The Future of the Dakota Access Pipeline

In a PBS segment Oct. 24, Judy Woodruff asked “What will Dakota Access protesters do if final pipeline restrictions are lifted?” Her guest William Brangham, who’s been covering the confrontation for PBS Newshour, elaborates:

People don’t exactly know what’s going to happen. If the Army Corps agrees to this last permit and says to the company, go ahead and finish, drill into the river, the question is, what will all these protesters do? We saw thousands of people out there.

It’s not clear if they will voluntarily get up and leave. It’s not clear if there will be a fight. Who is going to evict them? The jails out there are already so full, they have to bus people they arrest outside of the state.

Will the National Guard be involved? Will this very militarized police force step in? Nobody really knows.

The police dispersal of Occupy from Zuccotti Park and its encampments in major cities across America seemed like a moral defeat in one sense. But in another sense it opened up an opportunity — one which Occupy, unfortunately, failed to take advantage of — for transition into a more materially effective offensive strategy.

Some American military historians say the Tet Offensive was the best thing that could have happened, from the standpoint of U.S. military forces in Vietnam. While the TV news scenes inflicted massive damage on morale in the United States, in military terms it meant the NLF guerrillas were abandoning their previous dispersed, hit-and-run approach and forming large, concentrated targets that could be destroyed by conventional means of mass and firepower.

The visibility of Occupy, and its show of force, were indispensable to its political objectives. But in material terms, the Occupy encampments were concentrated targets. When the camps were shut down there was considerable speculation that, no longer being tied down to central locations, they might switch to an agile strategy that would put the corporate state on the defensive. More specifically, this would mean mobile swarming attacks on local targets with high moral value, with rapid concentration followed by rapid dispersal. For example, swarming Mayor Bloomberg, NYPD leadership and senior management of Wall Street banks at home, church, restaurants, country clubs, etc. Occupy Oakland exploited their superior mobility in an entertaining way, when blocked from returning to their encampment, by randomly marching all over town and leading police on a wild goose chase — and then, when cops finally got bored and dispersed, immediately heading back to their encampment. Although they failed to exploit the potential of the tactic and eventually abandoned it, Occupy activists initially experimented with showing up at random targets to move homeless people into vacant bank-owned houses, to resist foreclosures, etc. Had Occupy fully embraced such expedients on the same scale as their previous strategy of mass demonstrations, the enemy would have been forced into an almost entirely defensive position.

The Dakota Access Pipeline project has been most morally vulnerable at Standing Rock. But its physical vulnerability is a different matter altogether. The pipeline project is physically most vulnerable, not where the opposition to continuing its construction is most visible, but where it has already been completed. The Standing Rock protests have held up completion of the pipeline itself. But whether or not it’s completed, a completed pipeline that doesn’t transport oil is as good as no pipeline at all. Better, in fact, because it’s a sunk cost on the balance sheet and a lesson for those considering similar projects in the future.

John Robb’s concept of the “Systempunkt,” which he initially developed in the 2006 book Brave New War, is extremely relevant here. It’s based on the concept of Schwerpunkt, from German Blitzkrieg warfare theory. The Schwerpunkt (hard point) was the point in the enemy’s defenses, which, having been breached, would enable mobile armored and mechanized forces to quickly penetrate the front lines, fan out in operational depth, cut supply lines, and break up and encircle the enemy’s forces from the rear. This might well totally neutralize an entire enemy force with the majority of its divisions never even experiencing combat — basically the diametric opposite of the kind of attrition warfare on continuous fronts that predominated in WWI.

Systempunkt applies the same general concept to the points of failure within a complex system — to take the case most relevant to us, the vulnerable nodes within a networked physical infrastructure. Destroying the entire physical infrastructure itself — as the Western Allies’ strategic bombing campaign over Germany attempted to take out entire rail lines, power grids, industries, etc. — is enormously costly. But in fact it’s possible instead to destroy a handful of key nodes or create points of failure — amounting to less than 1% of such a physical infrastructure, to render it non-functional at several orders of magnitude less cost. Destroying a few relay points or transformers in a power grid, bottleneck inputs in an industry — or pumping stations in a pipeline network — can have the same practical effect as destroying the entire grid, industry or pipeline altogether. When the points of failure are many, and any single one or just a few of them can incapacitate the whole system, the enemy will be spread too thin to guard them all adequately — even at enormous cost. But achieving local superiority to attack any point of one’s own choosing will be far cheaper.

I’m not a pipeline engineer, but I suspect an infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline has many, many potential points of failure — far too many to distribute adequate guard forces among — that would shut down the entire system. Preferably without causing a leak, but with significant cost increases and supply disruptions. To the extent that pipeline cybernetic control systems are subject to remote access, the U.S. Stuxnet virus attack on Iranian fuel enrichment reactors, and the recent “Internet of Things” hack, may be instructive examples.

One possible foreshadowing of things to come is a coordinated action by climate justice activists on Oct. 11, to shut down five pipelines in four American states, carrying a total of 15% of U.S. oil consumption (“Climate activists shut down five tar-sands oil pipelines,” Grist, Oct. 12). One of the five was restarted on the same day, and the other four were reported not yet restarted as of the following day. This was accomplished, mind you, by ten people simply turning cutoff valves.

Besides such actions on the physical failure points, moral points of failure are also a target rich environment. Remember the earlier possibility of embarrassing Bloomberg and bank executives where they live and socialize. I suspect Sunoco Logistics and Energy Transfer Partners executives also have suburban homes and go to churches, restaurants, theaters and country clubs. The traditional public greeting for military industry executives in the Vietnam years was baptism in red paint. So what would it be in this case — oil?

Note: I’m not recommending anyone do these things. That smacks too much of “Let’s you and him fight.” Anyone who chose to undertake one of those hypothetical actions would be risking possible consequences for themselves, and perhaps for their families and communities, that nobody else has the right to choose for them or ask them to choose.

What will actually be done, if the DAPL project is resumed? I can’t guess. As to what should be done, as someone with no skin in the game, and whose community will not be subjected to military occupation and reprisals, it’s hardly my place to engage in armchair quarterbacking for people who are fighting on their own land and will suffer the consequences. @hayBEARS, an Anishinabek indigenous rights activist living in British Columbia, explained the dilemma in an extended discussion on Twitter. They start out by paraphrasing Stokeley Carmichael’s observation that “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The [colonial state] has none. Has none.” They go on to argue:

Violent resistance is one thing when you have a large population, and you’re defending territory, and even then it’s terror, pain, and death. Violent resistance to an entrenched, militarised, massive population that is bent on exterminating you is death. Failing to resist is death. Violent resistance to a genocide by numbers, conducted without conscience, is midnight raids, seizure of our children, murder of our elders. It is an accelerated, bloodier version of the current state of affairs, and at its core, it is an accelerated, bloodier route to compassion. We can’t defeat a colonial nation that outnumbers us by 30:1 even if our hurt and grieving nations were able to suffer more violent deaths. The best we can hope for is a bloody standoff and an attack of settler conscience. It would be great if we could skip the “bloodier” part. There are no easy answers, and I don’t even have difficult ones. I’m just saying: it’s not a game. these choices are being made every day.

When I talk about violence, I’m not talking about something with a sweet soundtrack and a lingering, noble death. I’m thinking about fear. I’m thinking about young people being harassed by police, of young parents having their children taken if they don’t turn in their auntie. It’s not a joke, and it’s a terrible darkness. these and so many more are the reasons why our elders ask us not to be violent. These are the reasons so many of our nations have a tradition that hot young blood must ask grandmothers if they may go to war. There are consequences to ceasing to be ourselves in defense of ourselves, violent or nonviolent, and our children live and die by this. So. I will do my best to honor my elders wishes, both those in my home territories and those elders on the land where I live. [Punctuation and paragraph divisions mine.]

But regardless of what course the water protectors fighting on the ground choose, it’s safe to say that the strategic position of institutions like the state and capitalist corporations has fundamentally changed, vis-a-vis those challenging their power. They are on the strategic defensive. The very existence of the networked NoDAPL movement, formed in support and solidarity for the First Nations water protectors making their stand at Standing Rock, demonstrates that.

As Brangham pointed out, the Standing Rock protests were a first:

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, William, you and I were talking earlier. You were saying how unusual it is that you have, what, over 100 different Native American tribes that have come together to make up this protest. Why over this particular issue?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s really the most fascinating part of all this, because there have been plenty of instances in the past where you could have seen tribes coalesce around an issue.

I think social media had a lot to do with this. They have been — the tribe, the Standing Rock, has been very, very good at getting their message out. Every time there’s an arrest, every time there’s a protest, every time there’s something they want to promote, it’s on Facebook, it’s on Twitter, it’s on social media.

So that’s brought people together. I think, also, that this wasn’t a fait accompli. It wasn’t a done deal. And so when they put out the call and said, come help us, people felt like they could stand in the way of this. And for whatever reason, people from all over the country, really all over the world, came together and said, enough is enough.

They were the first Native movement to take full advantage of the possibilities of social media for networked resistance. But they won’t be the last. If nothing else, the level of bad publicity and cost overruns, and the close call with cancellation the DAPL project experienced, will be in the back of oil industry planners’ minds when they calculate the costs and benefits of future pipeline projects. And the growing likelihood of sabotage will drive up insurance rates.

Regardless of whether Occupy seized on the opportunities presented in November 2011, in a very real sense Occupy still exists. Occupy itself was part of a larger cycle of networked movements going back through M15, Syntagma, the Arab Spring, back a decade earlier to the Seattle movement, all the way back to the EZLN in 1994. And Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL would likely not exist in recognizable form today had it not been for Occupy. Individual iterations of this movement may appear to rise and fall, to have beginnings and ends (complete with post-mortems about “why Occupy failed”). But each iteration is just a mini-cycle in the larger cycle, and leaves behind it all the social capital it built, and the new tools it added to the collective toolkit of the networked insurgency.

This larger cycle of movements, since 1994, has grown by many orders of magnitude compared to its corporate and state enemies. And it shows no signs of nearing its end. It may not have reached the halfway point yet.

We are well into a phase transition process from hierarchical, authoritarian, extractive institutions to a society based on self-organized networks and consensual decision-making . We are building the future. But the networked movements aren’t just building that future. They’re part of a future under construction that’s already in place. To quote Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

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