Black Lives Matter 5280 Recaps Trip to Standing Rock to Oppose Oil Pipeline

As the pickup truck accelerated toward him, Jumoke Emery-Brown realized that its driver was not going to stop; he and others around him would be run over if they didn't get out of the way.

Moments before impact, Emery-Brown managed to jump out of the vehicle’s path, pulling someone else to safety with him.

He then watched as the truck proceeded to the top of a nearby hill, where its belligerent white driver produced a semi-automatic pistol and fired seven shots into the air.

The violence of November 12 was jarring, but it underscored the importance of what Emery-Brown was doing in North Dakota near the Standing Rock Reservation: supporting indigenous people, and the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, as a member of Black Lives Matter 5280.

Emery-Brown and three other members of Denver's Black Lives Matter chapter recently returned to Colorado from the Standing Rock camp. They'd traveled there after receiving an invitation in August, when the Oceti Šakowin, more commonly known as the Sioux, sent out a call to Black Lives Matter’s global network to join Native Americans in their opposition to the oil pipeline – a proposed 1,172-mile long piece of infrastructure that would transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota to refineries around the United States. The path of the proposed pipeline takes it through areas that the Sioux maintain was Indian country under the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. Moreover, there are claims that the pipeline will disrupt sacred burial grounds and contaminate surrounding rivers and water sources, which are considered holy by many.

A standoff against construction of the pipeline has been ongoing since April and recently, clashes with law enforcement have turned violent, as when police used freezing water to dispel demonstrators on Sunday, November 20, injuring hundreds and sending at least twenty to nearby hospitals.

When Emery-Brown witnessed the man in the truck — a construction worker — nearly run people over and fire shots into the air,  he was with about 200 other people who'd traveled in a caravan to where the Dakota Access Pipeline construction crews were staging their equipment. “We went with the intention of praying for the workers there who had disturbed burial sites,” says Emery-Brown. “As part of that prayer ceremony, some were blocking the road.”

Shortly after the last members of Black Lives Matter 5280’s delegation returned to Denver from North Dakota on November 14, Westword sat down with Emery-Brown and another BLM member, Angela Maxwell, to ask them about the experience and their takeaways.

They invited two members of the American Indian Movement of Colorado (AIM of CO), Sky Roosevelt-Morris and Isa Barajas de Benavidez, to join them at the interview, emphasizing that it was important to have indigenous voices at the table to keep the conversation focused on the people most affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“We get asked a lot: What does Black Lives Matter have to do with NoDAPL?” says Emery-Brown, referring to the acronym used by those in opposition to the pipeline.

“For us, the same law enforcement that’s being employed to brutalize sovereign [indigenous] nations is simply an extension of the forces being used to brutalize and terrorize [black] communities,"
he continues. "We do not believe that the history of stolen lands is separated from the history of stolen labor, so while we’re not centered in this fight, it is absolutely something we are proud to be a part of, because our histories are intertwined.”

But even with intertwined histories, Angela Maxwell was anxious about showing the proper respect for indigenous cultures during Black Lives Matter 5280's trip to Standing Rock.

“I was concerned going up there,” she remembers. “We wanted to make sure that people saw us coming and we were not trying to take center stage or put ourselves on a platform, but instead to serve. And if that meant working in a kitchen or cutting firewood or whatever, then we were going to do that. I was also concerned that there are traditional things that — because it’s not my culture — I didn’t know about. And I didn’t want to give offense unintentionally.”

To address these concerns, BLM 5280 consulted beforehand with members of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, who gave some helpful pointers, such as bringing skirts for women to wear at all ceremonies – and noting that it would be okay to wear the skirts over jeans during frigid cold weather.

AIM of CO also helped Black Lives Matter 5280 prepare a list of supplies, which filled an entire van with camping gear and food. “Whatever we could, we left there,” adds Emery-Brown.

As the Standing Rock camp faces the winter months, survival gear has become critical. Barajas de Benavidez stresses that, at this point, donations of food are not most important; those who want to help should concentrate on donating cash, or pooling together money for larger items like canvas tents, yurts, boats, generators and solar panels.

“It’s big donations that are really needed,” she emphasizes.

Some of this was news to the Black Lives Matter 5280 delegation. “If there was something that we didn’t know, people were very quick to explain it to us,” Maxwell says. “They were gracious even though we are so different.”

The feeling of solidarity was only reinforced when the BLM 5280 delegation arrived at the Standing Rock camp early on the morning of November 5.

“We came over a hill and we saw the camp spread out, with the sun just coming up, and it was just this picture of awe, bringing you into the reality of where you are and what you’re fighting for,” recalls Maxwell.

AIM of CO's Barajas de Benavidez and Roosevelt-Morris from AIM of CO have also been to the camp and agree with Maxwell that it’s a sight to behold.

“When you go into the camp, you see hundreds of flags,” explains Barajas de Benavidez “And they’re not just from what we call the United States; they’re from all over the world.... Just to see the diversity of the support amongst indigenous peoples — along with the support of those from different backgrounds — is incredibly powerful.”

“To me, that speaks to the level of resiliency of indigenous and all oppressed peoples,” Roosevelt-Morris adds. “Like our relatives in Black Lives Matter, we’re not putting up with it anymore. And as many differences as we may have, the similarities are what are really important.”

But not everyone at Standing Rock goes in with the same concerns about respecting indigenous culture as do Denver’s delegation of Black Lives Matter. In fact, one of the ways that BLM 5280 was asked to assist at the camp was by teaching newcomers how to participate in ways that were helpful, not hurtful, to the cause.

“One of the first things we heard was the frustration toward people who came as if this was a festival,” Emery-Brown says. “This is not a party. This is not a place where you go only because you want to say, ‘I was there.’ And you damn sure better not go to Standing Rock wearing feathers. You don’t go in a costume. You don’t go to set up your Burning Man tent. If that’s what you’re going for — to put on makeup and dance and throw a rave — then please stay home."

Unfortunately, not enough of those individuals stay home, says Maxwell. At other times, participants are simply unaware that their actions might produce negative consequences.

Maxwell gives the example of one young white woman who, during a prayer ceremony, noticed a remote-controlled drone flying overhead and decided to gather rocks to throw at it and bring it down. The problem, of course, was that even if she hit the drone, the machine and the rock would fall right on top of those gathered in prayer.

“And in the media, it also would have been reported that indigenous people are attacking government property,” says Maxwell, voicing skepticism that such an incident would be framed correctly — that a non-indigenous participant had committed the act.

The BLM 5280 delegation understands that the messaging around Standing Rock is extremely sensitive. According to Maxwell and Emery-Brown, those who are gathered there even avoid using the word “protest.”

“Everything that is done is about ceremony,” Maxwell says. “The acts of protection are prayer acts.”

Such acts include the 200-person caravan Emery-Brown was part of when he witnessed the violent truck driver. Even though numerous videos and photographs were captured of the encounter, the driver has not been charged with any crimes or misdemeanors.

Barajas de Benavidez points out the hypocrisy of not charging the man when, just weeks earlier, on October 27, a Denver resident and female member of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, Red Fawn Fallis, was arrested near Standing Rock on charges of attempted murder when she was accused of firing three shots at law enforcement officers.

“They have our sister Red Fawn in custody with no evidence, no video or pictures,” says Barajas de Benavidez.

Multiple witnesses, as well as the family of Red Fawn, have asserted Red Fawn's innocence, though charges against her remain.

Because BLM 5280’s trip coincided with the presidential election, one of the most intense experiences for Emery-Brown was being at Standing Rock as the voting results became known.

Normally, Emery-Brown says, he wouldn’t have followed the election until he returned from the trip; cellular service at Standing Rock is almost nonexistent, except for a specific hill that some jokingly refer to as the “Facebook Camp.”

But Emery-Brown couldn’t resist checking vote tallies for a personal reason: He was the principal organizer behind the “Yes on T” campaign in Colorado, which aimed to remove nineteenth-century language in Colorado’s constitution that still allows for slavery as a form of punishment.

On the morning of November 9, Emery-Brown hiked to the precipice of “Facebook Camp” to learn the outcome of his campaign.

“And to see that people had purposely voted to continue slavery in Colorado….that hurt me in ways I didn’t know I could be hurt,” he recalls. “The campaign is something that was close to my heart, as a step toward freeing my people. It’s a different type of pain to know that your country and your state and community are founded on racist principles. But to be reminded of that so publicly, as we have time and time again, to know that people, when presented with the choice to vote for slavery or against slavery, would make the choice to continue it in 2016…it would make sense why overt racism isn’t a deal-breaker for choosing a presidential candidate.”

When Westword asks Emery-Brown whether the language of Amendment T may have confused voters, as some have suggested, he says he's skeptical.

“I’ve heard that analysis. But I think it’s rare that ballot language isn’t confusing,” Emery-Brown says. “I know that for folks who are interested in being informed, blue books go out in Colorado. I know that in the age of the Internet, there’s ready access. But I also know that not everyone does that and researches every proposal… I have no doubt that some would have voted differently had they known. But is it true for [a margin] of [15,000] people? I doubt that heavily."

For Emery-Brown and the others with Black Lives Matter 5280, going to Standing Rock was both invigorating and a reminder of related struggles that they can support. Since returning to Denver, the organization has continued to back opposition against the Dakota Access Pipeline by highlighting local demonstrations – such as a picketing line that formed outside a “Pipeline Conference” hosted by the DAPL contractors at the University of Denver on November 15.

Maxwell says that Black Lives Matter 5280 is also planning to send more of its individual members (with supplies) to Standing Rock in the coming months. The group hopes that more attention will be paid to Standing Rock now that the election is over.

“I understand that we had a crazy election, but this right here is of equal importance to our country, to the world, and to who we want to be as human beings,” says Emery-Brown. "This should be front-page news."

And to help ensure that happens, Black Lives Matter 5280 pledges to remain a vocal presence in Denver and beyond.

“When we take the streets and disrupt traffic, when we disrupt conferences, and at that point, all of a sudden, people want to come to the table — if that’s the order in which we need to move things, then we will continue to disrupt finances,” Emery-Brown says. “Sovereignty over our lands, our bodies and our children’s futures is more important than any amount of money."
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker