Near Cannon Ball, N.D. — “We love you!” yelled someone from our line, linked arm in arm.
We were facing Dakota Access Pipeline workers threatening us with baseball bats and wrenches, one of whom had only moments ago sped his large truck through our ranks. They had called us “the scum of the earth,” and replied to our assurance that we were nonviolent by warning, “We’re not.” A helicopter had appeared and begun circling low over our heads. And from this scene, one of the men who had not yet spoken sheepishly replied, “We love you, too.
We eventually parted ways, not in peace but at least not in physical violence. We had distracted them from further construction of the project that threatened to spill oil in the Lakota water supply and headed back to our cars to take part in a march through the streets of Bismarck, N.D. But amid all the movement, that moment stayed with me.
I had come with a group of Catholic Workers for reasons anyone studying or teaching theology as I do might find obvious. The violation of basic dignity happening here defies the consistent refrain by the prophets and Jesus to do justice with an eye toward the exploited. We had been told white bodies could help by surrounding native ones, shielding them while they sought to protect their water.
The anxiety about immigrants’ diluting “American culture” that helped usher Donald J. Trump to victory has caused many Americans to forget that “American culture” itself began as an intrusion from foreign lands; Lakota people at Standing Rock also have a historically well-established reason to fear this culture. The Lakota are reminding those who will listen that this land’s original immigration problem was of European origin and it continues to threaten their lives and livelihood after half a millennium of a genocidal onslaught. Its most recent manifestation is this pipeline.
I have meditated on that profession of love several days ago from a grown man wielding a bat to threaten us. It called to mind a conversation with my theology students at Fordham about Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” in which he argues that “all machines have their friction,” but that “when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.” He had in mind the evils of slavery and the American government’s theft of half of Mexico in the Mexican-American War, but it spoke fittingly to this older form of oppression and robbery the Lakota people still suffer, in which even those who love them will still oppose them with a weapon and disrupt their sacred grounds.
After our class argued over how we might know when these frictions came to possess the machinery of government, one student declared emphatically that if we could not already recognize that the friction had taken over, then we would never see it.
It was hard to disagree, especially the day after our encounter with the pipeline workers when the police pepper sprayed a Lakota prayer service and those of us surrounding it, arresting whom they could. What kind of machine produces violence to meet prayer, and prison in return for demanding resources to simply live? What kind of machine responds to those trying to protect their water by spraying them in subfreezing temperatures with water? Is it a machine overtaken with friction, or is the nexus of power between corporations and government that is trying to trample over the Lakota once again simply an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise benevolent and worthy machine? How much oppression and theft is tolerable in order to keep the machine running? Where is our breaking point, at which we say that the benefits do not outweigh the human cost?
Thoreau’s claim was that citizens needed to become a “counter-friction” against injustice, that all people had a duty to disobey immoral laws and orders. The idea directly influenced Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who added their own positive notions to resistance. Gandhi insisted that more than ahimsa (the Sanskrit word for causing no harm) was needed in the Indian independence movement. Satyagraha, or “the force of truth, ” had to be embodied as well. Dr. King invoked the Christian demand to love one’s enemies in the civil rights movement, summoning the Greek notion of agape, a form of universal love, to channel God’s love for racists in power like Bull Connor. In both cases, this notion of being a counter-friction was fundamental, as was Thoreau’s insistence that it was one’s duty.
We ought to ask ourselves whether Thoreau was right. What line in Standing Rock would have to be crossed to demand our resistance that had not been passed over long ago? Do we wait until the Missouri River flows with oil? Would we need the police to begin shooting the water protectors with metal bullets instead of rubber ones? At what point does Thoreau’s duty kick in? When white people rather than native tribes bear the brunt of oppression?
Another question arises: how to disobey? Must we hold allegiance to satyagraha and agape, or was Malcolm X right to assert that Dr. King’s insistence on love was just another layer of white colonization that put hypocritical conditions on how minorities might protest? Actions led by the Lakota people were disciplined in something like this concept of agape, reminding those on the front lines that we are to love these police officers and issuing prayers over the loudspeaker for their own children’s water supply. But some white allies who had joined their struggle, quite understandably, held no love for those who might mace them midprayer without warning. There was no clear consensus on the parameters for civil disobedience.
Of course, it is not for others to dictate to the Lakota how to protect their water. But Thoreau’s claim must be grappled with for those who reap the benefits of systemic injustice and exploitation, as he did. Donald Trump’s tenure as president-elect immediately began with protests, some more peaceful than others. As more people embrace the need to say “no” in some capacity, whether in North Dakota or beyond, the issue of how to do so and what is worth preserving has become pressing.
Daniel Berrigan, the poet and priest who died in April, and whose actions throughout his life pushed the limits of civil disobedience, posed the issue in language that closely echoed that of Thoreau and bears relevance today: “Someone, as a strict requirement of sanity and logic, must be willing to say a simple thing: ‘The machine is working badly.’ And if the law of the machine, a law of military and economic profit, enacted by generals and tycoons, must be broken in favor of the needs of man, let the law be broken. Let the machine be turned around, taken apart, built over again.”
I still churn that moment over in my mind: A man threatening us with a baseball bat told us he loved us. Despite the presence of agape, love between people who had never even met before, we had already organized ourselves in a violent way that ruptured any chance for human community. It seems clear that the moment for resistance had come too late, that something was allowed to flourish that never should have had the chance to sprout. Lines were drawn centuries ago, were never erased, and we had simply stepped into ready-made roles. We loved one another, but a system was in place encouraging hatred, and we could only navigate it awkwardly and poorly.
It’s worth communal consideration whether this machine is worth maintaining. The ascension of the country’s next president demands it. But the question of whether we have a duty to be a counter-friction was answered a long time ago, and the situation at Standing Rock is merely a reminder that far too many of us are still refusing to answer it.
Eric Martin is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University and co-editor of “The Berrigan Letters.”
Now in print: “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” an anthology of essays from The Times’s philosophy series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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