Op-Ed: Bill McKibben: Hillary Clinton needs to take a stand on the Dakota Access Pipeline

Bill Left Hand, of McLaughlin, South Dakota, stands next to a sign at the site of an Aug. 12 protest against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
(Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via Associated Press)

The argument that wary progressives should fall in line behind Hillary Clinton boils down to two points. First: Donald Trump is terrible. Second: The Democratic platform is great, and maybe there’s a chance she’ll pay attention to it.

So far argument No. 1 is holding. Every red-faced bullying speech that Trump gives makes clearer our national peril. But argument No. 2 is weakening with each day that Clinton stays silent about the drama unfolding on the high prairie, where native Americans are bravely resisting the further destruction of their water and land.

At the Standing Rock Sioux reservation straddling the border between North and South Dakota, the Army Corps of Engineers seems poised to give final permission to run a pipeline under the Missouri River, a pipeline that would carry oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. It was originally supposed to cross the river near Bismarck, but as officials pointed out, a spill there would imperil the water supply for the state capital. So now it will imperil the water supply for one of the nation’s poorest census districts, the Sioux reservation.


When native protesters tried to get in the way, the company sicced guard dogs on them...And not a peep from the woman who would be president.

Worse yet, digging the pipeline corridor requires destroying Sioux burial grounds and sacred sites. In fact, last week, hours after the tribe had supplied a federal court with a list of those sites, the company building the pipeline brought in bulldozers and did its best to obliterate them. (Some speculate that it used the court list as a roadmap.) And when native protesters — or protectors, as they’ve styled themselves — tried to get in the way, the company sicced guard dogs on them. The photos are dead ringers for Birmingham, 1963.

And not a peep from the woman who would be president. (Well, one of the women. The other, Green party candidate Jill Stein, showed up to meet with the tribes and back their fight). This despite the fact that the Democratic platform devotes more space to protecting Native American rights than any single other issue. The section was written by a Bernie Sanders appointee, veteran tribal campaigner Deborah Parker, but it was approved unanimously and without debate by every single member of team Clinton, who were in constant contact with their campaign headquarters.

It begins by saying “We have a profound moral and legal responsibility to the Indian tribes — throughout our history we have failed to live up to that trust.” It insists, “As Democrats, we will constantly seek to ensure that American Indian communities are safe, healthy, educated, innovative, and prosperous.” It recognizes the “right of all tribes to protect their lands, air, and waters.” It adds with apparent sincerity that “we will manage for tribal sacred places, and empower tribes to maintain and pass on traditional religious beliefs, languages, and social practices.”

Each of those statements is made laughable by what’s happening right now with the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s the next chapter in a very old story — 500 years of broken promises. Clinton can’t stop it — but she can speak out, and if she did so perhaps the Obama administration and the Army Corps would wake up and realize that it’s 2016, not 1840.

She could even do it without damaging her electoral prospects — every map of the November election shows that the Dakotas are solid red, so there’s nothing to lose.


Except, perhaps, the largesse of the fossil fuel industry. The Wall Street Journal yesterday said Clinton had taken more money from the oil and gas barons than Trump so far this cycle. And then there are the banks: A recent analysis by the group Food and Water Watch showed that many of the nation’s biggest financiers are backing the companies building the pipeline. J.P. Morgan. Goldman Sachs. The people who’ve built Clinton’s campaign war chest and her personal fortune are the same people who paid for the dogs that bit young native Americans last week.

It’s clear that Clinton would like to run out the clock on this election; she figures that Trump’s obvious incompetence will guarantee her victory. But sometimes things happen. The fight at Standing Rock is a big damned thing. It’s a Flint-in-the-making, and it’s also a chance to for once do right by the continent’s oldest inhabitants. Surely Hillary Clinton can rise to the occasion. Can’t she?

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont, and founder of the global climate campaign

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