The most successful action for justice in 2016 was the Water Protector movement to resist an oil pipeline impacting Sioux territory in North Dakota.
For supporting this movement, the Water Protector Legal Collective is among the Lawyers We Love™.
Energy Transfer Partners announced in January that it had acquired a permit from North Dakota to build the last leg of the 1000-mile Dakota Access pipeline.
But in late July, when the Army Corps of Engineers granted underwater easements to the company, the Standing Rock Sioux went to court.
One of those easements would allow oil from fracking operations to flow under Lake Oahe, a site of ancestral and cultural significance to the Sioux, in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act.
The Sioux complaint against the Army Corps of Engineers coincided with another form of protest. People from around the country started traveling to Standing Rock to block the pipeline with their bodies.
The United Nations piped in:
For indigenous peoples, the environment is a living entity that contains our life sources as well as our sacred sites and heritage. The environment is an important part of our lives and any threats to it impacts our families, ancestors and future generations. It is therefore imperative that the United States respects and recognizes the intrinsic, inter-related rights of Sioux and their spiritual traditions, history, philosophy, and especially their rights to their lands and territories.
At last count, nearly 10,000 people were encamped at Standing Rock, ready to fight off construction crews, the company’s security forces, and the local sheriff.
Fed up federal officials ordered the camp shut down by December 5th.
But when 2,000 U.S. military veterans arrived on December 4th to protect the Water Protectors, the Corps of Engineers suddenly reversed course and denied the easements under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, pending environmental impact studies.
Throughout it all, the Water Protector Legal Collective stood in the breach.
When peaceful protestors were arrested on nonsense charges, WPLC represented them at bond hearings and bailed them out.
When militarized police attacked protestors with dogs, rubber bullets, chemical agents and water cannons in freezing weather, WPLC sued for excessive force and made them stop.
Crucially, WPLC corralled and focused the legal profession — indigenous and other lawyers from around the country, the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, the Civil Liberties Defense Center and many others — on behalf of the protesters.
The first ten of nearly 600 arrested protestors went to trial this week.
While most have a right to public defenders, the state of North Dakota is denying them because WPLC and other organizations are raising funds to support them.
There is no word yet on the next stage of these cases, but the defendants need all the support they can get.
The fight isn’t over by a long stretch, especially with the incoming U.S. president’s perspective on climate change and ties to the energy industry.
So let’s hope the Water Protector model of peaceful and effective resistance continues, grows, and spreads to other justice movements here and around the world.
Let’s also hope lawyers continue to uphold people who put their bodies on the line for justice, as WPLC did at Standing Rock.