What did I learn about revolution from Standing Rock?

When I traveled out of the country for the first time, I expected everything to feel radically different. I expected to land in a place that would feel new and strange. People would be so different, I would be so different. I couldn’t wait to be surprised! Indeed, I was surprised when I stepped off the plane and I was still me and, though, people looked a little different or spoke a language foreign to my ears, people were still people – with all of the wants and desires and quirks and pains and joys that come with being human.

As we drove up to Standing Rock, a similar anticipation of some sort of transformative surprise grew in my belly. Chaos, masses of people moving into action, planes zooming overhead. I expected a revolutionary air! Yet, when we arrived, everything seemed so familiar. I felt like I knew everyone I walked by on the makeshift roads. People smiled and acknowledged each other. Dogs barking, children playing. People doing what needed to get done. Yes, of course, there were direct actions at the camp – unarmed protestors solemnly marching up to rows of police officers armed to the eyeballs. But, mostly, time was spent taking care of each other by chopping wood for warmth, serving nourishing food, building tipis and yurts for the brutal North Dakota winter.

Is this what revolution looks like? Revolution, it seems, is made up of mere moments. Revolution looks like strangers lending a hand to strangers. Revolution sounds like a brown-skinned man calling a white-skinned woman “sister,” a Native woman sharing her ancient knowledge of medicinal plants with eager young people, children playing in bare feet instead of on screens. Revolution is people praying together, arm linked in arm. Revolution is the convergence of a few thousand people upon the tiniest speck of a point on a map, coming together to stand for justice. In Howard Zinn’s oft-quoted essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty, he says, “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises… We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”


Revolution may be made of moments, but they’re organized moments. I can’t tell you how many times since Election Day that I’ve heard acquaintances and friends and family members ask, “What can we do?” In other words, as we face one of the most dangerous presidencies in American history, what actions will truly be effective in making any waves of change? We are each being faced with our inadequacies, the ones that come with being an individual on a planet of 7 billion people. But, together, our strengths multiply and complement each other’s weaknesses. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

We are stronger when we link arm in arm in an unbreakable chain of justice and love, we are heard when we join our voices in a chorus of resistance, we are more powerful when together we live, as Zinn closes his powerful piece with, “as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.”


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