Almost everyone who came to Standing Rock repeated the same legend. Someone, maybe Crazy Horse, had made a prophecy a long time ago—probably in the late 1870s—about the looming destruction of the planet. The “who” and “when” parts of the story were always fuzzy, but the prophecy was always the same: the “black snake” of darkness and discord was going to infect the land, seeping into the fires and air and water, spreading conflict and violence, and threatening the reciprocal relationship between humans and the earth. The second part of the prophecy predicted that in seven generations, young people—“the tip of the spear”—would rise up and kill the black snake, and restore order and harmony.
Like many folktales, this one can be neither entirely proven nor disproven. What mattered was that in 2016, roughly seven generations after Crazy Horse’s death in 1877, many of the people who traveled to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation believed it to be true.
Starting in 2016, people began traveling from around the country to resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, wanted to pump half a million barrels of oil a day underneath the Missouri River, which could threaten the drinking water for the Standing Rock reservation and destroy sacred Lakota burial sites. Elders spoke of the pipeline as the “black snake” of the prophecy. Dozens of visitors to Standing Rock turned into thousands. They arrived through the summer and fall of 2016, living in tents, eating communal food, and engaging in nonviolent protest and meditation to serve as “water protectors.” The 2016 election came and went, and still the water protectors stayed on, undeterred in their spiritual resistance. About a month after Trump was elected, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to join them.
Ocasio-Cortez often mentions her journey to Standing Rock as a pivotal moment of political awakening. Over the course of reporting my book, The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, I found hours hours of previously unreported live video footage of her road trip to Standing Rock posted to her personal Facebook page, under a slightly different name. The trip opened her eyes to the connection between environmental degradation and racial injustice, a link which underpins her Green New Deal plan. And the livestream — which represents the most comprehensive account of this moment in her life—displays a growing mastery of social-media communication that would ultimately take her from unknown activist to progressive celebrity. These Standing Rock videos are a glimpse of a crucial moment of political evolution, the last few moments of her civilian life, just before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the bartender became Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the congressional candidate.
After Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016, New York City was in a deep funk. The subway was full of people wincing at news alerts on their phones; coffee shops were full of depressed conversations about what had gone wrong and why they hadn’t seen it coming. Just after the election, Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez sat in his car during a rainstorm and typed a letter on his phone nominating his sister Alexandria to run for office with an upstart liberal organization called Brand New Congress. Neither of them thought anything would come of it. Gabriel mostly did it to pass the time until the rainstorm stopped.
Amid the doom and gloom, Alexandria and her bartending buddy Maria Swisher decided they needed to get out of their bubble. They wanted to hear from people outside New York to get a sense of how Trump’s election could have happened. A road trip to Standing Rock, they figured, could bring them some answers.
They started a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy firewood, wood-burning stoves, sleeping bags and cots for the water protectors struggling through the sub-zero winter in North Dakota. The plan was to drive the supplies to Standing Rock while livestreaming their road trip on Facebook so their friends could follow along and donate to the cause. Another friend, Josh, came along for the ride. “If you want to help us fund the trip, you can Venmo us,” Alexandria said into the camera with a wink. She proved to be surprisingly good at this form of online fundraising: they asked for a few hundred dollars, and reached their GoFundMe goal in a single day. It was a skill that would come in handy later.
As soon as they drove Maria’s borrowed 1998 Subaru out of Manhattan onto the George Washington Bridge, they started livestreaming. Their video, which they called “the Road to Standing Rock,” would live for years on Alexandria’s personal Facebook page, undiscovered by the press even as she became one of the most famous women in America. Now, Alexandria’s Instagram videos get thousands of viewers. This one had dozens.
Maria did most of the driving at first, and she had one main goal: not dying. She almost ran over a pedestrian in the beginning but swerved just in time. It wasn’t that Maria almost killed him, Alexandria said—more like she “reminded him that he was alive.” Alexandria said that all her friends had been texting her to make sure she wasn’t the one behind the wheel, because apparently everyone thought she was a terrible driver. “Rude!” she said.
The plan was to drive through New Jersey and Pennsylvania and head to Cleveland, Ohio, where they would crash with one of Alexandria’s friends from college. After Ohio, they were going to Flint, Mich., down through Indiana and up to Minneapolis. They would leave Minnesota and get to Standing Rock with enough sunlight to set up camp. It would take them three days, two nights, and countless snack runs. They ate Hot Cheetos and did car sing-alongs to “No Scrubs” by TLC. As Alexandria put it: “How many Red Bulls does it take to get three millennials to an Indian reservation?”
She was beginning to learn how to think on camera, how to have conversations with people in the comments, how to bring her viewers along for the ride and deliver her opinions in stream-of-consciousness lectures that were at once natural and informative. It was the birth of a social media persona that would define her later political career. It also meant they got lost a lot. “Every time we turn on the Facebook Live, we make a wrong turn!” Alexandria said. “We’re working on it, people.”
The whole trip had the feel of a college bull session. They talked about media narratives around racism. They talked about whether Bernie Sanders would have beat Trump. They talked about how unfair it was that white homeowners could block new housing that could threaten their property values but the Sioux couldn’t block an oil pipeline that could poison their drinking water. Somewhere during the long nighttime drive between New Jersey and Cleveland, they started talking about the media. “CNN has made me so mad this year. The New York Times—so disappointing, the institutions that we’re supposed to rely on,” Alexandria said. “I think a lot of Americans are really angry at the fact that the media just sold out to Hillary Clinton.
“I voted for her,” she continued, “but we have a problem in this country with elitism.” She was starting to say that Hillary was “immensely qualified, immensely intelligent,” but she got interrupted because Maria got off at the wrong exit. Josh, it turned out, was not great at giving directions.
“I think a lot of people were frustrated that the media was trying to make the news, and trying to determine the candidates instead of reporting on them,” Alexandria said as Maria tried to find their way back to the route. “I think people got really frustrated at that.”
“The bias was so obvious,” Josh said.
Maria, who was from Missouri, said she had always been skeptical about Clinton’s chances in the Midwest. Everyone had been focused on whether Bernie was electable enough to carry the South, she said, but they should have been worried about whether Hillary could carry the Rust Belt. “There are places that went for Obama that didn’t go for Hillary,” Maria said. “Maybe misogyny was stronger than racism in the United States.”
“I think that’s so dumb, when people say, ‘Oh, this country is more sexist than it is racist,’” Alexandria replied. She pointed out that Hillary didn’t make a single visit to the United Auto Workers in Michigan. Of course the unions weren’t going to organize for her if she didn’t show up to see them. “Democrats have also been spoiled by Barack Obama because he had one of the strongest organizing campaigns that we’ve ever seen, and I think that’s what it takes,” she continued. “It takes that ground game.”
They stopped at a Quick Mart to buy coffee, and the transaction was handled by electronic kiosks instead of human cashiers. “What do we do about technology eliminating jobs? What should be done?” Alexandria said when they got back into the car. They talked about how AI could replace everyone from administrative assistants to programmers, and nobody’s job was really safe. “We can’t always be just relying on our elected leadership for answers,” she said. “We need to look to ourselves for answers.”
Day two began with Alexandria in the driver’s seat. They got up at what she called “the butt-crack of dawn” to make it to Flint, known as ground zero for environmental racism. The children in the mostly black city were suffering from lead exposure after state-appointed emergency managers had switched the municipal water source, and then insisted the contaminated water was safe to drink.
After meeting with local leaders in Flint, Alexandria and Maria were horrified. “I was really asking a lot of questions, trying to figure out, like, why did this breakdown happen? And where did it start? Were local politicians bought out? Was it the state? Is it a bureaucratic thing?” Alexandria told her Facebook Live audience, which had by then grown to a couple hundred viewers. “And it seems as though, like, when you connect some of these disparate thoughts, it all does come back down to the influence of money in politics.”
It reminded her of why they were doing this in the first place. “You’re always going to hear: ‘Protesters are rabble-rousers, they’re troublemakers, protest doesn’t do anything, it’s ineffective,’’ she said. “Protest galvanizes public sentiment, and when public sentiment is galvanized to a certain extent, then that turns into public pressure, and then when public pressure is applied to a certain extent, then we get policy change. That is how protest works.”
It was her theory of change, in a nutshell—the first glimmer of an attitude would carry her through her first two years in Congress, which were more about harnessing public sentiment than passing specific pieces of legislation. This would become the Ocasio-Cortez doctrine: Shape public opinion first, and the laws would follow.
That’s why she was so annoyed that people kept asking her why she was going to Standing Rock. They’d say, “This isn’t your issue,” but what they really meant, she thought, was, “This is someone else’s problem.” As if they couldn’t understand why she would care enough to physically drive from New York to North Dakota to be in solidarity with a tribe she didn’t belong to, on land she’d never seen. “It goes back to this fundamental value, I think, where we are one,” she said, still driving. “We are one nation, and what happens to some of us happens to all of us.”
Alexandria continued, impassioned to the point of distraction. “When children’s water is being contaminated in Flint, it is my business,” she said. “And when people’s lives are in danger because their sovereignty is at risk, it is my business, because a threat to you is a threat to me. And to close my eyes in the face of my neighbor’s injustice only opens the door to my injustice.”
She missed the exit.
“That was us,” Josh said.
“Fuck,” she said quietly.
“Hey,” her mother piped up in the comments. “Watch it.”
On the fourth day, they arrived at Standing Rock. It was dark when they got to camp. Somebody was playing the flute. Everybody made eye contact with them, and strangers gave them long hugs. It was the most intimate mass gathering that Alexandria and Maria had ever seen. They were given a tent and a wood-burning stove and zero-degree sleeping bags. The organizers thanked them for coming, and asked if they needed any clothes or food. There were boxes filled with donations: headlamps, portable batteries, and food all piled up together next to signs that said “Please Take Care of One Another” and “Take What You Need.” When Alexandria’s socks got soaked through, somebody offered her a fresh pair.
There was no money or trade or bartering, and the cell phone service was bad, which meant it was difficult for them to livestream from the camp itself. When they got a signal, Alexandria and Maria told their viewers the camp was totally clean, even though nobody was in charge of trash. There was a sort of intensity to the interactions there. It reminded Alexandria of a show she had seen at the Museum of Modern Art once, by a performance artist named Marina Abramović who would sit in a chair and stare directly at whoever was in the chair opposite her. People sat there and stared back, or tried to talk, or cried. The point was that it was a direct connection unmediated by technology or pleasantries.
On the surface, Standing Rock was a battle between corporations and the people who owned the land. But to Alexandria, it went deeper than that: it was a moral struggle, a spiritual confrontation, a standoff between the present and the future. It was as if there was a motion behind them, a momentum of some kind. The feeling was so powerful that Maria had been overcome at a rest stop and started to cry.
Every morning the camp woke up before dawn so they could watch the sunrise together. There was a guy who would go around with a microphone, like Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, to deliver a cheery wake-up call to the camp.
“Good morning, all you no-DAPL-onians,” he said in his low, sing-song voice. “Remember why you’re here.”
He drew out his words into a tuneless song. “You’re heeeeeere for a reeeeeeason!”
That reason would soon become clear. Alexandria’s journey to Standing Rock, she told me later, was the first time she realized just how much power was concentrated in the hands of fossil-fuel companies. The long, caffeinated drive connected “a lot of different dots,” she said. She realized that the black families drinking poisoned water in Flint and the indigenous activists shivering in North Dakota were not separate from the rising sea levels threatening Puerto Rico or Miami: they were all part of a broader national crisis, which was that the big money was on one side and environmental justice was on the other.
“When you actually see an issue up close, it truly changes the urgency and the intensity with which you see that problem,” she said. “For some folks they may have a relative that got addicted to opioids; for other people it may be because their house got foreclosed on in 2008. And for me it was my experience at Standing Rock.”
On the drive out of the reservation, Alexandria got a call from an unknown number. When she picked up the phone in Maria’s borrowed Subaru, a voice on the other end of the line said they were calling from Brand New Congress. They wanted her to run for the House of Representatives in New York’s 14th district.
Excerpt adapted from THE ONES WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR by Charlotte Alter, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Charlotte Alter. Because Alter uses first names to describe the figures in her book, Ocasio-Cortez’s first name is used in this piece.