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November 28, 2016
The following is a letter from John Bergen, associate pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church, who spent a week on the ground at Standing Rock. He offers ways to continue your support. Thanks to Mary Hammond, co-pastor of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, OH, for passing this along.
Dear loved ones and comrades,
I am writing this from a coffeeshop in Chicago. I am so grateful for each one of you, for your prayers and energy sent to me and to the water protectors in Standing Rock, and I apologize not having better communication while I was there (it seems that my phone likes the cold even less than I do). It was truly a blessing to carry prayers and donations from so many of you, especially from Germantown Mennonite Church and Earth Quaker Action Team. This movement needs all of us praying with our hearts, our hands, and our bodies. Thank you.
Standing Rock is immense. The scale of the Oceti Sakowin camp - over 4000 people, infrastructure for weatherization and meals and legal and media, daily actions and camp meetings - is hard to grasp while you are there. As a white settler, someone whose ancestors benefited from the displacement and genocide of native peoples and who lives on stolen land, I know that I will not truly understand the depth of this prayerful gathering of over three hundred native tribes and nations or the bringing together of the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota nations. It is truly a humbling experience to be a small part of such a moment in the long history of decolonial struggle.
I must be honest - we are down to the eleventh hour. On Saturday night, DAPL workers began drilling under the Missouri River. There is very little construction left to be done. Many water protectors are exhausted under the weight of repeated police brutality, felony charges, and temperatures approaching 0F at night. In the immediate sense of defeating the pipeline, I don't know if we will win. Regardless of how long we on the outside continue to follow Standing Rock, warriors there will be struggling in the courts (and out on the plains) for years to come.
During the six days I was in the Oceti Sakowin camp, I spent most of my time as a member of the Water Protectors Legal Collective, observing actions and helping with jail support. A part of my job was sitting with people and recording their experiences of police brutality. I recorded stories of police breaking ribs at peaceful sit-ins, repeatedly strip-searching young women, throwing elders in dog cages, destroying sacred ceremonial items (including peeing on them), dragging indigenous young people from cars, and denying medical care or needed medicine after protectors were teargassed and beaten. It is clear that the military forces protecting DAPL intend to destroy this movement by any means necessary.
This was most clear to me in the action that occurred on Sunday night, where I served as a legal observer for the first three hours. For some context, since the October 27th destruction of the 1851 Treaty Camp, which was built directly in the path of the pipeline, police have maintained a blockade of Highway 1608, the highway that runs between the camp and Bismarck, North Dakota. This blockade is made of concrete blocks, barbed wire, humvees, and two burnt out trucks (it would fit right in in occupied Palestine).
At around 5pm on Sunday, a group from the camp used a big rig truck to attempt to drag away one of the burnt out trucks and open up the blockade. They were met almost immediately with repeated volleys of teargas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. Some of the teargas landed in the fields on either side of the highway, which caught fire. Eventually, through clouds of teargas, the protectors were able to remove one truck. At this point, the crowd had swelled to several hundred, and police continued to fire teargas and "less lethal" ammunition. Near me, police shot unarmed protectors in the head and legs with rubber bullets and smashed vehicles with bean bag projectiles. Dozens around me vomited because of teargas. As night fell and temperatures dropped below zero, police began spraying water on the crowd, many of whom were gathered around a group of native young people leading song. Over a dozen ambulances had to be called in to deal with injuries. One elder suffered cardiac arrest, but was revived by CPR. In the end, over three hundred people were injured, including two comrades of mine (they are recovering now).
I am okay, safely in Chicago. I encourage all of you to do what I will be doing in the next week - take time to reflect on how you feel at this time, on what it means to be alive and engaged in the world at this moment. If you are moved to action right now, please check out these action steps, or try to connect with a local solidarity group. If you are moved to pray through donation, you can follow these links. I have left behind people I love, who need your prayers and energy. The people of the Standing Rock Tribe and other native nations, who have no intention of ever leaving, need your prayers.
We live in transformative times which demand deep, grounded commitment. After this week, I very much look forward to talking with anyone who wishes about how we can practice decolonization and meaningful solidarity in our lives. If you want to share tea, beer, dinner, a walk in the park, or a phone call or Skype session, please let me know. If you are thinking of heading out to Standing Rock, I would be happy to talk to you about that (especially if you are a settler and are thinking of going for just a week, as I did).
Associate Pastor, Germantown Mennonite Church