HOW THE STANDING ROCK PROTESTS BROUGHT ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM INTO MAINSTREAM CONVERSATION

Photograph: Emma Cassidy/Survival Media Agency

Photograph: Emma Cassidy/Survival Media Agency

Written by Devyn Springer

In July 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota began a historic protest in an attempt to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a $3.78 billion oil pipeline being built in North Dakota on land that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe honors as sacred. In an attempt to defend their land and water against this act of environmental racism, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with over 10,000 protesters from around the world actively protested and halted construction for seven months until February 7, 2017, when president Trump authorized the construction to proceed.

In order to fully understand the protests that occurred at Standing Rock, you have to understand the concept of environmental racism. Environmental racism refers to the acknowledgement that large scale negative actions on the environment disproportionately affect people of color. In her 1993 essay “Social Justice, Racism, and the Environmental Movement,” Indigenous activist Winona Laduke defines environmental racism as when certain racial/class groups are forced to “bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility of waste and toxins in their ecosystems for a society.” This is especially true in America where class is racialized (meaning those of lower class are often communities of color) and we see predominantly Indigenous and Black communities taking the bulk of results from environmental disasters.

It is important to note that, obviously, environmental racism” does not mean someone is calling the environment racist; it means the way our capitalist system and government exploits the environment directly harms people of color first. An example of this is air and water pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s data (EPA), Black Americans are 79% more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial air and water pollution is at dangerous levels. Native Americans also face incredibly high amounts of damage due to environmental impact, with the EPA reporting that approximately 50% of all Native Americans live in communities with an “uncontrolled toxic waste site.”

Specifically with the Dakota Access Pipeline, The U.S Army Corps of Engineers originally planned to route the pipeline through north of Bismarck, a predominantly white location, but quickly re-routed the pipeline though the Standing Rock Sioux reservation after white residents expressed anger and concern about the pipelines. The majority of crude oil pipelines across the United States, which frequently damage land and water with oil spills, are found on Native reservation land, and this is a problem that persists all across the country. There are about 72,000 miles of oil pipelines across the US and prior to the #NoDAPL protests, much of the country was unaware of this problem.

Discussions of environmental racism prior to the Standing Rock protests had rarely gone beyond activist and academic spaces in full conversation, and the protests changed that. One reason for this is social media; Native activists took to Twitter and Facebook to report to the world their resistance at Standing Rock when mainstream media was silent on it for months. This in turn created a grassroots education effect, where anybody and everybody with a smartphone and social media account could log on and learn about the details of what Natives were up against; Twitter became a main form of not only news about the protests, but education as well. Activists were making threads, sharing infographics, pictures, and videos of the protests, and those of us who could not afford or were not able to physically be at Standing Rock were able to see what was happening and donte resources, platform, and money.

In perceiving the Dakota Access Pipeline as an act of environmental racism, you can understand this not as a single event, rather a continuation of a long history of environmental racism in this country which began with settler colonialism. Environmental racism goes beyond just issues facing the Native American community; it relates to problems facing Black and Latino communities, as well as communities living under the poverty line. This is another reason the Standing Rock #NoDAPL protests were able to make environmental racism a household conversation; various members of different non-Native communities of color were able to see their own struggles mirrored in the events unfolding, and it allowed for a strong solidarity to emerge. Along with this, we were also able to see strong intersectionality in the functioning of the camps at Standing Rock, with Black Lives Matter activists, US veterans, Palestinians, and other Indigenous groups all around the world co-existing and resisting together in seemingly harmonious solidarity.

One example of environmental racism affecting a non-Native American community is Flint, Michigan, a city which was discovered to have contaminated water due to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder switching Flint’s water source to a contaminated water source to save money. The water was then found to have high amounts of salt and lead, as well as over a dozen other contaminants which entered the water from corroded piping. On the surface level, this appears to be a senseless act which negatively affected an entire town of people; and while that is true, once you look at the statistics you realize this is an act of environmental racism against people of color and poor people. According the the US Census data Flint, Michigan is 60% Black, with more than 40% of its residents living below the poverty level. And while the Flint Water Crisis began in 2014, it wasn’t until 2016 that a state of emergency was declared, president Obama visited, and 10 state employees and officials were criminally charged for the act, all coinciding with the timeline of rising public interesting in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. While the two incidents are very distinct, they both highlight the similar case of environmental racism being brought to the forefront of American consciousness around the same time.

The fight for water in America is not unfamiliar to marginalized groups. In fact, the United States has a dark and uniquely exploitative history in relation to water. From enslaved Africans singing Wade in the Water to segregated water fountains and swimming pools, to the water in predominantly Black cities like Detroit, for example, being routinely cut off. And, of course, like the water on Native reservations, which is often contaminated and undrinkable. One reason the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline gained international attention and solidarity is because it is a fight against environmental racism and a fight for clean water, two struggles that marginalized groups globally can relate to. Connecting the concepts of racism -- a systemic and interpersonal issue that is often protested against and discussed -- with the larger concept of environmentalism allows us to specify how damage to the environment affects people, and it allows more people to relate to the cause. Knowing this, Indigenous activists around the world used Standing Rock as both a moment of resistance and an awakening moment for educating the masses; a moment to take the conversation surrounding environmental racism from the textbooks and environmental activist circles and place it into the hands of the masses.

Framing the discussion around Standing Rock as a fight against racism is important not only allows us to better asses problems with environmental damage, but allows us to better understand the importance of Indigenous resistance. This impact now has us, in 2017, talking about the effects to the environment Trump’s cabinet will have, and discussing with fear the possibility of defunding the EPA, and about saving the bees, and how Black communities suffer from poor sanitation services in several neighborhoods. Standing Rock protests demonstrate a moment when the entire world, oppressed people of all colors and locations, were looking at the labor of Indigenous activism, which forced them to then look deeper at environmental racism. We’re discussing these things now more than ever, and that is largely due to the resistance by our Indigenous siblings that we should all be thankful for. In essence, an Indigenous struggle is a struggle for Black lives, because of environmental racism. When the Indigenous are fighting for their land and clean drinking water, and for the overall protection of the environment, they are also fighting for against the conditions that will inadvertently affect poor and Black communities heavily.

Photograph: Devyn Springer/Urbansoulatlanta.com, Montreal 2014

Photograph: Devyn Springer/Urbansoulatlanta.com, Montreal 2014