Featured Image: Solidarity Rally in St. Paul, MN. Image Credit to Fibonacci Blue. CC 2.0
This disclaimer applies very strongly: None of the information in the following video which is being discussed has been vetted by me, personally. I encourage independent verification of any claims made therein. I have considered the source, and I have serious concerns about its accuracy. I hope to look more deeply into the video, but in the meantime, it serves a useful theoretical purpose even if it is completely wrong.
The first and most important thing about this video is that if any of the major claims are true, NoDAPL is doomed to fail. Bear in mind as this argument progresses that morality is a wholly separate consideration from success. There are numerous philosophical arguments that can be put forth to make this point, but to save time: Donald Trump won the presidency. Instead a movement lives and dies on a number of things, partipation being a major one affected here. For the purposes of this piece, everything about the video is assumed to be absolutely true. Violence, a lack of clear purpose, a non-indigenous protest movement, and paranoia are all lethal to any movement.
Violence and White People
Non-violence is often presumed to be the lesser, more moral cousin of the more effective method of violent resistance. The thinking goes, “non-violent resistance works only against people who have a conscience. Violence is the only option otherwise.” This is wrong, and morality has nothing to do with why it’s wrong. Violent resistance is impractical and precludes a number of pathways to success that are open to non-violence. This is a surprisingly controversial position to take, and so a longer, well-researched post with numerous citations will be presented to make this point. However, it is important to know that, by the numbers, violence achieves success far less that non-violence in most asymmetric power struggles.
Some of this goes to philosophical issues where the state is obligated in all instances to maintain a monopoly on violence, and this compels state behavior. But a lot more if it goes to the fact that violent resistance limits participation and hampers tactical innovation, which is highly dependent on participation. Movements must carefully consider their choice of tactics. Unnecessary violence and aggression limits sympathy to your cause, and the ability of the state or the powerful to make concessions or meet demands. This is a function of the desire to maintain a monopoly on violence, and the inability of a broad spectrum of the population to participate due to physical and moral limitations.
Complaints from the locals are extremely important and cannot be ignored. If the indigenous population is suddenly deeply unhappy with the manner many participants behave, this seriously undermines the protest movement. Garbage and human waste being buried at the campsite by mostly white people is a disgusting display that demonstrates a lack of commitment. All politics is local, goes the old saying, and in this case the platitude is true. A large subset of protesters overstaying their welcome is a quick way for a movement to fail. Bear in mind that not all of the Standing Rock Sioux are behind this movement, and that even a minority of Sioux being against the protest can cause friction with the section of the Standing Rock Sioux who are for it. Community comes first, and it is doubtful that the Standing Rock Sioux will allow themselves to be significantly divided on this issue if it is apparent that the protesters are essentially tourists. Much derision is cast at the politics of respectability, but by no measure is this lack of respect worth countenancing.
A Lack of Clear Purpose
Again, with the presumption that the video is absolutely 100% correct, the Sioux don’t have burial grounds in the way and draw their water from an alternate source. The government is involved to an extent, but this is fundamentally about a corporation that has limited obligations under any treaty. This is a problem for Sioux participation more than anything. If the Sioux collectively decide the fight isn’t worth it, then they will stop participating, and out-of-towners will not be able to sustain it. The stakes for the Sioux are actually incredibly low based on this claim, and what may be sustaining this protest is a combination of misunderstanding and a need for catharsis. Native Americans in this country have deep and abiding reasons for being angry with the American government and corporate opportunism, and the protest may essentially be about that, however, protest is not about catharsis.
A lack of purpose would also explain the tactical decision to leave the campsite to seek out confrontation. This is a problem because the only thing the protesters need to do in order to succeed is occupy their space for as long as possible. If they cannot occupy that space, then they must occupy spaces that are critical to the pipeline construction’s infrastructure: Roads that supply materials, and transport workers (preferably without antagonizing the workers). Creating confrontations in the hope of being “proactive” does not necessarily help. Every tactic must have an immediate purpose.
The press is not your enemy. I’ll say this again, in case it is unclear, the press is not your enemy… unless you make it. Even in repressive regimes, state media is often not the enemy of people protesting. Pushing reporters out may been seen as serving a purpose of some kind, but it guarantees one thing: A media blackout. The contention that all press is good press is qualified, but it’s generally true. In all forms of asymmetric conflict, the weaker side relies on attrition, leverage, and the imposition of costs on the adversary. Part of this requires the outcry of the broadest possible section of the population, and their complicity in resistance. The inability to transmit meaningful information significantly hampers this. There is also an asymmetry in reaction. People in the population who oppose the protests will simply do nothing upon seeing negative press coverage, but by calling attention to the protests, people who are supportive will act to help the movement. In order for those people to take an interest, however, it must penetrate their daily lives as an issue of importance. The easiest, and possibly only, way of doing this is through the media.
Again, the claims made here aren’t important for their absolute truth. The video and the argument presented here are a tool to frame theoretical issues around why protest movements often fail. If none of this is true, then the protest will continue and is likely to succeed. If any of the issues presented here are true, then the protest has a lower likelihood of success. It must be emphasized that this is not connected to the morality or righteousness of the cause. Non-righteous causes sometimes succeed. In fact, the absence of a burial ground is far less important to the probability of success than the Sioux’s belief that there is one. Perception often matters more than reality in this way. However if there is a significant sector of the indigenous population who does not believe this, then there is a problem, and one that isn’t helped by the lack of civility issue outlined above, where non-indigenous people are essentially treating the protest as a vacation. This claim, incidentally, is absolutely true, and it’s a damn shame.