'Gasland' Filmmaker on Yesterday's Standing Rock Victory

The Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will reroute the Dakota Access Pipeline, to the celebration of thousands of Standing Rock water protectors.
December 5, 2016, 6:56pm
Sacred Stone camp in Cannonball, ND. Image: Flickr/Joe Brusky

A temporary but hard-earned victory has been awarded to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Dakota Access pipeline activists.

Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not be routing the controversial pipeline under part of the Missouri River known as Lake Oahe, North Dakota. After months of protests over the project's threat to drinking water and cultural sites, the Corps will now investigate new routes for the pipeline and could reconsider its environmental impact.

The landmark decision was met with roaring celebration and cautious optimism from thousands of water protectors, many of whom were bracing for a long, harsh winter at makeshift encampments. Hundreds of people have been injured so far by water cannons, rubber bullets, and teargas deployed by Morton County police. Almost 600 individuals have been arrested since August. Many at Standing Rock are staying put for now, with at least 2,000 military veterans arriving last night to offer their support.

Energy Transfer Partners, the oil and gas company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, has already said it does not intend to reroute the project, though it could face fines for continuing construction efforts.

I spoke to filmmaker Josh Fox, who created the GASLAND documentary series in 2010 that helped to spur the anti-fracking movement in America, spent time with Standing Rock water protectors. While filming at the encampment, Fox witnessed what he described as "human rights violations" by police, along with the birth of a new civil disobedience movement.

What do you think the decision to reroute the Dakota Access Pipeline means for indigenous rights and climate activism in America?

This shows an incredibly strong alliance between indigenous rights movements, environmentalism, and the climate movement. There are so many precedents at work here, one of them obviously is don't fuck with the Standing Rock tribe and their allies.

There's something really new and powerful that's been born, and the camp itself is a model for how we should be conducting ourselves going forward; it's based on values, it's based on non-violent direct action, it's based on civil disobedience, and peace.

Image: Flickr/Joe Brusky

You spent some time with protesters and journalists while filming at Standing Rock. How were protestors treated by police and what were some of the crowd control tactics you saw used on people?

Police don't even say their tactics are "non-lethal." They have an Orwellian inscription on the side of their shotguns that says "less lethal." Certainly, using water cannons against unarmed water protectors at sub-freezing temperatures constitutes lethal force. Not only is the Morton County Sheriff's Department and the North Dakota government completely out of control, they're guilty of human rights violations.

We were calling on Obama to bring in the Department of Justice because they were so unrestrained in their use of aggressive violence against unarmed, peaceful water protectors who were having prayer ceremonies. Their conduct has been outrageous, inhuman, and very well-documented. And they've denied everything they've done, even though this stuff is on tape. I witnessed my colleague, [environmental journalist] Erin Schrode, get shot in the back with a rubber bullet during the middle of an interview.

Not only are [police] guilty of crimes—attempted murder in my estimation—but they're also at a point where, through their denials, their very ability to enforce the law, to represent the law, has collapsed. If law enforcement doesn't tell the truth, then the basic bottom line is that they're no longer law enforcement. I expect there to be suits and trials, and I expect them to have to answer for what they've done.

What does it say about civil disobedience today that police are protecting the interests of a fossil fuel project and not the safety of the Standing Rock community?

I think it shows that a state government can go rogue, and disobey common sense, the law, the majority opinion of the United States if they have powerful allies like the oil industry. What the Standing Rock alliance shows is that the people are more powerful.

When you're side-by-side with people who are willing to die because they're willing to be that vulnerable in the face of state-sanctioned violence, we are at a crisis point in the United States of America. Kelcy Warren, the billionaire behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, has offered to privately reimburse the expenses of the North Dakota police. If that's not hiring the state to be your own private police and security force, I don't know what is.

Predominantly, we don't know who these guys are because they don't wear name tags. North Dakota has decided it's fine for their officers to be in uniform without identification.

Weaponizing water against people who are trying to protect water is horrifying. In fact, one of the protectors told me that getting blasted by water as a weapon, when you're trying to defend water, is akin to rape.

Teargas being sprayed toward protesters at a Standing Rock encampment. Image: Flickr/Dark Sevier

There's a good possibility that yesterday's victory will be challenged under the incoming Trump Administration. If construction proceeds, what sorts of climate issues could follow?

This is going to carry Bakken crude oil. James Hansen, the grandfather of the climate movement, has famously said that tar sands oil—fracked oil—is simply game over for the planet. So, you have to do everything you possibly can to stop developing tar sands in Canada, to stop developing the Bakken shale in North Dakota. The number one implication here is climate change.

But first and foremost, this is a struggle over indigenous sovereignty. Respecting the treaties, honoring the tribes and their land. That goes hand-in-hand with having clean water.

If you look back over the last five years between 2010 and 2015, we've had 3,300 significant pipeline spills in the United States. Many, many rivers and watersheds have been damaged; the Kalamazoo River, the Yellowstone River, the town of Mayflower, Arkansas that had to be abandoned. I could go on and on about how many oil spills there have been that have been really detrimental to water supplies.

Image: Flickr/Joe Brusky

How were the Standing Rock Sioux denied the ability to choose how unceded treaty lands, according to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, were ultimately used?

Energy Transfer Partners never actually consulted with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They mapped out the pipeline route, they got all the permits, they gamed the system, then they went to [the tribe] and said, "Here you go! Say 'yes' to this." And when the tribe said no, they did everything in their power to push them out of the way.

I think Obama, beyond even dealing with just this permit, should do something to say we must honor these treaties. That has to be a major precedent set by a president.

Are you hopeful that younger generations will continue to organize and help shape our planet's future?

This whole movement was started by the Standing Rock Youth Council who said to the world, "We want a future. We want to live on a planet with clean water, we want to live on a planet with stable climate."

They ran from North Dakota to Washington, DC. That's a long way! And then they ran from Washington, DC to New York, which is where I met them at a rally. This was the beginning of August, and there were maybe 30 people there. The camp has now swelled to, at the time over Thanksgiving, 15,000 people.

It's an amazing, amazing thing that's happening. You talk about the significant moments in our cultural history, you know Woodstock, but this is Woodstock times 30 billion. This is a protest camp that's alive, that's breathing. It's a place to live, to exchange ideas. It's a place to understand a new way of living in America.

Parts of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

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