Standing Rock controversy triggers local reactions

Kathryn Nicolai, Staff Writer

The escalating conflict at the Standing Rock Native American Reservation regarding the construction of the Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) elicited a strong reaction from several University students as well as central Pennsylvania residents who support the protests.

As most students returned home for Thanksgiving break, Joseph DiBartolo ’19, Emma Downey ’18, and Fern Morrison ’19 drove over 24 hours on Nov. 18 to the Rosebud Camp, one of the several existing encampments where protesters have gathered since August to oppose DAPL’s construction. The students slept in a tent, adapting to the culture and habits customary of the indigenous space until Nov. 23.

Downey said the camp was “very organized,” with orientation meetings every morning and a legal services tent which provided forms for every visitor in case of arrest, and a bail fund so every person arrested could be bailed out.

Throughout the five days, Morrison spent her time “painting signs, sewing, washing dishes, working to spread news from camp to camp, talking with new people, going to meetings and participat[ing] in an action [protest],” Morrison said.

Downey said she met people at the camp from Germany, the United Kingdom, and across the United States, with varying social, religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds.

Local 66-year-old political activist Gene Stilp of Middle Paxton Township, Pa., is known for numerous public advocacy lawsuits against the government of Pennsylvania. Stilp arrived at a legal operation center in the Bismarck area of North Dakota less than a week ago to give legal assistance to protesters who had been arrested. Stilp said he has been monitoring the Standing Rock controversy over the past six months. He talked with attorney Chase Iron Eyes from the Sioux Tribe and visited the site after hearing their requests for legal assistance.

“Half the battle is just showing up,” Stilp said.

Members of 300 different indigenous tribes attended the protest at the Standing Rock Reservation, according to Stilp. The people whom Stilp will assist are given a public defender, advised to plead innocent, given a $200 bail and will go to trial on Jan. 17. Stilp calls charges brought against peaceful protesters “ridiculous.”

The students who visited the Rosebud Camp stated that police used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and fire hoses against protesters in freezing temperatures.

“I saw a couple on their knees in prayer near the police barricade, and a cop came up and sprayed them mercilessly with pepper spray. They remained on their knees in quiet prayer until they could not take it anymore, and then had to walk away. If that doesn’t move other people, if that doesn’t make you question the real purpose of police, the purpose of a pipeline, the purpose of humanity—I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to move forward to a better, more progressive society,” Downey said.

Morrison reported being among a crowd of peaceful protesters who were tear gassed.

“I was shocked by the illegal, inhumane actions of the very people that are supposed to be ‘protecting’ our rights as citizens,” Morrison said.

According to Stilp, DAPL opponents argue that its construction threatens to pollute the reservations’ main sources of water. He argued that aquifers, rocks that can contain or transmit groundwater, would be easily susceptible to leakage and pollution from the pipeline. The notion “water is life” was emphasized by Stilp and has become a rallying cry for those who oppose the pipeline. Downey accredited her motivation to protest in person to this phrase.

“Water is pure, it gives life, cleanses, and is required for all living things. Oil pollutes, it kills, and essentially represents every social ill,” Downey said.

Both the students and Stilp viewed the strong reactions to the controversy as an indicator of the widespread problems regarding both environmentalism and racist attitudes toward indigenous peoples. Stilp argued that oil companies are the root of many environmental and cultural problems dating back to the Eisenhower administration, and that this specific battle is far-reaching. He referenced Pennsylvania residents’ apathy towards the implications of fossil fuels. Towns such as Shamokin Dam and Hazleton still produce coal which, according to Stilp, is “a dead industry.” Stilp condemned those serving for Pennsylvania’s 10th and 11th districts for ignoring the severity of climate change.

The conflict is not about stopping a pipeline, but is instead about “stopping pollution, stopping racism, stopping corporations from choosing money over people, and exposing the complacency of our government,” Downey said.

Stilp sees this battle as one between morality and greed. Through peaceful action and public knowledge, he believes this can be resolved on the side of morality.

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