Forty feet wide by ten feet high the banner drapes delicately from the solid structure of Westminster Bridge. Standing at the parapet, gazing down at the brown river, we can see the upturned faces of over a hundred passengers looking up at us from the tourist vessel ‘Millennium Dream’. They are clearly trying to decipher the words painted on the great cloth that we are holding:
Still Fighting C02onialism
Your Climate Profit Kills
Stand With Standing Rock
Water Is Life #noDAPL
Sue Dhaliwal of UK Tar Sands Network raises her loudhailer: “You say climate. We say justice!” Some of the passengers on the vessel seem to cheer back at us. Are they answering our chant, or cheering for the joy of being on the river in the late summer sun, beneath the sight of Big Ben and the pinnacles of the Palace of Westminster?
There’s only a few of us here in this unnatural heat. Twenty-five at most. Our protest, is a demonstration of support, it is not made to effect any decision makers in the Houses of Parliament, it is not taken to reveal the hidden impacts of some London-based corporation, but rather it’s a gift to those who are physically blockading the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota in the USA.
Since 1st April 2016 members of Standing Rock Sioux have been camping at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers in order to defend their sacred lands from threatened destruction by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The DAPL, as it is known, is costed at $3.8 billion and aims to transport crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in the Mid West. Like the Keystone XL pipeline, it is part of the complex of export routes that are planned in order to enable the profitable extraction of tar sands in Alberta and the shale oil of the Baakan deposits in North Dakota. But the DAPL pipeline crosses the watershed of several major river systems and thus threatens to poison vital drinking water with the toxins of crude oil. This is a battle over the land and water – a battle between those who know the land and water to be sacred and vital, and those from whom the land and water are tools in the generation of return on capital.
Despite brutal attacks from the state police the encampment has been growing over the past six months and is now numbered at 4,000, making it the 16th largest town in North Dakota. It is the only time the six tribes of the Sioux have gathered since the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1867, and indigenous activists have been joining from around the world. At the heart of the camp is the ‘Defenders of Water School’, which caters for nearly fifty children each day.
It is 19.00 in the evening on the banks of the Thames, 14.00 in the early afternoon in the Sacred Stones Camp at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers on the Northern Great Plains. This is a gift, an event turned into an image cast onto the turbulent Twitter feeds, like a message in a bottle cast into the turbulent Thames running east towards the North Sea.
I look along the parapet, stare in turn at each of faces, each of the torsos, each of the pairs of arms that hold up the great banner as it dangles below us, moving gently above the rushing brown river. I’m struck by the sense that each of us is a body of water, and that working together we create enough counterweight to be able to hold up a sheet that would be far too heavy for one person to handle. A sheet that has been designed to protest the destruction of another body of water. Later I do some calculations: 60% of each of our bodies is made up of water. I weigh 11 ½ stone, there are many here who are definitely lighter than me. If I average out the demonstrators at 10 stone each, or say 6 stone of water per person, then multiply that by 25 folks, I’m looking at 160 stone of water or an ‘Imperial’ ton of water. This is a ton of water holding up a banner about water. This is water defending itself.
I go for a walk to get a better view of the demonstration. The pavement is thronged with tourists from all parts of the globe, largely they are oblivious to the action as they pursue their round of the sights – the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and so on. Doubtless many of those who bother to look at the banner are bemused. From the crowded Embankment I look back at the heads arrayed along the bridge parapet, talking animatedly above the slowly flapping sheet. I see you in the evening glow, the light on your face, your hair in the breeze. Below a flock of Black Headed Gulls wheels above the ebbing tide. I think of the massive watershed of the Thames from Kemble in Gloucestershire to Longnose Point off Margate. I think of our bodies gently perspiring in this heavy heat. From our pores water molecules drift into the air eventually joining a multitude of others to form clouds that drift westwards on the slightest of breeze. Perhaps our sweat will contribute in a fractional way to the rain that falls in the headwaters of the Thames?
I’m reminded of William Wordsworth’s iconic lines in ‘Upon Westminster Bridge Sept 3, 1802’:
‘Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:’
Is not the gift of this gently banner some thing as equally fair on the face of Earth?
Stand With Standing Rock
Water Is Life #noDAPL
Later – as I looked up Wordsworth’s poem, I came upon another that echoed so clearly the action on the bridge.
‘To Tousaint L’Ouverture, Leader of the African Slaves of San Domingo, Imprisoned by Napoleon
‘Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.’
With thanks to Jane Trowell and Sue Dhaliwal – and inspiration from ‘Waterbourne’ by French & Mottershead