A group of more than a dozen people including Native Americans and healthcare workers from the Pittsburgh area will travel to North Dakota this week to join a protest against a pipeline they say threatens a tribe’s drinking water and sacred land.
Jared McCray, a night-shift housekeeper at UPMC Mercy, is helping organize the trip. McCray said he had discussed the protests happening near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation with a co-worker and close friend who has Native American ancestry. She has a son with her boyfriend, who is also a Native American.
“This is something that’s very deeply rooted for her family,” McCray said. “She really wanted to try to get out there to bring supplies and to bring people to [show] support.”
McCray can’t make the trip to Standing Rock, but he started a GoFundMe page to help get others there. The delegation — which includes members of Pittsburgh’s Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center — has raised about half of its goal: $5,000 for transportation and shelter costs.
“We’re raising money to get them there to represent workers and the Native community in Pittsburgh and to show solidarity with Standing Rock,” McCray said.
In September, hundreds of activists gathered in Downtown Pittsburgh to protest the pipeline, which the Texas-based corporation Energy Transfer Partners wants to send under the Missouri River — the Standing Rock Sioux’s main drinking water source — as well as through sacred land and burial sites.
The tribe says the pipeline’s planned course puts its water at risk, and hundreds of indigenous people and allies have been camped for months near Standing Rock to block construction. Police have arrested more than 400 protesters, referred to as water protectors, since August; 141 people were arrested Oct. 27 alone, as law enforcement in riot gear shot people with beanbags and rubber bullets and deployed pepper spray and concussion grenades. Some of those arrested said they were kept in “dog kennels.”
UPMC workers like McCray are locked in a struggle of their own in Pittsburgh. Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize UPMC workers for several years, as the National Labor Relations Board has accused the hospital chain of violating workers’ rights.
Some of those who plan to go to Standing Rock, McCray said, are workers who are fighting to unionize and for a $15 minimum wage. McCray and his friend reached out to SEIU for support when organizing the trip, he said.
As a person who works in healthcare, McCray said the risk of a ruptured pipeline is a health concern.
“If that were to happen here, that would have a drastic impact,” he said.
McCray said he believes “we’re definitely at a critical point in history.” It’s time, he said, to take human rights seriously, to call for civil rights and environmental justice, and to show solidarity with people who are having their lives’ threatened.
“If we let people pollute water in North Dakota, they can pollute water anywhere.”