Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

People vs. Fossil Fuels Protests in Washington DC

Indigenous communities are the original stewards of American soil, but their rights and treaties have been consistently violated. “Proclamations don’t erase the police surveillance of Indigenous peoples standing for our land and water” says the Indigenous Environmental Network  on October 10th as a prelude to the People vs Fossil Fuels protest in Washington DC. This historic acknowledgment of violence against Indigenous people by the state as a consequence of colonialism sadly, but not unsurprisingly, foreshadowed the violence that would ensue following the Washington DC protests that week. The violence against Indigenous demonstrators during the People vs Fossil Fuel protests of October 11-15 represent a larger pattern of unjustifiable mistreatment and genocide of Indigenous people. President Joe Biden is complacent.

“Expect Us” was spray painted outside the White House in front of an Andrew Jackson statue, the president responsible for the Trail of Tears, amidst these protests. Starting on October 11th, Indigenous Peoples Day, through October 15th, Indigenous leaders and activists protested in Washington as an act of resistance against Joe Biden’s inaction on the climate crisis. The week of protests is part of the People vs Fossil Fuels campaign, a coalition of Indigenous communities and allies demanding President Joe Biden end his complacency in the climate crisis. Their cries for Biden to take action stem from his failure to follow through on campaign promises to tackle climate change. 

The overarching theme of their demands for President Joe Biden is to “Respect Us, or Expect Us”. The list of demands includes the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), land and water back initiatives, bringing home children buried at Residential Schools, honoring pre-existing treaties, and ending the granting of new leases for oil and gas on public lands, just to name a few. Indigenous leaders have been at the forefront of the fight for climate justice and action, therefore their voices and demands should be amplified and valued by Biden if he is to follow through on his climate promises.

Despite a long history of peaceful protests by Indigenous people, protestors were met with unjustified police violence. There were collectively 530 arrests of protestors throughout the week.  Police used LRAD, a Long Range Acoustic Device, that emits a loud piercing sound as a means of crowd control on nonviolent demonstrations on Indigenous Peoples Day (the irony here of silencing their calls for justice on a day meant to celebrate and honor them is painfully obvious). In a statement released by People vs Fossil Fuels, it was said that police “acted aggressively” using tasers and batons against protestors attempting a sit-in at the Office of BIA on Thursday. Photo and video evidence depicts dozens of demonstrators peacefully sitting and holding hands as an act of civil disobedience, exercising their right to peacefully protest until they were met with unnecessary violence. 

Tribal governments have expressed that the demand to abolish the BIA and occupation of its office has been met with an abuse of power by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In an interview with Democracy Now, Siqiñiq Maupin, an Indigenous leader and climate activist who was arrested during the protests, said “the BIA was created to erase Indigenous people”, explaining their occupation as a symbol of resistance. The interviewer, Amy Goodman, recalled the historic Indigenous occupation of the BIA Office in 1970 when Indigenous activists staged a sit-in in protest against the American government breaking treaties. Maupin said protestors “wanted to make a statement that we are still here”, fighting the same fight they were 50 years ago against the genocide of the original caretakers of this land.

All week long, demonstrators chanted “Stop Line 3” and “Death to the Black Snake” in reference to the tar sands oil pipeline across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. The pipeline, funded by Canadian natural gas company Enbridge, became fully functional on October 1st, despite protests and legal opposition citing treaty violations. President Biden did not act to stop the Line 3 pipeline, perpetuating harmful consequences against Indigenous communities resulting from new pipeline projects. Allowing new pipelines fuels climate change by expanding the fossil fuel industry, which both directly and indirectly harms frontline communities.  

Demonstrators protesting pipeline construction have been consistently met with violence, from the Dakota Access Pipeline to Line 3. Furthermore, the environmental degradation caused by climate change threatens and poisons ecosystems that Indigenous communities have relied on for generations. Protestors demanded that Biden grant no more oil and gas leases to avoid further harm. 

The People vs Fossil Fuel protests effectively drew attention to the intense urgency for Biden to take decisive climate action. Indigenous calls to action echoed those that have been sounded by generations, acknowledging historical injustices and mistreatment of Indigenous climate activists. The violence against protestors this past week is emblematic of widespread ignorance regarding Indigenous issues and inattention to their calls for environmental justice. If Biden is to deliver on his campaign promises, he will have to actively mend the relationship between the state and Indigenous people. To quote the Indigenous Environmental Network’s preliminary statement regarding the protests, to President Biden: “No proclamations needed until there is justice for the original stewards of these lands”. 

Environmental Studies and Political Science major. Texas girl that loves listening to Taylor Swift on long walks.