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Veteran Wesley Clark Jr: Why I Knelt Before Standing Rock Elders and Asked for Forgiveness

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Wesley Clark Jr. during forgiveness ceremony. Photo credit:
Joe Zummo

By Sarah van Gelder

Everything seemed to be converging on Standing Rock on Dec. 4. Thousands of veterans were scheduled to arrive the next day at this remote, frozen outpost—along with a blizzard. The Army Corps of Engineers had recently ordered the eviction of Oceti Sakowin, the largest of the water protectors' camps, saying the thousands camped there would have to vacate by Dec. 5. The governor ordered an emergency evacuation, and the county sheriff threatened to issue $1,000 fines to anyone caught delivering food, firewood and other support needed to keep the camp alive.

And it was on the afternoon of Dec. 4 that word arrived: The Obama administration had refused the final permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Army Corps of Engineers said it would first consider other routes, require an environmental impact statement and consult with the Sioux tribes. So, at least for the moment, there was celebration: dancing, singing, fireworks.

Reasons for the timing of that announcement are not clear. It might have been because tensions were too high. Perhaps 4,000 veterans joining thousands of Native water protectors and their allies was just too much.

The next day, some veterans participated in a formal "forgiveness ceremony," which began with an emotional plea to the tribe for forgiveness by former Army Lt. Wesley Clark Jr., son of Gen. Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO:

"Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land and then we took your children and … we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn't respect you, we polluted your Earth, we've hurt you in so many ways but we've come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness."

Clark made these remarks head bowed, kneeling before the elders. Chief Leonard Crow Dog put his hand on Clark's head. A moment of forgiveness followed by tears and embraces.

Chief Leonard Crow Dog puts his hand on the head of Lt. Wesley Clark Jr.

Clark, along with Michael A. Wood Jr., a former Baltimore police officer and Marine Corps veteran, had organized the deployment that formed Veterans Stand for Standing Rock.

YES! Editor at Large Sarah van Gelder interviewed Clark this week about why he called on veterans to come to Standing Rock and what moved him to apologize.

Sarah van Gelder: What made you decide to call on veterans to join with you?

Wesley Clark Jr.: I reached out to lawyers, I reached out to politicians, I reached out to members of the press. I got the Young Turks to send Jordan [Chariton] out there in October. I did everything I could to try to help this tribe. Nothing would happen. And so I was like, fuck it man, I have to go out there.

I called Michael Wood Jr., he was like, "Hell yeah, I'm down for it." We put out an operations order, a call [to veterans] on Twitter and on Facebook. I don't have any experience in any kind of activism or fundraising or anything. By around the middle of November I think we'd only raised $3,000 and had 50 people going. I thought maybe if we were lucky we might be able to get 500.

The concept that I had in my head was that we'd simply outmaneuver the police, get across the river and then surround the pipeline. That was always the concept of the operation in my head. But at the same time I always wanted to start it with what the tribe calls a "Wiping the Tears Ceremony." First of all, I have PTSD and most of the guys out there with me do. So I thought it was very important to kind of spiritually cleanse us and prepare us for what I expected to be harsh tactics and beatings and jailing from the security forces.

Veterans in the blizzard. Michael Running Wolf

van Gelder: You had made a very clear statement that this would be a nonviolent action. What made you decide to make that so clear?

Clark: If you want to effect change in the world, it has to come through nonviolence and forgiveness. It's the only way.

You can look at history for examples. If somebody starts a violent revolution, they have less than a 5 percent chance of succeeding. And at the end of it, all they've inherited is a broken country full of death and bitterness and distrust. But through nonviolent action—the kind we saw in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and in the Philippines long ago—you actually have a greater than 50 percent chance of success. So it's not just a moral imperative but a strategic one as well, that's backed up by history.

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