North Dakota, US — The main highway from Bismarck, North Dakota to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation has been closed off by police for months, leaving a narrower, more circuitous route as the only way in. The hour-long drive passes through miles of rolling prairie land, vast and empty except for the occasional herds of grazing cows and small clusters of houses.
As you approach the campground, the road veers to the left and dips down past the town of Cannon Ball and then you see it: a teeming tent city nestled in the bowl of the surrounding hills. Quick-pitch tents are huddled next to giant teepees that billow out wafts of smoke from stoves within. Caravans and RVs and trucks and minivans are parked alongside each other. Horses graze in makeshift pens. And everywhere there is movement: people carrying supplies, chopping wood, raising tents, making signs, preparing food, chanting in drum circles, praying.
This is the epicenter of a struggle led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a US$3.8-billion, 1,172-mile-long underground oil pipeline slated to pass through the tribe’s ancestral lands and cross under the Missouri River just north of the reservation. In April, members of the tribe set up a resistance camp that eventually drew hundreds of other tribes from across North America, comprising the biggest Native American alliance in 150 years. They had come together for one purpose: to protect their land and water.
Thousands of people have made this their home for months. There are schools, field kitchens, medic tents, art centers, traditional ceremonies, media headquarters and direct action training. Donations of supplies from across the country arrive on a regular basis. The sheer scale of it is striking.
The police presence is also striking.
As the camp grew over the summer, the governor of North Dakota declared a state of emergency. Police departments from 24 counties and 16 cities in 10 different states poured in. The National Guard followed. They deployed military-grade equipment, set up roadblocks and checkpoints on public roads and, the tribe says, clearly targeted native people and harassed them. The camps were put under continuous surveillance with low-flying planes and helicopters constantly overhead.
The pipeline lies less than 800 meters to the north of the camp, behind a heavily armed barricade. Powerful floodlights on the hills near the pipeline’s route shine ominously through the day and night, a constant reminder of which side state authorities are backing.
The “water protectors” engaged in near-daily nonviolent direct action, chaining themselves to construction equipment and performing Native American prayer ceremonies at pipeline construction sites and security barricades.
What began as several tents housing two dozen people had grown into a sprawling encampment abuzz with members of 200 indigenous nations as well as thousands of non-native allies, including environmentalists, activists, students and celebrities. Standing Rock had become a symbol of resistance.
And as the numbers of water protectors grew, so did the police presence confronting them.
Police in full riot gear attacked with rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades and water cannons in freezing temperatures. Hundreds were injured and nearly 600 arrested, but, despite the brutal crackdown, the protectors did not back down and the camps continued to swell in size. As the confrontation escalated, everything hinged on whether the US Army Corps of Engineers would grant Dakota Access the final permit they needed to drill under the river to complete the pipeline.
This was the situation when I arrived in early November.
It was the first time I had left Egypt for a significant stretch since 2011. I had mixed emotions. At times, it felt like a release, a temporary escape from the dark fog enveloping everything. Arrest, interrogation, asset freeze, travel ban, forced disappearance, prison. Our vocabulary has become laden with this dirty lexicon, our questions have no answers. Will I be taken next? Am I capitulating? Will I be stopped at the airport? Is my sentencing inevitable? How can I stop this?
Fleeing this gloom for a while felt like a guilty pleasure, a way to escape the pangs of defeat.
Then in Standing Rock I saw something of Tahrir.
It was unmistakably there: the clear sense of purpose; the transformative feeling of community; the fearlessness in the face of police brutality; the newfound courage; the tensions that arise from living in a shared space; the indescribable joy in being a part of something, a movement, that seems like it cannot be broken and will never end; the sheer sense of possibility; the feeling that one would never be the same again.
It was inspiring. Something real and effective had been created through months of grassroots organizing, movement building and leadership from indigenous people. They had used their bodies as a form of resistance. They had a physical presence that could not be removed. They had made a stand in defense of the environment and Native American sovereignty against corporate and government power that reverberated across the country.
And yet I was apprehensive.
I could not shake the feeling that the pipeline — which was 99 percent complete in North Dakota — would ultimately be allowed under the river. That they would lose.
The reasons were well-founded.
Donald Trump, a lewd, authoritarian conman, had just been elected president. Not only has he vowed to support pipelines such as this one, but the president-elect has invested between $500,000 and $1 million in Dakota Access, LCC, though his spokesperson has claimed he has since sold his shares. Meanwhile, Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of the pipeline company — Energy Transfer Partners — and a personal donor to the Trump campaign, told NBC News that he was “a 100 percent sure that the pipeline would be approved by a Trump administration.”
Resisting a White House that holds the environment in utter disdain will be daunting. In Egypt, the government has a similar track record of exploiting natural resources, protecting private companies and trampling over indigenous rights. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — Trump’s newfound bosom buddy — coal has been embraced for electricity production, striking workers have been imprisoned and ancestral Nubian lands have been annexed and put up for sale to investors.
And then there was the weather. North Dakota winters are notoriously brutal with lows of 20 degrees below zero. Blizzards arrive that eviscerate color and lash at the skin with bitterly cold, snow-laden winds.
By December, camp life at Standing Rock had become harsh. Thick snowdrifts sent cars skidding off the roads. People huddled inside their tents to try and stay warm. Daily chores became a grueling ordeal. The outdoor bustle of the tent city had quieted.
Meanwhile, the state governor had ordered a mandatory evacuation by December 5. A showdown was looming.
I left Standing Rock for a brief period and returned on December 4 in anticipation of the evacuation deadline. When my plane touched down in Bismarck, I heard the surprise announcement: the army said they would be denying the easement necessary for Dakota Access to cross under the river and that they would do a full environmental review and look for ways to reroute the pipeline. The government’s decision undoubtedly came as a result of the months-long struggle by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies.
The atmosphere was joyous at the camp. Fireworks lit the sky amid whoops of celebration. There was a sense of vindication.
They had won, at least for now. But would their victory last?
Perhaps my experience in Egypt has left me indelibly scarred, cynical, disillusioned. Maybe this was always the pattern of the world: These moments of beauty that cannot last. Maybe victory is in those moments of creation that cannot be forgotten and, in there, progress is painstakingly forged.
So what lies next for Standing Rock? Trudging through the snow, talking to tribal elders and young activists, I was told that the battle was not over, that native people were determined to stay at the camp and continue the fight.
Yes, I thought: Don’t leave. We left Tahrir too early. What if we had stayed? What if we had insisted on all that we wanted and not let the Armed Forces dictate the terms? What if we had kept our bodies in the square? More questions that have no answer.
In 2011, there was a giddying sense of possibility in Tahrir. That was what I glimpsed at Standing Rock. There is something uniquely liberating about carving out these shared spaces of dissent. A weight is shed. Mass mobilization and the simple assertion of physical presence is not only a form of resistance but of transformation. Even if the gains are reversed, these types of protests can crack open a window into a different world and profoundly alter those who take part.
In Egypt, we ultimately lost, but we were not wrong to go out. Back then, there was no other way to be.