When Wesley Clark Jr. switched on his television, he was incensed by what he saw. Hundreds of miles away on the other side of the country, Native Americans were putting themselves on the frontline. They were trying to protect their land – and paying a hefty price. Heartbroken at seeing his fellow countrymen suffer, he knew that he had to take action.
Back in 2014, a Texas company known as Energy Transfer Partners submitted plans to build a pipeline across America’s Midwest. It hoped that, when completed, the pipeline would pump oil to Illinois from North Dakota, 900 miles away.
The project, estimated to cost in the region of $4 billion, was due to be completed in 2016. But planners didn’t count on the Standing Rock Sioux, whose lands would potentially be put at risk by the project.
The plan was to dig the pipeline under the Missouri River. There was, however, one huge issue. The Missouri River is the main source of drinking water for the 8,000 or so Sioux who live on the Standing Rock Reservation which straddles North and South Dakota. And naturally, the Sioux weren’t at all happy with the plans.
So, despite developers’ assurances that the project will be safe, their opponents are not so sure. They point to research that suggests more than 3,000 American pipelines have leaked over the last six years alone. Even a small spillage could cause serious damage to the Sioux’s water supply. As a result, this would put an already marginalized people at even further risk.
Additionally, members of the Standing Rock Sioux say the proposed pipeline will cut through a burial ground. They say that the government did not uphold its legal obligation to consult with the Sioux during the planning stages and so want the development stopped.
Since early 2016, then, opponents of the pipeline have been gathering at the site in North Dakota. Standing Rock Sioux have been joined by indigenous people from across the United States as well as climate activists who see the struggle as representative of a larger battle to protect the Earth’s resources.
As more and more protestors arrived at the site, media coverage of the situation mounted. The world watched seemingly peaceful protestors being arrested and roughly treated by security guards equipped with dogs and pepper spray. As a result, many onlookers began to question this approach.
One such person was Wesley Clark Jr., the son of a U.S. Army general of the same name. Clark Sr. had made a name for himself serving as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe during the Kosovo War, and his son had followed his footsteps into the armed forces.
After four years of active duty, Clark Jr. returned to civilian life. And though he was keen to re-enlist after 9/11, his father persuaded him to leave the military behind. Instead, Clark Jr. began to look for other ways to fight injustice around the world.
Today, Clark Jr. is a climate activist and a guest host on the progressive internet news channel The Young Turks. So when news of the protests at Standing Rock spread to the wider world, he, like many, felt moved to act.
Inspired by the ongoing resistance at Standing Rock and horrified by the apparently violent response of security firms, Clark Jr. issued an “Operations Order” calling on his fellow veterans to take action. “First Americans have served in the United States Military, defending the soil of our homelands, at a greater percentage than any other group of Americans,” he wrote. “There is no other people more deserving of veteran support.”
Quickly, the idea took hold, with more than 2,500 veterans signing up to stand with the Sioux protestors at Standing Rock. The plan was to form a human shield in order to protect the protestors from harm. It would be a direct, nonviolent action in response to the perceived heavy handedness of the private security firms.
Clark Jr.’s Operations Order went on to explain, “We are there to put our bodies on the line, no matter the physical cost, in complete non-violence, to provide a clear representation to all Americans of where evil resides.” The message, then, was clear.
So on December 3, 2016, Clark Jr. left Los Angeles, California and drove the 1,560 miles to Cannon Ball, North Dakota. And as veterans began to pour in, they were welcomed by the Sioux with a special ceremony before heading out onto the front line.
On December 4, the Standing Rock Protestors celebrated a big win in their battle against the pipeline. The Department of the Army announced that it would not be granting the easement right that would have allowed developers to dig under Lake Oahe, North Dakota.
Instead, the Army stated that the decision would be delayed while discussions were conducted with the Standing Rock Sioux and possible alternative routes were explored. For the protestors, it was a sign that their voices were being heard.
Although Clark Jr.’s campaign brought plenty of publicity to the struggle at Standing Rock, some have been less than pleased with the role the activist has played. In fact, after his GoFundMe page raised more than $1.1 million to support the veterans’ protest, there have been questions as to where the funds have gone.
An despite Clark Jr.’s statement on Facebook that the funds raised would be used to provide for veterans during their time at Standing Rock, critics have pointed out that many at the protest found themselves without supplies or shelter. Clark Jr., though, blamed unexpectedly high numbers for the logistical problems – around 4,000 veterans are thought to have turned up.
Currently, veterans, indigenous people and concerned citizens from around the world continue to maintain a presence at Standing Rock, despite winter weather making conditions tough. As they are all aware, the latest setback doesn’t mean that plans for the pipeline have been dropped – and the war is far from over.