The snow began yesterday at about 3:00 in the afternoon. It started coming down hard, so hard that at 4:00 I hemmed and hawed about the trip 70 miles due west to Madison. We were slated to bring an Overpass Light Brigade message to an anti-mining rally at the state capitol, but the weather really sucked. The four of us sat around the kitchen table debating whether being brave was being stupid, but I just hate giving up. Dusan, a Serbian cinematographer, was wanting to do some time-lapse shooting in the snow to add footage to an upcoming documentary on OLB. He had come all the way from St. Paul for the shoot. His warm understanding of my phoned in decision to stay in Milwaukee had me second guessing my decision. IndianCountryTV, down from Hayward, was going to be there livestreaming the Vigil For Water. Some Ojibwe friends from the Bad River Reservation were already there, for a Night of 1,000 Drums. How could we not go? We loaded the signs and got in the van, just in time for a Milwaukee rush hour in a horizontal hammer-snow. Indecision will do that to you: instead of being merely incautious, you end up inefficient in your dithering cautiousness.
One hour later, we were still leaving Milwaukee County, now and then achieving almost 25 mph. One and a half hours and some disappearing white lines after that, we pulled up to a hearty group of winter warriors in front of the state capitol. Visibility was low. Auras clung like weird colored balloons around the street lights, looking like a postcard of a Vincent painting, or a bad decision to chew raw nutmeg. The capitol dome looked a sickly green, with wet snow streaking and windblown hard. The Solidarity Singers were there, filling the air with the warmth of their tuneful tenacity, and the Chippewa were ready to do a round of their own eerie and beautiful drum songs. We parked the van, pulled out the signs, turned them on, handed them out to people willing to help us, and pulled no punches on the first message: IRON MINE = GENOCIDE.
We don't use a word like "genocide" lightly or glibly. In the past, we have focussed on positive messages of water: WATER IS LIFE, SACRED WATER, PROTECT THE EARTH, HONOR THE TREATIES. But last night, we wanted to echo Lake Superior Band of Bad River Ojibwe Chairman Mike Wiggins, who understands that his people and culture are tied to the land and the water that flows through it, flowing from the proposed 21 mile open-pit mine immediately upriver through their sacred and sustaining wild rice beds, being filtered and cleansed as it percolates into Lake Superior. Wild Rice is especially sensitive to acidity. The low-grade iron ore will be extracted from a massive amount of rock rich in sulfites. Upon exposure to air and water, this turns into dilute sulphuric acid. The mining company, Gogebic Taconite, wrote the bill that is now being passed by legislators they paid for. The Extractors are eager to begin and the Indians are in the way.
When Chairman Wiggins speaks, he speaks from the heart. I've heard a lot of public speakers before, but none like him. He tells stories to a press conference or lecture hall as if we are all sitting around a campfire surrounded by boundless night. When I heard him a few weeks ago in Milwaukee, there was an aerial photograph projected on the wall behind him, and he used a laser pointer to pinpoint the Bad River. He talked about its powers of filtration, telling us about the muskie he caught near one oxbow bend, about the Great Blue Herons that nest near a sand bar. He told us of the Fish Camp, where the Anishinaabe clean and smoke the fish in the autumn, and then points to a place where a tribal elder first told him some of the old stories. He recounted a complex dream he recently had that linked with Ojibwe prophesy. He is oddly detached, yet is the most emotionally potent and powerful speaker I have ever heard. When he speaks, the room slows down. Everybody listens. Yet the people who need to listen the most seem incapable of hearing.
We shifted the message: IRON MINE = ECOCIDE, and then NO MINING BILL. Cameras clicked away, and Dusan set up some crazy group activities for the sign holders that will look especially wonderful in his time-lapse sequences. The Flip. The Wave. The Zombie Walk. The Walk On By. It was damned cold for such ridiculous instructions. This is how we roll in the Eternal Act 1 of the Theater of Futility: always hoping that maybe, just maybe, collectively, we can vibrate at just the right frequency to knock down a few walls of stupidity.
Yet today, I sit at home, tired from shoveling the wetslick readymix climatechange snow, brought to us by the month of February. The drive home last night was white-knuckle all the way, but we made it safe, only to get stuck in my driveway. I sit and write this story to share with you, to tell you about our theater of futility, our fun, yes, but also about our engaged struggle. Some of you will claim that we in Wisconsin "get what we deserve" since we lost the recall, and "elections have consequences" - as if our hearts should break twice-times-ten just because you've lost faith in our state, or somehow feel your situation is different. Some of you will in turn jump to our defense, reminding the naysayers about the vast amounts of rightwing money, the gerrymandered districts, the failure of the Democratic Party to really get behind a viable alternative to Walker.
Either way, I sit here in the present which is real, where a mining company spends millions to buy legislation, and, in a blizzard, a bunch of activists and Native Americans hold a few hundred dollars worth of signs made in a basement and drum pre-colonial songs into the horizontal winds. As I sit and write this, my brothers and sisters across tribe and culture give impotent witness in Madison to a partisan charade. As I type this, the vote will be taken, and a mining bill will pass, deregulating water controls, opening Wisconsin up for unfettered frac sand mining, unfettered mineral extraction, and ultimately, water, water, water. The new landscrape will be just like the old landscrape, but unfortunately, there is a lot less unscraped land to scrape.
And then I get a Facebook message: dweep, dweep. One of the senators is giving testimony and cites OLB. "IRON MINE = GENOCIDE" made him slow down and think. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Does the promise of jobs, unsubstantiated at best, justify the destruction of this amazing wetland? I'm not naive, and have no faith that wisdom will prevail in Wisconsin. But we resist, not because it is necessarily effective, or can stop the Gobbling Machinery from chewing up the earth. We resist because it is the only ethical stance to take. Resistance is a medium, like oil paint, or clay, out of which we will create something meaningful.
This resistance movement only begins. This mining bill, once passed, and the ensuing Gogebic Taconite Iron Mine in Northern Wisconsin will involve indigenous rights to ceded territories. It will be held up in courts forever. It will consume a decade or two of countless peoples' lives. This resistance will link in a chain with Keystone XL, with the old Crandon Mine in Wisconsin that the environmentalists won after years and years. This resistance will see people willfully chained to trees and tractors, blockading roads, monkey-wrenching everything that isn't tied down under a hovering camera-drone. People will die for this resistance. And I say that without the least bit of hyperbole or rhetorical guile. People will die for this cause. Making a claim like that is like using the word "genocide." It makes no sense to use such language unless those are the words that are real.
Video by Dusan Harminc, Stumptown Films
Originally posted to noise of rain on Wed Feb 27, 2013 at 02:59 PM PST.