A militarized response to a peaceful protest has no place in a civilized democracy. Such a response shows how our government systems often seek to protect the profit interests, at the expense of the marginalized. And that’s what we see as the government tries to shut down the protests at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, although this time the protesters appear to be winning. The stand-off there between protesters and law enforcement around the $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline has exacted the Obama administration’s promise to look for a new pipeline route, away from the reservation. Protesters complain that the pipeline would violate sacred native land and threaten the area’s water supply. Although the protest has been successful so far, in that it has brought the issue to light and may peacefully accomplish its goal of forcing the pipeline to be rerouted, the law enforcement violence it has inspired is deeply troubling.
The response to the protesters has been riot gear, heavy arms, soldiers driving trucks and military Humvees, and air coverage from helicopters and an airplane. And this militarized response must be viewed in the context that Native Americans face more police violence, more police shooting deaths, higher sentencing disparities, and more racial profiling than any other group in our society. Echoing civil rights era violence, law enforcement maced, beat with batons, attacked with dogs, and shot rubber bullets at pipeline protesters. One journalist, Erin Schrode, inadvertently filmed a police officer shooting a rubber bullet at her at point blank range while she was peacefully interviewing someone on the outskirts of the protest.
Water protectors were also tased or sprayed with an unknown irritating white substance that turned their skin red and was extremely painful.
This militarized and violent response to a protest is not acceptable. Our country was founded on genocide against the people who were here and has oppressed Native Americans ever since. Native Americans are only .8 percent of the population, yet are three out of the top five age/race demographics of groups most likely to be killed by law enforcement. The pipeline protests shine a light on the police violence against Native Americans, an inexcusable response to exercising our First Amendment right to protest.
The protesters have valid complaints. Considering that the pipeline was shifted from its original direction because federal regulators saw it as a threat to Bismarck, North Dakota’s water supply, protesters’ complaint that the pipeline would run under the Missouri River – the reservation’s only water source – just upstream from the reservation is a valid grievance. The Dakota Access pipeline planning likely violated requirements of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and indisputably violated federal laws that required the government to consult with the local Native nation and collaborate throughout the planning process. Sacred native lands have already been bulldozed, in an attempt to moot any court issues about preserving them, and there is more destruction to come if the plans continue to go forward. The risk to clean drinking water is plain. But on a more general level, our country is founded on the principle that people should be allowed to protest, regardless of whether or not they have truth and justice on their side. The right to protest does not hinge on whether you are correct or whether your values outweigh countervailing profit interests. The First Amendment is meant to protect all of us. When peaceful protests anywhere are met with military vehicles, violence and rubber bullets, we must all stand up against the injustice.