A Pilot Special Report: Standing with Standing Rock
He arrived mildly curious, and left profoundly troubled.
“This was a peaceful protest and it was met, almost immediately, with force and violence,” says David Swinton, a Methodist minister and former Storm Laker, who traveled to the Dakota Access Pipeline protest site near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota last week.
There, on Sunday, the scene took an ugly turn, with protesters injured by rubber bullets and concussion grenades, and targeted with high-pressure water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures while they were praying.
Swinton, who now serving a church in Des Moines, had no intentions of being part of the epicenter of a social upheaval last weekend.
A friend had posted plans on Facebook to visit the protest site, and wanted to know if anyone wanted to go along.
“I had never been to North Dakota, and I was a little curious about the protest,” Swinton relates. “I wasn’t some kind of true believer. I’m generally supportive of peaceful protest, but I was dubious on some points too.”
The minister noted that one thing that concerns him is the chosen path for the oil pipeline. It was originally to have gone north of Bismarck, but after towns and leaders complained, it was re-routed to the south, he said. “The same concerns, when they were expressed by the native American people, did not carry nearly the same power.”
Have followed the controversy in news coverage, he said he also was generally concerned about the environmental impact, but had not previously been moved to get involved.
“What kind of changes can a few people make against a multi-national corporation?”
Arriving at the scene, he immediately noticed the proximity of the pipeline to the Standing Rock homes.
“It’s within eyesight. I didn’t expect that,” he said. “The pipeline is maybe one mile to the north. The work lights shine directly on the reservation. Regardless of what the oil line supporters claim, a spill is a real concern. There is no way it could be contained before it reaches these people’s land and their water.”
The tension on the scene is palpable. “It has a militarized zone feel to it,” Swinton said.
He was immediately impressed with the leadership of the Sioux community within the protest movement.
“These water protectors have such a sense of ceremony, expressing that they want the best for each other and the world. Each of our gatherings began with a prayer and closed with a prayer, and there was usually a native song.”
For the minister, his time at the protest site was often anxious. “There are a lot of emotions to deal with. I’m used to being in charge of things at a large church, but here I wasn’t sure where I fit in and what I could do. I am far from a wild-eyed radical. This is very uncomfortable for me. But I’ve never been in a situation that seemed so full of blatant lies by the people we should be able to trust.”
After the experience, he has been posting information online and speaking to the media. “I can only see this through a pastor’s eyes and have a pastor’s voice.”
He hoped to arrange a vigil after returning to Iowa, to support the people of the reservation and pray for those who were hurt in Sunday’d incidents.
Swinton said that regardless of the future of the pipeline project, people should be deeply concerned that local police and sheriff’s officers are being turned into a private security force for a pipeline corporation.
“Real violence is being unleashed by these officers on the very people they are supposed to protect,” he said.
Sunday’s clash was not a planned action by the protestors, he insists.
“Some young guys decided to go get some burned trucks that were blocking off a bridge that the reservation needed for people to get to their jobs or to the hospital. It was not a sanctioned action by the elders, they were just going to move the trucks. Police had promised that they would be moved three weeks earlier.”
At the time, Swinton was ill with stomach flu and resting in a trailer. Like many on the site, he was unaware that a clash was brewing.
“When information started to come back to us, I grabbed my shoes and walked toward the medical tent. My friend Rob said, ‘It’s like a scene from M*A*S*H*!’ There were at least five ambulances coming in, at least 200 and possibly 300 people hurt. Most had hypothermia after being hit with the high-pressure hoses in the freezing conditions. Some had been struck by rubber bullets. Several had their heads opened up. One had been shot in the face point blank with a bean bag. One young woman nearly had her arm severed from being hit at close range with a concussion grenade.
“She hadn’t been a threat to anyone. She had turned to walk away when she was shot… The doctor was pulling shrapnel out of her, trying to save the arm.”
Swinton bristles at the claims from the local sheriff that they didn’t use such weapons, when footage and evidence from the scene proves otherwise. “We have seen the beanbags and rubber projectiles fired,” he said.
The officials are simply using different terms for the weapons in order to deny what they have done, he insists. The media is failing to report the truth, and simply regurgitating the lies being told by authorities, according to Swinton.
He also refutes claims that the protesters caused the incident. “There was no provocation. They said the protestors were setting fires - those were only small bonfires that had been set to warm people up after they had been sprayed with the hoses. If not blatant lies, the sheriff’s department is certainly being intentionally misleading.”
The scene was “otherworldly,” he said. “A young native woman spoke afterward, and said it didn’t even feel like she was in her own country any more.
“I’m no expert on how police are supposed to de-escalate a protest, but it is impossible to believe these officers have any training in that direction. I’ve been a police chaplain, and have known and respected many great and honorable officers. I would think they would be very disappointed if they could see what is taking place here. From what I saw, police seem to be waiting for the slightest provocation to attack people.”
Swinton was part of a group that on Monday went to the sheriff’s office to protest. Officers swept in and arrested people who were sitting peacefully on the sidewalk or in a patch of grass near the building, praying, he said. “They didn’t arrest the truck driver who gunned his truck toward the line of protest people. It just stuns me.”
The minister is concerned that things could become even more violent. “Protestors and police should not be antagonists here. Police would be questioning why they are put into this situation for a private company’s benefit.”
As of this week, there are about 3,000 people in the Oceti Sakowin protest camp, across the Cannonball River from the reservation, and a smaller number on the Sacred Stone Camp on the south side of the river - easily a small city.
“It’s hard to understand until you see it,” Swinton said. “There are a lot of people living in small camping tents, some people in larger lodges they are attempting to winterize, some in old campers. We had things pretty comfortable compared to most people.”
The most despondent and angry people on the scene are not the residents of the reservation, but some who have been attracted to the protest.
While training in non-violent protest is held every day, controlling a vast number of people is difficult, and when a person or group arrives, there is no way to determine their motivation. If one or two people act in a threatening manner, the consequences will be directed at hundreds of innocent people, he worries. “One rock gets thrown, and everybody will be tear-gassed.”
“One of the native women said, ‘This is not new to us.’ It is similar to what I have heard talking to the older African Americans in Des Moines - they are used to being discriminated against and abused. The native American people use a phrase, ‘I am here until my last days.’ They don’t mean literally on this camp site, but that they are part of a kind of conflict forever. It’s not fatalism, exactly, but a recognition that everything rises and falls, pain comes and goes.”
One of the chants heard commonly on the protest site is, “We are people, you are violent.”
“To me, I want to ask people in charge, why are you doing this? When people are trying to be peaceful and prayerful, why are you attacking them?”
Swinton noted that he and those like him can never really appreciate the struggle of the native Americans. When he and his friend would go into a store or gas station, people there would assume they are in the area on a hunting excursion, not as part of the protest. They were not subjected to the same kind of harassment as the native American protesters were, and didn’t fear for their safety.
Asked if he will go back, Swinton hesitates.
“I would not like to go back again. I might need to go back again.”
The conditions are harsh, and the tension draining. “I admit, I was a little bit scared. What if this is the night they decide to come in and clear the camp?”
If that ultimate conflict comes, even the officers will probably not get advance warning, he believes.
“It will be safer for the officers if no one knows it is coming. They will just break out the tear gas,” he said.
Earlier, a north camp on the scene was destroyed, and the violence was even worse than Sunday’s incident, Swinton was told. “Dogs were set after people, people were grabbed up, it was a very violent action. If this happens again, it will be a power decision. It will be justified as not being about the pipeline, but because the campsites are not up to code or something. This is the kind of thing that America should be against.”
There is some hope that President Obama will step in, but the general sense is that under the next administration, odds of peacefully protecting the reservation and the surrounding environment will be lower.
Swinton feels that if Obama would direct federal officials with de-escalation experience to come in, a peaceful resolution might be found that could save lives.
“Protests in general are meant to assert pressure on those in power to make decisions,” he said, suggesting it would be in the best interests of the pipeline company to avoid a tragic overreaction at the scene.
Swinton has been changed by the experience.
“I still have not processed it entirely. We talked about that on the way back. It may take some journaling, prayer and meditation to explore the layers.
“I was raised not to express anger. I have to face that the sorrow and disappointment I am feeling may just be real anger.”
The experience has also moved the minister to want to learn more about native American cultures. “I was intrigued and impressed. This was an experience that was not a lecture, program or some dance put on for tourists.”
He was also reminded that he like many Americans comes from a place of “tremendous privilege” in relation to other cultures. “It is one thing to be aware, and another to be willing to use that awareness on behalf of other cultures.”
He listens to a native woman explaining, “This is what we deal with every day. A door being closed in your face, being called names. That really does something to your spirit.”
“It is almost like they expect it to happen,” Swinton said.
Swinton feels that the protest is about more than a pipeline.
“There will be different pipelines, and different conflicts. There has to be room for disagreement. I don’t demonize people who disagree with me on the pipeline, but I see the protestors being demonized very strongly. I feel very passionate about that. America should be passionate about that.”
Swinton encourages those who are concerned to donate to the tribe’s cause, withdraw their funds from local banks that have invested in the pipeline project, and pray for the protesters or visit the encampment.
After posting online his reflections on his experience, Swinton received a message from one native woman:
“Thank you Pastor for you words of encouragement in a hailstorm of despair. I know it may seem like a barrage to your senses, but as native peoples it becomes par for the course. We are used to our land being taken, and there we are left with a piece of paper, no president has ever honored, not even this latest one… This last barrage, so many resources, so many strong words to use, so many noble men and women, but yet North Dakota chooses, war! Well we choose prayer!”