State Power and Terror: From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock

The showdown at Standing Rock is a long way from being resolved.  The battle began over the re-routing of a $3.6 billion crude oil pipeline from near Bismarck, ND, to just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation.  The re-routing was intended to protect the property values of the predominately white populace in the state’s capital.

The pipeline is being built by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to transport oil 1,200 miles east, from North Dakota’s Bakken field to a refinery in central Illinois.  The Sioux and other Native people fighting the pipeline argue that it will disturb sacred lands and burial grounds as well as harm the Missouri River, which provides the tribe’s drinking water.

Pitched battles between “water protectors” and corporate enforcers, including local police, national guards-people and hired thugs, have taken place over the last few months and will likely continue.  As bitter winter weather descends of Standing Rock, tensions will rise.  The arrival of some 2,000 veterans to serve the protectors as “human shields” illustrates the deepening conditions. The Army Corp. of Engineers’ ruling puts a temporary halt to the construction.  More troubling, Donald Trump’s inauguration as president on January 20, 2017, promises to make a difficult situation worse.

One confusing factor in the ongoing struggle is Trump’s financial interests in ETP.

Bloomberg reports that the president-elect “owned between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock in Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners. That’s down from between $500,000 and $1 million a year earlier.”  It also notes that he “owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in Phillips 66, which has a one-quarter share of Dakota Access.”

Compounding this problem is the fact that Kelcy Warren, ETP’s CEO, donated $103,000 to Trump’s campaign as well as $66,800 to the Republican National Committee.  The contribution was made, as the Guardian reports, “after the property developer secured the GOP’s presidential nomination.”

One can only envision a worst-case showdown at Standing Rock once Trump and his yet-to-be-named Secretary of Interior take state power.  Among those rumored to be on Trump’s shortlist for Interior Secretary are Mary Fallin, governor of Oklahoma; Sarah Palin, former VP candidate and governor of Alaska; and Forrest Lucas, co-founder of Lucas Oil.  Each is a carbon-industry stalwart, questions the science of global warming and have expressed little support for the interest of America’s Native people.

The battle at Standing Rock is but the latest in a long, sad history of the use of terror to enforce corporate authority.  The use of terror takes one of two forms.  One involves “passive” state involvement in which local activists, often racists, terrorize those challenging custom or property relations.  The other involves “active” state involvement in which local, state or federal law-enforcement forces are deployed to suppress acts of popular resistance.

The final showdown at Standing Rock might be Trump’s first test as a democratically-elect tyrant.  It could serve as a symbolic act of power like the fake deal struck with Carrier air-conditioner – a subsidiary for United Technologies, a military contractor — to “save” working-class jobs by essentially paying the company to not relocate to Mexico for the time being.  Sadly, Trump’s need to show his macho power might lead to the arrest and killing of many Native water protectors.


Only about 300 miles separate Standing Rock, ND, and Wounded Knee, SD.  But 40 years ago, another battle broke out between Sioux activists and the U.S. government, this battle involved a 71-day siege and armed conflict.  On February 27, 1973, some 200 Oglala Lakota activists and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) took control of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge reservation, and began a battle with the FBI and National Guard considered the longest “civil disorder” in U.S. history.  The 1973 showdown recalled the more tragic Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 when the U.S. Seventh Cavalry slaughtered 300 Sioux warriors who refused to disarm.

Wounded Knee was one of the poorest communities in the United States and shared with the other Pine Ridge settlements some of the country’s lowest rates of life expectancy.  In the 1973 showdown, two Native activists were killed and a federal agent was shot and paralyzed.  On May 8th, AIM ended the occupation after federal officials promised to investigate their complaints.  However, two AIM leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, were arrested, but the charges against them were ultimately dismissed.

The standoff at Wounded Knee was but one action undertaking by Native activists.

From November 1969 to June 1971, AIM members occupied Alcatraz Island off San Francisco. In November 1972, AIM members occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., to protest programs controlling reservation development.  After the standoff ended, violence continued on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  In 1975, two FBI agents and a Native man were killed in a shoot-out and, in the trial that followed, AIM member Leonard Peltier was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.  He remains in federal prison to this day.

Some 500 miles south and six decades earlier, in the spring of 1914, a bitter showdown took place in Ludlow, CO, between coal miners trying to organize with the United Mine Workers of American and old-line capitalists fighting unionization.  On April 20th, private guards of the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency attacked striking workers at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, killing 18 men, women and children. The standoff became known as the Ludlow Massacre – and the Rockefellers owned the mine and JDR, Jr., was on the board.

New Yorkers from nearly all segments of the left, including socialists and anarchists, mobilized to express their outrage over the “massacre.”  Mass rallies took place in Union Square, drawing thousands, with the anarchist Alexander Berkman often a principle speaker.  Though JDR, Jr., had largely given up daily involvement in his father’s businesses, he became the target of their political rage, for Ludlow and for the miserable working and living conditions experienced by New York City’s laboring poor.

On the morning of Independence Day, July 4th, 1914, an explosion shattered the side of a New York tenement building at 1626 Lexington Avenue at 103rd Street.  Local residents were showered by shattered window glass, brick fragments, cracked piping and splintered wood.  The explosion came from an apartment that was home to a group of anarchists and the bodies of three of them, Charles Berg, Arthur Caron and Carl Hanson, were found amidst the rubble.

The police determined that a cache of Russian nitroglycerine had detonated.  The press reported that is was the largest dynamite explosion in the city’s history and the intended target was John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  For most of his life, JDR, Jr., lived in the shadow of JDR, Sr., and his vast corporate enterprises and fortune.  By ’14, he was a respected philanthropist who helped establish the family foundation and other public institutions.

On March 6, 1970, a blast exploded in the sub-basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse at 18 West 11th Street, reducing the building to rubble and triggered a six-hour fire.  The explosion was due to the premature detonation of a bomb to be used the Weather Underground in a planned attack on a U.S. servicemen’s party at Fort Dix, NJ.

Unpopular U.S. foreign military campaigns have long precipitated domestic political battles.  Not unlike the WW-I era that culminated in the Palmer Raids, the drawn-out war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia – 1956 to 1975 — occurred during a period of domestic social strife.  It was a historical moment fueled by assassinations, mass civil rights protests, urban riots, the counterculture, political terrorism and FBI and police agent provocateurs infiltration of radical groups.  Social unrest also included the Weathermen’s attacks on the U.S. Congress in 1971 as well as numerous assassinations of public figures including Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The Report of the Presidents Commission on Campus Unrest (i.e., the 1970 Scanton Commission report) claims that between January 1, 1969, and April 15, 1970, there were 8,200 bombings, attempted bombings and bomb threats attributed to “campus disturbances and student unrest.”  Most revealing, the report only tangentially considers the Weatherman, but fails to mention other political groups of the era like the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation), Black Liberation Army and the Jewish Defense League.

Confrontations between member of the BPP and SLA and the FBI and local law officers during this tumultuous period are representative of the state’s use of political violence to put down perceived threats.  The first involved Black Panther Party members in Chicago and Los Angeles in December 1969.  In Chicago, local police and FBI agents raided an apartment at 2337 W. Monroe St. at about 4:45 am and killed two leading Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.  Police were reported to have fired 82 to 99 shots, but only one shot was fired by the Panthers.   A few days later in Los Angeles, some 200 police and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) officers used a dubious warrant to raid the Panther’s headquarters at 41st and Central Ave.  The events of December grew out of a series of confrontations that started in January between the Panthers and a group known as Us that worked with the FBI’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence) program; in January, two Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, were shot to death at UCLA by Us members.

The showdown with the SLA took place in 1974 and is remembered today, if at all, because the group kidnapped Patty Hearst and turned her into what she called an “urban guerrilla.”  Their first acts of political terror involved the murder of the black Oakland school superintendent, Marcus Foster.  It was followed by the Hearst kidnapping and the robbery of a San Francisco bank.  These acts were followed by a bungled shoplifting effort at a Los Angeles sporting goods store and Hearst, who was sitting outside in the get-away car, shot 27 rounds into the storefront to pull-off the getaway.

The police tracked the group to Compton and a gun battle took place that was broadcast live on TV.  Finally, the police set the house on fire with gas canisters and six SLA members were killed.  A couple of months later, four surviving SLA members held up a bank in Carmichael, CA, killing a bystander.  In September ’74, Hearst and three other SLA members were arrested in San Francisco.  While the other SLA members got long prison sentence, Hearst, a child of the 1 percent, served only 22 months before receiving a pardon from Pres. Jimmy Carter


As of early December, the showdown at Standing Rock has turned into a stalemate.  The Native water protectors and their allies are reported to be pleased with the Army’s decision; Energy Transfer Partners has vowed to press-on and complete the pipeline.

Trump’s inauguration may ultimately determine the fate of Standing Rock and the pipeline.  Like his gesture involving Carrier that appears to fulfill a campaign promise, he may feel the needs to take a tough stand against “illegal” protesters in North Dakota to show that he’s a macho leader.  But he’s also wiggled on some campaign statements, most notably about the prosecution of Hillary Clinton and the vast round-up of undocumented aliens.

Let’s hope for a meaningful, non-violent resolution to Standing Rock otherwise a bloody confrontation will likely result and we all know who will be the big losers.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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