Why I, As a Veteran, Went to Standing Rock
By Alexander S. Heaton
There are two narratives of what happened between December 4 and 7, when the veterans stood for Standing Rock. As a participant, I wanted to be sure that I did my part to separate the reasons that I, along with the majority of the other veterans went, which are separate and distinct from whatever the organizers of Veterans Stand for Standing Rock turned it into. Asides from getting this movement started, they deserve no further publicity - and I will not give them any more here.
Approximately two weeks before the weekend of the 4th of December I began seeing chatter on some of the more left-leaning news sites that veterans might be supporting the Sioux in defense of their land from Dakota Access/Energy Transfer Partners. I had been following all of the news about what was going on, I saw the video of the young woman getting shot in the eye by the police, as well as the photos of torn flesh in the aftermath of the flash-bang on the other protestors shoulder. I watched water cannon being used in freezing temperatures against unarmed protestors. I saw the growing presence of police departments from across the Midwest in Humvees and MRAPs, and the videos of them shooting news drones out of the sky.
As a veteran who has lived out of such equipment – and who credits it for bringing him home safely, watching Americans face down these military vehicles was a truly heartbreaking experience for me. I wondered if the folks that had assembled these vehicles were aware that some of these vehicles would never see a war zone, but were rather being sent, brand new, to police departments for the purpose of being utilized against Americans. I wondered what the veterans, who came home and joined local police departments thought as they found themselves back in a gun truck, facing down those they had sworn to defend. Who did they feel they were protecting and serving?
The consensus amongst most was that a paramilitary security force, composed of various police departments and private companies, was using military gear to protect a company that intended to cut through land that they were specifically forbidden to do so by Treaty. The stand being made by the Standing Rock Sioux was now greater than a response to one of many treaty violations between the United States and the various Indian Nations within its borders. The situation had become a perfect storm of sorts - representing concerns of injustice that the population held in both government overreach and corporations operating above the law. I saw these concerns that bring people together from far left to far right, and I was determined to be a part of it.
Once the decision has been made to take part in such an action, you are merely a tourist if you fail to ask yourself: What the measures are for the action to be considered a success? How does your participation contribute towards your intended outcome? Our standing alongside the Standing Rock Sioux was not going to result in Dakota Access coming in and ripping out the pipeline, or even apologizing for what they had done so far. Dakota Access is a business that operates at the behest of their investors within the confines of the law. No amount of marching or flag waving will change that.
This protest, at its roots, was aimed at the investors behind Dakota Access and a government that defines the parameters for such an investment to remain lawful. This protest was a statement that the population of these United States demands a level playing field. If we are by the people, for the people, we expect and demand a democratic economy that cannot be bought out by business interests. Failing that, through nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, the protest has demonstrated that the American public has the ability to make any investor realize the social and environmental costs of such an investment. Such an action aims to show that these costs greatly outweigh any benefits the investor hopes to glean from such a project.
With that in mind, the two most basic functions of the veterans coming to Standing Rock in support of the Standing Rock Sioux was to 1. Use the position that we hold in society to draw the attention of the news, social media, and those politicians who want to fall on the right side of history so that they can do something about it, and 2. Delay the ongoing construction of the pipeline, and as a result delay and reduce the return on the investment for its financial backers in the hopes that they either drop out, or realize significantly less profits from such an undertaking.
I think everyone understood the value of having veterans on the front lines of the protest. There is a storied history of veterans coming together en masse in the United States to fight injustice, and the possibility of this being another chapter in such a story greatly increased media coverage. Such a media spotlight also brought with it a tremendous amount of risk for the pipeline supports, should one of their security force contingents injure a veteran with one of the very pieces of equipment designed to keep them safe overseas.
My second point is what I believe the majority of articles shaming all of the veterans who went out, miss: We have a system in this country that creates special exemptions for companies, specifically those who can afford to pay off congress through our system of lobbying, from behaving in any ethical manner whatsoever. When this unethical behavior gets in the way of those who reside within our borders from getting basic needs, such as shelter, education, or health, the government owes it to their constituents to step in and do something – but if they don’t, and at great cost to the government in terms of political capital and legitimacy amongst the people, the only option that remains is to diminish the profits of such an endeavor, by means of social organizing and nonviolent direct action.
Standing Rock is only the latest in the long line of companies raking in profits at the expense of basic American necessities. In 2003 congress mandated that Medicaid, which could essentially act as a 40 million person strong drug-buyers cooperative, would not be allowed negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on drug prices. This, when combined with the decades long patents companies receive for medicine, makes pharmaceutical costs higher in the United States than anywhere in the world because the companies producing the medicine operate within a monopoly. In 2005, congress mandated that student loans could not be discharged through bankruptcy. In doing so, congress completely absolved the banks of any risk through the purposeful dismantling of protections for students who took on the risk of financing education with loans. In 2008, TARP only bailed out the financial institutions that had made risky mortgage investments, not the individual borrowers who had done the same. The actions of these institutions literally drove our economy into the greatest recession since the Great Depression, required a bail out from the taxpayer, and we are about to see several of the architects of the great recession get cabinet positions in the next administration, to boot. I mention these as the Dakota Access Pipeline was yet another example of this system at work. The pipeline was cutting through land protected by a treaty that’s over 150 years old with an oil pipeline that, if ruptured, would destroy an Indian Nation’s soul source of fresh water. Instead of honoring that treaty and the concerns of the Sioux over something as essential as fresh water, balaclava covered paramilitaries were sent decked out in gear that belongs in the hands of our nations warfighters, to force the construction through. That isn’t a democracy at work, that’s a government funded by the people that acts for the benefit of corporations.
In sum, I don’t think that my specific presence during that week will end these practices. I don’t think anyone else at the camp felt that way either, with the exception of a few who came to participate in the excitement rather than work towards the larger outcome. I can say that as a precedent for social action, the Standing Rock Sioux, as well as all of my fellow Americans that managed to get out and support them, have piloted a way to make it a hell of a lot more expensive for companies that seek to operate in this negligent manner. In the long term, I expect this movement will alter the formula for corporate investment to account for the social and environmental costs, and encourage others to follow suit should this happen again. In this way, I count my trip as a success.
Alexander S. Heaton is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and an international development professional. We recently had a conversation with Alex on the podcast, which you can check out here. Heaton is preparing to go to Mexico to document the oral histories of fellow US veterans who served this country only to be deported following their service. We ask that you consider supporting this effort on GoFundMe. Follow Alex's new Veterans Action Coordinating Committee on Facebook.