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Veterans talk colonialism, “protect and serve” at Standing Rock

by Brian A. Wilkins
December 7, 2016

From L-R: myself, Steve Wilkerson, Art Grayson, Don Brisson and Jeshua Sosa.

BISMARCK — Art Grayson joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 19 because he was looking for something that would give him a good education and provide a diverse experience. He served out of Coronado, Calif. and was deployed in S.E. Asia and the North Arabian Gulf, with his longest deployment being six months long. He operated nuclear reactors in the Navy and today is supervising a reactor at MIT for work. Grayson is also a graduate student at Harvard studying neuropsychology. But his current career and studies did not stop him from traveling more than 1,800 miles from Boston to the Standing Rock Reservation this past weekend.

“People are being brutalized simply for exercising their rights,” Grayson said. “This is happening to a sovereign nation within our borders. During the Civil Rights Era, people came to our support and aid, brought acknowledgment to our cause, brought nationwide and worldwide attention to what we were struggling with then and are still fighting today. I feel I need to be a part of it during this day and age.”

Jeshua Sosa, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, had similar sentiments as to his reasons for joining thousands of his fellow servicemen at Standing Rock despite the roster exceeding the stated limit of 2,000 vets.

“I wanted to find out why others were out here, figure what what my role would be and help this event make its mark in history,” he said. “Its just awesome that a bunch of veterans came here, fighting for a good cause and standing up to injustice.”

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers announced on Sunday that it denied the easement for Energy Transfer Partners to continue drilling in the area near the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Reservation. This was coincidentally or otherwise, the same day veterans began arriving at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. The federal government said it would instead commence a review as to the impact of the pipeline on the environment. John Bigelow, spokesman for the main camp at Standing Rock, said the people will remain vigilant and the camp will continue as normal until Energy Transfer Partners leaves the area for good.

However since that December 5 press conference, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has requested that water protectors from all over the world return home for the winter as the battle will now shift to the court room. It appears the veterans’ presence played a direct role in this turn of events at Standing Rock. But it also made thousands of U.S. military veterans take notice of how police treat peaceful protestors across the country.

Steven Wilkerson, who was a police officer for 15 years and currently a U.S. Army reservist, defined “protect and serve” as taking care of the people and as an oath you take when you’re sworn in to the military and when you become a police officer. That oath means enforcing the U.S. Constitution and taking care of the American people. But that fact has been lost among many police officers across the country, particularly those who have joined the Morton County Sheriff’s Office at Standing Rock.

“You’re there to fulfill an oath, to protect this country and if you do not live up to that oath, you are tearing this country apart,” Wilkerson said. “There are a lot of problems in general with the police when it comes to the public lately, so its even more important now than ever that law enforcement step up, do their jobs, be fair, honest and transparent. When you violate that basic oath, you destroy it all; it’s worthless.”

Grayson, who is African American, expanded on these thoughts, particularly the dichotomy being created police officers and U.S. military.

“I’ve always seen the term ‘protect and serve’ inscribed on patrol cars, but I’ve never felt that way,” he said. “Police cars induce fear in black men, you start looking at the odometer, straightening up your beard, even if it makes no sense you’re frantically trying to look correct. Standing Rock is pitting that unconditional pride Americans have in police officer and veterans against each other. It’s like a parent having two children and one child stepping in front of  you to protect you from being attacked by the other child in a drunken stupor. If that’s not a sobering moment, I don’t know what is.”

Sosa said the presence of 2,000-plus veterans has made the desired impact whether direct or otherwise.

“I know we were noticed, our support was noticed,” he said. “Our ability as veterans to hear a call of help and support that call will have a snowball effect across the country to unite and protest injustice peacefully. “We spoke to Cornel West about this the other day. The indigenous people of this land from Alaska to Argentina need to be recognized for the injustices America has bought upon them. I hope this is just the start of a revolution for indigenous people and a wake-up call for people to understand we’re trying to survive as a human race, not as Americans, Mexicans, blacks, whites, etc.”

Don Brisson, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, made clear that the four of them did not know each other before they met at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and made their way to Standing Rock. The only bond they had was service to this country, which is an unbreakable relationship that carries on with veterans for the rest of their lives.

“Its easy to understand how all these veterans came together when we’re brothers, even when we joke about each other’s service, branch and jobs,” Brisson said. “But when it comes right down to it, there’s a bond of genuine respect. Standing Rock is a microcosm of that respect for each another.”

Wilkerson had some final thoughts on the entire campaign for veterans showing up at Standing Rock.

“Should the pipeline and [Morton County] Sheriff’s department not learn the power that’s behind this, next time we’ll be back in greater numbers, greater determination and with a stronger will,” he said. “We stayed here as long as it took and put our lives on the line. And that won’t change. We’re watching and if we have to come back, we will. But again we will come in peace.”

Standing Rock: A typical day at Oceti Sakowin nothing short of impressive (December 8, 2016)
Standing Rock: One tribal leader tells water protectors to leave; another says stay put (December 8, 2016)

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