image credit: Martyn LeNoble
Where do I begin?
I’ve been at Standing Rock for only five days, and I’m packing up my tent and camping gear. My flight home is booked for tomorrow and it’s time to go back to my family. The sun is shining, and that bone-chilling relentless wind has died down for a few hours. Here’s my plan: break down my camp while it’s relatively “warm,” go back to work for a few hours after I’m done packing, and then drive to Bismarck at night.
While here, I’ve been dishwashing, chopping firewood, taking trash to the containers etc. I found a nice spot on the construction crew for the last few days.
People are winterizing a lot of the structures and tents at Oceti Sakowin, the biggest camp at Standing Rock. We knocked out one wood-frame floor after the other — simple plywood covered floors that we filled with hay. The people on the crew all work hard, and often late into the evening.
After working for a few more hours, a sudden influx of new volunteers seem to have things covered. I walk to the bridge one last time to snap a few pictures, have a moment of reflection, and perhaps utter something like a prayer, a well-wish, on top of the hill before I depart.
I snap a few pictures of the sun dipping below the hill, the landscape, and the strange barricade the Morton County Sheriff’s department has set up at the end of the bridge, effectively blocking the main road from Bismarck to the Standing Rock Reservation.
The Backwater Bridge blockade consists of multiple layers, first two burned out trucks block the road, behind that a concrete barricade topped with scary looking barbed wire, and behind that a few intimidating “police vehicles”.
One of them is an armored vehicle equipped with a water cannon. Another one is an LRAD, an acoustic sound cannon capable of stunning people at a 162 decibels, which is well above the pain threshold, and would probably cause permanent hearing damage if used at that volume. (Knowing about the LRAD in advance prompted me to take a hearing test the day before I departed for Standing Rock. I’m a musician and composer, and hearing damage could result in a loss of livelihood for me.)
It is exactly 5 PM on November 20th, 2016
And so it begins….
The relative peace is suddenly broken by a blue semi truck racing toward the barricade. Backwards. At shockingly high speed.
For a second I think it's going to ram the barricade, but it stops about 10ft before impact. (Remember, the Standing Rock movement is a peaceful movement. Ramming the barricade would have been an act of violence, not consistent with the message and intention set.)
A small crew appears. No more than 10 people, and starts connecting some chains to the burned out truck blocking the bridge on the left. A minute later, the semi tries to pull the barricade apart, but the chains break before the barricade even budges.
The truck backs up again, and a new attempt is made. Same result, over and over again.
By now, the police force (that is staged out of sight over the hills behind the barricades) start rushing in. I believe this is when the first rubber bullets are fired at the small crew and the truck driver.
I hear the police on the bullhorn address one of the guys on the bridge by name.
“Don’t do this [name omitted]. We have 10 more of these trucks, and tomorrow we’ll just bring another one in. Go home!”
A thick curtain of smoke now blocks the view between the police and the small crew, most likely smoke deployed by the crew to make it possible to keep working without getting shot.
In response, the police fire their first tear gas onto the bridge, and right beside it, which starts the first fire in the brush.
At 5:30 PM, the semi manages to pull the barricade apart.
I can’t believe I’ve been watching this all go down, and even though the camp is less then half a mile away, no one seems to be aware this is happening.
By 5:45, the semi manages to pull the barricade all the way across the bridge and off to the side of the road. This is when the protectors show up. At first, a slow trickle, by 6:15 a steady parade, growing in numbers by the minute. In hindsight, I now understand this was meticulously planned by the crew working on the bridge, had there been people on the bridge earlier, they could have been crushed by the semi pulling the barricade.
Half an hour later, after nearly two hours of tear gas and rubber bullets, the police now begin using the water cannon on the crowd. This is a peaceful, non-violent stance, for clean water, against the DAPL, with our Native Brothers and Sisters. This is not a riot, this is a non-violent, peaceful stand.
At 7:10 PM, the bridge is filled with people. And, everything changes again.The police, without warning, deploy a barrage of tear gas, targeting everyone on the bridge, front to back. I can’t count the number of shots, but the gas hits almost everyone there.
Remember, it’s a bridge; there’s only one way to get out. They launch tear gas all the way at the end of the bridge. No escape. Screams of panic and pain, the sound of people throwing up and uncontrollably coughing, grows louder, as rubber bullets fire at the crowd in the front.
People call out for medics, fall, walk around blinded, in pain. This is horrific.
Up until now I’d been sitting in relative safety, on top of the hill overlooking the bridge. I was planning on leaving hours ago. I wasn’t going down there. The plan was to be well on my way back home, to my warm house and sweet family in sunny Los Angeles.
What happens next may seem counter-intuitive, but "fight or flight" takes over. The panic and fear, the injustice and brutality I witnessed, drive me down the hill into the thick of it all. There is no thought, no heroic moment… it just happens. I run down to help the people that are hurting.
On the bridge, people are vomiting, blinded, wounded, in pain.
I try to help as many people as possible. Finding my headlamp in my pocket, I search for people that needed medical attention in a haze of tear gas. Find the person that needs help, and get them to a medic.
The medics are amazing. All over the place. Volunteers in cars, parked at the end of the bridge, ready to drive the injured back to the medics’ tents in camp. Eyes are rinsed, water is passed out, people are carried back, some bleeding, some unconscious.
Many of the calls for help come from the front, where people are being hit by rubber bullets. That’s how I end up toward the front. I run towards the calls for help — without any intention to be in the frontline, with no “heroic” motivation.
It seems to calm down. The police stop firing for a few minutes. Then, as if made stronger by the tear gas & rubber bullet attack, the crowd moves back to the front. Even more people this time. More determined. Stronger.
Plastic container lids are being used as shields. Earplugs and goggles are passed around, as well as ponchos and rain gear for the people in reach of the water cannon.
There is a steady trickle of people succumbing to hypothermia, after hours of being hosed down in sub-freezing temperatures.
A fire is built on the bridge, deliberately: to warm the people suffering from hypothermia, to warm the people that are cold. Some are completely unresponsive and unconscious, after hours of being hosed down.
Medics strip people out of their wet clothing on the bridge and wrap them in dry blankets and thermal wraps, before rushing them to camp. Ambulances rush in and out of camp, taking the injured to local hospitals.
The rubber bullets keep coming, the water cannon never stops. I go back to taking pictures. I want to capture it all.
Prayer circles are formed. Songs are sung in different Native languages, sometimes accompanied by drums.
The water cannon never stopped.
The drums can’t drown out the sound of rubber bullets being fired at the front line. There are lots of hugs, and sad, but warming smiles from, and at, each other. Water and cigarettes are shared.
I walk around in a daze. Taking pictures. Most of them out of focus and blurred.
Time becomes blurry.
The sounds of gunshots, chants, screams for help, helicopters, tear gas being fired… impossible to explain.
The smell of tear gas, pepper spray, sage, and fire… impossible to recreate.
My senses feel numbed, but at the same time I am hyper-aware.
I take a picture of an intimidating looking man on the left side of the bridge. He is dressed different than most of the cops and he has a weapon I can’t identify. He looks straight at me, walks over to an officer holding a rubber bullet gun, and gives the slightest nod in my direction.
I feel it in my gut. They separate, and I watch the officer with the rubber bullet gun, now 10 feet to my right, take direct aim at me. There is no one else around. I duck, run, and find the barrier on the bridge without getting hit.
I tell myself to stay calm. I walk, eyes closed, coughing uncontrollably, through a thick cloud of tear gas, when a huge explosion stuns me. A concussion grenade has exploded next to me. I can’t hear anything but a loud ringing in my ears.
No sound, no sight, no breath, just the feeling of my feet touching the asphalt on the bridge. I can’t move. Hands grab me and walk me back. At some point, I recover enough to get back on the bridge.
Around 11 pm, I walk away. I have nothing left. Nothing.
I feel guilty, but I can’t do it anymore. I am broken. Done. Six hours. Four of them on the bridge.
As I walk back to camp and then to my car, I feel like I’m walking through a dark tunnel. I don’t notice the people around me, the people back in camp. I do notice a line of blinking lights, and feel upset that someone brought in a light show. What’s wrong with people, this isn’t Burning Man or Coachella. I realize it’s a row of ambulances by the medics’ tents.
I get in my car, hide my memory cards, and drive. Alone.
There are two things I’d like to address.
First: The Morton County Sheriff’s spokesperson made a statement saying we started fires all over the place. This is absolutely false.
All the fires were started by tear gas canisters hitting the hillsides and riverbanks. Not only did some brave protectors manage to throw the canisters back, or into the river, they also had to put out all these fires. Sometimes by rolling their bodies over the flames.
There was one deliberate fire on the bridge, built to help people warm up, to help the people with hypothermia. There were two fires started on the mud banks, far away from any vegetation. Built for the same reason.
We are the water and land protectors.
Second: This was a non-violent, peaceful action. We took a beating. We took all of this without retaliating. A few people broke from this a couple of times and reacted to the non-stop violence. They threw plastic water bottles at the police. I can count the amount of times this happened, over all these hours, on my fingers and toes. And every time someone did this, the crowd would check them and stop them.
Ask yourself, how many officers were injured during the action Sunday night?
I’m home. Safe and warm.
A medic on the bridge told me I needed to go to the medics’ camp for treatment. I told him I was fine. He got mad and said I would get sick from the tear gas exposure and the cold water.
He was right. I’m sick. I can’t remember being this sick. I have a fever, and bronchitis from the exposure.
My ears are still ringing.
It’s easy being sick in Los Angeles, in my warm house. My thoughts are with everyone in camp, with everyone that has committed to stay through the winter.
Please support them. (standingrock.org)
I ran into this water protector at the hotel in Bismarck. He’d been shot twice with a rubber bullet, one in the head, and one shot in the back.