How to Stop a Pipeline: Trump, DAPL and the Power of Mass Action

By Arthur Pye, On Power Blog

This piece is republished from the On Power Blog from Black Rose comrades in Seattle. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter

As Trump escalates the battle over Dakota Access, the movement is left scrambling to respond. But before panicking or losing hope over the renewed construction, we would be wise to recognize the lessons of the latest victory. If we’re going to effectively fight the pipeline under the new administration, we first need to understand how we beat it under the last one…

In July of last year, the Army Corps of Engineers officially green-lighted DAPL, ignoring the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux. While the tribe warned the project would violate their treaty rights, threatening cultural sites and local drinking water, the Corps concluded the project was “not injurious to the public interest,” citing an environmental assessment prepared by none other than Dakota Access LLC. Less than 4 months later, the very same agency would make an about face, denying the drilling easement necessary for the completion of the pipeline. This time they cited the need to “further consult” the tribe and do a full environmental review, stopping the pipeline in its tracks. Why the change of heart? What caused the same institution, under the same leadership, to drastically change its position? The short answer: sustained mass action.

Back in April, a hand-full of indigenous women and youth, frustrated with the inaction of their tribal council, took it upon themselves to start a prayer camp in the path of the pipeline. The activists made a call for solidarity and over the course of the summer the small resistance camp grew from a handful of people to a thousands-strong mass occupation. What started as a small defiant act, soon became the defining struggle of the climate justice movement. By building an unprecedented alliance between North American tribes and sectors across civil society, the self-described “water protectors” managed to bridge a crucial gap between social justice and environmental activism. People flooded in from across the continent. They came not only to save a river and confront climate change, but to support a community defending itself against corporate attack and 21st century colonialism.

As the resistance grew, activists were met with increasing state and corporate violence. In response to the mass occupation and near constant acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, a multi-state militarized police force lashed out with sound cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, hospitalizing at least 7 people and arresting hundreds. In a shocking act of aggression, private security forces unleashed attack dogs on a peaceful crowd. Evoking images of the Jim Crow South, a video of the frenzied dogs, teeth dripping with the blood of protestors, went viral and galvanized public support. These battles displayed both horrific repression and inspiring defiance. The scene was more reminiscent of the 1973 stand-off at Wounded Knee than the average climate protest. All of this revealed a deeper truth, too often obscured: corporate colonialism is alive and well. It rears its ugly head as soon as the colonized fight back.

Eventually, the sustained action of thousands of people succeeded in creating a political crisis for the powers that be. This crisis was multifaceted. Firstly, direct actions caused consistent and tangible delays in construction, eroding the confidence of investors. Secondly, the staggering costs of “security” overwhelmed government and private agencies. By mid-November, Dakota Access had racked up over $100 million in security costs. State and local agencies were beating down the door of the federal government, demanding compensation for mounting expenses. When Morton County ran out of jail cells they began detaining people in dog kennels. The harder they tried to contain the movement, the more defiant it became. Repression only seemed to further galvanize widespread public outrage.

As winter closed in, Obama first attempted to quell this crisis by mentioning the possibility of a “re-route”, while his administration simultaneously moved to evict the resistance camps. Describing it as an “evacuation” for the “safety of the protestors”, people we’re ordered to leave Army Corps land by December 5th. The last ditch effort backfired, sparking a mass mobilization to defend the camps. While activists faced down water cannons at sub-freezing temperatures, U.S. military veterans organized a national deployment pledging to put their bodies between law enforcement and protestors. All signs pointed to a major show-down. On December 4th, the day before “evacuation” day, as the camps swelled to upwards of 10,000 people, the Army Corps suddenly announced their decision to deny the drilling easement.

The people had won.

Though the news came as a surprise to many, the decision was far from arbitrary. By building a seemingly unstoppable mass movement, the water protectors created a political crisis which the administration could no longer ignore. Only a mass movement could force such an about-face.

With Trump in the White House, we’re now witnessing yet another about-face. The new administration has already thrown out the environmental assessment and issued the drilling easement. The battlefield is changing rapidly, and our strategies will have to adapt accordingly. For one thing, as it becomes harder to influence federal policy, the movement will have to increasingly rely on direct obstruction and economic pressure through strikes, divestment, delay and bold acts of civil disobedience. This is no small feat. Victory will likely require mass disruption on a scale not yet realized. The recently successful #DefundDAPL campaign to divest the City of Seattle’s $3 billion account from Wells Fargo, is an encouraging development, already sparking similar actions elsewhere.

Before we give up on beating back Trump, we should remember – the Obama administration wanted to build this pipeline too. This doesn’t mean there aren’t important differences. A cabinet staffed with fossil fuel cheerleaders and former oil executives will surely do everything in its power to protect corporate profits from public interference. But, crucially, the fundamental structures of power in our society remain unchanged.

The powers that be don’t make decisions as individuals. They act according to the interests of the institutions they represent. Whether they like it or not, corporations rely on profitability, and governments rely on political stability. These vulnerabilities provide unique opportunities for social movements to intervene. And where there’s opportunity, there’s hope.

In the first two weeks of the new presidency, movements have already succeeded in rolling back several key elements of Trump’s far-right program, including a ban on green card holders, the gutting of congressional ethics oversight, and the sale of public lands. In the same period, we’ve also witnessed the largest protests in U.S. history. Now is a time to be both inspired and challenged by the possibilities.

When movements grow powerful enough to threaten the very stability of the structures they’re up against, rulers are faced with a choice: give in or risk losing everything. This is the crisis we must create in order to transform society. If we want to stop Dakota Access, we need a movement powerful enough to threaten the stability of the institutions responsible for it.

Mass action beat DAPL the first time, and only mass action can beat it again.


Arthur Pye is a community organizer and writer based in Seattle, Washington.