Standing Rock Proves The Immense Power Of Protests

In a huge win for the Standing Rock Sioux, the Army Corps of Engineers announced Sunday that it won't authorize the permits necessary to build the Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, effectively halting construction of the most controversial segment of the 1,100-mile pipeline for the time being. Among other things, Standing Rock's DAPL victory is proof that protests can work.

Now, it's impossible to say for sure that the protesters' vigilance directly resulted in the Army deciding not to build the pipeline; causation is always impossible to determine with absolute certainty. But looking back at the history of the protests, it sure seems like that's exactly what happened.

The first protesters to arrive at the site were around 200 Native Americans from various tribes, who traveled to Lake Oahe on horseback on April 1. They argued that the oil pipeline, if built underneath Lake Oahe, would endanger the Standing Rock Sioux's primary source of drinking water, and furthermore, that it would destroy the tribe's sacred sites. Two weeks later, they'd established a permanent camp at the site, and in May, the protests began to attract mainstream attention outside of the Sioux tribe itself. Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio spoke out against the proposed segment of the pipeline and in support of the protests, while the hashtag #RezpectOurWater began trending on social media.

But on July 26, the Army Corps of Engineers approved the Lake Oahe segment, prompting Standing Rock to sue one day later. At the same time, around 30 Native American youth were embarking on a three-week run to protest the pipeline, and they were ultimately joined by actress and activist Shailene Woodley, thus bringing even more attention to the demonstration.

By late August, the number of indigenous protesters had grown from 200 to over a thousand.


A federal judge rejected Standing Rock's lawsuit on Sept. 9, thus clearing the way for construction of the pipeline. But before that ruling could take effect, the Obama administration essentially nullified it by directing the Army not to authorize construction of the Lake Oahe portion of the pipeline until further environmental and legal analysis could be carried out.

"In recent days, we have seen thousands of demonstrators come together peacefully, with support from scores of sovereign tribal governments, to exercise their First Amendment rights and to voice heartfelt concerns about the environment and historic, sacred sites," the administration wrote on Sept. 9. "It is now incumbent on all of us to develop a path forward that serves the broadest public interest."

The administration added that "this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects."

The protests continued to gain mainstream attention, especially after Woodley herself was arrested on Oct. 10, and they persisted despite a reportedly harsh response from law enforcement. On Nov. 20, for example, videos emerged displaying law enforcement officials using water cannons and what seems to be tear gas on protesters. According to the Morton County (N.D.) Sheriff's Department, protesters "attempted to flank and attack the law enforcement line from the west" and the water cannons were deployed in response to an "ongoing riot."

In mid-November, the federal government again delayed a final decision on the pipeline, pending further consultation with the tribes, and a nationwide day of action was held the next day, with protesters across the country marching against the pipeline and in support of Standing Rock.

Meanwhile, the company building the pipeline said that it wouldn't reroute the Lake Oahe segment, and the Army Corps ordered the protesters to vacate by Dec. 5. The protesters said that they wouldn't do this, and several thousand military veterans announced that they would travel to Standing Rock to give the other protesters some relief and temporarily take their places at the site.

And then, on Dec. 4, the Army Corps said that it wouldn't authorize the Lake Oahe portion of the pipeline.

Nobody can say for sure why the Obama administration repeatedly stepped in to halt that portion of the pipeline, or why the Army ultimately nixed it. But it sure seems like it was the protests. Remember, the Army initially approved the Lake Oahe section in July, but that was before the protests attracted mainstream publicity. When the Obama administration put the project on hold in September, it went out of its way to praise the protesters, and the Army specifically cited the tribe's concerns when it announced that it wouldn't authorize the Lake Oahe portion.

By all accounts, it was the protests that did this. The Native American protesters in particular deserve the most credit, as they were the ones who launched the demonstrations in the first place. Likewise, a handful of activist celebrities helped bring crucial media attention to these protests, most notably Woodley. Those who checked into Facebook at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the protesters made it clear that objections to the pipeline weren't just local, and the 2,000 veterans who pledged to support the protesters proved that they wouldn't go down without a fight.

Although 2016 has been a very dark year for many progressives, the Standing Rock victory is a big one, and one worth taking a moment to celebrate. It's a reminder that despite how undemocratic the American political system often is, civil disobedience really can work, and is thus a completely worthwhile form of political action. As a result of this, around 8,000 tribe members will not have to worry about their drinking water potentially being contaminated by oil. That doesn't solve all of the world's problems — but it matters a whole hell of a lot to those 8,000 people. This was free speech at its best and political protest at its most effective.