By: Cindy Moffett
“They shot me.” Weeks later, Mark Runge still sounds stunned.
On Sunday, November 20, after a 22-hour drive from Maryville, Tenn., high school teacher Runge reached Standing Rock, North Dakota. There the Oceti Sakowin, or Sioux tribes, were joined by thousands of supporters to stop construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which they say threatens sacred land and the local water supply. They call themselves water protectors.
Runge, a Desert Shield/Desert Storm war veteran, and a long-time member of Veterans for Peace, says, “I have a history of fighting for justice for victims and veterans of war. That’s how I see these guys – as victims of war. How can I help the bigger community? How can I right injustice?” He went prepared to help in any way needed; he took tools to help build a camp, warm clothing to donate, and cases of fruit to distribute.
On his first day, he fell in with fellow veterans, set up his tent, trained in cultural differences, and prepared for an evening protest on Backwater Bridge, where two burned out large trucks blocked access to the pipeline – and, more importantly to the camp, the road to the nearby city of Bismark.
Tension had been mounting between the water protectors and the law enforcement agencies. Before sundown, eight veterans had used a semi truck to haul one of the large trucks out of the road. “The whole time, of course, the police thought this was an act of aggression, clearing the road,” says Runge.
That night, in frigid weather, hundreds of water protectors, young and old, women and children, gathered along and beside the bridge. Some had shields but most, like Runge, were unprotected.
“You could feel the energy, you could tell something was coming. But there was no warning from the police, nothing. They just unleashed hell.
“It started off with chemical mace. Then they were launching concussion grenades right at people. I was off to the left of the bridge, and I hoped that if they saw I wasn’t doing anything, I wouldn’t be a target. Some of our people with shields were moving forward. I saw a grenade land between two guys, and they both went down.
The assault continued. “After a lull, the police broke out the water cannons. It was all horrible, inhumane, but 17 degrees and just spraying people was the worst. It went on and on and on. One Marine vet changed clothes three times.”
The Oceti Sakowin medical team reported that 200 people were injured, and 12 people were hospitalized for head injuries. “One of the Indian elders had a heart attack and had to be revived right on the bridge,” says Runge.
“That took a lot out of my soul. They shot me, they really shot me. And to watch all those other people get shot. One girl had her retina separated when she was hit in the eye with a rubber bullet.”
Hours later, just before dawn on November 21, the Indians and some of the vets were once again on the bridge to form a human wall. “Since before dawn we had been standing there in prayer. Different people were singing the prayers. One man walked out, singing in prayer, to the police. It was a powerful moment.”
For Runge, the night’s violence had triggered war flashbacks. “I had to leave the next day, drive the long way around, and ground myself in civilization. I had to remember where I was.”
The next day, though, he was back in the camp, coordinating activities, making shields, and answering questions for the camp members. For the rest of the week he continued helping in any way he could while learning a great deal about Native American culture.
“Two days after the bridge event,” says Runge, “a medicine man and Iraq war veteran called the vets together. Only about 15 of us showed up. He was really upset and explained that we could have done a better job of protecting civilians on the bridge that night. In his own culture, he said, women and children wouldn’t have been involved.
“He said we have an obligation as warriors. ‘Akicita’ means veteran or warrior – there’s no difference. They hold veterans in high esteem, which was really magical and beautiful.
Fortunately, such violence did not recur, but the warriors were careful to protect the others.
“On Thanksgiving we did go back to the bridge. There was a front line of vets – I was in it – and then a second line of vets — and we kept the rest of the people back. It was hard because some had seen the footage from Sunday night and were very confrontational.
“Hundreds of people were behind us, marching down, coming around the bend. Somebody said, ‘Let’s make a prayer circle.’ And they did; the circle went all the way up into the hill and around. It was beautiful. One of the Indian veterans started singing.” Again, the memory of singing in prayer moves Runge to tears.
“Later, I was down there in line with young Indian men from different nations, and I was the only white dude. They were making jokes about Thanksgiving, and I was just taking it. One big guy next to me finally said, ‘Why are you even here?’
“I said, ‘I’m here for the kids.’ He was smoking a cigarette and he handed it to me. I don’t smoke, but I smoked the hell out of that one.”
By joining the protest at Standing Rock, Runge hoped to stop the pipeline and to protect the earth for our children. On Dec. 4, a week after he returned to Tennessee, the Department of the Army, which includes the Army Corps of Engineers, announced that they would not approve and easement allowing the pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe.
“The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing,” said Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works. Does this mean the pipeline is stopped forever? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly on hold, and hopes are high that better solutions will be found.
“We have to take our victories where we can,” says Runge.
Runge is a man of many talents: fine arts, technology, and engineering teacher (nicknamed Overlord of the STEAM Labs) at Clayton-Bradley Academy; martial arts practitioner (thus his nick name “Kungfucracker”), dulcimer maker, and artist.