By Will Falk
Each night Unist’ot’en Clan spokeswoman, Freda Huson, and her husband Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Toghestiy fall asleep on their traditional land not knowing whether the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are going to storm their bridge in the depths of night.
Each winter, when Freda and Toghestiy ride their snowmobiles down forestry roads to bring in supplies, to hunt, or to check their traplines, they don’t know whether they will find piles of felled trees maliciously dragged across their paths.
Each time Freda and Toghestiy leave their territory for a few days they don’t know if they will return to find another attack in an old tradition of cowardly arson perpetrated by hostile settlers on Wet’suwet’en territories leaving smoking embers where their cabin once stood.
I ponder this as I sit in a workshop with other settlers during the 6-day Unist’ot’en Action Camp – a series of workshops hosted on the traditional territories of the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to promote strategic planning and co-ordination in the struggle against the spread of fossil fuel pipelines. This particular workshop is designed as a discussion to promote understanding about how settlers can work in better solidarity with indigenous peoples struggling to protect their homes and carrying out their responsibilities to the land.
Most of the ideas discussed revolve around decolonizing our hearts and minds to learn to see the role non-indigenous peoples are playing in the genocidal processes threatening the survival of indigenous peoples. Some of the ideas involve material support for indigenous peoples engaged in front line resistance like the Unist’ot’en. A few even suggest that settlers become physically present next to indigenous peoples on the front lines.
But, I am troubled. We have skipped something. What exactly do we mean by “solidarity?”
A common scene from my life as a public defender shows me – a white man in a suit and tie – sitting next to a shackled African, Chicana, or indigenous mother in a courtroom. In front of us sits a judge – an older white man in black robes. Across from us sits the prosecutor – another white man in a suit. Directly behind us, where he is felt more than seen, stands a big white man in the brown uniform of a sheriff’s deputy. He has a gun on one hip, a taser on the other, and the keys to my client’s shackles on a loop on his belt.
My client stares at the judge in a mix of horror and hatred as she is sentenced to prison for stealing from a supermarket to support her children or for lying to a police officer about her name because she had outstanding parking tickets and had to get the kids to school or for punching a cop when the latest in a long list of arbitrary stops by police officers finally caused something inside of her to snap.
As the judge announces how many days in jail my client will be spending, she reaches for my arm with tears in her eyes and asks, “Mr. Falk, won’t you do something?”
I cannot meet her gaze. I tell myself there’s nothing I can do. There’s no argument I can make to sway the judge. There’s no way to stop the sheriff’s deputy behind us from leading my client back down the long concrete tunnel connecting the courthouse and the city jail.
I try to comfort myself. What does she want me to do? Yell at the judge? Tackle the deputy? Spit on the prosecutor for his role in sending this mother to jail?
We gathered to sit on wooden benches arranged in a half-circle on a hot and sunny morning during the Unist’ot’en Action Camp to listen to two indigenous men speak about their experiences on the front lines of resistance. Each man had been shot at by police and soldiers, each man had served time in jail, and each man received utter respect from each individual listening.
The first man faced 7,7000 rounds fired by the RCMP at the Gustafsen Lake Stand-off in 1995 when a group of Original Peoples occupied a sacred site on a cattle ranch on unceded Canoe Creek First Nation land because the rancher tried to prevent their ceremonies. For his part at Gustafsen Lake, he was sentenced to five years in prison. During the Oka Crisis in 1990 when the town of Oka, Quebec sought to build a golf course over a Mohawk burial ground, the second man and his comrades blockaded several small British Columbian towns shutting down their local economies. He, too, was convicted and spent time in jail for his actions.
The second man said the blockades were carried out “in solidarity” with the resistors at Oka. This was the only time either of the men mentioned the word “solidarity.” They spoke of supporting resistance, praying for resistance, and helping with ceremonies. But, it was only when engaged in actions where co-resistors placed themselves in similarly dangerous situations that the term “solidarity” was used.
I got back from Unist’ot’en Camp earlier this afternoon and checked my email for the first time in days. My inbox was inundated by emails from various list serves proclaiming “Solidarity with Palestine!”
Meanwhile, in Gaza, occupying Israeli bulldozers are demolishing the homes of Palestinian families with suspected ties to Hamas while colonial Israeli bombs are indiscriminately falling on men, women, and children adding to the pile of dead numbered at well over 500 corpses and counting.
“That’s terrible, Will,” you may be thinking. “But what do you want me to do about it?”
Put yourself in Gaza right now. Dig a pit in your back yard, turn your ear anxiously to the sky, and keep the path to your back door clear, so that when you hear the hum of jets overhead you can sprint to your makeshift bomb shelter.
Look down the street for bull-dozers. When you spot one, grab the nearest bag in a panic, shove as much food into it as possible, scramble for some clean underwear, find your toothbrush, and sprint out the door without a look back for the nearest safe space.
Stand over the broken corpses of your children in the pile of dust and ashes that used to be their bedroom. Moan. Weep. Wail. When you wake up for the first time without crying, feel the anger burn through your chest and down your arms into your clinched fists. Ask yourself what you should do next.
Ask yourself: What does solidarity look like?
Maybe there really was nothing I could do to stop my clients from being hauled to jail in those courtrooms of my past. Unfortunately, I tried not to think about it too much. Placing myself in that vulnerable of a situation was too scary for me. If I argued too strongly, too fervently the judge could fine me. If I yelled at the prosecutor I could be held in contempt of court. If I spit on him, I certainly would be held in contempt of court. If I tried to stop the deputy, I would be tasered and taken to jail. I might even be shot during the scuffle and killed.
The truth is indigenous and other resistors are being dragged to jail, tasered, and even shot and killed every day on the front lines. And, they’ve been on the front lines for a very long time. I’ve realized that freedom from the vulnerabilities frontline resistors experience is a privilege and the maintenance of this privilege is leaving resistors isolated on front lines around the world.
It is time we understand exactly what solidarity looks like. Solidarity looks like the possibility of prison time. Solidarity looks like facing bullets and bombs. Solidarity looks like risking mental, spiritual, and physical health. Solidarity looks like placing our bodies on the front lines – strong shoulder to strong shoulder – next to our brothers and sisters who are already working so courageously to stop the destruction of the world.
John Lawrence says
Matt Taibbi in “The Divide” argues that there are two systems of justice: one for poor people and one for the rich. Rich bankers have committed all kinds of fraud yet not one of them have gone to jail. On the other hand a poor black man can be hauled off to jail simply for standing on the street corner. White collar criminals usually get off by paying a fine; poor people end up going to jail for looking at a cop the wrong way or die of a heart attack after being put in a choke hold by police allegedly for selling cigarettes without a license.
Will Falk says
Absolutely, John. And its my hope that more of us with the privilege that gives us access to the justice system for the rich will use that privilege to dismantle the system dominating the poor.
Perfect song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CI0EbuXOOHE
Will Falk says
I messed up and did not credit David Clow with the awesome picture. You can follow David’s incredible journey here:
Teresa Diewert says
Such powerful reflections Will. Thank you so much for articulating so much of what I have been feeling for so long. It is difficult some times to be in this skin knowing I have so much choice and my friends just have to live in the injustice colonial practice has imposed on them. It does not make any sense to me. It also makes no sense that they would open themselves up to further betrayal from so called “allies”. I only hope that I can rise to the challenge that is before me in these days… that I can be strong with folks like yourself and stay true to the commitment my heart tells me to make. I hope I can do what needs to be done in defence of life for the Unist’ot’en and all those who stand up for a new way of being in the world. It really was an honour to be at the camp with you this year…
Will Falk says
You rock, Teresa. It has been amazing to get to know you this summer, too! So much of this essay was worked out in my head sitting around the picnic tables and fires talking with you and others. Something kinda clicked for me, though, when you explained that you were thinking the same things I was in the first few days of the camp. I think it was before dinner one night and a few of us were talking about the fact that we might have to put our own “self-care” on the back burner to defend what we love.
Thank you for your kind words and for reading my stuff!
Vicci Hamlin says
Thank you for this! Made me cry tears of joy & sadness. And yes, so much solidarity!! Keep going. In the end, it’s what really matters!
Susan Spratt says
Thank you Will. It was an honour to meet you at the camp this year. It was life changing for me. I’ve occupied workplaces, demonstrated and done civil disobedience – but I always knew my union would pay legal costs, post bail etc. so long walks alone – sitting in the pit house alone I thought of the amazing people who spoke who acted in the most selfless way – they did what they did and do for the love of Mother Earth, the right to live on their territory stolen by settlers and to ensure future generations have a future. Solidarity is a word thrown around a lot by settlers – I hope I can as a settler come to embrace the word in a much different way.
Will Falk says
Thank you very much for saying what you just said, Susan. It was such a pleasure to meet you, too. I really admire the work you and Bob have done and I’m really excited to continue to build our friendship. We certainly need the skill set and experience you have!