Power Imbalance at the Pipeline Protest
ACTIVISM, 28 Nov 2016
23 Nov 2016 – When injustice aligns with cruelty, and heavy weaponry is involved, the results can be shameful and bloody. Witness what happened on Sunday [20 Nov] in North Dakota, when law enforcement officers escalated their tactics against unarmed American Indians and allies who have waged months of protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
They drenched protesters with water cannons on a frigid night, with temperatures in the 20s. According to protesters and news accounts, the officers also fired rubber bullets, pepper spray, percussion grenades and tear gas. More than 160 people were reportedly injured, with one protester’s arm damaged so badly she might lose it.
The confrontation happened at Backwater Bridge, on a highway linking the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Bismarck, N.D. Burned-out trucks and a police barricade have made the bridge impassable. Protesters say this is a needless threat to public safety — forcing emergency vehicles to detour about 20 miles — as well as a spiteful attempt to keep them away from the pipeline construction site. The violence erupted after some of the protesters tried to remove the truck carcasses on Sunday.
“We’re just not going to let people or protesters in large groups come in and threaten officers, that’s not happening,” said the Morton County sheriff, Kyle Kirchmeier. The Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page linked to a video of the armed and armored officers, the water cannon drenching the crowd, and a rock flying overhead.
The pipeline, all but built, is meant to ship crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Built almost entirely on private property, the pipeline crosses ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux, passing less than a mile from the tribal reservation. Tribe members fear contamination of their drinking water and damage to sacred sites. They are trying to persuade the federal government to deny permits allowing the pipeline to cross the Missouri River near their reservation.
The department’s video was meant to portray the protesters as dangerous troublemakers, but the photos and videos in news reports suggest a more familiar story — an imbalance of power, where law enforcement fiercely defends property rights against protesters’ claims of environmental protection and the rights of indigenous people. American Indians have seen this sort of drama unfold for centuries — native demands meeting brute force against a backdrop of folly — in this case, the pursuit of fossil fuels at a time of sagging oil demand and global climatic peril.
The Army Corps of Engineers has called for more study and input from the tribe before it decides on whether to grant a permit. The pipeline company has asked a federal judge to give it the right to proceed with its plan to lay pipe under the river. There is no firm timeline for either decision.
In the meantime, President Obama could step in to protect everyone’s safety and pressure the sheriff’s officers to stand down. Barring that, resolute protesters, a heavily militarized police force unwilling to budge, a company that refuses to consider an alternate route and an onrushing Great Plains winter — how can this possibly end well?
A version of this editorial appears in print on November 23, 2016, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: Power Imbalance at the Pipeline Protest.
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