I get it. There’s so much happening in our country and our world, so many new stories and crises and controversies, so much we’re challenged to care about or respond to. For reasons of practicality, of focus on our own lives and loved ones, and even of self-care, it’s both impossible and unproductive to be impassioned about all of it, all of the time. And for the students and community at Fitchburg State University, the events and protests at North Dakota’s Standing Rock reservation, while clearly and frustratingly awful, can seem like a good example of a situation that’s just too far from us to sustain such passionate engagement.
I get it, but I disagree. Here are five reasons we should all care about Standing Rock:
- Empathy: As I wrote in this recent piece, the ability to empathize with those fellow Americans dealing with situations that do not directly affect us is not only a human ideal toward which we should all work—it’s a crucial way to resist the most divisive and destructive forces at work in our society. Empathy is also a first step toward better understanding and engaging with the stories and histories unfolding all around us—and in so doing often realizing that, as my other four items will argue is certainly the case for Standing Rock, those stories and histories in fact do affect us far more than we might otherwise recognize.
- Corporations and people: The two sides in the Standing Rock protests don’t quite break down so easily, of course; the pipeline company employs construction workers, and even the hired guns attacking protesters with hoses and dogs are people (if people whose actions we can and should condemn). But the overall issue at stake does boil down to how we collectively weigh the rights of a community—to their homeland, to their spiritual practices, to clean water, to have their voices heard—against those of a multinational corporation and its interests. In a world increasingly dominated by global multinational corporations, the answer to that question—and it’s not always as straightforward as I believe it is in Standing Rock, but we can know our fundamental answer nonetheless—will and already does affect us all.
- Water: There are few human needs as basic and unchangeable as our need for clean, potable water. I imagine most Americans take that resource entirely for granted, as I will admit I do most days. Yet the city of Flint, Michigan has been without such water for years, and if the pipeline goes through, Standing Rock will very likely face a similar fate. One urban and one rural community, linked by threats to their water systems and thus to their survival. If Congress and the new presidential administration go forward with their dismantling of environmental protections and regulations, we might all soon have to grapple with what it means to lose access to clean water. Perhaps we just find for the communities already facing that struggle, just as we will add need help in our battles to come.
- Resistance: As we have seen illustrated many times in the last month, one of our most cherished American methods for conducting such communal battles is through organized resistance. Yet as the Standing Rock protesters sought to exercise that same right to resist through peaceable gathering, they were both brutally attacked and arrested, again and again. Marchers in big cities, at the center of media coverage and surrounded by tens of thousands of supporters, might feel safe from such violence. Yet as I write this piece, the Arizona State Senate has approved a bill that would turn protesting into the equivalent of criminal racketeering, one of the worst offenses with which someone can be charged. To support the Standing Rock activists in their right to protest is to support all of us in the same right, one which we cannot assume will endure without a fight.
- Exclusion and inclusion: Finally, there’s the broadest and perhaps most crucial question of how we define “American.” As this wonderful video featuring John Cena (!) demonstrates, collective images of the “average American” are often far different from the identities that make up our national community. And that divergence can make it far more difficult to care about what happens to those people and communities too many of us define as outside the mainstream. If we think of Native Americans, that is, as somehow less “American” than Donald Trump for example, we can find it easier to ignore or minimize their struggles and stories. Such exclusionary definitions of America, ones that depend on who’s outside as much as who’s in, have been with us from whatever origin point you choose. But so too have inclusive visions, definitions that see us all as sharing this place and identity, struggling together to figure out what that means and where we go from here. Je suis Standing Rock, to coin a phrase.
In the last couple days, the main Standing Rock protests have apparently ended. But we can’t and shouldn’t forget all that has transpired there nor stop caring about all that continues to unfold: for the sake of all those involved, for the future of the community and pipeline and environment, and for these five vital reasons as well.
Ben Railton is Professor of English Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at FSU. He is the author of four books (most recently History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism) and writes the daily AmericanStudier blog (http://americanstudier.blogspot.com). And he would love to chat more with any and all FSU students, by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or in his office (Miller Hall 102A)!