Dear Relatives and Friends,
Let me ask permission to describe my thoughts coming out of my third trip to support the Great Sioux Nation at the Camp of the Seven Council Fires (Oceti Sakowin Camp).
Before I offer my account, I will try to introduce myself in the best way I can.
My English name of birth is Steven Fredric Bhardwaj, and my Chinese name by marriage is 潘祥辉 (Pan Xianghui). I was born in and occupied land that was lived on by the Muskogee Creek people before European settlers occupied the land by war and force. The settler name for the place of my birth is Augusta, Georgia.
My experience at Oceti Sakowin Camp (OSC) was about community. How I can help build my community, and how it gives me meaning and joy in return. From deliciously shared meals and conversations, to the glowing crowded panorama of nighttime stars -- my experience and perceptions at the camp were warmed from within and throughout by the magmatic arteries and capillaries of spiritual unity among neighbors.
I came to OSC with a lifetime of habits that mark the privilege that I have inherited. Chief among those habits, for me, is independence from my communities. I have long behaved as a "social butterfly", growing into communities only around my work -- and abandoning them like plywood concrete forms when I decide my work there is done. Except for my close family, I never found a community that I cared for enough to never decide that my work is done. However, I have never done work like the prayerful nonviolent action of OSC.
Nonviolent action includes much violence. The actors refuse to act violently, but they anticipate, proactively mitigate, and experience violent acts against them. They resist and experience the violence together as a community.
Except that one side avoids the personal injuries of being victims of violence... except that the other side avoids the moral injuries of committing violence... except for this especially gross ethical asymmetry, it is all psychologically, economically, and socially isomorphic to war.
I have read about the loyalty and emotional bonds created between and among soldiers. Armies move on their stomachs, but they cohere because of soldiers' unconditional loyalty to their close comrades. But you might be wondering, is this horrible "police violence" really that bad at Standing Rock? It's all "less-than-lethal" weapons, right?
As bad as the physical violence is, I feel that the principal weapon of violence at Standing Rock is the legal system. It goes like this: mass arrests ⇒ spurious felony and misdemeanor charges ⇒ institutional discrimination in the assignment of those charges.
Local courts drop charges against the water protectors' white allies, because making political prisoners out of privileged citizens just mobilizes more opposition to the pipeline. But they double down on excessive life-altering charges for the indigenous supporters, to break their resolve.
AyJy and I talked for hours about the risks and consequences of spurious charges that might be brought against me for different work with OSC. At the end, I was far less confident in that work than many others who were braver and more ready to sacrifice, and who furthermore would have been treated far more callously by the courts.
Spurious political felonies are like the "rape as a weapon of war" that we read about in low-income countries. Victims cannot speak out, because a publicized felony is so economically destructive to their livelihood and social life. Thus, much of this submerged iceberg of violence passes beneath community members' awareness. Spurious felonies are nasty for anyone to suffer, and combined with the discriminatory assignment of these charges, the strategy turns even more insidious.
I have talked about the feeling of joyful community I felt at Oceti Sakowin Camp. I have talked about how community solidarity energizes and grows when it faces violence. I have described aspects of this violence and of its perpetrators' strategic discrimination. I have not talked about what we might ask of ourselves in the way of allyship.
And I have no answers for that, as it just raises more personal questions for us, which I can't answer in general. I will include here some links related to allyship with the communities of the Great Sioux Nation. A link to learn, and a link to donate. My Twitter feed and Facebook wall describe my personal journey in learning about this struggle through news media. And I will offer here a perspective on allyship in general.
Thank you much for your care for me, and for your patience in reading my writing. I appreciate the time you have taken! I hope that the work you tackle in your days, and the fellowship you enjoy during your meals, may forever fill you with joy.
Steven Fredric Bhardwaj