On a brisk Friday afternoon at around a quarter to 1 pm, a group of about 30 people gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland to protest the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Some came with their children. A few carried signs that said “Water is Life.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline, which is set to be built by energy giant Energy Transfer Partners to carry crude oil extracted from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale fields to refineries in Texas, is planned to be built on lands sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and has become a flashpoint for environmental and indigenous rights activism. In addition to Standing Rock Sioux opposition, the pipeline is opposed by environmentalists because the shale oil it carries is more polluting to extract and more volatile than regular oil. Disasters such as the Lac-Megantic train explosion, which killed 47 people in Quebec in 2013, were caused by train cars carrying crude oil.
Standing Rock Sioux, as well as members of over 300 other tribes and other activists who call themselves Water Protectors, created a camp last April on the proposed pipeline site to demonstrate and block construction. The Army Corps of Engineers denied construction permits through Standing Rock Sioux land on December 5, 2016, but less than a week after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed executive actions on Tuesday to advance the pipeline’s approval as well as the Keystone XL pipeline, which carries similar crude oil extracted from shale rock from Alberta, Canada to Texas.
On Friday afternoon, Katherine Rad, the event’s organizer, was greeting people and telling them about the day’s plans. “I made an event on Facebook and thought about 20 of my friends would show up,” Rad said.
Instead, about 100 people ultimately marched from the plaza to the downtown Oakland branches of Wells Fargo and Bank of America to protest some of the 17 banks that have provided loans to Energy Transfer Partners, the company that is constructing the pipeline. According to a September, 2016, study of the pipeline’s funding by Food and Water Watch, an environmental nonprofit that studies the environmental effects of large corporations’ projects, Bank of America has loaned just over $350 million to the pipeline project, while Wells Fargo has loaned $467 million.
Rad, who is working towards a degree in health science, said she felt that Trump’s adversarial stance towards climate scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency was a catalyst for organizing the event. She said she felt that “things have gotten so crazy that it’s kind of ‘now or never.’”
At around 1:15, the crowd had grown to around 60. They gathered around Rad, who introduced speakers, some of whom had been to the Standing Rock camp on the border between North and South Dakota.
Activist Elsa Stevens spoke about her experiences at Standing Rock. “They are very respectful of the elders there. I would show up to a fireside or to a ceremony and a chair would appear. I had to climb up and down hills and people would take my arm,” she said. Stevens said that Water Protectors are currently requesting that only “able-bodied people” come to the camp to help because of the harsh winter, and spoke of injuries Water Protectors had received from police. “I helped at the medic tent,” she said. “It was like M*A*S*H—people coming in, injuries from praying on the front lines or splinters from chopping wood.”
“For us as indigenous people, this fight has been existing for 500 years and it’s not new for us when somebody like Trump comes into office,” said Navajo activist Wahleah Johns during her speech to the crowd.
“I believe that the indigenous people of our planet can bring us into sanity about the environment and our planet. We have to understand that water is far more valuable than oil,” said activist Trisha O’Malley, who carried a sign that said “Water is Life” in both English and Lakota.
The march first headed up Broadway to the Wells Fargo branch office on Franklin Street near 21st Street. Protesters chanted “Water is life!” and “When I say ‘No!’ you say DAPL! No! DAPL! No! DAPL!” Drivers honked in solidarity as they drove by and the protesters cheered in response. A few unmarked police cars and Oakland Police Department patrol cars followed the procession.
Some among the marchers complained that they were using the sidewalk and not marching in the middle of the street. Rad later said she didn’t go into the street because some protesters had brought their children and she didn’t want to make such a decision on their behalf.
When they got to the Wells Fargo branch, the doors were locked and only a security guard watching them from inside could be seen. The crowd chanted “Divest, Divest! We will not rest!” as they headed to the front door.
As they got ready to march towards their next stop, the Bank of America Financial Center on Harrison Street, a man in an Air Force jacket got out of his car and shouted at the protesters, telling them, “Get a job! You guys are just inconveniencing us!”
Frankie Valez, one of the protesters, shouted back, calling the man a “colonizer.” When Oakland North reporters tried to approach the man for a statement, two police officers blocked them and said to “move along.”
The Bank of America office was also locked by the time protesters arrived. They chanted “You cannot eat money” and—when Rad announced that the doors were shut—the crowd booed and some pushed their signs against the glass windows. Soon after, Rad spoke, thanking everyone and bringing the march to a close. People soon peacefully dispersed.
“I thought it went great. There was a lot of unity, a lot of beautiful people, and I was just really honored to be a part of it,” Rad said.
Text by Abner Hauge, photographs by Pablo De La Hoya.