By VINNY GROSSMAN
On Monday, June 15, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s (ACP) permit to build an $8 billion, 600-mile gas pipeline through mountainous forests held by the federal government. The same day, a far-right militia member “protecting” the statue of Juan de Oñate shot an unarmed protester in Albuquerque, New Mexico. These two incidents, happening almost simultaneously 1880 miles apart, illustrate the fact that colonization, displacement, and genocide of Indigenous people remain at the heart of the U.S. capitalist project and its state.
The pipeline, which would extend from West Virginia, through Virginia, to central North Carolina, poses a risk to residents in its path, many of whom are Black or Indigenous people. It would also cross environmentally sensitive forests and public parkland, including the Appalachian Trail.
One question posed to the Supreme Court, in overturning an earlier decision by a lower court, concerned which agency of the federal government had the right to allow ACP to build a pipeline through the land. The justices in their majority opinion argued that the Mineral Leasing Act authorized the United States Forest Services to issue a permit for the pipeline construction.
The pipeline route would have a particularly damaging impact on Native Americans, including members of the Meherrin, Haliwa-Saponi, Coharie, and Lumbee tribes in North Carolina. Native people make up over 13 percent of the population living within a mile of the proposed pipeline route, although they are only 1.2 percent of North Carolina’s population overall.
“Legal” aggression against Indigenous people in history
Native Americans and students of U.S. history will immediately recognize the continuity between this decision and so many other horrid acts of aggression against Indigenous people.
No federal department should have the right to determine what happens with the land in question. While U.S. law saw western Virginia (including what is now the state of West Virginia) and North Carolina as an unoccupied “hunting ground” when they were incorporated into the union, there were many Native Americans already living there, including people from the Shawnee, Lenni Lenape, Susquehanna, Conoy, Cherokee, and other nations and tribes.
The U.S. government employed various “legal” methods to evict the Indigenous occupants off their lands, including the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the so-called “treaty” between the U.S. government and the Shawnee people of 1832, the illegal Treaty of New Echota of 1835, and culminating in the act of ethnic cleansing known as the Trail of Tears in 1837-1839. The whole process was backed by the bayonets of the U.S. military and supportive vigilantes.
Since this time, a body of legislation has developed which serves to legitimize the continuous exploitation of Indigenous people and their land while granting some communities formal independence from the colonizing nation. One of the most infamous of these laws is the Mineral Leasing Act, which has been used to justify everything from strip mining for coal, dumping nuclear waste, and building pipelines in and on culturally important and even sacred land. These laws are part of a process of destroying Indigenous history and culture while also poisoning the land and people in the present.
Monday’s Supreme Court decision also shows that the liberal talking point on voting for bourgeois Democrats in order to “stack the Supreme Court” is absolutely meaningless. As the recent LGBTQIA+ ruling showed in the opposite sense, Supreme Court decisions reflect the balance of class forces and social movements.
While the queer rights decision demonstrated that the Court justices, despite their ideological or party allegiances, can be swayed when people are in the streets demanding democratic rights, the pipeline ruling shows the same from the opposite direction. The ruling was 7-2, with “progressive” darlings Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer supporting the billion-dollar act of destruction. The ruling class is fairly willing to make non-economic concessions if necessary, but when major capitalist economic interests are at stake, it does not feel obliged to weaken its ability to destroy the environment and Indigenous communities at a whim.
Armed right-wing vigilantes mobilize
In line with the reactionary ruling of the Supreme Court, right-wing vigilante groups have come into the streets during the past few days, claiming the need to “protect” statues of men who oppressed Indigenous people in history. In Philadelphia, for example, a mob of white men (including members of the Proud Boys), armed with baseball bats, a rifle, and other weapons, surrounded a Christopher Columbus statue in a public park for several days in order to “guard” it. When the goons physically attacked several non-violent Black Lives Matter demonstrators, the police merely stood by and cheered them on.
Activists in the Albuquerque, N.M., area report that the right-wing militia group New Mexico Civil Guard has been showing up armed at demonstrations in recent days. New Mexico, which is number one in fatal police shootings, serves as a training ground for armed white supremacist paramilitaries who often work with local and state governments to terrorize immigrants, police the U.S.-Mexico border, and victimize Native Americans.
These armed counter-demonstrations reached a peak Monday when Steven Baca, son of a New Mexican sheriff, shot an unarmed demonstrator. Baca was “protecting” the statue of Juan de Oñate, a conquistador known for his brutality against Indigenous people. Local police are reported to have referred to Baca and the other New Mexico Civil Guard members as “armed friendlies” and to regularly fraternize with them at protests.
Nick Estes, author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance and militant with the revolutionary group The Red Nation, described the situation in a Facebook post: “[New Mexico Civil Guard] came to Gallup at the invitation of white business owners hoping to shoot some Indians. They came to our office hoping to shoot some Indians. They’ve threatened journalists. All while working hand-in-hand with the cops. What was Mayor Tim Keller’s response to all this? Support and increase the budget of the [Albuquerque Police Department]. A man nearly lost his life tonight because some fascists and their buddy Steven Baca, who cried around for his dad who was a sheriff, decided a fucking statue of a murderer, a rapist, and a mutilator had more sanctity than actual Black and Indigenous lives.
“Had people not defended themselves against these fascists, surely more would have gotten hurt or possibly killed. This city has blood on its hands; its bloody children of empire are the reincarnation of Oñate and the terror he brought. We know where we stand. It’s not just the armed fascists, it’s everyone, the politicians and the police, who enabled them. Enough. I saw people run into a spray of bullets determined to protect people. Strong hearts to the front. Stay safe and blessed. Organize. Love each other. Check in. We’re still going to be taking the streets.”
In a ringing endorsement of the strength of the mass movement, on Tuesday, June 17, the city of Albuquerque took down the statue of Oñate.
The experience of the last three weeks’ uprising following the murder of George Floyd, as well as the whole history of Indigenous struggle against colonization, show that the only way forward against racist vigilantism, environmental destruction, and ongoing ethnic cleansing is to deepen the mass movements and to make a clean break with the parties of capital.
At the same time, the movement needs to take the path of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, including hundreds of thousands in the streets and on reservations standing for self-determination for Indigenous people and an end to the colonial policies of U.S. imperialism. The only group capable of directing such a fight is that of the Indigenous communities themselves. Going forward, the only class capable of taking the combined struggle all the way to a decisive victory is the international working class, in all of its diversity.