Note: The original post appeared on the Peace & Change blog.
It’s not where you think it is.
Like many, I have been following the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the establishment of the Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016. (see this helpful timeline from Mother Jones) When I signed into Facebook this morning, my feed was flooded with friends and colleagues checking in at Standing Rock, ND.
My first thought: I’ve definitely missed something big.
It soon became clear that my contacts had not all traveled to North Dakota overnight. So what changed in the movement? The exact origins of this virtual campaign remain unclear, but Kim LaCapria of Snopes.com reports that it did not originate with the Sacred Stone Camp. Regardless of the campaign’s origins, No-DAPL supporters checking-in on Facebook occupy the growing virtual space of Standing Rock: harnessing the power of social media, and bringing the physical confrontation to the digital realm. Here I again ask the question: Where is Standing Rock?
The Standing Rock movement is intricately tied to both the physical location of the Sacred Stone Camp and virtual locations for protest on social media, including the Standing Rock Facebook page and #NoDAPL tag. As an historian interested in space as a lens into protest movement histories (ok, borderline obsessed), this is an excellent example of how protests and the spaces they occupy are intimately linked, and most often, deliberately chosen. While a single blog post cannot provide a thorough analysis of protest spaces, here I offer three reasons why the Standing Rock locations matter.
1. Location-based Protest and Communities of Practice
Shared physical spaces brings individuals together around a common issue and establishes common narratives in ways that cannot be discounted in the study of protest movements. Spatial proximity fosters a heightened sense of community, profoundly impacting individual activists long after they leave the protest site. Huffington Post’s Katie Scarlett Brandt describes this feeling well in her recent article “I am a White Person Who Went to Standing Rock. This is What I Learned.” Brandt’s thick description of sleeping outside at the camp, waking up to the mundane sounds of her fellow activists starting their day, and being embedded in the routine of the movement all supports the role of shared space in the creation of activist communities of practice. As a scholar, I rely on Sally McConnell-Ginet and Penelope Eckert’s definition of communities of practice as “an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in an endeavor. Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values and power relations- in short, practices- emerge in the course of this mutual endeavor.”  What is most important about communities of practice, is that their boundaries remain undefined, limited only by the scope of interaction and the spaces occupied by individual members. Transferred as a lens into the No DAPL protests, the physical space of the Sacred Stone Camp brings individuals together around a common issue and establishes common narratives for protest. This type of space-based solidarity can also be seen in the #NoTAV movement as documented by political scientists Donatella della Porta, Maria Fabbri and Gianni Piazza.
2. Isn’t this just hashtag activism?
Not exactly. Standing Rock is a critical moment for reexamining the role of social media in protest movements. As in the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring protests, social media outlets provide a key means of communication for activists to find the physical locations of the movement. In fact, social media posts were among the first catalysts for such a diverse group of Native Americans and their supporters to gather in North Dakota. (See this September 2016 article by Jack Healy). Yet even earlier today I read social media posts questioning the real-world impact of checking-in at Standing Rock. The general conclusion seems to be that it helps just to “do something” to raise awareness.
These place-based solidarity posts on Facebook beginning on October 30 are what make the Standing Rock case different, and marks a new direction in the relationship between social media and protest events. Each “check- in” at Standing Rock represents an exercise of power from a growing activist community of practice in the social media world. This is not a standalone hashtag, social media activists checked-in with the belief that they could disrupt the perceived “geo-targeting” power of law enforcement and security forces over No-DAPL activists. In short, virtual interventions might physically protect activists. Those occupying “virtual” Standing Rock, regardless of the actual impact on law enforcement, are expanding the community of practice, drawn to sense of solidarity fostered by Standing Rock as a physical protest space, and compelling networks of virtual activists to create a digital extension of that location.
3. Is “virtual” Standing Rock still Standing Rock?
Standing Rock is not just a space for protest, it is a place. Geographers understand place as space inscribed with meaning. Standing Rock has a long place history, grounded in the struggles between the Native Americans and the US government. As of 2016, it also has a place history as a site of protest against the DAPL. In the last 24 hours, I argue, “virtual” Standing Rock has also become a place. It is intimately tied to the physical space in North Dakota, and yet stands on its own as a virtual space, occupied for a specific purpose by a diverse group of people coming together around a common cause. It is not sponsored by any established organization, but formed organically and has had 198,267 visits by the time of this writing. Historian David Glassberg argues that spaces anchor individuals in their “sense of history” and a common past.  In this case, the occupation of both physical and virtual Standing Rock has engaged individuals in an activist community of practice and the creation of place through protest.
- Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet, “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice” Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1992): 464.
- Donatella della Porta, Maria Fabbri and Gianni Piazza, “Putting Protest in Place: Contested and Liberated Spaces in Three Campaigns,” in Nicholls, et al., Spaces of Contention: Spatialities and Social Movements (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013).
- David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 6.