It takes a village, not a European, to raise a child

“White people, through systematic oppression, actively create, profit from and maintain a market that institutionalises children throughout Africa.”

From Jacqueline Tizora

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Ethiopia announced earlier this year that it has decided to ban foreign adoption on its soil. This is a brazen move, especially because the country was the second most popular country, after China, for adoptions. This decision was prompted by a high-profile case of abuse in 2011 where an adoptee died of hypothermia after being left in the cold by their adoptive parents in Seattle. Ethiopia, following this incident, proceeded to make the adoption process more stringent, which has now ultimately culminated in the total ban we see today.

The government’s motivation for this bold decision is that it believes Ethiopians taking care care of their own as a valid possibility. Furthermore, policy makers are only now wary of the permanent psychological effects any trauma faced abroad could have on the children. Ethiopia’s stance on adoption shares parallels with Rwanda’s model on orphanages. African countries’ shift towards deinstitutionalising childcare is a welcome process as it is severs the parasitic colonial as well as neocolonial relationship Europe has with Africa. The process, however, is an intricate one that this article will be illuminating a small fraction of.

In 2012, Rwanda decided to close all its orphanages. After the 1994 genocide, the number of orphanages skyrocketed from four to well over thirty as more than 95 000 children were orphaned by the genocide. Foreign aid organisations in response to the devastation of the genocide, opened institutions across the country, institutionalising Rwandan childcare. However, Rwandan president Paul Kagame noticed that those orphaned by the genocide had ‘outgrown’ orphanages, yet they still existed. This is when Kagame initiated a rehoming process. This decision was based on the Swahili saying, ‘asiye funzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu’- a deinstitutionalised approach to childcare, which equates to the infamous proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.

Rwanda’s rehoming process is now in full swing and the government aims to close all orphanages by 2020. Rwanda’s National Commission for Children’s director reported earlier this year that 3,323 children were in orphanages when the initiative took off in 2012, and now only 235 have yet to be rehomed with family, adopted or placed in foster families (unremunerated).

Then there are countries like Mauritania, Djibouti and South Sudan where in order to qualify to be a legal guardian of a minor, the applicant has to be a blood relative that is either Muslim and or lives in a Muslim environment. Prioritising the child’s religion here results in some preservation of the child’s culture. In addition, Mauritanian law prohibits non-family members from leaving Mauritania with adopted children. Similarly, in Djibouti, children with Djibouti citizenship are ineligible for adoption. Implying that transnational adoption from these two countries is not a possibility, even if one meets the first two criteria.

From the above examples, it is clear that many African countries are in fact deinstitutionalising childcare, a previously heavily institutionalised system and reverting to more culturally appropriate alternatives to child rearing. This, however, prompts one to question what in fact has changed along with the implementation of these new regulations and, ultimately, how this is affecting orphans in their respective countries. Coming from a family where the ‘village’ approach is adopted vastly, and also understanding that for most households, taking on an extra mouth to feed is no easy task. It also prompts one to enquire which changes need to be made that would effectively allow orphaned children to continue on to lead a normal life after losing one’s biological parents.

The first enquiry that comes to mind is the process of conception right to birth. We live in a patriarchal society that polices women’s bodies and also places value in women’s fertility. Rape culture is also ever pervasive; the fact that only in 1993 did the UN declare rape a war crime, demonstrates how deeply politicised women’s bodies are. Additionally, access to contraception in Africa, according to WHO in 2015, is only 33.4%. So almost 70% of the continent cannot implement effective family planning. The intersections of institutional restrictions that meet systematic poverty introduced by colonialism and maintained by neo-colonialism has rendered African women voiceless on issues regarding their own bodies!

In essence, policies that currently police and politicise women’s bodies and subjects them to systematic oppression and trauma has created irreparable damage and play a key role in the current vicious cycle of systematically creating orphans. Orphaned children, of course, come from somewhere. The responsibility or blame does not fall on the woman, but society has socialised us to internalise gender roles that further subjugate us. By politicising our bodies, even the unborn children our bodies can host preside over our bodies. The fact that approximately 93% of women of reproductive age in Africa live in countries with laws that in some way restrict abortion shed illuminate another way orphans are produced systematically. Additionally, even in countries where abortions may take place under special circumstances, very few women have access to a safe procedure and often seek out more clandestine methods that can be life-threatening.

The second enquiry regards the fact that the implicit and explicit bans disallowing women to have autonomy over their bodies have not been lifted. What then of the children that are born as as result? The inescapable reality of women being treated as chattel on one hand, and the rise of the white saviour industrial complex on the rise on the other, only means that there will always be orphans and therefore a market for foreign adoption and orphanages. An estimated 21.6 million unintended pregnancies occur each year in Africa, and of these, only 38% end in abortion. To white liberals all these statistics mean is that there is a market to exploit and therefore ceaseless giving back for them to do in Africa. This is a crass mentality and approach that does not even scratch the surface of the issue that they created. If only they could put two and two together, they would realise it equals white supremacist capitalist patriarchy- that they introduced to the continent and that has now politicised and othered the bodies of black women, giving birth to the issues we are faced with today.

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Personally, I’m of the opinion that uprooting children from their home country, with the exception of abuse, is not in the child’s best interest as the grass is not actually greener in Europe. Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, in a keynote address made her case regarding transnational adoption. Her stance is that transnational adoption, specifically the Africa to Europe pipeline, can be likened to the slave trade. To a large extent, I agree with this statement. Also interesting to note the countries from which most adoptions hail from have the biggest legacies of atrocities inflicted on African people. So, it would appear that white people employ the saviour complex and adopt African children to ease their white guilt. Not only do they rid themselves of dissonance permanently, adopted children ultimately serve as a trophy of their colourblindness and apparent non-racism. A buy-one-get-one-free coupon white people redeem when they engage in transnational adoption (read institutional abduction).

Realistically, if we are going to look after our own children, there is going to have to be reform. Expecting the burden to fall on family members or communities whose consumption increases exponentially the minute they agree to become a child’s guardian. Without assistance from government, this only translates itself into deeper poverty. Though orphanages and adoption organisations came into existence to alleviate the aftermath of centuries of dispossession, research has shown that growing up in orphanages can have lasting negative impact on children.

Through extensive research, risk patterns and vulnerabilities have been identified, now all that is lacking is their amelioration and this can be done through policy. Interventions need to happen on multiple levels, this includes and is not restricted to: the orphans, fostering households as well as their communities. Not all vulnerable children share the same history or even face the same issues despite sharing the same label: being orphan. These considerations all require differentiated policy responses. These then differ further, according to geography for example. Different regions are exposed to different forms of vulnerability. The AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa, Swaziland being the most hard-hit, requires a response that includes better access to ARVs and promotions aimed at deconstructing the stigma around the illness- another barrier that stops people from seeking treatment even when ARVs are made available. As a result of inadequate intervention, AIDS has become responsible for the swelling numbers of orphans in the region. The logical questions that then follow are the financing of such interventions as well as their rolling out: both of crucial importance.

A needs analysis needs to be conducted for all concerned parties: the orphan, the fostering household and communities, mapping out the levels on which the interventions need to take place within. Lastly, we need to consider how the intervention should play out and which funding channels are feasible. For example, whether a uniform/needs equivalent grant system needs to be introduced. Just by highlighting the first steps that need to be taken, one soon realises that differentiated policy responses required are dependent on so many factors that are, above all, culturally sensitive and appropriate.

White people, through systematic oppression, actively create, profit from and maintain a market that institutionalises children throughout Africa. They currently plunder Africa by opening NGOs, orphanages and, a personal favourite, voyeuristic volunteer agencies that we actually fund with photos they take of us for free to be used for their poverty porn PR strategies. Europe remains benefactors in this market with these photos, by reproducing the colonial narrative that any European can save this godforsaken continent. This is both short sighted and pompous. There is, however, a way Europe can acknowledge and settle their long outstanding debt to Africa and also upend their current and futile methods: reparations.

This is not even a foreign concept to Europeans, after all they paid slave owners out after the abolition of slavery. Slaves, like those in the Haitian Revolution, even had to pay for the inconvenience abolition caused.

Whilst no amount of financial compensation can ameliorate the impact of the violence inflicted on Africa. The institutionalisation abduction of children through transnational is a clear indication that Africans are still being removed from their country’s hundreds of years after the abolition of slavery, a symptom of neo-colonialism that continues to illicitly extract resources and abduct children for the enjoyment of the west. To sever this umbilical cord a fresh start is needed, which in this case would mean total economic freedom to enable Africa to restore its idiosyncratic deinstitutionalised approach to childcare.


Jacqueline Tizora

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Zimbabwean born and South African bred Black radical
feminist with a keen interest in African feminist thought and affairs.


Gods&Radicals is a non-profit publisher that relies on reader’s donations for our work. Support us here.

The Police Aren’t Here For You

“The police are an increasingly militarized arm of an increasingly fascist state, hired thugs for capitalist oligarchs, the modern-day version of slave catchers, a terrorist organization. When I came to see this, then abolishing the police didn’t seem so crazy anymore.”

From John Halstead

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Don’t you feel safe now?

“In England, a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called the stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency. But in France everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workmen in the bistros talk of la revolution—meaning the next revolution, not the last one. The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed—at least not yet.”

— George Orwell (1932)

On a cool Saturday morning in September, about 75 people gathered in the parking lot of the Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, situated in a mostly White, mixed-income neighborhood in Northwest Indiana. There were people of all ages. Parents with children, some in strollers. Retirees and students. Self-described activists and people who had never been to a protest before. There were some people of color, but we were a mostly White group. Several people were drawing on the blacktop with sidewalk chalk, messages about climate change and pollution.

A police officer on an ATV passed by on the road. Overhead, the sheriff’s helicopter circled.

“Are they here for us?” someone asked, looking up at the helicopter.

“They’re not here for you,” my friend responded. “They’re here for you.”

We laughed nervously, as the double entendre sank in.

The reason for the gathering was a pipeline walk organized by a local chapter of 350.org. It was not a protest, per se, but an educational walk. Ten kilometers, starting at the terminal of Enbridge Line 6A in Griffith, Indiana, and walking north toward the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, the largest tar sands refinery in the country.

The Enbridge terminal sat adjacent to the nature preserve that we were standing on, about a quarter mile away. The massive petroleum storage tanks were visible through the trees in the distance. The pipeline carrying tar sands oil ran directly under our feet, directly under the nature preserve.

When we left the preserve, we followed the path of the pipeline, marked by high-pressure pipeline markers, by people’s yards, two elementary schools (including the one my son attended), a high school, a municipal playground. We walked over several waterways. Throughout the walk, the police were as ubiquitous as the pipeline markers.

The goal of the walk was to draw attention to the existence of the pipelines in such close proximity to our everyday lives, and to activate people who might not come to a more confrontational event. No one carried any signs, and no one shouted protest chants. We stayed on the sidewalks. I think we were as non-threating as any group that size can be.

And yet, all the while, the helicopter circled above. Everywhere the police presence was visible: on foot, in police cars, on ATVs, in ominous black vans. At least four different police agencies were present. It was hard to estimate the numbers, but there must have been one police officer for every two walkers. All of that for fewer than a hundred people walking on the sidewalks in a suburban neighborhood. The size of the police presence was all the more remarkable for the fact that the organizers of the walk had met with the police prior to the event, explained it was a non-confrontational, educational event, and even provided a map of the route.

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Hey kids! Did you know that Officer Dugan is a corporate tool?

Throughout the walk, the police were courteous and obliging. They helped us negotiate the more dangerous road crossings. And some of the walkers expressed gratitude and even relief at the presence of the police. But for many of us, their presence was oppressive.

We couldn’t help but feel that they were not really there for our safety. Did we really believe they were there to help us cross the street? No, they were there because we were assembled in close proximity to a piece of major fossil fuel infrastructure. They were there to protect Enbridge and BP.

I also couldn’t escape the suspicion that they were also there to intimidate us, to remind us of their power. None of the officers acted aggressively toward us. (The press was present.)  But the sheer number of armed state actors in our vicinity had a psychological impact. And I don’t think it was unintended.

Growing up White, I had always believed that the police were there for me, to protect me. With the exception of some minor adolescent law breaking, the most I ever had to worry about from the police was getting a speeding ticket. And I never really had to worry about getting shot by the police when I was pulled over.

But as I got involved in street activism, I found myself in a more confrontational relationship with the police. And I began to see that the police are not there to protect me, at least not principally. They are there to protect the social order. As long as I was playing my part in that order, I was protected by the police. But as soon as I stepped just a little bit outside of that order (by exercising Constitutionally-guaranteed rights to assemble and speak), it became apparent that they weren’t there for me; indeed, they never had been.

For most people of color, LGBT folk, and other underprivileged persons, I’m sure this isn’t any revelation.

About a year before the pipeline walk, I was marching with Black Lives Matter activists in Chicago. They were calling for the “abolition”–a word chosen deliberately–of the police (as well as prisons). As I walked in solidarity with BLM, I wrestled with my emotions. I have to admit that the idea of abolishing the police sent an instinctual tremor or terror through my being.

I understood rationally that, rather than making Black and Brown communities in Chicago safer, the Chicago Police Department actually make them less safe. And so abolishing the police makes perfect sense. The police may make most White people feel safer, but the fact is that they do so by carrying on a campaign of terror against Black and Brown people. I understood that rationally, but when marchers called for the abolishment of the police, my socialization as a White person kicked in, and I couldn’t help wonder, “Who would protect me?”

Several months later, I drove into the small airport in Gary, Indiana for a protest against ICE deportations being conducted at that airport. I had been to a previous protest at the airport and there had been just one police officer present. On that prior occasion, a group of frustrated protesters had broken off from the main group, opened an unlocked gate, and walked out onto the runaway. That single police officer had remained calm as organizers talked to their fellow protesters and convinced them to return to the main body of the protest. There were no threats of arrest and only a minimal expression of police authority.

So this time, when I arrived at the airport, I was surprised to find a large contingent of police in SWAT gear herding us into a fenced-in area. I had volunteered to be the police liaison for the event, so it was my job to find out what in the hell was going on. The officer in charge brusquely informed me that we were being put in a pen “for our own safety”. He claimed that they had received reports of the possibility of counter-protesters (who never showed up, of course). I was also informed that no one was allowed to enter the airport building (which was usually open to the public), even to use the restroom, and if we left our designated area, we would be arrested.

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In other words, let us “protect” you, or we will arrest you.

When the buses with the windows covered up, carrying undocumented immigrants who were shackled hand and foot, drove into the airport, there was no ambiguity in my mind about the reason for the presence of the police. They were not there to protect us from counter-protesters, real or imagined. They were there to protect the system, an unjust system which, at that moment, was deporting people who had committed no major crimes, and which included parents with children, tax-paying workers and business owners, and even veterans.

None of this will come as a surprise to those educated about the origin of the police as a means of quashing protest by urban workers. Or to those who have noted the connection between the role of the antebellum police in catching runaway slaves and their role today in systematically enslaving people of color in a for-profit prison system. None of this will come as a surprise who have noted the coincidence of peak oil and the militarization of the police. Or to those who have observed how the practice of ticketing people for minor violations is used to redistribute wealth from poor communities and communities of color to the state (and hence to the wealthy).

None of this should come as surprise to those who have been paying attention to the growing body of video documentation of police violently assaulting and murdering people of color. And, of course, none of those will come as a surprise to people of color or many poor people, who have always been on the business end of the police baton.

“The police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.”

James Baldwin (1966)

But it did come as a surprise to me. I’m White and economically privileged, and so its perhaps not too suprising that, all my life, I have thought that the police were protecting me. But my recent encounters with the police helped me see that that what they have really been protecting is the gilded cage I live in. I’m protected because I’ve stayed in the cage. But if I so much as rattled the bars of my cage, the police revealed themselves for what they are: an increasingly militarized arm of an increasingly fascist state, hired thugs for capitalist oligarchs, the modern-day version of slave catchers, a terrorist organization.

The more I realized this, the more the calls for abolishing the police made sense. I’m now convinced that imagining a world without police means is part and parcel of imagining a just society.

“To a population domesticated from the moment it fell out of the womb such a question seem ludicrous. All our lives we’ve been told cops, judges, and prisons are the pinnacles of civilization, needed to keep our innate savagery in check. …

“We do not need cops and we do not need prisons. We cling to these institutions not because they are necessary but because we can’t imagine a world without them.”

Dr. Bones

“But who would protect me?” the old voice still comes. But now, there is another voice as well, with new questions: “Do the police really protect you now? From whom? Why do you think you need to be protected? Where does that belief come from? Who taught it to you? What unspoken assumptions is it based on?”

Recently, my Unitarian church invited the local police department to give an active shooter training to the congregation. The officers began the training by playing a 911 recording made from inside Columbine High School during the 1999 massacre. There was no pedagogical function. They didn’t refer to the calls once throughout the presentaton. As far as I could see, the only purpose of playing the recording was to make us afraid … and thus, more dependent on the police themselves. The police could not justify their existence, or the violence they perpetrate on us, without our continued fear of a world without them.

But the fact is the police don’t make us safer. For most White people, they only provide the illusion of safety. And for most people of color, not even that. About 90% of police time spent penalizing infractions of administrative regulations. As David Graeber has observed, the police are essentially bureaucrats with guns. Of the remaining 10% of their time, during which they are responding to violent crime, they are largely ineffectual, or worse.

I guess this is for our own good?

Crime is a natural and predictable result of inequality and injustice. If we really want to reduce crime, we should invest in full employment, universal healthcare (including mental health), free university education, and comprehensive sex education (including education about consent), and we should decriminalize drug use. These things would be far more effective in reducing violent crime than the police. But when we call for these things, the response we get is more police.

I’m not suggesting that abolishing the police is a simple answer. Imagining a world without police requires unlearning a lot of conscious and conscious beliefs. For one thing, it means White people like me unlearning the fear of Black people. The mystique of the police is sustained, in part, by racist stereotypes of the Black male “thug” or “super predator”, stereotypes which have historical antecedents dating back to the times of slavery.

Imagining a world without police also means unlearning capitalist ways of relating to other people.  As William Anderson has written,

“To end capitalism, we have to end capitalism both within and around us. When we liberate our relationships from patterns of thought that replicate the inequalities built into our social systems, a great love can exist that gives us a new feeling of freedom.”

This means learning how to relate to each other on the basis of cooperation, rather than competition. It means building community, spending time with people, and getting to know them. It means and taking responsibility for our communities, rather than abdicating that responsibility to the state. And, of course, it means finding ways to reintegrate those who violate community norms, rather than just warehouse or punish them.

As Chicago activist, Mariame Kaba, has said,

“Abolition is not about changing one thing. It’s about changing everything, together.”


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


Gods&Radicals is a non-profit publisher that relies on reader’s donations for our work. Support us here.

The Apocalypse Will Be Brought To You by Car, Not Truck

“Cars are bourgeois and trucks are proletarian.” An analysis of the truck-driver’s strike and diesel crisis in Brazil.

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

You can hear this article read by the author here:

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Cars

In high school, I failed an economics class. Now, 11 years later, I look back at that situation as symbolic of the capitalist indoctrination in the public school system.

The assignment was to develop a business plan. It was 2007, so most students came up with online businesses that could maximize profits by not having storefront rent draining money.

My idea was a bike sharing system integrated with the metro, where people paid a small fee monthly or yearly for unlimited access. The goal was to make cars obsolete, improve personal health and urban life standards (by minimizing all kinds of pollution, and death).

The class voted against the plan because it would definitely not be profitable. In fact, it might drain money with people breaking or stealing bikes. What I didn’t know at the time was that I wasn’t in an economics class, I was in a Capitalist economics class, because in “America” there was no other type.

Unlike everything else in high school, I actually got invested in this project. Public transport was awesome to me. Taking the bus alone made me feel free, in control, and in harmony with my surroundings. The metro pulsates through the city, and gives life to the urban organism. Adding public bikes to the mix would be next level awesomeness (I even made a cheesy youtube video).

Cars, on the other hand, are the embodiment of capitalism, and its sickening properties. Those that make us forget that we are a part of a community, of nature, and trick us into believing it’s possible (and desirable) to be at the driver’s seat of personal property, crushing everything on the way (the planet and everything on it). Even people’s temperament gets toxic in traffic.

Six years after receiving my memorable failing grade, my mom sent me a picture of herself on a Citi Bike (in New York) with the caption “Look, your idea”. Now these bike stations are in several major cities, I’ve just signed up to the one in the city where I live for 3 dollars a month.

A community owned not-for-profit initiative sounds pretty anti-capitalist, so how come are they all sporting Bank logos?

Because, as activists of React or Die have put it, we’ve become minimally content with symbolic gestures of generosity by Capitalists and the State; pacifying and trapping those with the slightest inclination for dissatisfaction with the system.

“We do not trade our pains as cheap merchandise from the colonial period, we do not bargain for crumbs.” –Winnie Mandela Tribute

There is a difference between smashing a capitalist state, and helping capitalist institutions improve. This here might be a third option. Neither revolution nor reform: revitalization. Or what urbanists call: make-up (in this case for tourists).

If we were to paint these Bank Bikes white (covering the logos) and keep them always unlocked, they would be outlawed and reduced to a teenage vandal art project (Provos).

I took this picture yesterday at the supermarket near my house in Salvador, Brazil.

Trucks

This week, the streets had the post-apocalyptic vibe you would expect from any tasteful Sci-fi pilot. The grim atmosphere of scarcity, and the controlled anxiety of people becoming aware that things have not yet turned into the Walking Dead- but might next week.

Lines for gas are growing around the few places that still have it, people praying at gas stations, some flights are not taking off, there are almost no fresh vegetables at supermarkets, the few street markets left are 7 times more expensive than usual, the T.V. is fuming with sensational stories about medicine not arriving at hospitals, people who “might” die and right-wing propaganda…

Indignation is widespread. While the left blames Temer’s failure at managing inflation and protecting people from Petrobras’ price fluctuation, the right blames the truck-drivers for not prioritizing the people who need food and medicine over their own “profits”. Of course the truck-drivers that get no wage readjustments based on the outrageous price spike are pissed, and so is anyone else who just wants to drive to work.

A place like Brazil, with such abundance of food and oil resources, not having enough for its own people reveals the catastrophic potential of the global Capitalist system. The middle class can’t imagine going to work by bus or bike, and had to be reminded of how supermarkets are stocked and the true power of workers.

These workers on strike are not representing any political party, no grand scheme coordinated by politicians on election year. This is a fairly mild wake up call, reminding us of how fragile the (in)balance of power is, and how our relationship with foreign markets is not in the best interest of the masses.

“A good pricing policy for fossil fuels should have two focuses. First, encourage biomass fuels and discourage fossil. Second, make a division between individual fuel and cargo fuel and public transportation, discouraging the former.” Caio Almendra

Unfortunately, individual fuel is still a priority in many people’s minds, and most of the the upper and middle classes have not learned to respect truck-drivers. Things will have to get a lot worse before we wake up to the reality of our daily exploitation and submission to foreign currency.

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Anti-development

“Development” is often reduced to road building. The higher the number and quality of roads, the more advanced and modern a place is; meaning, car and cash flows go hand in hand. This is not only an issue of class struggle and Capitalism, it’s about White Supremacy as well. We must not underestimate the affect this aspect of Capitalist development has on Indigenous and Quilombist communities.

Our Western lifestyle and backward politics make their way of life virtually impossible. Roads in particular play a major part in suffocating Indigenous and Quilombist land.

A leading figure of the Quilombo Quingoma told me she hates it when massive groups of motorcycles and random cars drive through their territory, and that paving roads is not good for their horses. Suburban “development” surrounding their land is directly connected to their lack of agency towards the preservation of the forest, and therefore the resources they need for autonomy.

Colonialism (and capitalism) have lead to the Western belief that being of the land is “less developed” than being on the land. The concept of ownership lead us to stop seeing ourselves as a part of our environment, to becoming people on or in property. That’s why the American dream is reduced to owning land of your own, and by doing that earning true freedom (meritocracy).

The tribal concept predates this capitalist concept, and it’s no surprise that after so many years of racism in the field of anthropology, that the term has had the derogatory connotation of underdevelopment.

The “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” shows well the ways in which the tone of anthropological research of tribal behavior is deeply problematic (Eurocentric). The Othering of Navies shows our inability to look at ourselves as ritualistic, and utterly nonsensical in our own behavior.

“While much of the [Nacirema] people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity.” -Horace Miner

The way we deal with our property is savage. The way we treat each other is horrific. Honestly, we have enough ways to kill, torture and enslave to make anthropophagy look honorable and humane. Still, somehow an incredible amount of people have the audacity to look at Natives as underdeveloped, just because their lives don’t revolve around screens, cars and money the way ours do.

If there is one thing we can do, in this seemingly helpless situation, is to unlearn what has been taught to us about order and progress, and learn what it really means to be a “developing” Nation.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

1527654533485_photois site editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.


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Future Gardening

“In their sharing to me and my sharing to my grand-daughter (or another heart-friend) we can recreate the right dialogue between ourselves and Earth, ourselves and our tiny household where we are rooted.”

From Judith O’Grady

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It’s nearly Spring in Canada!

My son and I garden together—- he is interested in vegetables, I am interested in herbals and wildlife support. First thing every Spring is starting plants from seed. Lot of tomatoes (11 kinds this year); many, many Sunflowers because the squirrels eat them as soon as we plant them. But for me the challenge is planting and re-planting the things that don’t germinate well or that don’t grow well—- I can get Ephedra to come up but I’ve never gotten it to grow over a couple of inches; I can’t get Roseroot to germinate (this year I’m buying plants as well); I keep putting in Foxglove but it hasn’t overwintered yet…..

I’m growing Northern Medicinals and they can be hard. But after you have Oregano all over the place (it spreads, I give it away, it spreads), Thyme in between the stones in the path, Parsley overwintering, and Basil every year in the tomato tubs it’s the next challenge. And there’s a purpose to it; medicinal herbal preparations used to be what we had and they may be that again. I’ve made teas and dried kitchen herbs for years and now I’m feeling ready to try extracts and elixirs. And Magical Preparations from folklore:

This could be viewed as a raised bed with strawberries backed by huge invasive weeds.

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Or it might be Mullen behind the strawberries: used by settlers as toilet paper, excellent for smudge, contributing to lung comfort, and the base of ‘Witches Candles’.
So I grow it or, more exactly, keep it in where it pops up. It’s a biennial, like Parsley, meaning that it grows the first year as leaves and the second it makes seeds. Mullen stalks are very tall, flower yellow in progression, and then dry out.

I collect them up and cut the tops into manageable pieces, smacking the little black seeds out of the stalks as I do.

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A dedicated thrift-store frying pan to melt the collected candle ends in and coat the outsides of the stalks et voilà! Witch candles as referenced in lore.

I always find this delightful—- I read about something, I look into it, I try it out……. then when it works I feel the broken chain between me and my ancestral past clicking back into being, connecting me to an awareness and skill-set which is now mine (tiny bit by tiny bit) and I can use and then pass on for myself.

The same sequence follows for other things. I read about yesteryear’s children looking forward to drinking ‘Elderflower Cordial’ in the Spring. I prepare (for ‘prepare’ read ‘pick off the bugs’) and soak the flowers, follow the old-timey recipe, and taste history.

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The old lore works—- the handsome guy who plays the standing harp puts in a special request for the ‘Auntie Night-Mare’ tea because it really helps him to get to sleep.
I work out how to send someone ‘Two Sleep’ after the Farmer’s Market closes for the season.

After a while I have to explain that Camomile has to be picked and dried as it flowers, scrap by scrap, and that the year’s production of Camomile is finite. Camomile can also teach you that startling difference between ‘edible’ and ‘palatable’— don’t put a flower in your mouth because you can drink the tea.

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The nice older couple ask if I’m planning anything new because they’ve already drank all the different selections; we plan out a blend based on their
preferences……

At the end of growing season last year I made Purple Basil vinegar with success and (in a different time frame) found an all-glass, good sized, double boiler in the thrift store. The Horehound came back gang-busters for its second summer (that plant family with the square stems, pretty reliable) and I want to make Horehound cough drops —- it is historical and doesn’t seem like it will be too hard as a start.

Also Arnica and Calendula ointment….. then Boneset and Comfrey (don’t eat those, readers)—- I could paint the ointment on a Mullen leaf, fold it over, and have a ready-made bruise dressing.

Gradually as my Grand-daughter grows up I will become more skilled and I may finally grow Ephedra and Roseroot with success. There’s no end of things to find find out and try and there are many Cunning Wort-Doctors more knowledgeable and proficient than myself to learn from. In their sharing to me and my sharing to my grand-daughter (or another heart-friend) we can recreate the right dialogue between ourselves and Earth, ourselves and our tiny household where we are rooted.

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If she’s interested or if there’s someone else who wants the undertaking and if the World doesn’t end by fire or plague she can, since she will know where everything is in the yard and how to make the things, hopefully trade Medicinals for food.


Judith O’Grady

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is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).


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On Community

“I truly believe we, especially those of us who consider ourselves witches and occultists, have the power to create our own communities, ones based on mutual trust, aid and respect. Solidarity, if you will.”

From Emma Kathryn

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I love the little town where I live. It has beautifully old and historic buildings, a rich and vibrant history. I love its cobbled streets, its higgledy piggledy buildings, the huge church that dominates the skyline, a gothic affair with huge stained glass windows.

When my little sister comes home from where she now lives, down south, she says she’s coming back to the sticks.

Isn’t it funny, how the perception of a place varies from person to person. At work, my area manager thinks it’s a posh little town, mostly because of the historic architecture and the fussy town council. But recently, a BBC report named my humble little town as one of the most deprived areas in the UK and one of the worst places to grow up poor.

The report, which goes into great deal regarding my town, says that there is a lack of opportunity for young people, lack of job security and so on and so forth. The usual stuff.

I must admit, I was quite surprised at the negativity in this report. Perhaps it is because those of us used to being poor find nothing surprising about the situation. We’re used to it. It’s like when some middle class feminists talk about women and working and all of the issues faced, it comes from a middle class perceptive. They talk about the high costs of childcare and how it affects them; about pay disparity (only today, as I write this, a BBC presenter has resigned despite earning well over one hundred thousand pounds a year and being offered a forty-five thousand pound pay rise). All of those things should be addressed, of course, but to me it highlights a clear problem within the fight for equality. Those at the bottom don’t count.

I think my town and the people in it are no different to anywhere else in the country, or indeed, the world. Poor is poor. When you can’t afford to feed your family, or to clothe them, when you struggle to keep a roof over your head, it doesn’t matter where you live, and it’s hard to feel that the woman presenter, is akin to those women, those single mothers in council houses struggling to make ends meet; or the mother and wife, who works full-time and still scrapes through life on less than the basics, but it’s all very middle class isn’t it? Though she shares a gender with those working class women, that’s it. There are no other shared traits, no other commonality.

The council estate where I live probably has the worst reputation of anywhere in the town. But what we have is a sense of community. I know all of my neighbours, could call on them for favours in times of need. When there’s car trouble and no money for mechanics, you can bet that after a few minutes of tinkering under the bonnet, at least two neighbours will be out with their tool boxes, helping if they can. When a kid goes missing, the whole street is out looking. When trouble comes, we band together.

And it’s not just the street where I live. In recent years, and with the rise of social media, whenever there has been an accident in the town, when people have been left homeless with no belongings, with nothing to their name, the town has rallied round, with donations of money, bedding, clothes, kettles, cutlery. The basics of existence. The little things that help to make a hard life just that little bit more bearable, and all from others who have very little themselves. We have community.

Don’t get me wrong, the town does have its problems, but no more than other places, and there are many diamonds in the rough.

The problems faced by the residents of this town, and countless others, countrywide and globally stem from the same source. From an unfair, capitalist system. In the UK, if it’s not London, Parliament doesn’t care. The political structure is a corrupt machine, not fit for purpose. It doesn’t matter what political party is in power. Politics is a stage show, the politicians actors, our lives the stage on which these skilled deceivers sell us their lies. We, the vast audience are taken in by their show, kept quiet with the  power of the almighty vote. We think we are the directors of the show that is politics. We think we have control.

We do not.

But we can take it. And it starts at the grassroots. It starts with the land, and those with whom we share it. It starts at home.

When I talk about community, I think some people think I mean all love and light and all that nonsense. I do not. There are people I just cannot stand, who live on my estate. I just don’t like them. I don’t like the way they play into the hands of the media, acting the stereotype. I don’t like that they are apathetic. I wish they would take a stand, to fight back against  all of the detritus thrown at them. But I’ll tell you something, they are more honest than all the politicians combined. I’ll tell you something else as well, they would have my back and I theirs.

But community means more than people. What about the other beings we share the land with?

Once, on an outing with a couple of pagan friends, the conversation turned to the topic of animal welfare, or rather the lack of it. Now, I am a vegetarian, would be vegan but for eggs and honey, and so animal welfare is a big deal for me. We were discussing factory farming, specifically the production of meat. Can you guess what a fellow pagan asked me? She asked if I thought then, because of my stance vehemently opposing factory farming, that animals had feelings?

Yep, you heard right. Do animals have feelings? My response was for her to go home and kick her dog, and then to come back and ask again whether I thought animals had feelings. Now, obviously I didn’t actually mean for her to actually kick her dog, but it’s so strange to me how a pagan, or any one who shares their home with an animal could even think to ask me such a question. Do they not feel fear, or pain, happiness and sadness. Of course they do and anyone with a bond to an animal will tell you the same.

For me, community goes beyond those who live on the same street as you. Now I know some do not like the word community, seeing it as a category of people lumped together based on their postcode or some other shared trait, and in a sense, this is true. But again, for me community means more. I truly believe we, especially those of us who consider ourselves witches and occultists, have the power to create our own communities, ones based on mutual trust, aid and respect. Solidarity, if you will.

Today, distance need not separate us and we can connect with others thousands of miles away. This is community too.

Wherever you are in the world, seek out those other like-minded folk, and build your community based on solidarity.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!

You can follow Emma on Facebook


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A Tribute to Winnie Mandela

Winnie Mandela passed away April 2nd, 2018. Here is a note, and tribute, by the Pan-Africanist school in Brazil that was named after her.

English Translation Here

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NOTA DA REAJA

À GRANDE RAINHA AFRICANA WINNIE MANDELA, NOSSO FAROL.

 “Para alimentar a luta, tinha de me expor à violência e à brutalidade do apartheid.”
Winnie Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela representou e representará para nós da Reaja, um farol, uma importante referência a qual nos mostra caminhos para uma prática de defesa dos interesses do nossos povo em meio a um tempo de miragens tecnológicas e traições políticas do propósito da luta negra no Brasil.

Winnie Mandela, o imponente nome que daos ao nosso quilombo de libertação forjado por pretos e pretas conscientes de sua história político racial se materializa pela nossa coragem de erigir um território livre de qualquer violência a qual o povo preto sempre esteve imerso. Seguimos com nossas próprias condições, construindo teoria a partir de nossas vidas e mortes, desgraça, servidão, drogas e ignorância, mas sobretudo a partir de práticas de resistência e libertação negra.

A nossa luta política é baseada em serviços comunitários e efetivo enfrentamento ao poder que tenta a todo custo nos eliminar da face da terra e diminuir nossa humanidade, nos utilizando como capachos e serviçais de pautas e propósitos que não nos pertencem, de lutas que não garantirão nossa libertação coletiva. Winnie Mandela acende em nós todos os dias o compromisso de construirmos um projeto de libertação de nosso povo. Winnie Madikizela Mandela é nossa mais pura inspiração.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela que nos confiou seu nome e sua trajetória para imortalizarmos na história segue firme e intacta em nossas mentes, corpos pretos, braços e pernas que trabalham arduamente dia após dia, nas madrugadas ou no sol escaldante das tardes da cidade túmulo. Militantes envoltos em um sonho coletivo de resgate de nossa autonomia enquanto povo, de nossa independência política sem a tutela de brancos acadêmicos ditando o que devemos ser ou fazer, de nossa autodeterminação sem vagos momentos ociosos, de solidariedade entre nós pretos e pretas.

Nossa Escola de Formação Quilombista e Panafricanista é o núcleo mais avançado de nossa ação, junto com o Núcleo de Familiares de Vítimas do Estado, Núcleo de Familiares e Amigos de Presos e Presas, e nossas ações permanentes de solidariedade e autodefesa. Agora que a Mãe da nação africana volta a sua massa de origem, devemos honrar ainda mais sua história de vida totalmente dedicada a luta de libertação africana.

Em toda sua trajetória política Winnie Madikizela-Mandela jamais recuou de seu dever histórico de enfrentar as forças do apartheid em Soweto, onde nos anos 70 os jovens estudantes negros e negras protagonizaram o mais importante levante contra a opressão branca na África do Sul. A luta e a oposição desses estudantes baseava-se nas péssimas condições de educação, na educação de última categoria dedicada aos africanos e na violência cotidiana. Os jovens foram as ruas e enfrentaram balas com pedras, gritos e cantos tradicionais. Impulsionando e criando toda esta força, estava Winnie Mandela.

Ela é a senhora maior da 4° Internacional Garveista, da qual somos filiadas. Ela é a grande Mãe da rebelião preta em todo mundo. Seu pensamento e sua prática política tem nos animado desde becos e vielas e cadeias e favelas onde combatemos a continuidade perversa da escravização.

Aprendemos com sua luta interminável de libertação que devemos proceder honrando nossos princípios de guerra contra a supremacia branca. Ela nos ensinou que a luta é contínua e regada a muita dor e sangue de ambos os lados, de inimigos e de lutadores radicais dispostos a dar a vida pela conquista de um pedaço de terra ou a libertação de um irmão encarcerado nas catacumbas do sistema prisional ou do acalanto de uma mãe que grita pela perda de seu filho. Somos combatentes dispostas a retomar toda a glória dos tempos áureos das terras negras africanas.

Estamos formando um exército preto de mulheres e homens capazes de reconhecer na sua comunidade o espelho necessário para erguer novas estruturas e instituições com nossos métodos de luta real, com bases em ação comunitária em todos os lugares onde o nosso povo se encontra.

Seguimos atentas e atentos as armadilhas de nossos inimigos. Estamos na disposição para devastar a linha auxiliar a qualquer custo. Não negociamos nossas dores como uma mercadoria barata do período colonial, não barganhamos migalhas usando nossas dores e nossos mortos e história como meros ratos lotados em cargos de governo a espera de cadeiras vagas. Somos a rua, a cadeia, os becos, a noite. Guiamos nossa esperança através do sangue bruto derramado no barro quente sob nossos pés. Suamos como operários escultores de nossa liberdade. Sonhamos com nosso lar repleto de gente preta livre, mas acima de tudo projetamos a edificação de um império sólido cravado na rocha profunda com as insígnias eternas de “Reaja ou Será Morta, Reaja ou Será Morto”.

Salvador, abril de 2018.


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ENGLISH TRANSLATION

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NOTE FROM THE POLITICAL ORGANIZATION REACT OR DIE

TO THE GREAT AFRICAN QUEEN WINNIE MANDELA, OUR BEACON.

“To fuel the struggle, I had to expose myself to the violence and brutality of apartheid.”
Winnie Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela represented and will represent to us at Reaja (React or Die), a beacon, an important reference which shows us ways to a practice of defending the interests of our people, in a time of technological mirages and political betrayals of the purpose of the black struggle in Brazil.

Winnie Mandela, the imposing name we give to our quilombo of liberation, forged by blacks conscious of their racial-political history, is materialized by our courage to build a territory free of any violence, which black people have always been immersed in. We continue with our own conditions, building theory from our lives and deaths, disgrace, servitude, drugs and ignorance, but especially from practices of resistance and black liberation.

Our political struggle is based on communitarian services and effective confrontation with the power that tries at all costs to eliminate us from the face of the earth, and to diminish our humanity, using us as mats and servants of interests and agendas that are not ours, of struggles that will not guarantee our collective liberation. Winnie Mandela shines a light every day at the commitment to build a project of liberation of our people. Winnie Madikizela Mandela is our purest inspiration.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who entrusted us with her name and her journey, is immortalized in history and follows steadily and intact in our minds, black bodies, arms and legs that work hard day after day till dawn, at the scorching sun of the tomb town afternoons. Militants enveloped in a collective dream of rescuing our autonomy as people, of our political independence, without the tutelage of white academics dictating what we should be or do, of our self-determination without vague idle moments, of solidarity between us black people.

Our Quilombist and Panafricanist Training School is the most advanced nucleus of our action, together with the Nucleus of Relatives of Victims of the State, Nucleus of Family and Friends of Prisoners (ASFAP-Bahia), and our permanent actions of solidarity and self-defense. Now that the Mother of the African nation returns to her place of origin, we must honor even more her life story, which was so completely dedicated to the African liberation struggle.

Throughout her political career, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela never backed down from her historic duty to confront the forces of apartheid in Soweto, where in the 1970s young black students staged the most important uprising against white oppression in South Africa. The opposition of these students was based on the poor conditions of education, the last-category education dedicated to Africans, and daily violence. The youth went to the streets and faced bullets with rocks, shouts, and traditional songs. Boosting and creating all this force was Winnie Mandela.

She is the senior lady of the 4th Garveyst International, of which we are affiliated. She is the great Mother of black rebellion in the whole world. Her thinking and her political practice has animated us from alleys and favelas, prisons and chains, where we fight the perverse continuity of enslavement.

We learn from her endless struggle for liberation that we must proceed by honoring our principles of war against white supremacy. She taught us that the struggle is continuous and watered with much pain and blood on both sides, from enemies and radical fighters willing to give their lives for the conquest of a piece of land, or the release of an imprisoned brother in the catacombs of the prison system, or the lullaby of a mother screaming over the loss of her child. We are fighters ready to take back all the glory of the golden times of the black African lands.

We are forming a black army of women and men capable of recognizing in their community the mirror necessary to erect new structures and institutions with our methods of true fight, grounded in community action wherever our people find themselves.

We remain attentive to the traps of our enemies. We are willing to devastate aid-routes at any cost. We do not trade our pains as cheap merchandise from the colonial period, we do not bargain for crumbs using our pains, and our dead, and history, as mere rats crowded into government offices waiting for vacant seats. We are the street, the chain, the alleys, the night. We guide our hope through the raw blood spilled in the hot clay under our feet. We sweat like working sculptors of our freedom. We dream of our home full of free black people, but most of all, we project the building of a solid empire embedded in the deep rock with the eternal insignia of “React or Die”.

Salvador, Brazil – April 2018.


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A Standing Rock Story Part 2

“We [White people] have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.”

From Lisha Sterling

Photo by Tim Yakaitis.

“Gooooooood morning, Water Protectors! This is not a vacation! We’ve got work to do, relatives! It’s time to pray! Get your čanupa! Get your bible! Get your sacred items and come to the sacred fire!”

– Morning wake up call over the loud speakers near the sacred fire at Očeti Šakówiŋ.

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The night I rolled in to Standing Rock it was dark, and finding the right entrance to the camp where I wanted to go was confusing. It was all headlights and flashlights on a short strip of road, traffic coming up from the south, lots of  people and cars but everything else was dark. Really, really dark. So I drove past Očeti Šakówiŋ, past Sičangu (Rosebud), and all the way to the town of Cannon Ball, then through the town, out the other side and back up to Sacred Stone camp. I didn’t see much of anything that night. I think it must have been overcast, because I don’t even remember the stars. Or maybe it was clear, but I was so tired from the 2 day drive and overwhelmed by just having arrived that I didn’t really see the sky.

The next morning, after breakfast, I drove back out through Cannon Ball, over to highway 1806, and north towards the other camps. Just before I got to Sičangu I crested the hill, and in the clear sunlight the sight of thousands of people camped in tents and tipis was awe inspiring. There are no words that can express that feeling. Joy. Excitement. A thrill at the hope all those tents and tipis represented. These are just approximations. I wish that I could take that feeling that wells up in my heart even at the memory of it and place it inside your heart so that you could experience it, too.

That feeling never went away. Even in the coldest and harshest part of the winter, even in the most stressful days of battle, the view of the camp was exhilarating.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

You Are Not In The United States

One of the first lessons for anyone coming to camp who wasn’t Native was that Camp was not part of “America”. Camp was sovereign territory. Camp was on treaty land, run by the people of the Seven Council Fires, existing in the cultural ways of what the American government calls The Great Sioux Nation.

Each camp entrance had a security checkpoint. Signs by the entrance reminded people whose land they were entering and set out the clearest of ground rules:

No Weapons of Any Kind.

No Alcohol Or Drugs.

Not on you and not in you.

This Is A Peaceful Prayer Camp.

Each of the three camps were broken into smaller camps. I don’t know what the separate areas of Sacred Stone were called, or if they even had different names, but at Očeti there were camps with names like, “Oglala Camp,” “Southwest Camp,” “Red Warrior Camp,” “Cheyenne River Camp,” “Red Lightning,” and so on. The fact that life at camp was broken into these smaller camps was something utterly lost on most of the non-Natives who showed up.

Johnny Aseron would ask people in the morning meeting or at some other meeting throughout the day, “What camp are you in?” and the answer from non-Native vistors was almost always, “Oh, we’re not in a camp. We’re just in a tent by ourselves.” This was rarely the first experience of culture clash that people would experience, but it was one that embodied all the other clashes. “Go back to your tent,” Johnny would tell the visitors, “then look around you. Figure out who is near by. Introduce yourselves and ask what camp they are in. Get permission to be where you are, and then make yourselves useful to your camp.”

“White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!” Johnny would fume. And he was right.

We come from cities and towns where we never see our neighbors any more, where we don’t even know the people in our own apartment building. We travel through life completely oblivious to the people next door unless they play their music too loudly in the middle of the night. We have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.

People showed up from all over the country certain that they could do something to help the camps, but few took the time to stop and listen before they told everyone what their great idea was. As a result, a lot of duplication of efforts happened between September and December, a lot of projects went off half-cocked, and so many things were started and then abandoned when the people who started them decided to go home.

Even some of the people who did take the time to listen as well as talk managed to cause consternation when they treated the space like it was Burning Man rather than the sacred ground of the meeting place of the Seven Council Fires. There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.

This was not the only incident, possibly not even the most egregious one, that angered the Native community for its complete lack of respect for Lakota culture. But those who stayed for the long haul learned how to live in better harmony with the local culture. White people learned to cook buffalo instead of quinoa. White women learned to stay away from the sacred fire on our moon time. White men learned to let Native men set the boundaries and decide what steps to take next. Some of us left camp as honorary Lakota. Some found themselves connected with and adopted by the Nation from the land where they make their home.

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Sacred Ground and A Place of Prayer

The land where the camps were is sacred ground. Lakota tradition teaches us that many medicine men have put sacred medicine into the land where Očeti Šakówiŋ was. There were also burials in several areas within the camps’ boundaries and to the North of them. It was no coincidence that the movement to protect the water gained so much momentum from this place. The prayers spoken there carry extra weight.

I had heard this before I ever arrived at Standing Rock. I knew it in my bones once I got there.

On the night that I arrived at Sacred Stone, I walked down to the Cannonball river and talked to the spirits of the land and the ancestors there. That first night the spirits were not impressed with me. They gave me something of a cold shoulder. They were doubtful about my intentions, I think, and not terribly trusting. I’m not sure exactly how it is that I gained their trust, but it didn’t take long at all.

One thing that I do know is that prayers were answered for everyone at camp, and miracles were absolutely commonplace there. People would talk about it while sitting around a fire or standing in line at a kitchen. You need a thing. You pray for that thing. The thing shows up. Again and again and again. Need someone with a certain skill? Pray. Need a power inverter? Pray. Need to get in touch with someone but your phone doesn’t work at camp and neither does theirs? Pray.

In November I found myself at a laundromat in Mandan, about 50 minutes away once the checkpoint had turned into a roadblock and everyone had to drive around the long way between Standing Rock and the urban area to the north. There were no laundry facilities at camp, so nearly everyone went north to wash their clothes once every two weeks or maybe once a month. I met a White woman at the laundromat who was also staying at camp. She said that she really liked the environment at camp, but she was skeptical of the idea that prayer was going to do anything useful.

“You can’t stop a pipeline with prayer,” she told me.

“I don’t know if we will stop the pipeline, but you have to admit, prayer is doing something,” I pressed.

“No. I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe that prayer has any purpose.”

“But, wait, haven’t you noticed the weird things that happen? How things just magically seem to turn out just so? How people end up in the right place at just the right time? How things show up just when you need them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” She admitted somewhat uncomfortably.

“Well, you don’t have to call that a miracle if you don’t want. You can put it into another cosmological framework if you choose. Call it a synchronicity. There are an awful lot of synchronicities happening. Where does that come from?”

She laughed, “Yeah, there sure are a lot of synchronicities. I have no idea where they come from.”

“Well, maybe you would think of it as some sort of as-yet-unexplained quantum phenomenon. Or maybe it’s just the Unknown. But that thing that makes the synchronicities come together, that’s what some of us call God.”

The Atheist White Lady agreed that it was possible to hold the idea that whether there was a God or not, something was certainly happening at camp. When I got back to camp, I shared that story, and from then on the term “Očeti Synchronicity” entered the collective lexicon of the folks I camped with.

The Ancestors Stood With Us

In early October I was standing between the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Media tent and the Water Protectors Legal Cooperative tent on top of Facebook Hill in Očeti Šakówiŋ. As I stood there smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the IEN volunteers, we saw a red car come speeding from the south on 1806 followed by a police car with it’s lights flashing. The car turned into the south entrance to camp and sped right past the guards. As soon as it entered camp it turned off its lights, but the police car continued in pursuit, lights still flashing. The red car disappeared into the camp, but the police car made it about ¾ of the way around the loop road through the south side of camp before it was surrounded by angry Water Protectors. People on the hill jumped into their cars and trucks and sped down towards the police car. Some of the vets who were camped north of Facebook Hill near the north entrance did the same.

From our perch atop the hill we could hear people yelling at the police officer inside his now stopped car. The situation was tense. There would be some yelling, and then silence, then yelling again.

I ran into the tents to inform people inside what was going on, and to tell my friend to get ready to grab his sleeping kid sprawled out in front of the wood stove and put them in my van. “If there are shots, we go. If more police show up we go. I’ll drive through the fence if we have to. We don’t want to be here if this gets ugly.” I went back outside and kept watch.

Eventually, the police car turned its flashing lights off and began to drive slowly around the rest of the loop road toward the north entrance. Another police car showed up and parked by the north entrance. I went inside to get my friends and go. We jumped in my van, and I drove straight for the south entrance. As we got there, more police cars were coming up 1806.

When we got to the south gate, one of the guards stepped up to stop me from leaving. “We’re on lock down,” he explained, “Someone just drove in to camp in a stolen car and there are police here.”

“It’s not us. We saw the whole thing from on top of the hill. I have a kid in the van. We need to get back to Sičangu. I need to keep the kid safe.” I told the guard. I don’t know why he let me through. They didn’t let anyone else out of camp. We were the only ones. But he let me go, and I pulled out of Očeti, drove south of the river onto undisputed Reservation territory and turned into the driveway of Sičangu camp.

“Sorry. No one in or out. We’re on lockdown.” The guard at Sičangu told me.

“I know. We were just at the Media tent. We have a kid in the van. I need to get ’em safely back to our camp.” The guard knew who we were, an advantage of living in the smaller camp at Rosebud. He nodded in ascent and let us through.

As we pulled into the back grove where we were camped, I gave my friend instructions, still functioning in emergency mode. “If they raid the camp tonight, come find me and the van. I’ll drive us out of here no matter what it takes. If you can’t get to the van, then run south towards the town. I’ll find you and pick you up.”

I need not have worried. When the police car had turned its lights off, the Akíčita (say: ah-KI-chi-tah, warriors) of Očeti Šakówiŋ had made an agreement with the police who happened to be a local Lakota from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The police would stay outside the camp while the Akíčita would search for the car thief and bring them to the police. They found the bad guys, a driver and two passengers. They also rescued a woman who got trapped in her tipi when the car had plowed into it. Miraculously, she only had minor injuries.

That night I had a dream that I was walking around the whole perimeter of Očeti Šakówiŋ camp with my brother who had died on December 25, 2015.

When I became aware that it was strange to be walking with my dead brother as if it were normal, he spoke up, “Phew! That was scary last night!!”

“Yeah it was.” We walked and the silence hung over us for a while.

“I’m so glad that you are here, though. If I were alive I’d be there with you.” He paused, “Well, I am here with you. Just not like that.”

I looked at him and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”

The author’s brother, photo taken in 2005.

One day in October there was a 9am meeting unlike any other while I was at camp. It was in the army tent on Hunkpapa hill, before the days when morning meetings happened in the dome. Johnny Aseron was late, but some other elders came in to the tent and started the meeting off without him. As usual, sage was lit and passed around the circle of people gathered. An opening prayer was said, just like always. But instead of Johnny saying a few words and then going around the circle to hear from whoever wanted to speak, these elders stood at the focus of everyone’s attention.

One elder spoke of the terrible number of Water Protectors that had been arrested the day before. Another spoke of the people who had not stayed peaceful and had instead lit fires. There were agitators amongst the Water Protectors who said that peaceful protest was not enough. We needed to fight already, they said. This elder said that made no sense at all.

“Look at the power of the United States,” he said, “Do you think that we can defeat them? Of course not! If we use violence, they will come down on us with as much force as they need. They will not just arrest 40 people or a hundred people. They will come in here and kill us. We’ve lost enough of our people. We need to live and we need to fight smarter than that.”

I didn’t know it then, didn’t know who these men were, but I would find out later that these were men who had once been militants who had no compunction about using guns in their battles. They had aged since then, and wised up. They had watched revolutions in other countries and seen how they went down. They had contemplated their own history and realized that winning every battle was not enough to win the war. They had learned that violence was not going to give them the gains they wanted. Only prayer could do that.

One of the elders stood up to tell a story that I don’t think I will ever forget. “Back in the 80’s we were told to go to the Black Hills with our families to stop the mining. The elders told us then to go out and set up a camp. Build a sweat lodge and pray all day, every day. We wanted to fight, but they said, ‘No. This time you just go and pray.’ We did what the elders said. There were about 30 of us. My wife was there and my kids. Other families, too. We just prayed and went into sweat lodge every day. After we’d been there a while, one morning we wake up and we’re surrounded by White men on the hills overlooking the valley where we were camped. All these White men up there with their guns. Some of them were sheriff’s deputies, but there were also just guys from the area near there. They’d called up and said that anyone who had a gun should come down and stop us. So there they were, surrounding us. There was nothing we could do. They stood there with their guns pointed down at us, men, women and children. We thought for sure it was going to be a massacre. But no one shot a single bullet. We all stood there for a long time, until finally someone came to us to negotiate a deal, and then we left there.

“Well, you see, about ten years after that happened, I was telling the story at this place. You know, I’d travel and speak at places, and tell what happened there. And I told the story this one time, and after the whole thing was over, this one man comes up to me after to talk. It was a White man. He said, ‘I had to come here to tell you that I was one of those men up there with a gun pointed at you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know back then, but I know now. I’m really sorry for what I did.’ and then he said, ‘but I have to tell you something, because you didn’t say anything about it in your story, and I don’t know if you even know. There’s a reason we didn’t shoot. When we looked down into that valley, we saw thousands of Indians and they were all armed. We all knew that if we shot, we’d all be dead. We didn’t see 30 people. We saw a valley full of Indians.’

“And so that’s how I know. Prayer works. The ancestors were with us that day. They stood with us, and those White men saw them.”

I feel pretty certain that the same thing happened at Standing Rock during the encampments. Not just once, but over and over again. The police were terrified of the Water Protectors. They told stories of Water Protectors with pipe bombs and tire irons and knives threatening them. None of those things ever happened. Some of that was surely just cops telling lies to justify their actions, but I heard cops talking with real fear in their voice on more than one occasion. Now, either they are such complete cowards that they make stuff up in their own heads – which considering the vast number of non-gun items that police have claimed were guns in the hands of Black men, we can’t ignore that possibility – or else, they really did see angry Native ancestors brandishing ghost weapons.

I know the ancestors were there. Against all logic, I met some of them. In the days of late November when I slept in my van outside the Cannon Ball Rec Center after working late into the night alongside the Media team, I saw ghosts who were as real and as solid to my mind as any living person. The wind seemed to blow them my way, and they gathered around the van. Some pressed their faces against the windows to look inside. Some followed me into dreams. I was able to describe people who had died many years before to relatives of theirs at camp and at the Cannon Ball Rec Center. I should perhaps mention that I do not usually see ghosts. This was not a type of magick or medicine in my repertoire before those nights.

One night after the snows started I climbed into bed at the back of my van and snow began to fall on my head, blowing through a gap between the back door and the frame where the seal had shrunk away from age and cold. I climbed out of the van and went back inside the room in the rec center where the Media team worked. I fumed in frustration and exhaustion, and sat with John Bigelow, head of the Media team, for a bit to vent about how things weren’t working right on this thing and that thing and I felt so isolated and alienated and unsure of myself. (We didn’t know it then, but TigerSwan had been using infiltrators to intentionally create division between White people and Natives, and I’d been hit by some really cruel words about my not belonging there.) John reassured me and told me to talk to the ancestors. They’d tell me how to handle it.

After our talk, I climbed under a table to sleep on the floor. As I closed my eyes I prayed that the ancestors would speak to me and give me guidance. Just as I was falling asleep, one member of the Media team stuck a pillow under my head, and another put a blanket over me. And then I was in another place and time.

I dreamed that I was at a meeting with a number of chiefs from the past and some other Native elders from the past and the present. We were in a long lodge. We sat on pillows at a long table that was close to the ground. I sat on the corner at one end of the table listening to the conversations going on. When it seemed appropriate, I took part in the conversation. After a bit, the people at the table broke into lots of smaller conversations. I had a deep conversation with two men that were sitting right by me on the long side of the table and a man who sat down at the short side of the table next to me for a bit and then got up to take care of something else. Towards the end of the conversation the man right next to me said, “We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I felt so pleased, so I said the most obvious thing of all, “Just a moment. I’ll give you my mobile number.” And then I woke up.

Every time I think about that dream it makes me laugh. I offered a 140 year dead Lakota chief my mobile number. Oof! John got a good laugh at my foolish offer, too, but said that it was a good sign that they wanted to talk. I needed to spend more time learning how to listen to the ancestors.

Fixing equipment on the communications tower that brought Internet into Oceti Sakowin on a freezing winter day.
Photo by Scott Golder.

Experiencing Communalism

“I learned more about anti-capitalism in the short time we were there, than I had in decades of research. Theory vs practice.” – Karina B Hart

One of the things about camp that everyone noticed, whether they were there for a day or for months, whether they took the time to understand Lakota culture or not, was that none of the camps functioned like the outside world. No one worked for money at camp, but everyone worked. No one was homeless at camp. Everyone had food to eat. Everyone had clothes, batteries, cigarettes, matches, flashlights, and whatever other basic need they might have. Healthcare was free, and it included both Western medical care and an assortment of other modalities including herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.

If you needed almost anything, you only had to go to the tents where donations were sorted and distributed. If you were hungry, there were kitchens located all around the camps. As winter approached, there was a construction team that worked literally 24 hours a day building temporary housing for those who needed it and insulated floors for those who had sturdy tents or tipis that just needed a little extra protection. (It gets so cold in North Dakota that the ground freezes solid and if your sleeping bag is directly on the ground you can freeze before you wake up, even inside a heated tipi.) There was another team whose sole job was to construct wood stoves out of 50 gallon drums. The solar team that worked with me provided and/or repaired power systems at major locations throughout Očeti Šakówiŋ and Sičangu camps, including at the medical facilities, the dome, the restrooms, and at some of the larger insulated army tents that held a lot of people.

There were people at camp who complained that they never got what they needed. I will be honest and say that I don’t understand what happened in those cases. I wish I did, because it is something that all of us who were leading teams around camp worked hard to avoid. It was important to all of us to make sure that no one was left behind, especially Native families and elders. The medical team even sent out teams of medics to visit every single tent, tipi, and structure in all the camps to check on people, find out what they needed, and make sure that those who were unable to get to the donation tents or the medical yurts for whatever reason got whatever it was they needed.

Nearly everyone worked in some way that benefited either their local sub-camp or the camp as a whole. Some people were unable to do outside work because they were caring for their children, for elders, or they themselves were handicapped in some way. There were rumors of some people who didn’t work at all, but I never came across those people. I have no idea if this was just a TigerSwan-spread rumor or what. The only people that I know of that came and didn’t work were some of the “tourists” who came to camp for a weekend or a week and figured that since they’d brought donations they didn’t need to take part in any of the work. They could have been a burden, but I think that their work ethic was less of a concern than their general lack of respect for Lakota culture. But, then again, even among the “tourists”, most showed up and pitched in wherever they could.

There was so much to do. In an off-grid community, chopping wood becomes a vital job. In the winter, after the porta-potties were gone and we all started using the composting toilets, we needed two people per shift to work in each toilet tent to keep the wood stove burning, the sawdust bins full, and the composting toilets from overflowing. Every kitchen needed assistants for food preparation and clean up. The donation tents needed people to sort through things, pack up surplus to go out to reservation residents, and help Water Protectors find the things they needed. Each of the three camps needed security at the gates and walking through the camp 24 hours a day. The sacred fires required trained men to tend the fire round the clock in every kind of weather. The medical camp needed all sorts of non-medical support in addition to the healthcare work. The technology team needed network engineers who could drive a snowmobile up to “hop hill” outside of camp to fix our connection to the Internet if the wind, snowpack, or mystery computer gremlins cut us off. We also needed people who could program radios so that medics and security personnel could keep in contact throughout the area. A few tent or tipi fires occurred, and when they did every available hand was needed to put out the fire and make sure that everyone stayed safe. There was a school at Sacred Stone and another school at Očeti, so we needed teachers.

There was no top-down hierarchy that planned and managed everything. Instead it was more like herding cats. There was a volunteer desk near the main sacred fire in Očeti where people could sign up with their skills or find out what needs there were around camp. There were daily meetings for the representatives of sub-camps and work groups to discuss the work of the day, what they offered to others, and the needs they needed filled. Not everyone trying to run a project showed up to those, and not every camp had representatives at the meetings each morning. We did the best we could to keep things running as smoothly as we could. There were failures in communication, and failures to accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish, but all in all we did amazingly well.

Miraculously, there was not one single death in camp throughout the bitterly cold winter, though there was one death ten miles south in the parking lot at the Prairie Knights Casino when a man was working on his car in the snow and electrocuted himself in a freak accident.

All of this near utopia would not have been possible without the donations that flowed in from around the world. Some people would say that the need for donations proves that this sort of community life is impossible without people in the capitalist over-culture supporting it, but I would disagree strenuously. There was certainly a need for donations at the camps, but that need would have been far less if the camps had continued for a second or third year. If we could have grown our own food, we would not have needed food from outside. If we could have produced our our own clothing using traditional methods – whether Lakota or not – we would have needed fewer and fewer clothing donations over time. If we had stayed for more than a year we could also have begun to make things which could have been sold to people outside the camps so that the camp would have money available for those things which can’t be made from renewable and well-stewarted local resources. As it was, we had so many donations that we were able to ship truckloads of clothes and other items to communities on Native reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota and beyond.

The added bonus of all those surplus donations for camp is that children who had never had snow boots in their lives, despite living in a place where the temperature gets below -20F (-29C) and the snow can be several feet deep, got snow boots as well as warm gloves and jackets, toasty long underwear, and more. Some of the surplus warm weather gear from the summer and autumn was shipped onward to Water Protector camps in Florida. Other gear made its way to poor urban communities in places where it doesn’t get as cold as the Dakotas.

It’s true that the camps could not survive the first year without donations, and they probably would have continued to need some help in a second and third year, but those donations where investments in the better world that we would all like to build. They were transvestments of capital and other resources from the capitalist system into a gift-based system, and those transvestments did bring resources to more than just the camp community. Having now entered the gift economy, many of those donations will continue to circulate free of the capitalist system for a long time to come.

And that is one of the beautiful things about allying ourselves in the work of environmental protection and economic shift with indigenous communities like the Lakota. The Lakota have a rich tradition with the gift economy. The wopila is a cherished celebration of thanks in which a person, family, band, or tribe gives away as much as they possibly can. And so, the goodness keeps revolving, moving from hand to hand, staying put only when and where it is most needed.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

A Place That Changed Lives

I was there for such a brief little spurt of time and I still feel the loss in such a profound way. It changed me even though I was only there for mere days….” – Elizabeth Schindler

Standing Rock was a life changing event for a great many people. For some it was the experience of living in the flow of a gift economy where work is something you do out of love and where receiving is as important as giving. For others it was how Lakota culture seeped into their consciousness after months of living in that land and with that amazing community. For some it only took a few days for the vision of tipis standing on the plain to etch something indelible on their soul. For others it was the long fight on the frontlines, face to face with militarized law enforcement and mercenaries who brought tactics back from wars in the Middle East to oppress people right here in North America that changed their view of the world and their place in it. Standing Rock also changed me in dramatic ways that I’m still just beginning to understand.

The first and most obvious change in me was faith, or maybe I should say “belief”. I was first trained as a healer when I was just nine years old. The first cancer patient I ever worked with is still alive 37 years after she was told that she would be dead in less than three months. They had given up on chemo therapy and were just concentrating on palliative care. And yet, even after many more years and many more patients where I saw “miraculous” things flow from the use of those core healing techniques I learned as a child, I used to say that I didn’t really believe in any of it. I would do the work as I was taught, and results would happen, so it was obviously a real thing, but I would say that I didn’t believe in it any more than I believe that the sun is going to come up in the morning. I just knew that it worked, but I couldn’t say with certainty why or how, and I was never fully certain – definitely not as certain as that the sun would come up – that any good at all would come of my attempts to heal someone. And prayer? We all know that sometimes the answer to prayer is “No.” So, how can you believe in prayer if you don’t know what the outcome will be?

I blame that lack of belief on the dominant culture of the West. These spiritual things don’t fit into the scientific narrative, and so saying that they are real is the height of foolishness. Worse still, to say that I believe in such things can damage my reputation as a technologist. How can someone “believe” in science and also believe in such unscientific things as prayer and energy healing?

Očeti changed that for me. I saw the power of prayer over and over again, but I realize that wasn’t what changed the way I feel about belief or the sense of certainty I have now that wasn’t there before. The real change was wrought because for six months I lived in a community where that belief was normal and accepted and perfectly reasonable.

Standing Rock also gave me hope for the chance that we might be able to live in a different way again. For years I have longed to be able to live in a way which reflects my cosmology of infinite interconnectedness and universal sentience. For a prolonged period at Standing Rock there were over 10,000 people, and for a short while there were as many as 20,000 people, who were living as if we are all connected and every animal, every plant, even the soil and the water are our relatives. Occasionally I meet a person who feels the way that I do and I am inspired for a moment, energized to live my Truth more fully. But that energy can get snuffed out by the demands of the dominant culture. Standing Rock changed that for me.

Colonialist culture says that there is one right way to do things, and anything else is unworthy of respect. Standing Rock said that there are many Nations, many ways to be in the world, many ways to pray, and they all are worthy of respect.

Settler culture says that when I move into a new land I can simply replicate the culture and way of life from my old land without consideration of the realities of the new place or the culture of the people who lived there before me. Standing Rock said that the land has memory and long standing cultures exist the way that they do for good reason and we must listen and pay close attention if we wish to live well.

Extractivist culture says that there is no value in the Earth except what we can take from it and no value in humans except what they can produce. Standing Rock said that there is value in every human even if all they can do is sit in the path of a bulldozer, that there is value in the oil that stays in the ground, that there is value in clean water even if it only nurtures weeds and fish that we will never eat.

Standing Rock gave me and many other people another culture to cling to, a new extended family, and the strength of knowing that we all still have the fire of Očeti Šakówiŋ with us wherever we go.


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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Strategize, Don’t Moralize

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers).

No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?

When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.

That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away.  It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.

The US far left loves to debate tactics (Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is the Black Bloc counter-productive? Is mutual aid just charity?). But how does it approach strategy?


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tactics follows strategy.

First, you set your ultimate goal, whether it’s building a house or social revolution. Once you’ve analyzed your conditions and resources, you put together a series of intermediate goals. You don’t pick them haphazardly – each of them has to set you up to advance to the next while, simultaneously, making you more capable of eventually reaching the end goal. Particular tactical decisions work the same way, but on a smaller scale. Is a tactic good? Well, is it the best way to achieve your next intermediate goal (while building up your overall capacity)?

To build a house’s frame, you first have to lay a foundation. To install the wiring and plumbing, you first have to build the frame. You might be excited about the carpentry and unhappy about mixing concrete and waiting for it to set, but if you skip the foundation the frame won’t survive. Does that make carpentry ineffective? Of course not – as long as you use it in the right context.

What makes Nazi-punching, Black Blocs, or mutual aid any different? Is your immediate goal to disrupt an alt-right event? If so, a Black Bloc might be a sensible tactic, but showing up with bags of groceries probably isn’t. But if you’re trying to establish a positive presence in a neighborhood with high food insecurity, groceries are going to work a lot better than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Richard Spencer to walk by.

When the Left debates tactics in the abstract, it sacrifices evaluating them strategically. You might decide that having plenty of outlets is what you want most in a house. Does that mean you can go ahead and install them before you’ve built the walls? When radicals draw lines of demarcation based on individual tactics, then supporting mutual aid (or antifa, or union work, etc) effectively stands in for a more holistic strategic analysis.

But what tactic is effective outside the right strategic context? Mutual aid without a larger political project is charity; it doesn’t build power. Antifa separated from mass work is self-isolating catharsis politics. Outlets only work when they’re wired into a wall.


 

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Tintoretto, “Allegory of the morality of earthly things,” 1585. Via Wikimedia Commons

US leftists tend to think in moralistic, rather than strategic, terms. To be clear, “moralistic” doesn’t mean wanting to be ethical. Rather, it’s the impulse to reduce every political question to an abstract, absolute, and non-contextual value judgment. Is it Good or is it Problematic to smash a Starbucks window or change people’s brake lights for free?

But when you isolate a tactic from its strategic context, it loses its meaning. No tactic is good or bad in itself. What counts is its ability to accomplish a particular goal in a particular situation.

Counter-strategic moralizing generally comes in three flavors:

  1. Inherent good. Every group has a limited number of person-hours and a finite amount of money. How should it choose what to do with them? “Inherent good” moralizers don’t ask what is most likely to bring a social revolution closer – instead, they look at whatever idea is in front of them and try to evaluate it in a vacuum. If it seems good in the short term, they’ll do it, whether or not it builds towards a long-term goal. Often, they’re “pragmatic” reformers, social democrats/Berniecrats, or Alinsky-style “community organizers” (for whom organizing is itself the point, never mind towards what end!).
  2. Representation. This means asking not “how does this fit into our strategy,” but “who is getting credit for it?” Whether in the form of identity liberalism or straightforward sectarianism, it reflects the career aspirations of media figures, academics, and professional-activist NGO staffers who need political credibility to enhance their personal brands.
  3. Catharsis. “Catharsis moralizers” chase the feeling of mass politics (whether it’s real or not). They’re drawn to emotionally-intense peak experiences, street demonstrations above all. Often, they’re “alphabet soup” sect-Marxists, riot-porn anarchists, or the protest scene’s radical fringe in general.

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Communist theory discusses objective conditions and subjective conditions. A political group can’t control the objective conditions – is the economy in a boom or a bust? What’s the relative strength of other social forces? Objective conditions are the environment within which a political actor moves.

Subjective conditions, though, are under the group’s control – how good is its strategy? How effective are its tactics? Is it correctly analyzing the objective conditions and acting accordingly?

When both objective and subjective conditions are good, a movement can succeed. Otherwise, it fails.

US leftists have no mass base inherited from their precursors. However, for the first time in decades, the overall objective conditions are favorable: most Millennials would rather live in a socialist or communist society. They overwhelmingly support and/or participate in the labor movement. Liberalism and conservatism are both struggling to break out of a sustained crisis of legitimacy. If there ever was a ripe time to revive mass socialism in the United States, it’s now.

But, the subjective conditions are caught in a negative feedback loop. Because of counter-strategic moralizing, revolutionaries aren’t able to strategize how to make their movement a meaningful presence in working-class life. That, in turn, keeps socialists disconnected from the working class at large – and without that living connection, there’s nothing to force revolutionaries away from moralizing. It’s like having the supplies and equipment to build a house, but never having learned how to use the tools.


 

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Mark Fisher

 

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Fredric Jameson

Do you believe revolution is possible?

Mark Fisher talks about “capitalist realism” – the sneaking sense that even if socialism would be a better system than capitalism, it’s never actually going to happen. Not here. Not really. Capitalism seems like it’s built into the real world, as natural as the rhythm of the seasons, not like something contingent, fragile, and temporary. Mass socialism (rather than hobbyist socialism, fringe socialism) does not currently exist in the US. So, the prospect of a revolution – a literal, overthrow-the-government working-class uprising – holds a place in the radical psyche similar to that of the Second Coming for mainline Protestants. It may be an article of faith, but it’s comfortably hypothetical. It isn’t actually meant to leave the indeterminate but distant future (and “after the revolution…” is how you start a joke).

So, why strategize for revolution? Capitalism is not, of course, a law of nature. It’s loose and limited in ways that “capitalist realism” can’t admit. Socialist revolution is possible; it’s happened before and it will happen again. But, contemporary leftists haven’t gotten to learn through practice that the working class can organize towards a revolutionary goal, creating institutions, parties, and a culture of solidarity and struggle. And without that, socialism is just an idea in their heads, not a living reality straining to come into being.

Before 2008, socialism was marginal because the objective conditions prevented a revival of the mass revolutionary movement. That was true for decades – and from that context, there emerged the subjective conditions that still define the Left. Why is organized leftism so disproportionately academic and middle-class? Well, academics manipulate ideas for a living, but don’t have to translate them into social realities. Of course they and their students gravitated towards Marxism. Before 2008, who else would have? Since then, though, the objective conditions have changed. Mass socialism is possible again.

So, how can the Left break out of its self-isolating feedback loop? It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

A Standing Rock Story Part 1

“I’ve owed Rhyd a post for well over a year. Not just one post. Lots of posts. I’m sorry this has taken so long. I hope that you’ll understand why it’s been so hard to get this first one written…”

From Lisha Sterling

TimYakaitis-TheRevolutionWillNotBeTelevised
Photo by Tim Yakaitis

It’s been a year and a half since I packed my van for a camping trip and headed east to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. There were thousands of people camped there to stand up for indigenous treaty rights and to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL) through sacred grounds and across the Missouri River. In a matter of months, an empty field between the 1806 highway and the Missouri river had turned into a bustling village of tents, RVs and tipis. There was no mains electricity, no running water save for the cannonball river and the Missouri herself, no Internet fiber, and precious little cell phone reception. People from over 300 tribes across the Americas and beyond were gathered there in this perfect example of a “low resource situation” and I was headed there to see how the community of Geeks Without Bounds could help the community in the #NoDAPL camps with their infrastructure needs.

The funniest thing of all is that one year ago, just a month after returning to my apartment in Washington state after two seasons in the land of The Great Sioux Nation, I thought that the experience hadn’t really changed me much. It wasn’t until May when I met up with fellow Water Protectors at UC Santa Barbara’s “Standing Rock in Santa Barbara” event that I realized how much I’d been reshaped by the fires of Oceti Sakowin.

It’s hard to write about those changes now, hard to know where to start and how to organize all the pieces so that they will make sense to someone who wasn’t there. I don’t want it to seem like I’m telling “the story” of anything. I’m telling my story. I’m sharing the things that I learned. When we were exiled from the camps by the colonialist government authorities, the Native elders told us to go back to our communities and continue the work. They told us to remember to keep praying. They told us to tell the stories of what happened. They told us to keep fighting for our Mother Earth and for the Water and for All Our Relations.

Photo by Lisha Sterling October 2016

From the outside, the world saw Standing Rock as a protest. From the inside it was a community and a family. While many people who spent time in that village would call themselves capitalists or might tell you that they believe in the rightness of capitalism, I will tell you that the very existence of the camps and the way they functioned was anti-capitalist, anti-extractivist, and anti-colonial. Money and goods were tranvested from the capitalist over-culture and absorbed into a space where human needs were met simply because they were needs and where work was done because we cared about each other and because we cared about the Earth we live on.

This would-be idyllic existence was marred by the fact that we were in the middle of a war. It was a surreal war, completely asymetric, where the capitalists tried to prove how right they were through the use of intimidation, misinformation, guns, pepper spray, water cannons, airplanes, helicopters, and an assortment of illegal activity. Meanwhile, the local newspapers and the conservative press called us “law breakers” and sometimes even “terrorists”. We had to pass through road blocks manned by the National Guard or drive more than an hour around them. Law enforcement mobile command centers sat by the side of the road near by, sometimes two or even three together.

Our side of this war was not fought with guns. It was fought with prayer and Facebook livefeeds. There was prayer every morning and every night. There was prayer before every meal. There were sweat lodges every day, and sacred fires that burned without stop. The outside world heard about us through social media and they flooded us with support. People showed up by the thousands and those who couldn’t come sent donations.

I keep talking about “us” and “we”, identifying myself as one of the Water Protectors, but it didn’t start out that way. I was certainly moved to help the NoDAPL movement, but when I arrived I did not see myself as part of the community. I was just there to assist with the tools and resources I had available. I thought I was just going for two weeks to set up an Internet connection in collaboration with a member of the Lenca Nation of Central America. By the time I had been there two weeks I discovered that I wasn’t there just for “them”. I was there for “us”.

I was at Standing Rock for all the people who drink water that has been poisoned by industry and for those whose water we hope to protect from such a fate. I was there for all the people who have had their land and livelihood taken away from them, whether through the enclosures in Europe, the settlers and Manifest Destiny in America, or by banks and governments today. I was there for people who have been told that clean water is not a right, that medical care is for those who can afford it, that housing is something you must pay a third or half of your income for monthly, that healthy food is the most expensive kind, and that your neighbors are dangerous criminals who will steal your things and abuse your children. I am one of those people, so like it or not, I was there for myself.

I didn’t come to that conclusion by myself, though. All of us who were there were invited. The elders knew that we are all bound together on this Earth. They knew that we all drink the same water. They knew that by standing together on sacred ground, joining the prayers of all our peoples together, we would effect a change inside ourselves and in the world around us. There were many times when I heard an elder say, “We even invite the infiltrators to be here with us. Let them come! Let them see what’s happening here! Even if they are against us now, they will be changed. This is their water, too.” And they were right. Some of the infiltrators from those days have become whistleblowers. The power of all that prayer moved things in everyone.

Photo By Lisha Sterling. October 2016

Oceti Sakowin

Oceti (say oh-CHEH-tee) means “camp fire” in the Lakhota language. Sakowin (say shock-oh-WEEN) means “seven”. Together, they are the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota people. The Lakota are one of the three parts of what is known as the Great Sioux Nation in English today. The other two parts are the Nakota and the Dakota. All three names mean “friend” or “ally” in their respective dialects.

When the first Water Protector camp started up at Standing Rock in April 2016, it was at Sacred Stone which is located on the Standing Rock (Hunkpapa) reservation, just south of the Cannonball River and west of the Missouri. By June of 2016 some people had moved out of Sacred Stone and onto a large open field to the north of Cannonball river. This was not in the modern boundaries of the Standing Rock reservation, but it was part of the original treaty territory that was to belong to The Great Sioux Nation. This new camp was on land where the Seven Council Fires had met 140 years before. They came together once again for the matter of their sovereignty and protecting the sacred land and water, and so the camp was named Oceti Sakowin in respect of that historic gathering.

After December 5th, some people started calling the camp “Oceti Oyate”, which was meant to mean “Council Fire of the People”. In modern usage, Oceti can also mean “stove” in some dialects, and so one elder declared that this name actually fit the camp pretty well since we were the “People of the woodstove” that winter.

Many of us who were at camp for a long time now simply call the camp “Oceti” unless we are speaking specifically of the section of the camp where the Seven Councils met (called The Horn), the sacred fire that was in that place, or the continuing work of that joint council.

There was another camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river called Rosebud or Sičangu (say See-CHAN-goo). That camp was organized by the Sičangu band of the Lakota from South Dakota, and it had it’s own kitchen, sacred fire, sweat lodge, tent sites, security detail, and so on. In discussions of coordination and internal politics it was considered to be part of Oceti Sakowin or completely its own camp depending on context.

For many months at Oceti, there was a meeting every morning at 9am where people could learn about what was happening around camp, voice their concerns, and coordinate working teams throughout the camps. That meeting was facilitated by Johnny Aseron from the Cheyenne River reservation, but for one week in November when he was sick, I had the privilege of facilitating the 9am meetings at the Dome. By that time there were literally hundreds of new people showing up to the camp every single day. Some would stay for just a few days, but most would show up at the Dome on the morning after they arrived for the 9am meeting and orientation.

When Johnny led the meeting, he would take a few moments before sending the newbies off to orientation to say hello and give them a few words about where they were. On the days that I led the morning meeting, I had my own spiel for the newcomers:

“This camp is called Oceti Sakowin. Oceti means camp fire. Sakowin means seven. This refers to the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota people, and it is also the name for the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Nation, what the US government calls ‘The Great Sioux Nation’, in their own language. You are on treaty territory. You are in the land of The Great Sioux Nation. If you’ve never been outside the United States before, congratulations! You, like me, are here on a special visa waiver program. We have all been invited by the Lakota people to be here with them at this historic moment, but do not forget that you are not in the United States any more. You are in a foreign country. Treat the people and the culture with the respect that you would do in any other country that you visited.”

Photo by Lisha Sterling October 2016

Arrival

Before I even got to camp, the Oceti Synchronicities had begun. My friend Roberto Monge had some friends from his town who had just been at camp and were heading back home at the same time I was heading towards Standing Rock. He introduced us via email and text message and suggested we should meet up somewhere on the road. They contacted me and suggested we meet up for dinner in Billings, Montana. My day got off to a bumpy start, though, and I didn’t even get on the road until about 3 in the afternoon. It turned out that they also didn’t get into Billings when they expected, so at 11pm we all agreed to meet up for breakfast in the morning.

As I rolled into Billings at 3 in the morning, I wondered where they had gotten off the highway for the night. There are three highway exits, and I had no way of knowing which one they were closest to. I picked one at random and began to look for a safe place to park my van, make my bed and go to sleep. As I turned a corner I saw an outdoor sports chain store that is known to let people in campers and RVs sleep in their parking lots. I pulled into the parking lot, climbed into the back of my van, set up my bed, set my phone alarm for 6am, and caught 3 hour’s of sleep. When my alarm went off, I sent a text message to the people I was trying to meet up with. A moment later they texted me back with their hotel address. It was a directly across the street from where I was parked.

I pulled into the hotel parking lot, went in to the breakfast room, and sat with my new friends. They drew me a map of the camps and told me how to get there. They showed me where they had been camping, tucked back into a grove of trees which protected it from the harsh winds. They gave me names of people that they had met, and suggested other people that I should contact when I arrived. Their 30 minute orientation between bites of waffle gave me everything I needed to know before Roberto showed up with the equipment to set up the Internet a few days after me.

That evening I got to Bismark, North Dakota about an hour before dusk. There was a conference call with Roberto and some other friends of his to discuss their arrivals, things they would bring, and what we each needed to do. I knew that there was no cell coverage in the camps, so I pulled over into a parking lot for the call before heading south on 1806.

About 10 minutes south of Bismark I arrived at the police check point. I say police, but it was really manned by several national guardsmen in army uniforms and carrying their rifles. I say checkpoint, but it was more of a road block, or like an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank. There were concrete dividers that went all the way out to the property fences on each side of the road and that came together in such a way that only one car could go through at a time. This was the first time that the reality of the war zone hit me. This was part of a classic military low intensity conflict strategy.

At the check point a guardsman asked me, “Have you been down this road recently?”

I said, “No.”

“Well, we’re just here to let you know that there are some people camping down the road a little ways here. They may be out walking on the side of the road, so it’s important for you to slow down and watch out for pedestrians, ok?” The soldier was cheerful and friendly.

My complexion is fairly pale, my hair sort of auburn where it isn’t dyed purple, blue or pink. I knew already from reports online that I would not have been allowed to go down this road at all if my skin and hair had been darker.

About 25 minutes later I had arrived at Oceti Sakowin, but it was dark and the driveway entrances were a bit confusing. I was trying to get to the Sičangu camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river, but I missed the turn off in the dark, drove into the town of Cannonball, following some signs for what seemed like an eternity, and then finally ended up at the Sacred Stone camp way to the east of where I’d meant to be. But it was getting late at that point, and I hadn’t had much sleep. I pulled up to the security gate, told the guards that I had meant to go to Sičangu, but it’s dark and could I sleep there for the night? They said “Welcome!” and pointed the way to a good place to park for the night.

Despite being very tired, I was not quite ready to sleep. I needed to greet the land and the spirits there. I pulled some tobacco out of a large pouch in the back of my van, and put it carefully into a smaller pouch that would fit into my pocket. Then I walked down the hill toward the Cannonball river. There is a path that leads from Sacred Stone over to Sičangu along the river, but it was very dark and the path is shrouded in trees that make it even darker.

I think that night it must have been somewhat overcast, because I don’t remember the stars that night at all. I just remember the river and the muddy path and the trees. I remember walking about halfway between the two camps to a lonesome place where I couldn’t see another human. I felt a bit afraid, like I was going to get lost or trip and fall into the river or like I was going to walk into some place I wasn’t supposed to be. So I stopped right there.

The tobacco in my pocket was for praying. I put my hand in the baggy in my pocket and pulled some out. I stood there with the tobacco in my hand and began to pray. I said thanks for the sun, the moon, land, the sky, the water, the trees, the other plants, the animals, the humans gathered there, for bringing me safely to that place, for making things work out just right that morning in Billings. And then, I took a few breaths and I began to greet the Land and the spirits on that land. I told them who I was and why I was there.

Normally, at this point, I should feel some response from spirit. There should be some sense that I have not been talking to myself, that the spirits I am talking to have heard me. But there was just silence. And darkness. And cold.

I assured the spirits that I would follow the requests and requirements of the people whose land I was on, and that I would also listen to the voices of the the spirits themselves.

I felt cold and fear. I felt distrust aimed at me.

I knew that the spirits didn’t believe what I’d said.

I gave the tobacco to the ground and to the plants. I prayed again, this time telling the spirits that if they were willing to teach and to guide me in the way that I should behave in their land that I was willing to learn. And if they were not willing, I promised to do my bumbling best to be a good guest and a good friend. I said a few words in Lakota, which I had been studying for a few weeks before my trip. I waited in the silence. The spirits were not terribly impressed.

At last, I thanked the spirits and walked back to my van.

As I prepared for bed, I turned my phone to airplane mode and unplugged it from the charger. The battery was at 100%. It should last me for two or three days like that. I set my alarm for 7am and went to sleep.

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Roberto Monge with antenna for long distance wireless Internet. Photo By Lisha Sterling October 2016

This Is (Cyber) War

The next morning I woke up. I didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was bright in the sky. I pulled up my phone to check the time and see what happened with my alarm. The screen was black. The phone would not turn on. The battery was completely dead.

If the checkpoint had been my first realization that we were in a war zone, this was the moment that I realized that the government was using cyber warfare on us alongside the more traditional fare. This was the moment that it hit me that someone could be using a Stingray device against the Water Protectors.

At first, I wasn’t sure what had caused my battery to drain. The idea that it might be a fake cell tower – also known as an IMSI Catcher, a cell-site emulator, or by the brand name Stingray – was in the back of my head, but one dead phone is not enough to say that was the culprit. These devices are used by law enforcement all over the United States under shady circumstances with questionable legality. At that point I was thinking that maybe my phone had been compromised before I had even arrived at the camps. If I’d gotten some malware onto my phone in the days leading up to my trip, that app could have been trying to ping home over the network even though the network was turned off.

I walked around Sacred Stone that morning, found someone who could tell me what time it was, and mentioned what had happened to my phone. They said that was a common problem. They figured it was because of the lack of cell towers in the area, and I had to agree that for most people, that probably was the cause of their phone going dead. But then someone else overheard the conversation and jumped in. They had also turned their phone to airplane mode and had it die on them.

After breakfast, I headed over to the legal tent on Media Hill (aka Facebook Hill) at Oceti. When I introduced myself, they knew who I was and had been expecting me. I waited for a bit while they handled more urgent matters, and then a few lawyers, a paralegal or two and I sat down to have a chat. Before we even got into the topic of the Internet set up, I mentioned what had happened to my phone and asked if they’d heard of anything like that. They had. That and much more.

Not only had people been complaining about phones going dead overnight, but they said that phones often went dead suddenly as one of the planes flew by overhead. But that wasn’t all. One person at the table had an almost unbelievable story about a car battery dying at night when a plane flew over. And then there were the reports of malware on people’s phones. The most prominent one was Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals. His iPhone would start the voice recording function at seemingly random moments. It wasn’t even secretive. The phone would announce that it was recording, and then the record app would be on the screen.

I listened to these stories and then I asked, “Has anyone called the EFF?”

They hadn’t called the Electronic Frontier Foundation yet, but that day they did. The EFF is a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world. They are like the ACLU for the Internet. The EFF sent a researcher and a lawyer up to the camps a few weeks later, and we worked together to try to determine what exactly was going on. The fact of the matter is that none of us knew exactly.

By the time the EFF researcher arrived, I was convinced that one of the weapons being used against us was an IMSI catcher. I had installed an application called AIMSICD onto my phone to track what cell sites my phone could see and connect to. There were patterns in the database that I believe suggest that there was an IMSI catcher on at least one of the aircraft that flew over the camps day in and day out as well as several other IMSI catchers at specific locations in the vicinity of the camps.

I am nearly certain that a short cell phone tower that was erected just to the south of the camp known as “1861 Camp”, “Treaty Camp”, or “North Camp” was there for the specific purpose of surveilling the people at that location because that camp was directly in the path of the pipeline construction, and immediately across the highway from a section of land that had already been dug up. That tower was only reachable if you were in the vicinity of the Treaty Camp, where only about 10 people were living but where many demonstrations were staged. The tower was completely invisible to the more populous camps a mile further south. Furthermore, that tower identified itself to some phones, including mine, as an AT&T tower, but other phones showed the tower belonged to Verizon. When I asked my contacts at the Standing Rock Telecom, a tribe-owned mobile phone company, they told me that tower was a legitimate Verizon tower. As time went on, there was more evidence that tower was there for surveillance purposes, but the clincher is that the tower was removed entirely by the time everything was over and the authorities had cleared out the camps.

Research into the capabilities of different models of IMSI catchers showed us that it was possible that, in addition to tracking our numbers and movements with the devices, they could also have captured voice, text and data transmissions and they could even install malware on phones through more than one method. It is also well known that IMSI catchers can drain a phone battery quickly by sending messages to the phone to disconnect from a tower over and over again. Each time the phone tries to reconnect to a tower, the battery usage spikes. But that doesn’t explain the incidents with the car batteries.

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Photo By Tim Yakaitis

We still don’t know what happened with the cars. When I first started talking publicly about the various cyber warfare incidents that happened at Standing Rock, the car batteries dying is the one incident that induced the most rolling of eyes and declarations of my professional incompetence. Obviously, the critics said, the car batteries died because of the cold. Everyone knows that the temperatures at the camps got below -20F (-29C) in December and January, but these car battery incidents happened starting in September! One incident in late October involved 5 cars in one parking area all having drained batteries at the same time. Another incident in November involved several cars and a couple of pick up trucks.

In April or May of 2017, after asking everyone I could think of what might have done that to the cars, an Iraq vet suggested that I go look up the word “Warlock”. He said that he thought that might be responsible for what we saw. What I found seems like an unlikely culprit since the Warlock series are just radio jammers of different sorts. However, there are other weapons that were created and tested in Iraq, such as the Blow Torch which is a high powered microwave emitter intended to fry the circuitry in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). That’s probably not what they used, but the sheer number of devices that have been created and tested in battlefields by the US military in recent years is suggestive.

More than suggestive, actually. Over and over again Native Americans from different tribes across the US told me the same thing, “They’re testing things on us before they use them on the rest of the population.” A common historical understanding among the Native community is that the US government tests different methods of population control on the reservations before using the most effective ones on other Americans. As the tech team struggled to understand exactly what tools were being used against us online, on our phones, and in physical space, we couldn’t help but come to the same conclusion. Despite a collective knowledge that covered many areas of cyber security and digital offense, there were still many things we found that were completely new to us.

This Is (Low Intensity) War

“Low intensity conflict is a political-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition among states. It frequently involves protracted struggles of competing principles and ideologies. Low-intensity conflict ranges from subversion to the use of the armed forces. It is waged by a combination of means, employing political, economic, informational, and military instruments. Low-intensity conflicts are often localized, generally in the Third World, but contain regional and global security implications”

GlobalSecurity.org

The U.S. military doctrine of low intensity conflict has its roots in the counterinsurgency tactics developed during the Vietnam War. During the Reagan administration, in the 1980s, low intensity operations were used in a number of conflict areas throughout what was then called the Third World. The first International Conference on Low Intensity Conflict was held in 1986 at Fort McNair in Washington, DC where the methods of suppressing and subverting guerrilla fighters were discussed and codified.

In the context of guerrilla warfare, the dominant nation state actors will use various tactics to 1) turn the public against the insurgency, 2) break down morale within the guerrilla movement, 3) set individuals or groups within the movement against each other, and 4) sabotage the material support systems for both the insurgent groups and anyone who provides them assistance. Much of this effort comes in the form of psychological warfare which may include propaganda, infiltrators who plant rumors and conflicts, and consistent harassment of guerrillas and their supporters. Harassment includes but is not limited to checkpoints on roads, police stop and search actions against people who fit a certain visual description, aircraft constantly flying over the areas controlled by the guerrillas, the use of constant noise such as loud music or machines, and bright flood lights at night.

Once you know that the peaceful Water Protectors were considered terrorists by the government and Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline, it is not surprising to learn that all of these tactics were used against the movement.

Planes and helicopters flew overhead nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as long as weather permitted. At night, aircraft would often fly without lights so that you could hear them but not see them easily, despite the fact that this is illegal. Sometimes a helicopter would follow the car of a high profile Water Protector when they left the camps.

Multiple mobile police command centers were parked near the camps at any given time. There were often one or two of the giant trucks to the north of the main camp and as many as three to the south. On many occasions there would be a mobile command vehicle parked ten miles south of the camps at the Prairie Knights Hotel and Casino, where Water Protectors would go to take showers, spend a night indoors, charge phones, use the Internet, and meet with journalists.

When Water Protectors needed to purchase supplies, we traveled north to Bismarck, where we were recognized by the layered clothing we needed to survive in the camps and by our distinct campfire scent. Some stores, restaurants and hotels refused service to anyone they suspected was a Water Protector. Police would see a vehicle with out of state license plates and trail them for miles, often pulling the vehicle over on false pretenses. People of Native American descent, or anyone whose complexion was more brown then peach colored, was at greater risk of citation or arrest during a trip to the city.

For days before the raid of Treaty Camp on October 27, 2016 there were rumors about what was about to happen. We knew that National Guard troops were gathering at a site north of us, off of highway 1806 between Standing Rock and Bismarck. Rumors were that they might raid Oceti Sakowin, and we created safety plans for everyone that included running across the Cannonball River to the Sičangu and Sacred Stone camps. A few days before the raid, many people moved tents and tipis north to the Treaty Camp in hopes of holding the line away from the most populated camp. The tension was incredible, and elders warned us that we needed to stay calm if we wanted to have energy and our wits when the soldiers and police finally came. Those with experience made sure that as many people as possible understood that this tension and uncertainty was part of the psychological war.

The day of the Treaty Camp raid finally came, but one of the longer term attacks against us came after the mercenaries, law enforcement and National Guard pulled people out of a sweat lodge during a prayer ceremony, destroyed tipis, threw sacred items into giant piles, stole personal items, and arrested 142 people. The night after they took Treaty Camp away from us, they took away the stars. From that night onward, the ridge just north of Oceti Sakowin was lined with massive lights pointed towards the camp. They said it was for security, but they knew full well that it also obliterated the view of the night sky.

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Photo by Tim Yakaitis

Inside the camps we had to be constantly aware of the risk of infiltrators. Some infiltrators encouraged people to use violent methods at actions so that the peaceful unity of the movement could be broken and images of “dangerous terrorists” could be displayed on TV, newspapers, and social media. There were people who came into camp just to spread rumors. The more confusion that could be spread, the harder it was for the community to stay united. And then there were people who intentionally created fights between different sub-camps or workgroups.

One infiltrator managed to break down the very good relationship that Tech Warrior Camp had with the camp of the Medic and Healer Council. After members of our team had set up a mini electric grid for the camp with the yurts and tipis where medical doctors and traditional healers from around the world cared for the Water Protector community, one infiltrator managed to create a fight between our two groups over the control and ownership of certain equipment. He told them that we had stolen some of their windmills (we had not), and told us that they were sending some of our equipment which had been stored in a utility yurt at their camp off to other Water Protector camps in Florida when we clearly still needed that equipment in North Dakota. I had to present receipts for every piece of equipment we had to representatives of the Medic And Healer Council, and still there was mistrust between our teams throughout January and February because of that incident.

Other infiltrators did physical damage to our camps. On one occasion, the Internet in the Dome was sabotaged when an infiltrator cut the wires from the network router to the deep cycle battery it ran off, and walked away with the battery. On another occasion, the entire solar system outside the Dome was was sabotaged before an infiltrator dressed as a utility worker cut the Ethernet cord leading to a small communications dish which he removed from the pole and took with him.

Only after the camps were closed did we have proof positive of some of the counterinsurgency tactics used against us. The Intercept published a series of articles along with leaked documents from TigerSwan, the private military contractor that provided “security” for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which showed that the mercenaries were working in close partnership with Morton County Sheriffs and the FBI. Those documents also showed that some of us where specifically targeted for surveillance both at camp and away from it, and that the mercenaries put special emphasis on creating divisions along racial lines at the camps to separate the Native community and their non-Native allies.

Some of the facts about what happened at Standing Rock won’t be known for decades. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information on some of the police and military tactics have been denied for various reasons. The FOIA requests sent out to Morton County Sheriffs, North Dakota State Police, and the North Dakota National Guard asking for information about possible IMSI Catcher use, for instance, were not just denied but “rejected on grounds of national security”. Such a rejection will not be overcome until the classification of that information is changed at some future date. In the meantime, we have to take what lessons we can from Standing Rock so that we can resist capitalist destruction of the planet and colonialist theft of human and community rights everywhere.

Next Time…

We haven’t even begun to talk about the community at the Water Protector camps at Standing Rock. I haven’t begun to share the spiritual impact the place had on me and so many other people there. In my next installment of my Standing Rock Story, I’ll tell you about what it was like to be a temporary immigrant on Lakota land for six months. See you in two weeks!


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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