Lawyer Jeff Haas, by Eric Deweese
On the day before his seventy-fourth birthday, civil rights attorney Jeff Haas was at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the phone with a New York City radio station. A producer for WBAI was hoping to arrange a call-in interview a few days hence at exactly the hour Haas would be driving from the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, to an urgent meeting at the encampment where he volunteers under the auspices of the National Lawyers Guild.
But there was a problem: Much of the thirty-five-mile route from the airport to the tract of Army Corps of Engineers land where a group called Water Protectors is occupying Red Warrior Camp, Sacred Stone Camp, Spirit Camp, Oceti Sakowin Camp, and others, is beyond the reach of Verizon’s cell phone towers. In the end, Haas had to travel to the tribe’s casino “where the reception is good.”
Haas frequently drives the two-lane oil road known as Highway 1806, named for the 1806 expedition made by Louisiana Purchase cartographers Lewis and Clark. It’s worth noting that neither the sale of native homelands west of the Mississippi River nor the mapmakers’ expedition were ever consented to by native peoples. In fact, Lewis and Clark were so roundly rejected by the Oceti Sakowin (the proper name for the Sioux) that the explorers characterized them as “the vilest miscreants of the savage race.”
That history is alive today as the Standing Rock Sioux try with all their political might and spiritual power to run off another uninvited intrusion—this time by the Dakota Access Pipeline. As proposed, the more-than-1,000-mile pipeline, transporting oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, would run under Lake Oahe, the source of the tribe’s drinking water, and ultimately under the Missouri River, the source of drinking water for more than 12 million Americans.
With the arrest of Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II, along with dozens of other Water Protectors committed to nonviolent direct action to stop “the Black Snake,” the National Lawyers Guild put out a call to attorneys willing to travel to this remote part of North Dakota to provide legal defense to the tribe. Haas, who in 1971 participated as a Guild lawyer in the aftermath of the Attica prison uprising, responded to the call, in part because of his great respect for the Guild’s approach to helping in societal crises.
“We endorse the movement strategy,” he says. “We do not come in as lawyers and tell people what to do.”
Haas has an extensive background in mass defense from his days as a lawyer for Black Panthers and co-founder of the People’s Law Office, a Chicago lawyers’ collective that rose up to meet its historical moment—the defense of hundreds of Vietnam War protesters in the aftermath of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party convention. The People’s Law Office would go on to challenge police brutality and prisoner torture, achieving significant victories and key vindications.
Among other victories, Haas and his partners won a famous wrongful death action on behalf of Fred Hampton’s family, in a lengthy trial that exposed the raid on Black Panther headquarters and the assassinations of Hampton and Mark Clark as the handiwork of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Hampton had been targeted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who sought, in his own words, to “prevent the rise of a [black] messiah.”
Haas recently recounted this history in Stanley Nelson’s 2015 documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. He has also published a detailed memoir about the case, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Lawrence Hill Books, 2010). Along with the blurbs by Ramsey Clark and Studs Terkel praising Haas’s first-person historical account, there is a touching statement on the back cover by Fred’s ninety-four-year-old mother, Iberia Hampton, with whom Haas remains close:
“People should not forget that State’s Attorney Hanrahan, the Chicago police, and the FBI murdered my son. This book tells the story, not only of Fred’s death, but also of his life. At twenty-one Fred was already a great leader. Who knows what he may have become, if they hadn’t killed him?”
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, also weighed in: “It ought to be mandatory reading in law schools.”
For the Standing Rock Sioux, Haas brings his criminal defense experience to a legal team whose half-dozen members are mostly experts in Indian and environmental law. Haas, who describes himself as a “movement lawyer,” was attracted to the struggle by a confluence of issues—the human right to clean water and matters of native sovereignty and treaty rights—and by the historic coming together of more than 200 native tribes and nations, including the Crow (traditional enemies of the Sioux) in unified opposition.
“When people dig in and take a stand, it mobilizes other people,” Haas explains. “When people put their lives on the line and say this is it, we’re not going to take it anymore, giving up their normal lives—that gets my juices flowing.”
Haas experiences the camps as a communal place of peace, prayer, and solidarity. “When you’re in the camps, there’s an ebb and a flow based on the sunrise and sunset, meals and actual experience. Going back to the hotel and seeing what the media has said, how things are being played, can be a little surreal.”
He was there when security guards sicced dogs and sprayed Water Protectors with pepper spray, an episode captured on tape by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, who was later charged with misdemeanor “criminal trespass.”
“We thought there was agreement not to continue to do construction,” Haas says, “but there were four massive bulldozers digging the trench for the pipeline.” The guards eventually called off their dogs, got back in their trucks and left. The people yelled, “Don’t come back.”
Afterwards, there was a ceremony at the graves that had been desecrated by the bulldozers. “It was beautiful,” Haas says. But it couldn’t erase the “total lack of caring for the people and concern for these sites.” As Haas puts it: “It was cultural genocide. And it really dug people in. It reminded me of how Palestinians feel when their houses are being bulldozed.”
Haas is regarded by some Santa Feans as a polarizing figure for disrupting a rally for Senator Tom Udall with his Democratic colleague Senator Al Franken, in order to protest the invasion of Gaza, and for mounting a controversial sign on private property visible from a well-traveled public roadway in his own neighborhood. The sign, which displays messages condemning U.S. military aid to Israel and the apartheid conditions of the Israeli occupation, is occasionally vandalized. When it said, “Don’t Erase Palestinian Lives,” someone gouged out the first word of the message. Undaunted, Haas swapped the sign out for a new one that connects the Black Lives Matter movement with the struggle for Palestinian liberation.
“Supporting Palestinian issues is polarizing, unfortunately,” Haas says. “Because Israel’s done a good PR job in conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”
In Haas’s view, “Water is Life” is a message that unifies many struggles, from Palestine to Standing Rock. He holds the leaders who’ve been communicating the message so effectively from North Dakota in high esteem.
It’s not clear whether the encampment can survive the harsh conditions of a North Dakota winter. But the company that hopes to build the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, is counting its mounting losses not only in terms of outlays for idle equipment and personnel, but also in terms of missed profits. The energy company was hoping to have the pipeline up and running by the fourth quarter of 2016.
Haas believes that continued delays at the construction sites and continued pressure on the commercial lenders funding nearly all of the project’s $3.8 billion cost could yet doom the pipeline.
“There are a lot of possible outcomes because of the determination, bravery, and solidarity of the Water Protectors,” he says. “They’ve put a barrier in this pipeline and given strength to the Keep It in the Ground movement and the fight for sovereignty of Native Americans over their own lands.”
As the lawyers were quickly leaving the camp one day to attend to the release of several arrested Water Protectors, one asked a security guard for the time. Admiring the legal team hell-bent on pursuing justice for his people, and without looking at his watch, he smiled broadly and called after them: “It’s Indian Time!”
Since then, it’s been something of a mantra.
Frances Madeson is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist and the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village.