What the Water Protectors of Minnesota Taught Me

These remarks were delivered at a Portland Youth Climate Council rally on June 5th, 2021 and at the National Day of Action to Defund Line 3 event outside the Downtown Chase Bank location on June 7th, 2021.

My name is Austen Lethbridge-Scarl. This March, I went to Minnesota with Extinction Rebellion PDX. (Note that there are two Extinction Rebellion groups in Portland. We are not the one with the expensive boat. We’re the real one.)

It was a transformative experience for me. I’m envious of my friends who are on the ground right now. And you should be too.

First of all, there’s Northern Minnesota itself: It’s hard not to see why that place is so special.

We stayed with the Giniw Collective, a group of Anishinaabe and Lakota Water Protectors who were gracious enough to host us for a week.

We caught some late winter snow and I’ve never felt as peaceful as when I was standing in the frozen air among the birch trees at the camp.

The sunsets were the most intense and powerful I’ve seen in my whole life.

Lost in the Minnesota mountains at 3 am, I saw the real night sky. Tens of thousands of tiny points of light all across the sky, faint enough to be drowned out by a distant neighbor’s porchlight. Until a few hundred years ago, this was shared every night by every single person on Earth. Now it feels like a gift.

Then we saw a UFO.

And we often talk about the sacred wild rice wetlands, but you aren’t going to understand what that actually means until you try some. This is not the wild rice you buy at Whole Foods. It really is sacred. You can taste its magic.

It is a place that must be protected. Unfortunately, not everybody agrees.

Police SUVs were watching Water Protector camps 24/7. (Photo credit: Austen Lethbridge-Scarl)

Every single morning, we would see police cars posted all over town, trying to intimidate us. I have no doubt our friends in Minnesota right now are seeing the same thing.

And it doesn’t get better from there. The police repression Water Protectors face is intense.

As many as four police SUVs were watching the camp 24/7, staring at the porta potties until their shift was over.

They constantly pulled people over for no reason except to register in the database that they were there. This information is shared all throughout the government.

When the camp’s driveway needed maintenance, police illegally blocked gravel trucks, claiming they were too heavy for the roads.

One evening, we coincidentally stumbled upon a weekly protest outside the local Enbridge headquarters. It was a family event with young children holding up signs and extremely happy dogs running around. They must have been very threatening, because they had their own police car sitting half a block away watching them.

When we left, as we were passing the police car, it quietly went into reverse and followed down the block.

And then on the day of the action itself, when eight people chained themselves to a sailboat blocking an access road, more than 40 police cars from 18 jurisdictions showed up. For an entire hour, we watched more and more and more cars arriving from as far as 200 miles away.

In the end, for all of that nonsense, only two people were arrested. For trespassing. (They were both from Portland, by the way. Shout out to us. Represent.)

Meanwhile, Enbridge workers have been convicted of human trafficking and Indigenous girls as young as 12 have to be trained how to avoid them.

Enbridge has, to date, paid out 900,000 dollars in compensation to police across Minnesota for equipment, overtime, distance traveled and other resources spent putting down resistance against their projects. For some reason this is not considered bribery. But it’s clear whose side the government is on and it’s not ours.

The Enbridge Energy office in Park Rapids, MN at night. A projector is covering the building with a slide showing the Enbridge logo, except with their slogan "Life Takes Energy" changed to say "Takes Life".
Enbridge’s slogan “Energy Takes Life” is parodied as “Takes Life” as it’s projected onto their Park Rapids, MN office during a weekly protest. (Photo credit: Austen Lethbridge-Scarl)

So here’s what I learned in Minnesota:

I realized that pipelines are not a climate change issue. They’re an Indigenous issue with global consequences. Pipelines always run through Indigenous territories because they’re politically disenfranchised, the result of half a millennium of persecution and genocide. It’s the path of least resistance.

Solidarity with Water Protectors can’t stop with a pipeline. If you only ever play defense, you’re going to lose eventually. We have to be there all the time, building their cultural and legal power until it becomes so difficult and annoying to get a pipeline built that it isn’t even worth trying.

And that’s the truth about climate change in general. It can’t be solved by any one piece of legislation. Because it’s everywhere. Green jobs are great but they don’t solve the real problem.

Which is that there is a monster at the heart of our society, far older than the United States government. We’ve never had the courage to face our twin original sins: Stolen Land and Stolen People. And we pay dearly for it every single day.

The police and police culture that illegally oppress Water Protectors are the same police and police culture who illegally murder Black people and get away with it. Anti-Black oppression is the biggest reason we still don’t have universal healthcare. No universal healthcare is why 600,000 Americans are dead from COVID. It is all connected.

We need the courage to fight that monster. The Anishinaabe and Lakota show us the way.

We live or die together. Thank you.

That Minnesota sunset is like nothing else. I want to go back. (Photo credit: Austen Lethbridge-Scarl)
About Austen Lethbridge-Scarl

Austen Lethbridge-Scarl (he/him) is the editor of the XRPDX newsletter. Besides climate issues, he focuses on racial justice, police abolition and antifascism.

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