A medic walked around the circle of 50 people occupying the lobby of the Department of the Interior, squirting water into our eager mouths before the police hauled us away. At the time, I had no idea that I wouldn’t be released until midnight, 12.5 hours after the action began. I just knew it was smart to stay hydrated, so I accepted every squirt of water offered, grateful for the care our Indigenous-led group was showing each other in circumstances designed to dehumanize us.
The Oct. 14 action occurred during the People vs. Fossil Fuels mobilization in Washington, D.C., a historic week of civil disobedience to pressure President Joe Biden to stop fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency. For Indigenous people, the protection of Mother Earth is deeply intertwined with the long struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, as destructive fossil fuel projects — like Line 3 in northern Minnesota — continue to be built through their territories without their consent.
Asserting that “Another world is possible,” they went to the Department of the Interior, home to the regressive Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was last occupied by Indigenous people about 50 years ago. While the media emphasized the conflict that ensued, one aspect went overlooked: how we water protectors treated each other during the tense hours of the action and arrest, illustrating the more caring world that Indigenous leaders say is possible.
Eleven Indigenous leaders from diverse territories entered first and sat in a row in the lobby, their hands linked together with plastic ties and duct tape. When a wave of approximately 45 more people joined them, we formed a large circle, holding hands, as someone swiftly linked each of our wrists to our neighbors’ with thin plastic ties. We quickly learned to adjust our hands to keep each other comfortable, moving in sync when someone needed to change position or scratch a nose.
In the middle of the circle was a bowl of burning sage, an herb used for purification. At the Line 3 resistance camp — where I spent three weeks this summer — sage was brought to each person, who then put out their hands to invite the smoke toward them, especially before actions and ceremonies. It was one of many expressions of care stemming from Indigenous understandings of interconnection. In the cavernous Department of Interior lobby, someone carried the sage clockwise around the circle, and we took turns breathing in the sweet, calming smell.
I was especially grateful for this centering practice as uniformed men congregated at the edge of the lobby, the yellow DHS on their dark uniforms indicating they were from the Department of Homeland Security. Indigenous leaders took turns leading chants like “Stop Line 3!” which reverberated between the hard marble floor and the high ornate ceiling. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Deb Haaland over!” they called, referring to the current head of the Department of the Interior — and the first Indigenous person to hold the position. We later heard she was out of town.
When a much older woman joined us in the lobby, a young Indigenous woman yelled for those in uniform to get the elder a chair, which they eventually did after others picked up the chant. Our ages spanned at least five decades, probably more. We also had other physical differences. The friend next to me had slid out of her wheelchair to join everyone on the floor and was nervous about whether she would be separated from her chair and medicine. As arrest grew closer, two diabetics on my side of the circle assessed whether it was safe for them to stay, not knowing when they might be able to access food or medicine. After the medic helped her test her blood sugar, the diabetic with the more severe case chose to be cut loose and leave, while the other stayed. The pain in my hip from sitting cross legged on the checkerboard marble floor was increasingly uncomfortable, but not life threatening, and not nearly as bad as what others suffered during the arrests.
DHS went first for the row of Indigenous leaders, tasing two women in long ceremonial skirts who were simply holding onto each other. One later told me that she had a finger broken in the ordeal. A baton was used on someone else. Most people, including a media photographer, were dragged away roughly, sometimes by the shoulder or by the backpack. Later, I read reports that police had also been injured in the action. If that’s true — and from experience I can attest that not everything police report is true — I suspect they threw out their own backs by not carrying people properly, which would have required helping each other. In contrast, we continued to support one another, chanting, “We see you. We love you. We will get justice for you!” each time someone was dragged away.
At one point during the arrests, an older white woman who was completely new to this kind of action leaned toward me (also a white woman) and said nervously, “I want to remain nonviolent,” expressing a common confusion about what does or doesn’t constitute violence. I explained that all of the water protectors being arrested were being nonviolent. Not one was hitting or trying to hurt the people arresting them, even in the face of police brutality. What they were doing was refusing to assist in their own arrests.
In contrast, during the actions that took place at the White House all week, the majority of the more than 600 people arrested had followed the Park Police willingly, without even being put in handcuffs. Even there, it was mostly Indigenous people who had been dragged out, illustrating both how they are routinely treated by police on the frontlines, and the fact that those experiencing the desecration of the Earth up close are also those willing to risk the most to stop it.
While there was an undeniable racial dynamic in who was dragged away — and how roughly — there was also an age dynamic. I told the older white woman, who was in her 70s, that I planned to stand up myself when the police came for me, since I had injured my back only a few weeks earlier and, at age 59, had a history of painful and expensive shoulder problems. I felt supported in making this choice, along with most of the older folks in the group.
When I was put in plastic zip-tie handcuffs, one side was tighter than I would have liked, but nothing compared to the younger people near me who screamed that their fingers were going numb as we waited in the basement garage. Some had their zip ties replaced, only to have them tightened again just before we were loaded into vans, which took us to different precincts across the city. The medic stayed with my friend in the wheelchair until she was released on site because no accessible police van was available.
After more than an hour in handcuffs, nine of us arrived at the 5th precinct, where (uncuffed) we waited another seven and a half hours with no food, phone calls or information on when we would be released. The four women in my small cell shared two narrow metal beds, stacked on top of each other with no ladder, except the metal rails of the cell door. By serendipity, my bunkmate was a young Indigenous woman new to this type of action, whom I had been told to look out for by a mutual friend arrested earlier in the leadership group.
When my bunkmate got cold, I took off the long skirt I had worn over my cargo pants, and she used it as a blanket. When my sore hip repeatedly needed a change of positions, she graciously shifted positions, too. When a person in the next cell was taken to the hospital to examine the thumbs that had turned blue from tight handcuffs, we sang to the remaining cell mate, now left alone. We also sang to reduce the awkward sound of pee hitting the metal toilet only a foot and a half away from the lower bed, and turned our heads to give each other privacy. As the hours wore on, someone named the enormous cockroach roaming between our cells “Archibald,” and told funny stories to help the time pass.
While we were kind to each other, and experienced moments of kindness from the police who held us, we glimpsed the cruelty of the system they worked for — from the hard, cold beds with no blanket or pillow to the slow inefficiency that dragged on through the night. No one offered us water, although we were brought small cups twice when we asked (which we promptly shared with those most thirsty).
When I inquired why our processing was taking so long, one policeman confessed his surprise that we hadn’t been cited and released already. He speculated that, in addition to our large numbers — 55 arrested, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network — we had occupied a federal building, which made D.C. police especially nervous in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. I asked him to explain — if he heard people make this comparison — that we were nonviolent, unarmed, and had sat in a circle in the lobby, not run around private offices, threatening to kill elected officials.
Two hours later, when we finally walked out of the precinct garage door, each with a sheet of paper announcing our January court date, there was a group waiting for us with hugs, snacks and rides back to the different places where we were staying. My hotel roommates were asleep by the time I got in at 2 a.m., but one had left a bottle of juice on my pillow, a small gesture of care that symbolized much of what I experienced during the action and among the water protectors opposing Line 3 more broadly.
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While creating an activist culture of care is not enough to force Joe Biden to use his power to stop fossil fuel infrastructure for the common good, it can help build a broad and diverse movement with that kind of power. Several non-Indigenous friends who’d been part of the Line 3 camps acknowledged that missing that community was part of what motivated them to travel, in some cases across the country, to join the mobilization in D.C. These were the same people who stayed when other actions during the week got scary, looking for ways to keep everyone safe, while many white people without deep connections left. We were reminded by Indigenous leaders that having their backs was crucial in such situations, where police violence was likely to fall disproportionately on BIPOC frontline leaders. As a movement, we still have much to learn about this.
Amid police violence and a lukewarm “we’re listening to advocates” response from the Biden administration, it can be hard to believe that “another world is possible.” But Indigenous people are pointing to their traditions, based on cooperation and care, and reminding the rest of us that it is. To move toward that world based on care, we need to continue building pressure on Biden, especially as he prepares to tell other countries to do more at the upcoming global climate discussions. We also need to carry support for frontline leaders from the sidewalk in front of the White House, back to the frontlines, where resistance continues, no matter what Washington does. And we need to notice that how we do that work is itself part of creating the world we want to bring forth.