effective immediately. The water protectors still refuse to leave.

In the meantime, a group of U.S. military veterans, under the banner of “Veterans for Standing Rock”, watch the growing anti-pipeline tensions with concern and start “calling for our fellow veterans to assemble as a peaceful, unarmed militia at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation” to “defend the water protectors from assault and intimidation at the hands of the militarized police force and DAPL security”. More than 2,000 U.S. veterans reportedly respond to the call.

2 December — Braving the snow and freezing temperatures, the veterans begin trickling in to the site of the demonstrations at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. One 32-year-old former U.S. Navy serviceman says the veterans showing up to join the water protectors in their fight against the pipeline are “standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr. and [Mahatma] Gandhi”.

4 DecemberIn an emotionally moving scene, a leader of the veterans group approaches Native elders at Standing Rock and asks for forgiveness for the past genocide of Native peoples at the hands of the U.S. military. It is one day before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ own deadline for the protectors to leave the base camps. Before the day is out, however, the Corps announces that it is denying the pipeline company’s request for an easement to run the line under nearby Lake Oahe, sparking a celebration among the water protectors. They have won — for now.

What the U.S. government most likely feared, we can see in hindsight, was the possibility of images being broadcast around the world of U.S. military veterans getting beaten up, injured, shot at, arrested and possibly even killed at Standing Rock — in others words, being treated like foreign terrorists — for the simple “crime” of wanting to protect those who defend water as a source of life. And this, of course, at a time when the U.S. military is expanding on a daily basis its so-called “war on terrorism” abroad.

The U.S. government has never cared much about Native Americans being abused and mistreated, but how would it look, on the other hand, for “patriotic” U.S. police forces to be beating up a bunch of their own country’s military veterans? No, that would not look good at all. It would show the world what a moral hypocrite the USA really was as a nation. But in the end, the plug was pulled, the big showdown in Indian Country was averted, and the Obama administration in particular saved a lot of face.

We can confirm from this experience, moreover, that nonviolent U.S. military veterans have an active role to play in such future conflicts as well. A number of veterans gathered at Standing Rock then moved on to another place plagued with water problems — the city of Flint, Michigan — to stand up with the local people there too in their own fight for clean water.

I have made the bold prediction that a kind of Second Civil War in a deeply divided United States will be the result of a Trump presidency. I honestly hope such a war does not come to pass. But if it does, it’s good to know that we’ve got brothers and sisters from the former ranks of the U.S. military to back us up in our nonviolent struggles. There’s nothing like the sight of Johnny marching back home again, without weapons and in massive numbers, to put a little humility, respect and, yes, even fear, into the hearts of those in positions of influence over our lives.
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