By Michael  Feinstein. Inside/Outside. February 24, 2017

It was time to come home. I was in line waiting to check my bags and board my plane back from South America. Having been away for a while, I had that feeling when you are suddenly around a large number of Americans and start slipping back into speaking English and talking about ‘back home’.

Standing next to me was a guy from Indiana, originally from North Dakota. We struck up a conversation and I shared my own family’s North Dakota roots. My great-grandfather Adolph Feinstein — a Jewish immigrant from Odessa, Russia — had traveled from New York City to North Dakota in a wagon train in the 1880s, together with a band of Mennonites. A few years later, he opened the first general store in North Dakota; and when the village of Zeeland formally organized in 1905, was elected to its first Town Board.

Why stand with Standing Rock?

Soon my mind drifted to modern day North Dakota. Only sixty miles as the crow flies from Zeeland is the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. There, a historic gathering of indigenous peoples and supporters has come together to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) – a pipeline proposed to be built under the Missouri River, which borders the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and under Lake Oahe, which is the Standing Rock Sioux’s primary source of water.

Early in 2016, DAPL was rerouted near Standing Rock with little public notice or meaningful environmental review, after an earlier proposed route near Bismarck (the state capital) was judged too risky for local water supplies – but apparently not too risky for the water supply of the indigenous Sioux; nor for the tribe’s sacred lands, which are to be protected under an 1851 U.S. treaty.

In response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation all requested a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the pipeline — but were ignored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has since filed a lawsuit challenging the environmental review process itself, claiming tribal members were never meaningfully consulted before construction began, and that local impacts and sufficient alternatives were not considered. That lawsuit is pending.

During this same period, non-violent resistance to DAPL began to grow. On April 1, 2016, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, an Standing Rock Sioux tribal elder, and her grandchildren established the Sacred Stone Camp to oppose the DAPL. Other camps formed, including the largest, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) Camp. They have since been joined by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people who have become known as ‘water protectors’, seeking to non-violently prevent the pipeline’s construction.

But during the fall of 2016 tensions increased, with heated and tense confrontations initiated by the ‘security’ hired by Energy Transfer Partners (the company behind DAPL) — and by taxpayer-funded soldiers and police in riot gear. Pepper spray, attack dogs and water hoses have been unleashed on the water protectors — recalling some of the worst moments of U.S. civil rights struggles in the South in the 1960s — and in North Dakota the water hoses have been used in sub-freezing weather, putting people into hypothermia.

After these horrors, then President Obama worked behind the scenes and the Corps reversed course and declined to grant an easement to drill underneath the river and lake. Instead, the Corps committed to the full EIS that should have occurred in the first place.  But then the Trump Administration signed an executive order to disregard the EIS and grant the easement.  At this point its not clear how legal challenges to DAPL will fare; and there is justifiable apprehension about imminent and massive police force to clear the tribes and their supporters off the land.

I was thinking about all of this as I was waiting in line to check my bags. Would Standing Rock be the site of first government-sponsored widespread violence against non-violent Americans during the Trump administration? I expressed this concern to the guy from Indiana — and how the sight of non-violent indigenous peoples being violently removed from their historic lands could be a hideous modern day ‘Bull Connor’ moment broadcast to the nation. (Connor was the white-supremacist Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama who directed the use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against civil rights activists in the 1960s; these tactics were covered by the national media, horrifying the nation and ultimately helping lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1965.)

His reply shocked me. “It’s OK if there has to be violence. This is economic development. Under Trump, it’s not going to take years to get projects approved like under Obama. Trump is going to get things done. That’s one of the reasons ‘we’ won the election.”  He then went off on a rift about liberals, schools and political correctness, about the Environmental Protection Agency and too much regulation of business, the evils of Obama Care, etc. At that point my brain shut down. After weeks of gentle naturaleza in South American deserts, mountains, rivers and beaches, I just wasn’t ready for that kind of culture shock.

It was a harsh welcome back to America in the era of Trump.

Divesting from destruction

Does economic development really have to depend upon oppressing indigenous peoples and exploiting scarce natural resources for short-term economic gain, all while polluting the environment and contributing to long term climate change?

Santa Monica has long thought otherwise, and has a history of pursuing environmentally-sustainable and socially-just practices. Tonight a City Council agenda item sponsored by Councilmembers Terry O’Day and Tony Vazquez seeks to “consider divesting all City funds from Wells Fargo, due to their business practices and their involvement in financing the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

Our City’s Investment Policy states that “Investments are to be made in entities that support clean and healthy environment, including following safe and environmentally sound practices” and that “no investments will be made in fossil fuel companies as defined by the organization”.

It is true that Wells Fargo is not a fossil fuel company itself. But too often the investment policies of big banks undermine public policy goals. If the Council gives staff direction to divest from Wells Fargo – the cities of Seattle, WA and Davis, CA have just passed similar resolutions – the Council will be enhancing what we mean by ‘no investing in the fossil fuel industry’,  such that banks will have to revise their own investment policies to be more in line with our own, if they want our money.

What about ‘flyover America’?

Here in Santa Monica, we are used to such cutting edge, transformative public policy.  But in my discussion with the guy from Indiana, it was clear that he and I were coming from fundamentally different perspectives.  So I tried to find common ground. “With DAPL”, I said, “the local community (in this case the Standing Rock Sioux) was ignored in the environmental review process. How would you feel if you and your neighbors were ignored on a major development directly affecting your community?”

He didn’t want to hear any of it. Now the new President that he and others helped elect is going to eliminate valuable environmental protections, de-regulate dangerous industries, and take the public out of the planning process — all in the name of economic development.

Trump has cynically exploited economic hardship to deregulate the economy and scapegoat immigrants and racial minorities. But such hardships actually have their roots in more complicated long term macro-economic trends and practices, including automation, globalization, excessive military spending and the concentration of wealth and power in the 1%. Trump and his cabinet of billionaires are unlikely to address these issues, and at some point, people will again be looking for alternatives.

That’s where Santa Monica comes in. Municipalities can spur change from the bottom up. Santa Monica is also a prime example that a city can value social justice and the environment — and also have a thriving local economy, a healthy city budget and provide a high and diverse level of municipal services.  Tonight’s proposal to further align our investment practices with our progressive values is more good public policy – you can bank on it.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.