Climate Justice Unity March: Day 5

Wednesday, April 26, 2017 – Sully to Reasnor (10 miles)

Chap Myers

We scramble out of our tents early today for the ride to Des Moines for Donnielle Wanatee’s trial. She was arrested for trespass at Governor Branstad’s office during the February 22 Day of Action Against DAPL. Donnielle pled “not guilty” and asked for a jury trial. The judge denied her request. Nevertheless, she persists.

It’s a miserable morning. The wind and rain make it impossible for our cook, Chap Myers, to keep the stove lit. Some marchers opt for a cold breakfast. Most of us end up at the Coffee Cup Cafe across the street, grateful that it opens at 6:00. With the cumulative exertion of four days of marching, my caloric output has surged to that of a college athlete. I order the menu’s largest breakfast, which finds its way into my fuel tank faster than civilized dining standards allow.

Jon Neiderbach and Donnielle Wanatee

Today, we’re an organized, efficient group and arrive on schedule at the Polk County Justice Center. When I enter the court room, Donnielle is already testifying. She comports herself with clarity and dignity. Jon Neiderbach, an attorney who marched with us for two days, represents Donnielle pro bono.

The trial is quick and predictable. The judge praises Donnielle’s commitment to clean water but finds her guilty of trespass. She wants a jury trial, but the judge had previously cited a procedural nuance that denies her this right. With Jonathan’s help, she appeals the judge’s ruling, insisting on her right to a jury trial. I’m proud of both her and Jon. It’s a great start to the day, and we haven’t even marched a step.

By early afternoon, we’re back in Sully to begin the day’s 10-mile trek. The rain’s stopped, and we again carry the American flag at the front of the march column. Isidra and Annie lead the way, taking turns as flag-bearer.

Marchers gather in front of Lois and Irving Vander Leest’s piano lawn art

Three miles from Reasnor, we meet Lois and Irving Vander Leest. Their farm is on the path of the pipeline, and it’s here that construction equipment was torched by an arsonist last August.

The Vander Leests strongly support the pipeline. Lois assures me she’s had no trouble with either the pipeline company or the workers. I’m candid with her about my opposition, based on concerns about climate, water and the abuse of eminent domain. We concur that arson is inexcusable, and she and Irving agree to join us for dinner tonight at the United Methodist Church in Reasnor. Before we set out from the Vander Leests’ farm, we pose for a picture in front of a piano cleverly repurposed as a lawn ornament.

Marchers pause for prayer as they cross the path of the Dakota access pipeline

Two miles from Reasnor we cross the pipeline. The scar from last year’s construction is still visible. We pray. Donnielle offers tobacco. It’s a solemn moment. I think of the 570,000 barrels of oil a day that will soon move through the ground under our feet. I remind other marchers that, despite the imminent flow of oil, if the lawsuit by nine Iowa landowners prevails, it could require that the pipe be removed, forcing Dakota Access to attempt a lengthy and complicated reroute.

Reasnor is a town of 153 people, and everyone we meet is friendly and helpful. The Methodist Church, with a congregation of eight parishioners, opens its doors to us for food and lodging. After dinner, some of us wander down to the D & T Tap, where Zach Ide, Heather Pearson and I break out our guitars. I play The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) and solicit a rousing response from the locals. Perhaps they appreciate the challenge of walking a long distance for an urgent cause. Perhaps I’m just making that up.

But one thing I know for certain: This march is connecting us in ways that we — marchers and locals alike — rarely experience. It’s easy to stay in one’s own social, cultural and online bubble. This march pushes us beyond that bubble and out of our comfort zone. It pushes us to confront the truth that their is no us vs. them. There is only we.

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Climate Justice Unity March: Day 4

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 – Searsboro to Sully (8.5 miles)

As I pack up my tent this morning, Sarah informs me that she woke with a pit in her stomach, an odd sense of foreboding. She’s spoken with Shelley Buffalo and Fernando Manakaja as well, and they also have the same sense of unease — an intuition that someone or something may try to harm us today.

I take their intuition seriously. Our marching column is tight, and we walk two-by-two on the gravel shoulder — where it exists. Sometimes there is no shoulder, and we walk single file along the white line marking the edge of the pavement.

I stay up front to the right of my walking companion and employ my broad, sweeping, sustained wave with every vehicle that passes. Most drivers are respectful, slow down if necessary, and move partially or completely into the left lane. Some wave back.

Less than a half mile outside Lynnville, the driver of an over-sized white pick up truck floors his engine as he passes. He turns around a short ways beyond us, makes another sweep and again floors his engine. His intent is clearly to frighten and intimidate.

During our break in Lynnville, I discuss the incident with Sarah and Shelley. I suggest we carry the American flag at the front of our column. “We have an American flag with us?” asks Sarah, a bit surprised that, as the logistics director, I hadn’t told her.

I apologize, and tell her I’d thought to suggest we carry the flag while we march, but was concerned that some of our marchers would be opposed.

Sarah finds the flag and fastens it to a pole with zip ties and duct tape. Shelley insists that the Native people on the March be the ones to carry it. She and Donnielle take turns at the front of the column while I walk behind them and wave to passing vehicles. The response from drivers is noticeably different. They are more respectful, wave back. Some smile. We feel distinctly safer, and I’m relieved that we’ve found a way to connect immediately and powerfully with our vehicular audience.

Yet as suspected, two marchers are upset. That night after dinner, we discuss the decision to carry the flag. One marcher who is upset describes the flag as the quintessential symbol of American imperialism. He says he was embarrassed to walk behind it.

The Native people on the March speak strongly in defense of our decision. “As Native women carrying this flag, we’re commandeering the narrative about what it symbolizes,” says Shelley. “Native Americans have served disproportionately in the armed forces under this flag. To me, it represents liberty, self-governance, personal autonomy and freedom — all values taught to the colonists by the Natives of the East coast in whose social and governmental constructs, these values were institutionalized.”

We resolve the flag dispute after much conversation, some of it heated. Already, in just four days, other conflicts have arisen on the Climate Justice Unity March, and I am reminded that unity begins at home. Even among a small group of committed activists passionately dedicated to a common cause, striving for and maintaining unity is an ongoing challenge.

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