Sitting it Out at Standing Rock
Driving from that dusty rhinestone, Las Vegas, across northern Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, and into South Dakota on I-15N requires patience and serenity rare for me and completely alien to my companion. Our trip to Standing Rock on that dull highway took us through the most featureless, colorless lands in this country. Flat as old Coke. In our boredom, we even found ourselves intrigued by the odd snow fences in Wyoming and thrilled to see a hillock or a tiny gorge. Now and again there’d be an outcropping, towering over the bland landscape like a medieval castle, but for miles we had only sagebrush and an occasional steer as companions. In 1300 miles we’d seen no wildlife, few birds, not even road kill. The dead land had been stripped by cattlemen to smooth sterility. Houses were miles from one another. Gas stations so far apart the car was often running on our nervous breaths as we finally found a small pump in a cowboy town. No motels: we slept in the car at a truck pullout. We were excited to finally make the turn onto Route 83, a back road leading us to the smallest Standing Rock encampment where our arrival was awaited. We’d heard earlier that evening that road was a safe approach among increasingly patrolled entrances, and was about a hundred miles from our goal. We were buoyant. Even my friend’s elderly service dog woke, sniffing and nudging, sensing our excitement.
It was dark as dirt as we moved along Route 83, cautious as we’d been the entire trip to observe the speed limit. Suddenly, red and blue lights slashed through our cheer and an unctuous, tubby sheriff tapped on the passenger-side window claiming we’d been speeding and demanding ID from us both. The weeks-long nightmare began.
Ellen sits at the desk of the dog-friendly motel in an isolated town at the northern edge of South Dakota, population 714. She manages the motel twenty-four hours every single day, year round, virtually imprisoned by the job, as she cares for her disabled adult son. More, she is isolated in this hunting, hating town because of her humane and inclusive values – a silent outcast. Her joy the first night I appeared, speaking of Standing Rock, lit up her weary face. By the next day, we’d had a rousing discussion of the encampment, treaty rights, regional police, and the constant racism she’d discovered since her move from Dallas, nauseating cruelty. (She’d seen police drive into her parking lot, smash a young Native American woman’s car windows and strew her possessions for no cause but hatred.) From that moment, her affection and generosity made this dusty town bearable. And I know she was grateful, relieved for connection. Why, you ask, was I in a motel lobby in the middle of the night with someone else’s dog?
After the stop and the shuffling of our ID cards, the sheriff called us out of the car and swiftly separated us. We were too flustered and the demands too rapid-fire for us to quickly claim our rights to prevent search and seizure. We were also nervous to see he had an agitated dog in the truck and were keenly aware of our utter isolation. My travel pal, Layla, was hustled into the sheriff’s vehicle, leaving me outside with the very flummoxed assistant cop (who acknowledged he’d never worked with this sheriff and didn’t know what the hell was going on.) As Sheriff Varilek (we learned his name later) began to talk with her, he slyly turned the dash cam off. Layla was coerced into permitting a search of her vehicle, told she’d either allow the search or we’d both be arrested on invented charges, the car impounded, the dog sent to the local animal shelter with no guarantee of retrieving her. In this dark, unknown territory, threatened privately and still holding to hope any invented charges wouldn’t amount to much, she consented. At no point was she told of her right to refuse. We were both anxious to get her dog out of the car and away from weapons, fearful she’d be harmed, while the smug, heavily armed sheriff began investigating our possessions. Not wanting surprises, Layla answered his question honestly: yes, there were medications in the car, some of them controlled substances with prescription documentation (hers and mine), among them prescribed, precisely formulated, fully licensed medication to treat her auto-immune disorder, perfectly legal in her home state. And perfectly illegal, we learned, in the backwater state of South Dakota. (Two days later, North Dakota, just an hour away from the spot where we were stopped, voted in a compassionate use law for this very formulation, a bitter joke.) The car was tossed end to end and Layla was arrested.
She’d been told in the car that they’d been waiting for us. They knew who we were, what route we’d been taking, when to expect us, where we were headed. They knew our backgrounds. They’d heard our conversations. And they did not want us at camp. We knew then our phones had been hacked and I remembered camp complaints of surveillance and communications jams. And, too late, I recalled that Stingray surveillance devices had just been issued to the militarized police, militia, and mercenaries assaulting Standing Rock. This technology was used at the camp to thwart communication, scramble text and video messages, steal funds from PayPal and fundraising accounts, track incoming goods and torment those trying to stay in contact with home, medics, and those bringing in supplies. The Stingrays (and other brands of surveillance devices) have been brought in and employed by TigerSwan, the black ops that Blackwater morphed into after its horrific misdeeds in Iraq were exposed. They've provided and supervised the use of the most militarized weapons used against Water Protectors, including water cannons, LRAD noise cannons, tear gas, ammunition and the concussion grenades that blinded one woman and tore the arm off another. They also run surveillance planes over the camp day and night both for intimidation and observation, much of it using infrared cameras to track the number in each tent. They fly in the dark without lights to confuse campers and disrupt sleep. Federal generosity with wartime equipment apparently also reached to the camp’s outskirts, arming local officials with all they needed to stop would-be Water Protectors. Together they could read our very thoughts.
As they began to drive away, I realized that my friend had our active GPS and I had no notion where they were taking her. The sheriff told me to go up the road to a distant turn-around and follow them. When I did as he demanded, he’d already sped off. The road was dark. I gunned the engine and headed back the way we’d come, guessing which way he’d gone. It took a long while at 80 mph to find them. We sped at that pace through dark country, over a bumpy bridge spanning the Missouri, through a small town, and on another twenty miles to the jail. (Remember that we were pulled over on a phony speeding charge.) Seven counties surround the Standing Rock encampment and the jails in every one of them were full, stuffed with people nabbed from or around the camps on false or exaggerated charges. The procedure in all of the arrests was to make accusations that would threaten long sentences. Those arrested endured all the notorious humiliations publicized after the arrests of many journalists, photographers, filmakers and other notables (including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and Deia Schlosberg, filmmaker of the Gasland movies, and the many jailed Water Protectors.) I got out of the car and ran to the door of the Quonset hut county jail just as it was slammed in my face. There was no other entrance. I stood in dark and silence.
The bumbling assistant sheriff finally emerged, looking over his shoulder, with a phone number scribbled on a tiny scrap of paper. ‘Call here and you can see her in twelve hours,’ he whispered. And then darted back in. I was flummoxed and furious. Remembering the frightened dog, I went to the car to assure her all would be well. Would it? I wished someone would scruffle my fur and make false promises.
That’s when I met Ellen.
After hearing my story, Ellen offered a room at a reduced rate, ignoring that I had a big, lumbering old hound with me. I wrestled my daypack from the mad upheaval in the car, examined the small, clean, shabby room, settled Ruby into her bed, and dropped into mine. This would not be a night of sleep.
In the morning I called at the twelve-hour mark. No go. I called later as instructed. Nope. I couldn’t leave a message. Later I could, but without any assurance it would be delivered. Meanwhile I’d searched for a bondsman and found the only one in the seven counties, a hundred and fifty miles away We made arrangements to meet at the jail. Finally, through plexi, with an ancient phone, my friend and I spoke briefly, a doughy guard behind her monitoring the conversation, before the bondsman arrived. Not knowing yet of her evil treatment, I was alarmed at her deflation from fierce to bedraggled. Bail was preposterously high, but I’d scrambled to have the bond fee in hand and was able to pull my bud out of the pit. We headed to Ellen’s motel, our room tucked between hunters and their kill.
It was clear the police both inside and outside the encampment were illegally monitoring cell phones. There are countless tales of strange cell phone behavior, battery depletion, communication cut-off, dead phones, broken calls and text. In our case, I presume the officer, since he boasted he knew everything about us, was using a portable device in his car to thwart all entries from the south. Later I heard him in the courthouse telling a covey of cops that he pulled everyone over on the charge of carrying marijuana. He lowered his voice to describe his techniques. He or his colleague sniffed the car, one saying he smelled dope, they pulled out the dog, and whether it had been there before or not, it was found in the search. I learned later he was known as a disreputable cop and this was his fourth job in the last few years. Public defenders often pleaded overload to avoid taking on his cases.
Medical marijuana is currently legal in 29 states, including my own state of NY, ushered in under compassionate care laws, Recent elections will shortly expand that number by 4. The number of disorders, and the doctors assigned to prescribe it, are both limited in most states. Those, too, will shortly expand. While there is still debate about its efficacy, and trials have been small, don’t include placebo tests, and do not meet the protocols for scientific testing, much anecdotal evidence indicates it is useful. It is generally assumed that the reported benefits merit further testing and there are few concerns about its present use. Drowsiness and long-term cognitive slowing are the major concerns.
Edward Snowden has long been my hero. He risked everything to reveal the extent of governmental spying, using invasive technology to break into our computers, our phones, our private conversations, our business arrangements. We know that the meeting places for activist groups and our bookstores are infested with listening devices. Even when we have identified encrypted apps to communicate with one another, Stingrays and their ilk can break those barriers quickly. Since the infuriating technical and tactical invasion of the camp and supporters, confounding communication and gathering ‘evidence,’ I’ve become obsessed with reading about illegal surveillance. Here are just a few articles with information about the invasive governmental and private corporate capacity to own us. At the very least, our computers and phones must be encrypted in these perilous times.
I don’t yet know how to do that. Long a Blackberry user, which was designed with sophisticated encryption built into the device, I was complacent after I made the change to iPhone. Despite dire articles detailing the betrayals of privacy by Apple, AT&T, Verizon, assorted apps and other apparatus and service providers, I didn’t really expect such significant personal effect.
While we waited, we discovered the tenor of the towns around us. With no preconceptions, I made my jaunty way into a café, ready to chat with any willing stranger. Customer suspicion and discomfort rose like dust around us. We didn’t look like hunters. We didn’t look like locals. We looked like strangers on their way to stop work on a pipeline that fed their families. Their mocking voices rose, full of racial epithets, full of spit, full of hate. Everywhere we went, except for Ellen’s office, we heard loud voices, not shouting precisely at us but at the air around us, decrying ethnic groups and lauding Trump. It was lonely and unnerving. I understood, then, the isolation of the Water Protectors in a land that still despised Native Americans, seized their land, desecrated their sacred places, demeaned their culture and language, mocked their rituals, discounted their very humanness. How was it that I was not in camp, aiding their defense, but stuck instead among the likely masked mercenaries attacking them?
Setting out for the first court hearing, we were astonished to find the courthouse was one hundred twenty five miles away. The first appearance was simply a reading of the accusation, a listing of the charges, and assessing the probable penalty – hardly worth the gas. We expected a high level misdemeanor with a substantial penalty. When the charges comprised one felony and two serious misdemeanors, with a likely sentence of eight years in prison, we paled, heads spinning. Layla kept her composure as she was granted the right to a court-appointed attorney and given a date for arraignment. Still unused to the distances and stretches of time in this sluggish state, we could barely fathom that the attorney was more than two hundred miles from the courthouse (well over three hundred miles from our motel) and she wouldn’t have an opening to meet us for an entire week. In that time we began to search for other legal support from the many organizations supporting Water Protectors, but they were already triaging camp cases and unprepared to take on even worthy cases of those still on the road. We were warned, though, not to bring in a too-confident, shiny-suited attorney from the big city. That would only harm our case with the parochial judges. We should look for a local legal eagle. Trouble was, the only nearby lawyer’s office had four walls full of trophy animal heads, an unlikely match for us, activists against wildlife extinction. We waited the week.
We were constantly monitoring events at the encampments and were – like all activists in the nation – riveted and horrified by the violent assault on Water Protectors on November 20. It nearly drove us mad, being so close and unable to help. I needed strength for organizing legal needs, caring for the dog, maintaining composure in the surly surroundings and did not give way to despair, expecting to swim in it when I returned home. (That expectation was fully met.) With mounting expenses and plummeting spirits, we were relieved to receive financial and emotional support from my friends and some legal guidance from her pals and mine. Her court date scheduled two weeks hence, we prayed that the legal ruffians would settle for a commitment to clear out of the state. They’d already made examples of us. I could hardly bear that the energy, time and money I’d spent to be part of this monumental movement had been vaporized. My thwarted desire to play even a small part in this resistance to genocide and ecocide was burning a hole in my heart.
The arraignment was perfunctory, the trial set for yet another week later. A long week it was, full of cheese sandwiches (no vegetarian meals in this beefy town) and weak coffee. The attorney, at first certain she could get all charges dropped, had to negotiate a sterner sentence. In the end all charges were reduced to misdemeanors, two requiring fines of $500 each and the last remaining on record to be expunged in two years if there were no further arrests, even for a traffic violation.
Another South Dakota shock: use of a public defender is not free. In an article titled, A Mockery of Justice for the Poor, John Pfaff, writing in the New York Times notes, “The situation in South Dakota highlights the insanity of this. South Dakota charges a defendant $92 an hour “for his public defender, owed no matter what the outcome of the case. If a public defender spends 10 hours proving her client is innocent, the defender still owes the lawyer $920, even though he committed no crime and his arrest was a mistake.” With just such a fee, total court expenses were $1600.
Payment arranged, we fled from the courthouse to the nearest town in Wyoming with a pet-friendly motel. I drove. I was so grateful for the healing of sheer beauty as we wound our way to Vegas on roads slicing through Wyoming’s Granite, Ferris, Shirley, Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre mountains, and through Utah and Arizona’s stunning red canyons.
There was one last thing though. Google Maps had been loyal throughout our trials, leading us on digital leashes from one place to another. But before we left oil country, things got a little weird. Since we barely had a signal through all the mountain ranges, we’d take screen shots of the maps and directions as we could and follow those. When we could, we’d follow voice directions. We noticed that Siri was sending us down new roads, not the ones we’d saved, but we twisted and turned and trusted we were headed in the right direction. After we were directed further and further from our goal, taken right to the door of three oil refineries, one after the other, miles apart, we contacted Verizon via a direct line system my pal had installed. Sure enough, we’d been misled for miles, the refineries far off our path. Within moments Verizon restored the maps. I’m still wondering if this was one last invasive digital joke. Only Edward Snowden knows for sure.