Hello, 2017! A Pep Talk At The Edge of Extinction


The shoreline of a campsite in Standing Rock, just before winter set in. (Photo: Johnny Dangers)

What does it mean to stand at the precipice of human failure — a failure so profound that it threatens to both tear humanity into oblivion, and drag all life on earth down with us? What does hope look like, in the face of such potential disaster, and what does it look like when all available math tells us that the disasters we all fear are already underway? With Trump about to take office, so many shades and shapes of human suffering feel inevitable, and anyone who is keeping up with the math of climate change is likely, and quite understandably, discouraged. So what does hope look like, as we step into a new year?

For me, it looks like my friends, huddled around fires in Standing Rock, surviving the bitterness of a North Dakota winter so that our people may live. It looks like hundreds of nations of our people, travelling thousands of miles, and in some cases, overcoming centuries old blood feuds, to stop a pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners promised those invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline by January 1, and there won’t be. That’s what what hope looks like, to me, as I ready myself to kick nearly everything else about this year to the curb.

In some ways, Native peoples and allies who are still holding it down in Standing Rock are representative of what marginalized people are experiencing around the country. After the election, we all felt a storm setting in, and while most of us aren’t literally laboring against the elements to sustain our bodies and resistance, many of us are huddling together for warmth, contemplating what it’s going to take to survive.

As we look forward, beyond the false fixes of a waning administration, toward the uncertain road ahead, I have no illusions about how ugly things might get, but I also have hope. During the last week, I witnessed on odd sort of backlash against hope on social media. When people would speak optimistically about the new year, they would often be met with the slingshot cynicism of people who are fixed in their own pessimism. People were actually insulting the intelligence and awareness of people for naming one of the most fundamental hopes we all experience with time: That maybe this year will be better than the last.

Is a hard rain gonna fall? Absolutely. Is the planet itself at stake, with climate change hurtling toward a point of no return, and (to put it mildly) a mercurial reality TV star in office? Yes. We are staring down mass deportations, escalating state violence (on all fronts, including the violence of mass incarceration), and the absolute edge of extinction, but here’s the thing: We are still here. We are still strong and creative, and many of us come from peoples who have survived what most can’t imagine. We have each other, and in our unity, in our resistance, there is always hope.

In the not-too-distant future, the hope that real resistance brings may be the only hope that matters. And I’m not talking about the hope that comes with sharing an important article, or the hope that knowing determined people can bring. I’m talking about the hope that comes with truly joining, or continuing to throw down, with the resistance, in whatever way we’re able.

As we stand on this precipice, faced with a climatic battle for all life — and for the very idea of freedom — we shouldn’t downplay what we’re up against. But it’s equally important that we not diminish ourselves. Every moment of our lives as oppressed people, and as organizers, and every moment of struggle since first contact, when the violence of colonialism reached our shores, has led to this one, just as this moment will lead to the next. And what comes next can only be predicted, and as 2016 has shown us, predictions do not define reality.

I do understand cynicism. For years, I draped myself in pessimism and skepticism, because it was easier than having hope. Being skeptical rarely blows up in one’s face. Hope, on the other hand, can fly high, full of promise, and then spiral to the ground in flames (amid the background noise of I-told-you-so’s).

Cynicism is emotionally stagnant, and therefore, emotionally safer, but it is also self fulfilling, and rarely yields anything beautiful.

I understand being deeply pessimistic about the prospect of grassroots resistance clashing with a militarized surveillance state. And I understand being convinced, due to the staggering math of climate change, that nothing we do now matters. I recognize people’s misgivings, but I also believe that humanity’s potential isn’t restricted to its shadow side. So much is possible, and it’s okay to be in love with possibility, and to fight for that love as though the whole world depends on it — because it does.

My work is sustained by love and hope, and I understand that, for some people, hope is a significant challenge. Sometimes, it is for me as well. Giving up and just living out this life of mine, as comfortably as I can manage, is a thought that’s flashed through my mind more than once this year, and honestly, that’s never happened before. From the moment I got involved in movement work, years ago, I have never doubted what I needed to be doing with my life. But this year, pain, longing and frustration have, at times, left me kicking around the notion of some simpler happiness — even on the edge of oblivion.

But that’s not what it’s going to take for all of us to make it through what’s coming, and it’s not who I want to be in this world, in my community, at this moment in history. I want to be who I am — a person living in rebellion against what’s killing and crushing us.

I resisted my aforementioned urges to hurl myself toward some easy out, and I know many others will as well. Because while hope can be difficult, nothing will change for the better without it, and we all know in our hearts that if we are to survive, everything must change. If it doesn’t, there’s nowhere to go but down. And standing on the edge of catastrophe, I want no part of that chasm.

But here’s the good news:  Human potential runs in more than one direction. For all the complex harm we’ve caused, we remain creative. We remain defiant. What has been built by human hands can be dismantled by human hands, and there are beautiful examples, throughout history, of things we’ve built that are worth living and fighting for.

And as for what must be ended: There are failings and weaknesses embedded in the walls of this system, and as history has shown us, walls can fall down.

Hope is renewable, but if you don’t have it now, that’s okay. Just be sure to take the hand of someone who does. We can be here for each other, and together we can figure out what to hold onto, what to let go of, and what we needs to be torn apart. Together, we can figure out what to build, and how.

I won’t say I don’t find the new year daunting. I do. I have been very quick to tears lately and I can’t decide if it’s because I am mourning what I lost in 2016, or if I am somehow preemptively grieving the losses to come. Whatever it is, I know I need to vent it out before it morphs into despair — the best weapon of our enemies. And I know that, in spite of my tears, I will move forward, knowing that my hopes won’t always deliver, and that I will at times resent them for having failed me, but that they are nonetheless worth having. The truth is, hope can be a bitch, but saving ourselves, and each other, will take more determination than we could ever conjure without it.

So in these last words I write to you all, at the end of this wretched year, I want to say this:

We can make it, friends. But we aren’t going to save ourselves or the earth serendipitously. To survive, and to get free, we will have to carve out the will to believe in ourselves and in each other, and we will have to put one foot in front of the other.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t even know where to go,” that’s okay too. Just hang close to someone to who does, and eventually, you’ll find your way.

I have hope that we all will.

Yes, It’s Silly to Blame 2016, And Even Sillier to Complain About People Blaming 2016

Here’s the thing about years…

We, as human beings, like to sort things. It’s more than liking, really. We need to sort things, to order them, to think we understand events and our ever-evolving relationships with them. It is human — that need to name why we felt a thing, who made us feel it and when.

It is human to need to know when we felt was a reaction to what was, and when it became, for better or worse, part of some frustratingly non linear experience of grief and healing. Or conversely, to identify an era in which things changed for the better, or when we lived out some beautiful period of joy or transformation.

So, in 2016, we have named the year as our enemy. It honestly feels quite strange to me that there is an actual social media backlash against “blaming a damn year,” but I get it. I get all of it. I understand putting a spent calendar in a box, and leaving it by the side of the road, cursing it as you drive away, and I also get why some might find that silly. It is a little silly, but in these times, I am increasingly unabashed about the silly things that help sustain me.

No, the natural, illness-oriented and politically wicked forces that wreaked havoc in 2016 will not vanish at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but we will start a new session of sorting our troubles. We will have fresh pages to write under a new heading. Like a birthday, January 1 will mark no immediate transition, and no separation with the forces that governed the previous year, but it is nonetheless a mark of having survived — and may carry with it the hope that this particular lap around the sun might play out better than the last.

Perhaps it won’t be any better. Amid climate change, the rise of Trump and the existence of Lena Dunham, it’s possible that humanity has truly joined the dark side, and that the rebel resistance will come to no good end. But I’ve always been a little silly, and I believe in rebellions. I attach myself, unapologetically, to fantastic narratives of hope and while I am fully aware of the shadow side of human potential, I also believe in the creativity and courage of oppressed peoples. So I am holding out hope, with great discipline, on the cusp of a new year that admittedly appears ready to explode.

But whether the coming year is rigged with explosives or not, I will move forward thinking of all that we can do to save ourselves, and each other, and to create beautiful moments, unique to their parcel of time — moments that sustain us amid the rest of it.

So are we silly to blame a year? Sure. This is the internet. We say lots of silly things. I could be wrong, but I don’t think “blaming 2016” is making anyone less aware of the illnesses that have killed our faves, or the political, environmental or economic tumult we face. While awareness of those things might not be as high as we would prefer, it’s not as though we were on track to be fully aware, and were derailed by a goofy coping mechanism. Not everything can be a doom and gloom analysis. The internet has a lot of that too. I read a great deal of it. And sometimes we need a break.

We need gifs from our favorite sitcoms, memes that express our annoyance and sometimes, we need to  scapegoat an entire year. It may be absurd, but so is being human and feeling the world, such as it is. One of the reasons I cherished Carrie Fisher, who the world lost on Tuesday, was that she understood that, sometimes, you need to know how to laugh at what’s trying to kill you. I read Fisher’s novel “Postcards From the Edge” over a decade ago, as I tried to stave off the nausea of heroin withdrawal, in a Chicago psych ward. Laughing as much as I could, without becoming physically ill, while twitching, kicking and whining in my bed,  didn’t make me any less aware of my situation. It meant I was surviving it. And cursing 2016 for taking Fisher didn’t mean that I thought the calendar year, rather than cardiac arrest, had killed her. Sometimes, you just need something to shake your fist at, even if that fist shaking is nothing but the punchline of a sad joke.

Sometimes life feels like a sad joke, and there’s nothing wrong with expressing that.

As people surviving a society that’s actually destroying the planet it inhabits, I think we need to know when to allow for the absurd. In fact, I think there comes a point where critiquing the absurd becomes an even sillier act than the one being called into question. But such is the spiral of angst in a shitty year.

I blame 2016.

On Anti-Interventionist Politics and Grief for Aleppo

This is a complicated moment for many with anti-interventionist politics. Do I feel differently about US military intervention in Syria than I did when I spoke up for the first time against US involvement? No. Do I carry the weight of knowing that none of us can ever be certain of anything, and that people are dying horribly right now? Yes. I do feel that weight, and I think that’s appropriate.

Reports coming out of Aleppo indicate that the city’s remaining medical practitioners are being slaughtered — if they are not dead already — and that entire families are being executed, both in the streets and in their own homes, as others voice on social media that amid the approaching sounds of explosions, they expect to be dead soon.

Only a few years ago, I stood in front of a crowd and spoke to why I did not think we should engage, militarily, with what was happening in Syria. I remember what I said — what many of us said — and I believe it no less now as it now rings in my ears alongside the words of those facing unthinkable violence in Aleppo. I still believe it because I think we must make decisions that are guided by what we know about systems and the outcomes they bring. Millions of people are dead because of the interventionist warfare that has played out over the past two administrations. Even when named as humanitarian, US military interventions are grounded in imperialism, and we know what bloody nightmares that imperialism brings.

The severity of an atrocity does does not change the reality of our practices, with regard to intervention and endless war.

That is not to say that the world has not failed Syria. We most assuredly have. But failure takes many shapes, and I do not believe that failing to throw bombs at a complex social and political problem was one of them. But I acknowledge that many feel we should have intervened militarily on their behalf, and I feel their anger and grief deeply. I feel that I should.

But I am also painfully aware of the ways in which we did participate. Through leaked diplomatic cables, we know that the United States government not only worked to destabilize the Syrian government, with an eye toward regime change, but actively encouraged sectarianism to fuel those efforts. As Robert Naiman wrote in The WikiLeaks Files, “It was easy to predict then that, while a strategy of promoting sectarian conflict in Syria might indeed help undermine the Syrian government, it could also help destroy Syrian society.”

The CIA’s bungled efforts to affect matters on the ground — where militants armed by the Pentagon actually wound up fighting groups armed by the CIA — are an excellent reflection of how clueless the United States has been with regard to this conflict. As a country, we didn’t know how to coax a better outcome, from a military standpoint, and more firepower wouldn’t have changed that. When a country has no working strategy, no concept of how to align itself with a just and strategic outcome, adding more explosions is not a fix.

That said, I believe in assuming the weight of our positions, because some decisions are heavy, whether we’re right or wrong. And I will never assume that I am above mistakes and missteps, especially in matters affecting the safety and freedom of others. So while I hold to my beliefs today, in grief for what we are witnessing from afar, those beliefs do feel heavy in my heart and in my hands.

The story of what has happened, and what is happening in Syria is complicated, and I am definitely not best suited to tell it, but there are many, many ways in which the systems we oppose laid the groundwork for all of this, and compounded the struggles of those most impacted. So when we talk about how we failed Syria, and what we can do now — as well we should — let’s remember to dig deep and not act as though our only moments of truth are about whether or not to pull a trigger.

All of that said, I believe that as people who love justice, we have a duty to bear witness, and I will continue to do so. Social media has created a means for some people to be heard in what may be their last hours, and I will hear them. I hope many of you will do the same, and that we will echo the truth of their experiences in whatever ways we can. We must honor their truth and the truth of this moment, now and always — while doing whatever we can to help.

To all who are impacted by these atrocities, I extend my love and solidarity, for whatever it is worth in this moment.

Pipeline Lies: DAPL Not Complete in Illinois

It’s not surprising that Energy Transfer Partners would want the Dakota Access Pipeline to seem like a done deal on all fronts but the contested easement in North Dakota. But I received the following information today from a trusted source who has surveilled and documented DAPL work sites in Illinois, and confirmed that construction in Illinois is not nearly so complete as Energy Transfer Partners would like us to believe.

Active Illinois DAPL worksite near the Kaskaskia River. (Photo: Rozalina Borcila)

Communique from Rozalinda Borcila, December 9, 2016

Location: West of the town of Shobonier IL, where County Road 900 N crosses the Kaskaskia River

This is an active DAPL construction site at the crossing of the Kaskaskia River. Energy Transfer Partners obtained permits from the Army Corps of Engineers for crossing waterways though Horizontal Direct Drilling at three sites in Illinois that are under Army Corps jurisdiction. At this site, pieces of the pipe are being lined up and positioned in preparation for being pulled under the river — the staging area is just West of the location at which the pipe will be inserted under the ground. The pipe can be seen in the detail shot. All four roads accessing the site are closed. The site is heavily monitored by private security as well as plain clothed police officers in unmarked cars. In this portion of the pipeline route, we were able to see state police and well as sheriffs posted at construction access roads, offering protection and security services to Energy Transfer Partners and Precision Pipeline.

We were stopped by a convoy of 5 police vehicles (three of which were unmarked) while driving on a public county road not far from this location. The plain clothed officer who came to our car did not immediately identify himself; the first thing he showed us was his gun. He informed us we looked suspicious because in a rural area everyone knows everyone and we were in a place we weren’t supposed to be. We informed him we were on a county road; another officer notified us we had been seen earlier in the day “trespassing.” I can only assume he was referring to our activities more than 20 miles away on another stretch of the pipeline route, where we were also driving on county roads.

The entire time, we followed the construction signs of Precision PipeLine company, the contractor building the pipeline. These signs are posted publicly at intersections within a mile or so radius of many of the construction sites.

Since October, Energy Transfer Partners have repeatedly stated that construction in Illinois is mostly complete. They have been lying. At the Kaskaskia River, the pipe was not in the ground as of December 9. There are numerous sites near at which there is surface work that remains to be done: stabilizing the fill-in areas, grading and leveling. There are also active construction sites at the location of over a dozen valves (this involves setting up fencing around the valves, securing satellite connections, lights and sensor equipment without which the valves cannot be operational). Almost all of the sites we visited that were near a creek or small water crossing were still under construction, although most of these are done through the open cut method and do not require the extensive time of an HDD process.

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“This is where the site is, west of Shobonier, Illinois, along County Road 900 N where it crosses the Kaskaskia River.” – Rozalinda Borcila
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The three sites for the HDD river crossings approved by the Army Corps of Engineers for DAPL.