A Lesson from Standing Rock

by Danny Haiphong

There have been very few people’s victories under the Obama administration. His corporate policies have prevailed mainly by default, due largely to the failure of progressives to confront the First Black President. “The anti-war movement has been buried in the Democratic Party graveyard throughout the duration of Obama’s tenure.” The Standing Rock Sioux, however, never waivered in their determination, and faced down Big Energy and the U.S. government.

A Lesson from Standing Rock 

by Danny Haiphong

“It was the uncompromising stance of the Standing Sioux Tribe that inspired support from broad sections of the left, including thousands of US veterans.”

The Standing Rock Sioux won a significant victory on December 4th when the US Army Corps of Engineers denied the planned route for the Dakota Access Pipeline. The decision came after Attorney General Loretta Lynch was compelled to send a video message to protesters urging them to refrain from violence. But the violence had already arrived, courtesy of the state. In prior encounters, law enforcement attacked protesters with rubber bullets, flash bang grenades, and water cannons. US veterans made their way to Standing on December 5th, setting the stage for a bloodbath between the broad coalition of water protectors and the agents of the state. The steadfast resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies forced the Obama Administration to concede to the movement instead.

The Obama Administration wanted nothing more than to walk out of the White House on January 20th with its mythical legacy intact. For two-terms, the Obama Administration has managed to escape blame for the intensified exploitation of the working class and oppressed. The Democratic Party's marketing apparatus spent two terms conditioning the people to believe that the Obama Administration was being obstructed at every turn and that it was Obama himself who achieved what few positive developments occurred since 2008. Things like Obamacare and the increase in the median household income have been advertised as part and parcel of Obama's greatness. An attack on US veterans would have made Obama's legacy irredeemable to the ruling class. 

“For two-terms, the Obama Administration has managed to escape blame for the intensified exploitation of the working class and oppressed.”

Obama's mythical legacy as an agent of progress completely contradicts historical record. The struggle at Standing Rock threatened to expose this record for all to see. Under Obama, the oppressed saw their conditions worsen. Obama intensified exploitation through draconian austerity cuts on the people and bailouts for the very banks responsible for the 2008 economic collapse. The updated numbers released by the Census Bureau on unemployment and median income are misleading at best and outright lies at worst. They do not account for those who have given up their search for work or the fact that the majority of workers are struggling to meet basic needs in a low-wage economy

While the deteriorating condition of the working class cannot be ignored by those who experience it, the expansion of war around the world has been relatively hidden from the masses. Obama greatly expanded Bush's wars in the Middle East. He also created new ones in Libya, Ukraine, and Syria that have been met with little popular protest. The anti-war movement has been buried in the Democratic Party graveyard throughout the duration of Obama’s tenure. This has paved the way for the unmitigated growth of US warfare around the planet. 

Let the movement against the Dakota Access pipeline be a useful lesson to the the incapacitated US anti-war movement.  For one, there was never a doubt that the leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe would waver from their commitment to stopping the pipeline's construction. Indigenous resistance forced the hand of the state to make a decision. Either the state would brutally crush the resistance and tarnish Obama's mythical legacy or concede, albeit temporarily, to the will of the protesters. In addition, it was the uncompromising stance of the Standing Sioux Tribe that inspired support from broad sections of the left, including thousands of US veterans.

“Obama intensified exploitation through draconian austerity cuts on the people and bailouts for the very banks responsible for the 2008 economic collapse.”

The anti-imperialist movement in the US often has a difficult time taking consistent, principled positions on war. Many individuals and organizations that claim an "anti-war" stance only protest certain kinds of wars, mainly those waged by Republicans. A Democrat in office gives many on the left the permission to support war. When Libya's socialist head of state Muammar Gaddafi was butchered by the Obama-Clinton alliance, some leftish groups celebrated the death of a so-called "dictator." The immense suffering that Libya’s destruction imposed on the majority of Africans across the northern part of the continent was nothing more than an afterthought.
Libya is just one example where the anti-imperialist movement's subservience to the Democratic Party left it unable to render any resistance to imperialist war. There are many other examples, both domestic and international. It was not until the 2014 police murder of Michael Brown that protests emerged against the Obama Administration's record breaking transfers of military equipment to local police departments. The Black Lives Matter movement exposed the racist crimes of the state with particular focus on the daily lynching of Black Americans by militarized police. But it wasn't until the Democratic Party lost a humiliating election in 2016 that the graveyard of social movements suffered a severe blow of legitimacy.

“The people won the battle, but the war rages on.”

A bloodbath at Standing Rock would have further damaged the legitimacy of the Democratic Party. However, the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline has yet to end. The corporate interests that spearheaded the decision to build the pipeline through indigenous territory have already indicated plans to continue construction uninterrupted. The people won a battle, but the war rages on. Imperialism’s primary interest is profit and the rulers of the system will stop at nothing to accumulate it.

Just as the resistance at Standing Rock will need to continue to build strength against the pipeline, so too will a movement against imperialism need to stake out a strong, principled stance in the age of Trump. The Obama period is coming to end. Democratic Party wars will become Republican Party wars. This time, however, the uniformity among the ruling class as to which wars are necessary right now has been eroded by Trump's ascendancy. Trump has claimed to be both pro-Russia and anti-China and Iran. This contradiction cannot be reconciled by the war-machine without internal conflict. Such division among the ruling classes presents an opportunity to strike.

Danny Haiphong is an Asian activist and political analyst in the Boston area. He can be reached at [email protected].