Wait, you mean you're not crazy? You must not be paying attention.

Wait, you mean you're not crazy? You must not be paying attention.

Good day, friends.

I’m just writing to give you a heads-up that I’m crazy now.

I had been hovering right on the edge for quite a while, obviously, but I think Neal Morton's recent Seattle Times article officially pushed me off the deep end. He pointed out that we’ve been talking about the opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines in Seattle Public Schools since the ‘50s — and that today, they’re worse than ever.

In other words, we’ve been acknowledging that things need to change for 70 years now without actually making any changes.

Tell me that’s not enough to drive you crazy.

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I may be crazy now, but at least my eyes are open

I may be crazy now, but at least my eyes are open

I rode out to Ferguson from St. Louis with DeRay Mckesson on the night after the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder. We parked on a side street and walked a few blocks to the intersection of Florissant Ave. and Canfield Dr.

From there, we walked into a buzz of people and activity.

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With largest #NoDAPL camps evacuated, Standing Rock picks up the pieces

I drove back to the #NoDAPL camps at Standing Rock this week.

The Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with Morton County Law Enforcement issued a deadline of 2 pm Wednesday (Feb. 22) to clear the Oceti Oyate camp (formerly Oceti Sakowin), which sits on contested land, as well as Rosebud camp and part of Sacred Stone, both of which are (were?) on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation but below the flood plane.

I wanted to be present for the deadline, to do what I could to help, and right at 2 p.m. I found myself in the Oceti camp in a pickup truck trying to find two kids who we’d been told needed to get out (and they did).

Two water protectors look out over the evacuated Oceti Oyate camp (formerly Oceti Sakowin) as the 2 p.m. eviction deadline ticks past on Feb. 22, 2016. Photo by  Matt Halvorson .

Two water protectors look out over the evacuated Oceti Oyate camp (formerly Oceti Sakowin) as the 2 p.m. eviction deadline ticks past on Feb. 22, 2016. Photo by Matt Halvorson.

 

The strange thing, though, was that the police were not particularly aggressive in clearing out the camp. They arrested either nine or 10 people Wednesday, depending on which report you read, and I’m told that something like 50 more were arrested the next day when the police came back through and fully cleared the camps.

The police tried to intimidate and definitely inflicted some physical injury, but all in all, the eviction was surprisingly peaceful. It only takes one police officer responding with too much force too quickly, or one person reacting too strongly to seeing his grandmother being handled by the police for violence to erupt and turn a situation like this into a disaster.

Instead, it was peaceful-ish, as policing goes. Or if peaceful isn’t the right word, well, nobody died. The police were not startlingly violent toward the water protectors who chose to stay in camp and pray until the end, which is what I was afraid of. But then, the #NoDAPL movement has never been characterized by fatal violence.

Set aside for a moment the grotesque images of water cannons, rubber bullets and explosives used by police in riot gear in Standing Rock.

During the protests in Ferguson of the past few years, militarized police frequently shot real bullets at Black Lives Matter protesters and occasionally killed them. Even when the PR risk should have steadied their trigger fingers, fatalities were commonplace. On the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, for example, St. Louis Police shot and killed another young black man during that night’s protest.

In Standing Rock, on the other hand, through more than 10 months of steady demonstrations and consistent police confrontation, not one water protector was killed. The police inflicted serious injuries and committed atrocities, but everyone survived.

This has been on my mind for months but hasn’t been something I’ve known how to talk about, partly because I was in Standing Rock bearing witness to much of the police violence that has made the news. And it was painful and traumatic and frightening. But I also made an appearance in Ferguson, and I know that the stakes were more immediate there, though no higher in the long run.

I don't know what it means. Our government and law enforcement certainly have a deep and storied history of killing indigenous people. They just haven't done that in Standing Rock yet, even as they're doing it elsewhere. Maybe it just means that our oppression of people of color has been tailored to each specific community.

Whatever the case, just as happened on Dec. 4 last year when the Army Corps under the Obama administration denied the easement needed for Energy Transfer Partners to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline, this is a time of change and transition for the #NoDAPL camps. Roughly 600 people remained in the camps from mid-December through mid-February, and only a handful of reinforcements arrived this week.

Now many of them are heading home. Many more are staying and continuing the fight on the ground in North Dakota, and a group of committed indigenous activists have promised to continue finding new sites for prayer camps to continue if needed. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who owns the Sacred Stone land and founded the original camp last April, has vowed to maintain a community on her own land as well, come figurative hell or literal high water.

And everyone who is leaving is leaving profoundly changed, it seems, carrying with them a sense of invigorated spirituality and an empowered sense of capability and responsibility to stand up more fiercely than ever to injustice.

Perhaps my greatest takeaway has been the interconnectedness of movements that had remained, until now, disparate. The issues being raised by #NoDAPL water protectors, indigenous rights advocates, environmental activists, Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrant rights groups, education advocates, workers' rights groups and countless others are all symptoms of the same disease, branches of a tree whose trunk contains the sickness of capitalist greed, colonial entitlement and systemic inequity.

I see the possibility for enormous breakthroughs as our passions are shown more clearly to have a common enemy, and as it becomes harder to ignore that our own liberation is dependent on our neighbor’s.

We’re all in this together — even the police officers and DAPL employees who are following orders in order to maintain an income they’re afraid to lose. Even Trump and everyone who voted for him. We are protecting this water for everyone. We are shouting for everyone’s sake that Black Lives Matter -- not just for the Black men and women who face the greatest immediate risk -- because no life is truly valued by a society that declares some expendable. We are demanding equitable access to high-quality public education because its absence leaves a cavity in our country and our communities.

No matter what you hear in the mainstream media, the #NoDAPL movement isn’t ending. It’s just shifting, dispersing, expanding. Water falls from the sky as millions of individual drops, but those beads of water don’t remain separate. They can’t help but combine, to join together as they touch, and in doing so, to become a roaring, powerful body of water.

We, too, seem like millions of individuals, but we come from the same source, whatever that is. We are intrinsically connected. And when we act out those connections, they deepen, and we awaken the potential of our unified power to overwhelm the hate and division that plagues us now.

"We are not protesters. We are protectors."

I have been at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota since Monday. The Native elders are the spiritual and strategic leaders here, and they have made it very clear that this isn't a protest camp, but a prayer camp. We are not here to be protesters, but protectors -- protectors of sacred land and sacred water.

"This is kitchen wood. Please do not take."

The camp is unlike anything I've ever experienced. An estimated 4,000 people (with people coming and going constantly) are living in commune in the camps, which are all connected or easily walkable and sit both on Army Corps of Engineers land as well as on the Standing Rock Reservation. The camp offers medical and mental health services, daily orientations and trainings for newcomers, free in-depth legal support, media relations services, and seven different kitchens cooking and serving huge (astoundingly delicious) meals three times daily. And there's even coffee every morning, which makes all things possible.

I expected that there would be a constant protest or sit-in happening on the "front lines," that a continuous physical presence was necessary to prevent construction from continuing, but that isn't exactly the case. Last week, the Red Warrior Camp, which had been on the front lines, was raided by police, who used clubs, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and sound cannons to drive the men, women, children and elders from their homes at the camp.

I followed a plume of black smoke to its source this week and found people burning the tents and supplies that remained from Red Warrior Camp. DaPL (pronounced "dapple," short for Dakota Access Pipeline) security guards had urinated and defecated on whatever they could find -- tents, teepees, blankets, even food.

DaPL continues to try to intimidate in a variety of ways. Privately hired helicopters circle the camp frequently -- especially at night, when helicopters are also joined by a small plane flying with no lights. They leave the flood lights on at the pipeline work site all night long. They set fire to a hilltop just across from the camp, scorching the dry ground (right).

We are restricted from photographing and documenting any ceremony, which includes much of what happens here. On top of that, the camp operates under "security culture," as police and DaPL contractors are monitoring cell phone communications in the camp and interrupting cell phone service. Everyone at the camp is operating under the safe assumption that DaPL and law enforcement also have "secret agents" in the camp. (Seriously. It's real. I watched camp security chase a DaPL agent away in his car just last night. And look at this screenshot from my phone, which has given me this warning many times already.)

The weather has been beautiful, but it is already getting very cold out here at night. The last two nights I have heated large rocks over a fire, wrapped them in towels, and put one at my feet in my sleeping bag while cuddling the other. It helps. It got down to 12 degrees a couple nights ago. I fall asleep listening to the sounds of coyotes howling from all directions (while wearing two pairs of socks, long johns, pants, and four shirts and sweatshirts plus a hood. So, you know, it's pretty much like home.

This has already been a very emotional, unexpectedly spiritual experience. Each camp has a sacred fire that burns continuously and is meant for prayer and meditation. Only cedar, tobacco and sage, which grows wild all around the area and is used to cleanse the air as well as the spirit, can be put into the sacred fire. I have participated in a traditional water ceremony, drinking a small handful of sacred water before walking to the river to give an offering of tobacco while singing traditional songs and connecting with the presence of our ancestors. I've watched a hawk come out of nowhere to circle overhead as a young man presented a staff he had painted and adorned with feathers and symbols to represent his brothers who couldn't join him.

Almost everything that happens feels so full of meaning and spiritual significance that it's palpable throughout the camp. I have met people from every part of the country and many parts of the world. I have been told many times that if this struggle has touched you in some way, if it has tugged at you, that you have been called to be here, and that really feels true. This struggle represents the intersection of so many issues: the power of corporations vs. the power of the people, the sovereignty of indigenous people and our own respect for treaties, oil barons vs. conservationists, and the fight or racial equity, just to name a few.

I have also found myself at the intersection of my past and my present. I grew up in Fargo (where I also usually slept in a sweatsuit and socks, incidentally), but as a kid who just wanted to play baseball and run around in the sun, I could never understand why we were there. A week or more would pass each winter when the high (the HIGH) temperature never got above zero. I vividly remember a radio host laughing and telling us one day that it was 70 degrees colder outside than in our fridge. Woof.

But suddenly, Standing Rock has made growing up in Fargo "make sense." If I'd grown up where I wanted to, I would not be here today. I don't fully understand what compelled me to up and drive out here, but having been here for several days, it does feel like I was called. I don’t know what to make of it.

I'm told often to ask everyone in my own community -- in other words, you -- to pray, whatever that means to you, for the safety of the people at the camp and the water we are protecting. Pray that the police officers, DAPL agents and all those supporting the pipeline are moved to love and compassion. Pray for our country and for the Earth Mother, as the Lakota call her. This is more than just an issue of one pipeline. Every one of us will be affected by what is happening here.

The Privilege of Ignoring Race

A year ago today, I was out in Ferguson.

Two years ago today, Michael Brown had been dead for a day, murdered on Aug. 9, 2014. A few weeks later, I wrote this. This seemed like a good time to take a second look at it.


I have read and heard and seen a lot of people saying a lot of different things about race in the wake of the Michael Brown tragedy — some compassionate, some ambivalent, some ignorant. This is something true:

I took this picture this morning. Then Lindsay told Julian about Michael Brown, about who he was and what happened to him. She told him about how most police officers are people to trust, but that sometimes they make mistakes. She told Julian that it isn’t fair, but that sometimes he will need to be extra careful as he gets older because of the way he looks — that he will have to be that much more careful to stay out of trouble, to stay away from what looks like trouble, to stay in after dark, because it’s a matter of safety. She told him about having called to check in with his uncle Spencer a few days earlier, about asking Spencer if he was safe in L.A. and if he was being careful. She asked him if he understood. Julian asked a question or two, Lindsay answered, and then it was done.

This is what all this means to me:

Some have argued that the Michael Brown shooting isn’t about race. Many others have at least wondered. As you may know, I am white. I can tell you from experience that it is a privilege to ignore race. It is a privilege to be able to wonder whether or not this tragedy is a racial issue. It is a privilege to not have to start poking tiny holes in your six-year-old son’s bubble of innocence and sweetness in the days before he starts kindergarten.

We had conversations about race in my family when I was very young, too, and most of them were also very direct. Most of them even acknowledged the presence of danger and the possibility of violence. I vividly remember getting a version from my dad in elementary school of what his dad had told him as a kid: that there aren’t many good reasons to fight, but that if he heard anyone using the N-word at school — or using any other slur, or using anyone’s race or gender to hurt them or make them feel small — he had better step in and put a stop to it or come home with a bloody nose for having tried. That might not exactly fit with Dr. King’s belief in non-violence, but the message was clear: This is important. Not only do we not tolerate hate or racism, we will actively fight it. It’s a family value.

There is a subtle-but-important difference between these two sets of conversations, though. My parents (also white, coincidentally) chose to have these conversations with me and my siblings. They encouraged us to choose to stand up against blatant racism and hate. But I was not the target in the hypotheticals. I was on the sidelines. The guns wouldn’t have been aimed at me, so the conversation was different.

Lindsay and I talked with Julian this morning because he won’t have a choice. Julian needs to hear this, because he cannot choose out of his skin color or his black heritage. I can choose into the conversation, choose to step into the conflict. Julian does not have that privilege. He is about to start attending public school in a district that has recently been under scrutiny for disciplining black boys much more frequently than any other group. He will be stereotyped, he will too often be seen and heard through a racial lens, and he cannot avoid it. He cannot choose a different path. Before long, he will be, say, 10 years old and tall for his age. Soon after he will be a teenage boy of color living in a major city. He won’t have the privilege of staying on the sidelines when a police car drives past the park where he’s hanging out with his friends after dark. He won’t have the privilege of deciding it’s not about race when he makes a mistake and gets caught. And Lindsay and I, as parents, don’t have the privilege of giving him an option. We don’t get to decide whether or not he’s ready, because he has to be ready, because he has to stay safe. Because someone will call him a horrible name, and someone will treat him differently — probably unintentionally — because of how he looks, and because at some point, someone will view this sweet, loving kid as more of a threat, and he needs to understand what’s happening if he’s going to stay safe. He has no other choice.