Climate protest comes to Rockford
A shorter, incomplete version of this article appeared in the print edition.
Video by Amelia Diehl/The Round Table
A two-headed black snake slithered through the streets of Rockford, Ill. on Friday evening, carried on poles by members of the climate justice group Forest City 350. Flanked by other protesters carrying two large banners reading “Oil and Water Don’t Mix” and “Only One Earth,” the snake resembled an oil pipeline – specifically, the Dakota Access Pipeline. This march was one of hundreds across North America to show solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota, who have been resisting construction of the 1,170-mile project since April.
Young and old carried smaller signs of fish, or with slogans like “People Over Profit”; “Water = Life”; “We are the Earth rising up to defend herself”; “Wind and Solar”; the acronyms of “OIL” as “On Indigenous Land” and others. Chants of “we need our air and water, we stand with Standing Rock!” and “keep it in the ground!” reached passing pedestrians and cars, punctuated by drum beats and shakers. A man dressed in a suit pretended to be an oil company representative, shouting out sarcastic phrases to spectators such as “Nothing to see here,” and “Oil is great for the water.”
To kick off the march, event organizers Jim Roberts, a former pastor, and David Stocker, a community artist, spoke to the protesters gathered at the Beattie Effigy mounds park along the Rock River about what it means to stand in solidarity. “Rivers are life. The Rock River, the Missouri river, it doesn’t matter. All rivers are life,” Roberts said. The pipeline would pass less than a mile upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a community of about 8,000 on 2.3 million acres in south-central North Dakota. The tribal demonstrators call themselves water protectors, valuing nonviolent tactics such as prayer and marching to protect the water source of their reservation and thousands downstream.
After a moment of silence, Stocker spoke of the local threat of “bomb trains,” or black tank rail cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota, passing near Rockford, which he called an “impact zone.” These rail cars pose threats, he said, to the communities along their route, susceptible to derailing, burning and even exploding. That happened in March 2015 with one train in Galena, with a route passing through nearby Illinois towns Aurora and Naperville. Similar explosions have occurred in Quebec and Virginia in 2013, and West Virginia in 2014.
Stocker, who led an art-build the Wednesday prior to the march, explained that the two-headed black snake represents the deception of the oil industry. He also wanted to reference the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who call the pipeline a black snake. Accompanying the snake were word bubbles on signs, saying “This is just the beginning” and “Fools, you knew what I was when you picked me up”. Stocker also uses the snake as a “curriculum,” bringing it to different communities. Forest City 350, a chapter of the worldwide climate justice organization 350.org representing the Wisconsin and Illinois stateline area, is also pushing for climate justice literacy in addition to their protests. The snake was also painted with critical names of corporations, such as “Smell” instead of “Shell”. “Corporations profit by our ignorance,” he commented after the protest.
The march ended with protestors acting out an oil spill, lying down in black garbage bags in a public square by the river, near the weekly evening market. After another moment of silence followed by chants, Toby Thomas, a local street performer known as Mr. Awesome, gave an unplanned, improvised dance inspired by the power of water.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, owned by the Dallas-based company Energy Transfer Partners, would pass through four states, from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, where it would meet existing pipeline infrastructure. The $3.8 billion project would transport almost half a million barrels of crude oil every day; announced in 2014, construction was approved in July by the Army Corps of Engineers. Supporters say the pipeline would boost the domestic oil market and avoid spills associated with oil train accidents, and operating company Dakota Access LLC claims it would create 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs. Critics say these employment numbers are often overestimated, the jobs themselves often short-term, and outsourced.
A tribal resistance has grown for months, based where the Cannonball and Missouri rivers meet at Camp of the Sacred Stones. Nearly 100 other tribes across the U.S. and Canada, along with allies, have joined the fight. Tensions have been mounting, as last week the North Dakota government declared a state of emergency, bringing in the National Guard. Security guards with Dakota Access also attacked demonstrators with dogs and pepper spray on Sept. 3 after the Sioux discovered sacred burial sites had been destroyed by construction.
In July, the tribe filed an injunction with support from the environmental group Earthjustice, suing the Army Corps of Engineers for granting permits to Dakota Access at more than 200 water crossings without proper consultation.
The day of the Rockford protest, on Sept. 9, District Judge James Boasberg allowed construction to continue. Immediately following that decision, the U.S. Departments of Justice, the Interior and the Army rejected that decision, halting construction.
Environmental groups have planned national days of action throughout the month.
Source: Mother Jones, NPR, Washington Post, New York Times, Bismarck Tribune, Chicago Tribune