Horrific scenes have been coming out of North Dakota these last several days, where the battle is ongoing to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. On Sunday night, police turned tear gas and rubber bullets on hundreds of unarmed “water protectors”, as those taking on the pipeline prefer to be called. They deployed water cannons as well, in temperatures well below freezing. More than 160 people were injured, and many sent to the hospital. As a result of the standoff, a young woman could lose her arm.
For those with a passing knowledge of the kind of tactics faced by America’s civil rights movement, the above might sound like blast from our more brutal past. As Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House, it should also sound like our possible future.
"Anyone looking for clues about what the next four years could entail should be paying close attention to the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline."
Every signal we have from the president-elect points to an administration defined by three core tenets: white supremacy, unprecedented corporate influence and an uptick in state violence. Aside from climate catastrophe, the result could be a disturbing and dystopian new normal, where episodes like the one unfolding in Standing Rock become all too common.
The signs aren’t hard to spot. Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon will be chief strategist. Jeff Sessions could be attorney general, with a resume that includes a battle against the 14th amendment and joking about the Ku Klux Klan. Beating up protesters was a regular fixture of Trump rallies, and one surrogate recently referenced internment camps as a precedent for how the Trump administration might deal with Muslim Americans.
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As with Trump’s fledgling regime, the notion that certain lives don’t matter is also at the core of the Dakota Access pipeline. At one point slated to run just north of Bismarck, Energy Transfer Partners rerouted the project away from the overwhelmingly white city due to concerns about the threat it might pose to water supplies there. Of course we can’t know exactly what ETP’s motivations were in this case, but other fossil fuel companies have a long history of treating indigenous and poor communities – overwhelming black and brown neighborhoods – as sacrificial zones, where they can hide their toxic externalities and keep profits flowing in at full speed.
Trump hopes to streamline that process, and has invested heavily in two of the companies behind the pipeline, Phillips 66 and ETP. Company CEO Kelcy Warren gave more than $100,000 to the president elect through the campaign. (Warren has since relayed that he was “very enthusiastic about what’s going to happen with our country”.) Fossil fuel executives could reign over the Department of Energy. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was floated as an option to run the Treasury. The US Chamber of Commerce is feeling optimistic, and so is Bloomberg Businessweek, whose cover this week invited readers to “Cheer up! Business is going to be great.”
While he ran a populist candidacy, Trump is building a cabinet for the 1%. If his history of dealing with protests is any indication, he’ll protect their interests – his interests – by force. At campaign events, when interrupted by protesters, Trump reminisced about the “good old days”, when “this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough”. Come January, he’ll be commander-in-chief, potentially with a man who called Black Lives Matter an “enemy within our borders” by his side as secretary of homeland security. With the national guard already in Standing Rock, what comes next – in North Dakota and elsewhere – could be far more brutal than what water protectors have faced.
Standing Rock has for months been a frontline in the fights for indigenous sovereignty and against reckless extraction. It may also now be the frontline of Trump’s America. Anyone looking for clues about what the next four years could entail should be paying close attention to the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline – and doing everything in their power to support it.