Standing Rock Reflections: On Courage, Cowardice and Criminal Activity

Earlier this month, I returned from several wintry days at the Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota. What might drive an aging Jersey boy from the comforts of home to the frozen buttes of the Dakotas? Pretty simple, actually. I was delivering warm clothing and supplies, praying with those who call themselves “water protectors,” and to serving in any way that the Lakota elders might direct.

It sounds so mundane, doesn’t it? Prayer, warm clothes and a bit of labor. There was a problem, however. It was – I was told – a criminal enterprise. I was on my way to commit a crime.

There could be penalties for my misdeeds. But I could deal with them, I thought: a few thousand dollars of fines, a couple days or so in jail, some spots on my record. I’ve been arrested before. Not serious problems. I’m old, and white. In America I’d be okay.

But in the days leading up to my visit, reports began to surface of brutal police tactics. Militarized units were training water cannons in sub-freezing winter conditions on unarmed women and men in prayer. Pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets were being fired at them. A concussion grenade nearly blew the arm off of a young woman, who, like me, had come from afar to support the resistance. As I felt my way across South Dakota through bitter winds and unremitting snowfall, I began to picture myself under the boot of the men in black Kevlar.

Police fire tear gas point-blank at water protectors in river ceremony.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple had just issued an executive order mandating evacuation of the very encampment that I was struggling to reach. Not only that, his order threatened criminal penalties against anyone heading for the evacuation zone, or even “encouraging” others to remain. Word was out on Facebook that the county sheriff was fining incoming helpers $1,000 for carrying supplies to the camps. My car’s trunk was packed with scores of winter hats, gloves, thermal socks and more. This would be hard to explain, I was sure.

I told myself that Gov. Dalrymple’s order couldn’t really be legal in a free society. It’s a crime to bring help to unarmed people? Impossible. Furthermore, some of the encampments were actually legal, located on the Standing Rock Reservation. Who could say whether I was headed to a legal camp, or an illegal one?

I began to rehearse the denials in my head. “I’m going to the Sacred Stone Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux. That’s perfectly legal,” I muttered to the silence of the car around me.

It was totally unconvincing. Maybe I was lying. Maybe I really would opt for the legal encampment. How could I know for sure?

My musings were suddenly shattered by the flashing strobe of police lights in the rear-view. Oh God. Here we go. The tires crunched as I pulled over into the thick snow on the shoulder.

“You know, sir, you were doing 43 in a 30 zone?”

“No officer. I’m sorry. I guess I lost my concentration.”

Speeding. A mere traffic violation! I sighed deeply with relief. $85 and a ten-minute delay, and I was on my way again. Of course! This is still SOUTH Dakota. They’re not really gunning for us down here, are they?

I stopped for gas and a sandwich. Rumor had it that these places were on the lookout for people like me. Strangers with coastal accents and out-of-state plates. They would be sending word to the local sheriff. I came and went quickly, and spoke to no one.

Several hours later, I made it to the Standing Rock encampments. Tents, teepees and sheds stretched as far as I could see. My first stop was Sacred Stone, the legal camp. The entrance was down a steep embankment, glazed in ice from a three-day blizzard. I looked at my rental car, a small two-wheel-drive sedan, and then back at the chute into Sacred Stone.

“Is there easier access anywhere else?” I asked the gatekeepers. They pointed to the far side of the bridge across the Cannon Ball River.

“Oceti Sakowin. The main camp.”

I figured I’d never make it back up the slippery bank out of Sacred Stone. So I pulled slowly across the bridge. I was now breaking the law. Trespassing on Army Corps land. I was going where Governor Dalrymple had forbidden. Oceti Sakowin, the illegal camp, was now my home.

Unarmed Standing Rock protesters shot with water cannons in sub-freezing conditions.

On the ridge ahead of me, the reddish glare of construction lights cast an eerie glow on the low clouds and relentless snow. I was at the very edge of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. This was the front line of resistance. Helicopters crossed the camp overhead, and returned to re-cross every few minutes.

After dark, I huddled alone in my tiny tent to the voice of the local sheriff on his loudspeaker. “You are breaking the law. You say you are peaceful, but you don’t know the definition of ‘peace.’ You can’t be peaceful while you defy the law. You are lawbreakers.”

North Dakota’s incarnation of Tokyo Rose carried on this dystopian serenade for about an hour. But he was armed, in the dark, and I had no idea how near.

I have been reading a book titled “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow,” a fascinating account of Christian pastors in the Third Reich who stood up to the Nazis. Some survived the war. Many did not. Their bravery is deeply inspiring to me. I had assumed that bravery comes naturally.

It does not. As I lay in my tent, my spirit wavered. Am I really a criminal? Why did I decide to cross the Cannon Ball, anyway? Do I really have to confront the pepper spray and rubber bullets tomorrow? Can’t I help in some, you know, more appropriate way? After all, I’m way older than most people here.

Most conservative Christians I know take a dim view of law-breaking resistance. We are okay with the rebels of an earlier age. John Adams, Paul Revere and George Washington – we practically idolize these icons of our nation. And we have no quarrel with Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as they stood against the murderous Nazis. But Rev. Martin Luther King, or Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, or Fr. Daniel Berrigan – these contemporary outlaws of conscience – make us a little uneasy. Don’t they know about “submitting themselves to governing authorities?” This is a democracy; why don’t they change things from the inside?

And yet, even a cursory reading of the Gospels confronts us with a Savior who, time and again, paid little heed to the prevailing law. He violated the Sabbath; he dined with traitors; he proclaimed a kingdom in direct challenge to the emperor of his age. He even declared that he had a counter-weapon that would overwhelm the power of tyrants: You may think you can kill me, but I will rise again from the dead. Your one special trick – the power to kill – has now been rendered obsolete.

Is it really surprising that virtually all of his disciples ended up on the wrong side of the law?

Pepper spray victim receiving treatment from Sioux camp medics

And now, we consider the phalanx of powers arrayed against much that is sacred in our day. What will soon be the presidency, the Congress, and the judiciary – all aligned against almost anything resembling “good news to the poor,” Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission. All committed to the unfettered exploitation of God’s creation. All intent on casting off constraints on polluters. All eager to undermine global efforts to resist ecological chaos.

And against this massive force, can we possibly maintain a degree of loyalty to Messiah without risking the wrath of our nation’s law? Can we be faithful to God and neighbor while always playing by the rules of those in power?

In earlier days, pioneering leaders have modelled for us new methods of peaceful resistance. Gandhi, MLK, Mandela and Walesa have shown us what is possible when courage displaces violence. Today, I believe that the Standing Rock Sioux have taken their place among them in the pantheon of peaceful resistance.

Prayer, courage, compassion and kindness as tools of change. It’s on display at Standing Rock. Can we find a way to bottle it for use among the rest of us? By God’s grace, we must try.

Prior Standing Rock posts:

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