From the Trenches: Native Protestors Tell McCain to “Fuck Off”

“From the Trenches” is a battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.

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I woke up craving a bit of absurdity this morning, and what better vehicle for the bizarre than Mr. Slavoj Žižek? After sitting through two hours of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, alternating between fits of giggles and aha-moments, old Slavoj closes the 2012 film on a hopeful note.

“Even if the actual result of a social upheaval is just a commercialized, everyday life,” he says, “this excess of energy–what gets lost in the result–persists. Not in reality, but as a dream, haunting us, waiting to be redeemed.”

Translation: an upheaval, a moment of resistance may fail, and in that failure, the resistance may lose its edge, so to speak. Take Turkey’s Gezi Park movement, which achieved one goal (protecting an Istanbul park), but failed in its wider aim of halting the country’s steady march toward authoritarianism and Islamism. For Žižek, the energy behind that movement is not lost. By extension, even unsuccessful radical movements are victories in the sense that they contribute to a new dream, outside of the established order, that we may strive toward realizing.

The brief monologue reminded me of another absurdly wonderful moment I’d seen this week, a small-scale action with limited impact, though with the potential to change the sorts of dreams being chased by Native activists in the US.

Last Friday, Senator John McCain spoke at a Navajo Code Talkers Day event on the Navajo Reservation, where he was tricked by 17-year-old Adriano Tsinigine into being photographed next to a sign that read, “Protect Oak Flat,” an Apache sacred site slated to be mined for copper. The holy land will, “in the senator’s own words in the Arizona Republic, promises to ‘tap the largest copper deposit ever discovered in North America.'” But protestors’ beefs with McCain weren’t restricted to Oak Flat:

Many of the activists brought up the recent Animas River spill, which unleashed 3 million gallons of sludge and caused a water ban in downstream areas of the Navajo Nation, while others were concerned with McCain’s recent comment that he was interested in renewing discussions about the controversial Navajo and Hopi Water Rights Settlement … part of legislation introduced in 2012 by McCain … that would have required the Navajo and Hopi tribes to waive their water rights to the Navajo aquifer for “time immemorial” in exchange for infrastructure that would pipe clean water into three remote areas of the reservation.

Thanks to McCain’s many policies and stances that don’t sit well with Arizona’s Native community, Adriano Tsinigine (who McCain asked to leave the Code Talker event) wasn’t the only dissenter who came out to greet the senator.

Protestors were also waiting for McCain at the Window Rock Museum, where he met with local native leadership, and even stuck around in the lobby of the building, hoping to see the senator off. When they realized he’d left through the backdoor, activists then chased his caravan as it exited museum premises, shouting “get off our land boy!” and “fuck you!” with middle fingers flying.

McCain’s office later released a statement, saying “this small group of young protesters had no practical impact on his productive meetings with top tribal leaders.”

But the senator’s representatives wouldn’t have released a statement unless they intuitively grasped that on some level, the Native community’s fight for self-determination, like so many other struggles for equity and sovereignty, isn’t just about concrete results. Instead, it’s an exercise in building muscle for the work that lies ahead. And in that longer historical view, a handful of furious protestors are another straw that will someday do their part in tipping the scales not toward a reformist’s paradise, but in favor of a new dream of a new egalitarian reality.

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