Local artist Matthew Crane has always sought to be a standup guy.
A freelance painter, Crane has stood up for organized labor, and even met his wife, Megan, at a Labor Day parade. And while many of his peers headed off to college from high school 14 years ago, Crane stood up for his country by joining the Navy, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
On Sunday, he will be standing up for protesters at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, deploying with up to 2,000 other military veterans to protect protesters blocking access to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Local law enforcement and private security forces armed with military grade weapons and attack dogs have been involved in confrontations with the protestors. The idea behind "Veterans Standing for Standing Rock" is that security forces there might be more inclined to exercise restraint towards military veterans if they join the peaceful protest.
"It's not just enlisted people," said Crane recently, while taking a brief break from exhibiting his artwork in a cavernous, third-floor studio at 567 Exchange St.
"We have a lot of retired officers, as well. So this is a fully organized battalion that's mobile and trained and ready to go. As a regional team leader, I'm just going to be organizing our commute in the vans and the charter buses and such for all the veterans from the Western New York area and, possibly, Ohio and Pennsylvania, to get our volunteers to Standing Rock," added Crane, who has traveled to North Dakota to join the protest.
The goal is to keep the protest, which has been ongoing for months, peaceful.
"It's going to be a loud statement when you have 2,000 veterans arm-in-arm, walking towards militarized police," said Crane. "Are they going to gas us and shoot rubber bullets at us on live TV? They might."
National celebrities and thousands of ordinary citizens have already joined in protesting construction of the 1,100-mile underground oil pipeline which is nearly 90 percent done. If completed, the $3.8 billion project by Energy Transfer Partners will carry about 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day from northwest North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil tank farm in southern Illinois.
Several Native American tribes, including those from different Sioux nations, have argued that the location of the pipeline near sacred tribal lands poses an environmental hazard, particularly with regard to the pipeline's proposed proximity to a lake water intake that is a source of drinking water.
Crane, who grew up in the Southtowns near Buffalo, sees the protest as a matter of defending right against wrong, in this case, the rights of marginalized citizens under siege over corporate interests. As an enlisted man, he said, he took an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution from enemies, both foreign and domestic.
"That's an oath everybody in the military takes. The oath doesn't expire when you get out. That's another reason for this, because this is very much a domestic enemy situation. You have a really big corporate interest basically taking advantage of and strong-arming a native community that doesn't have the resources and money that they have, and it's threatening the Earth. It's threatening humanity, and it's just wrong on so many levels," Crane said.
He said it would not be the first time, post military service, that he joined in an organized effort to come to the aid of fellow citizens in need.
"In 2009, I was working for Western New York AmeriCorps and I was deployed to Silver Creek for a flood cleanup there. I led a disaster team, right here, as a civilian," Crane said.
He also took part as lead project manager when the ABC TV show "Extreme Makeover" organized an extensive renovation of a West Side Buffalo home, along with scores of other local volunteers in service to a needy family several years ago.
"There's so many veterans that... have skills. We have all these skills from our experience in being deployed and helping people, and building operating commands and stuff to help. You have those skills and you get back into the civilian work space, and I've been discharged for 10 years now and it's really hard to find a place to put that kind of energy and those skills," said Crane.
Crane served in the Navy from 2002 to 2006, and did a a combat deployment in 2005 to Kuwait and southeastern Iraq. He said he was never comfortable with the idea of coming back home to sit on his laurels upon his discharge from military service.
"For someone like me, it just burns in me. There's no way I could not be a part of that," he said of the Standing Rock protest.
"I protest whenever I can. I'm a big pro-union person. I'll go stand on a picket line with anybody if the cause is just," said Crane.
A Facebook page created to promote Sunday's deployment to Standing Rock advises participants to "bring body armor, gas masks, earplugs and shooting mufflers" because it warns, protesters may be facing a sound cannon that can produce pain-inducing sounds even for those at a great distance. Even with that daunting advisory, Crane is not fazed.
"This is not something for you if you're afraid to put yourself in harm's way," he said.
Story topics: Local