What Happened to Veterans for Standing Rock?

Story Transcript

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. Last December, 2,000 veterans went to Standing Rock to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the $3.9 billion Dakota Access Pipeline operated by Energy Transfer Partners. Despite the historic protests that brought together one of the largest convergence of Native American tribes in over a century, one of Donald Trump’s first moves in office was an executive order to allow the completion of the 1,100-mile pipeline. Today, oil flows through it.

What happened to Veterans for Standing Rock? Joining us to discuss this is Michael Wood, a former Marine Corps veteran who co-founded Veterans for Standing Rock, now works with Civilian Led Policing. Thanks so much for joining us, Michael.

Michael Wood: Thanks, Jaisal. It’s good to see you.

Jaisal Noor: Let’s start with why Veterans for Standing Rock deployed, and what you witnessed there.

Michael Wood: I really have to say, I think one of the strongest, or at least the biggest advantages and disadvantages was that the veterans united to go to Standing Rock started as this common theme that we were all veterans, and we had this idea to, when we swore that we wanted to really protect and defend against those enemies foreign and domestic, like our oath swore that it was supposed to be, and when we were in the military, we didn’t feel like the military was really providing that. A lot of veterans came home with the idea of still wanting to serve and to do something good, and a lot of people saw that in Standing Rock as a good, clear example of needing to do something good and identifying an enemy that was a domestic one that we should still protect and serve our citizens for.

When it comes to disadvantages, that means that there was a lot of different agendas that people had going up there. The other co-founder, Wes Clark, Jr., he was very environmentally focused, because you have the environmental issues up there with the pipeline going underneath the river, and the potential leaking … Not even potential leaking. The guaranteed leaking of a pipeline, because that’s what they do, and those different harmful effects, and a spiritual aspect he had. Me personally, I saw it as the exact perfect representation of what I’d been trying to explain to people that American policing is, and that is the creation and maintenance of oppressed classes and then the extraction of resources from those classes in order to fund their own oppression.

When I saw state-sanctioned police- Police, remember, those protests were paying those police to enact violence on them in order to protect the profits of the second thing about policing that I talk about, and that’s the valuation of elite property over the lives of the oppressed classes. You could see that clearly there in that oil line profits were being protected, a private company, and that was being paid for by the people who were literally being abused on camera in that situation. Then the third thing that American policing does, as a primary focus, is to continue the genocide of the Native American people. All three of those things came very clearly there, and we needed to draw more attention to that. There’s activists that have a lot of different agendas. I think the reasons for going up there were as varied as you can imagine.

Jaisal Noor: We’ve covered how water protectors and their allies were not only met with militarized police, but mercenary private security firms who carried out surveillance and infiltration and attacked water protectors with water cannon, dogs, pepper spray, rubber bullets. Talk about the impact that had on everyone there, but especially veterans. Did that maybe perhaps reignite PTSD among the veterans? We’ve talked to water protectors who say they still have PTSD from this day from the attacks they faced.

Michael Wood: Yeah. I don’t think we could ever really underestimate what the trauma of violence does to any community. The vets recognized that trauma when they saw it on TV, and wanted to stand up and protect those people when they saw that abuse taking place. That was abuse. When we look at the private security company being different than the police, I really hope that people can see that this is an example that when really pushed, there isn’t much of a difference between private police and the Morton County sheriff’s office. They were doing the exact same things with the exact same mission. It’s just really a matter of who was paying for them. The state-sanctioned police were being paid for by the citizens, and then the private security was supposedly being paid for by corporate interests, but even corporate interests comes down to the people paying for it in the end, eventually.

The amount of violence I think a lot of people in America had turned their blind eye to, and probably a lot of vets. Vets are just regular Americans, too, living their lives. We don’t necessarily see how brutal that can be, and when it was people in prayer, just sitting on their own land, and it was clearly for a pipeline, I think that it was a final straw for a lot of people to see. When we got up there and those stresses became part of what the veteran experience was up there, that was really my strongest take-away, and I think my naivete in the entire event was that post-traumatic stress has affected our veterans at a much greater rate than I imagined or had been awakened to.

When I was around the 4,000 veterans up there in Standing Rock in that situation, where they wanted to fight and they were looking for some way to serve their people, I really felt that a significant amount of us were still gripped by that trauma that had been done in the past. By seeing it on TV done to these people, and then meeting the Standing Rock Sioux and all the other tribes that were up there in the movement trying to take place, it really highlighted the impact of trauma to all of us. I think we really have to look hard at what the trauma of violence does not just to the community and not just to vets, but all of us.

Jaisal Noor: Finally, this struggle at Standing Rock, at least for now, seems to be over. There’s ongoing challenges, but the majority of water protectors have left. Some have highlighted other Standing Rocks across the country where there’s more drilling, or more Native American land is being encroached on by different fossil fuel projects or other types of projects. Talk about what Veterans for Standing Rock sees for its future in the next struggles it’ll take up.

Michael Wood: I really am completely focused on this idea that we learned that it was so much … This is information that’s been known in the past, but we learned that it was much easier to mobilize a lot of people than it was to organize them. We learned that the front lines of a fight might not really be the best place and most successful place for that fight. While we achieved our mission, it was because the point of that mission was to get as many people there for as much attention as possible and to give more time to the Standing Rock Sioux to deal with this.

That was largely a success, but I don’t know if drawing a lot of people to an area is really a sound thing for us to do in activism, or at least as productive as it could possibly be, because the continued fight, which has moved into divestment, which has moved into the court battle, these things actually seem to be a bit more effective in the long term than it would be to create these shows, which were extremely expensive. The event that we did, I don’t know how we ended up that everybody survived and that it only ended up costing us about $1.2 million that we raised. That was not nearly enough money to safely achieve what we were trying to do, and that amount of money was a lot of money. What could we have done with $1 million to educate in a divestment strategy?

We really are regrouping and thinking about how effective it is to mobilize and to do that kind of strategy. With these other pipelines, I’m not sure that these are the best strategies, and the honest best practices learned from going through these experience is that we should probably be focused on what they want, is the money. I think if we attack the money, we will be much more successful in the future.

What that means for veterans who stand, we’re going to lay things down right now in that we don’t want to call veterans up for a stand unless they’ve been taken care of and are treated for. We’ve realized that what needs to be the next focus is getting the posttraumatic stress treatment and maybe having a mindset that we shouldn’t be having as many veterans as we do and we shouldn’t be putting other human beings through this, because I’m not really sure how we do the best efforts to get people back to where they needed to be and where they can be to be healthy themselves, not just as soldiers.

Jaisal Noor: All right, Michael Wood. We’ll certainly keep following Veterans for Standing Rock and the other communities that are fighting back against fossil fuel extraction and other exploitation of their lands and their communities. Thank you so much for joining us.

Michael Wood: Thanks, Jaisal.

Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.