Chants of “Water is life!” resonated through the streets of downtown Orlando Sunday, as dozens of activists marched to the offices of large financial institutions and US Senators, protesting the construction of pipelines in North Dakota and Florida.
Sunday’s rally in Orlando comes after months of standoffs at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where Native Americans have been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they claim could disrupt scared burial grounds and potentially contaminate the water supply.
Since the demonstrations began earlier this year, thousands of protestors–or “water protectors,” as they like to be called–have camped out on the banks of the Missouri River in North Dakota. In the more tense moments of the protest, police officers have subjected the demonstrators to tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades, and blasts from water cannons in subfreezing temperatures. Now, with winter approaching and no sign that either side will back down, the situation seems to have reached a stalemate.
Two UCF alumni who have spent time protesting at the Standing Rock Reservation were among those rallying around Lake Eola Sunday.
Emily Ruff, a 2005 graduate, described the harmonious atmosphere of Standing Rock when she first visited in September.
“Hundreds of tribes that previously had experienced years of intertribal conflict were setting aside their baggage to stand united in solidarity for a single mission: to protect the water and the environment,” she said.
“It was really beautiful and moving to see both indigenous tribes and non-indigenous allies standing together in incredible solidarity and bringing our power together to support the Earth and all that’s sacred.”
The group was also assembled to protest the construction of the Sabal Trail Pipeline, a $3 billion natural gas pipe that will run under portions of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.
Sunday’s demonstration opened with a prayer ritual performed by Joey Karei, a Taino Indian. Karei, along with the rest of those assembled, prayed for open-mindedness, understanding, and the forgiveness of police officers and Dakota Access workers.
The group then marched to the Orlando offices of Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and the SunTrust building. SunTrust is one of several banks partially funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, according to Food & Water Watch.
Although the march was peaceful and occurred largely without incident, there was at least one instance of a truck driver, angered that the protestors were marching in the street, accelerating suddenly toward the back of the group before slamming on his brakes.
Although students may feel compelled to travel to North Dakota to protest the pipeline in person, doing so is not necessarily the best way to show support, said Matt De Vlieger, a 2007 UCF graduate.
De Vlieger had just returned from North Dakota. He had originally intended to only stay for 5 days, but lengthened his stay to nearly two weeks after seeing a rubber bullet break his friend’s arm.
The best way for people to support the water protectors in North Dakota, he said, is to simply start a conversation about the project and identify the “pillars of support” funding the project. From there, he encourages students to do their part to non-violently oppose the construction project.
“We need to commit ourselves to nonviolence. We need to commit ourselves to nonviolent direct action. That means not just sitting on Facebook and clicking,” he said.