A year ago, thousands of people traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to oppose the construction of an oil pipeline owned by the Houston-based company Energy Transfer Partners. Since then, the state of North Dakota has evicted the encampments and the pipeline has gone into commercial service. But the legal fight continues outside the media limelight for hundreds arrested there. For Lamy resident and musician Alex Simon, that fight ended with jail time.
Defendants, known as "water protectors," have faced legal and travel expenses for court appearances, a small county and state legal system hostile to their cause, and uncertainty about their futures. Simon, who was charged following a prayer demonstration on Oct. 22, 2016, was one of the first two people to actually be sentenced to jail for demonstrating. After his recent conviction, he was imprisoned for 13 days at the Burleigh Morton County Detention Center in Bismarck, North Dakota.
SFR caught up with Simon, who briefly lived and worked in the Navajo Nation and Santa Fe before moving to Lamy, about his experiences and life post-Standing Rock. He maintains that his only crime was protesting for a just cause, and says he has "no regrets whatsoever."
Why did you decide to travel to Standing Rock, and how long were you there?
Living on a reservation, you understand why it's important to fight for something as simple as clean water. I arrived [at Standing Rock] on Indigenous Peoples' Day. I was only supposed to be there for a couple of days but ended up there for four months. There were a lot of people who were starting a new life up there and didn't have a backup plan. Every other day, you had the impression you'd be there forever, [but] in the days in between you'd hear word that we were getting evicted, that [police] had live ammunition. I had been there for too long dealing with too many uncertainties.
What was your role at the encampment and how has it influenced your current work?
We ran a production studio that did media in the camp. I'm a sound guy and composer, and I kinda fell into that role within the production team. People all over camp came to us, and it sort of spawned this idea to help Native people record their own songs and stories, which is what I do now. We do recording workshops; we want to do stuff around Santa Fe, maybe [in] some Pueblos nearby. We're still getting the resources together. A good friend of mine I met at Standing Rock, he is Diné, he helps me run it as well. The idea is to get it running all over the country.
Describe your arrest and legal situation that followed.
We had sort of gone out with the intention of going on a prayer walk. We were met with police who have their military gear, and they start telling us to go back and macing people. They ended up taking [100 people] in that day, including me. I was originally charged with criminal trespass and engaging in a riot. The case got dismissed [in May], then they slapped on a few extra charges. We had a hearing a couple of months ago, [at which Judge Thomas Merrick] casually referred to it as a riot—that tipped us off that he'd made up his mind that this was a riot. I didn't think they could possibly throw me back in jail. I made zero preparations.
What was jail like?
I was in maximum security for three days. I couldn't tell you why. But I had about 60 people calling and leaving messages for me; it could have been that this strong show of support let them know they shouldn't treat me too unfairly. They told me to pack my things and that I'm going to minimum. It sucked for me but it also sucked seeing what it was like for inmates who are there for, like, the fifth time. [Jail] doesn't provide them with any constructive rehabilitation, [but] there were two good things. One was I really bonded with a lot of the inmates; people in there were from Standing Rock. My street cred was good in there. The other part of it was the support I got from the outside, which was astronomical.
How has this experience changed your worldview?
If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I could not have been more benign in my presence. And it's made me realize that Indigenous communities are vulnerable in a very particular way when it comes to law enforcement and predatory companies like [Energy Transfer Partners], who just want to trample over their land rights and treaty rights.