A Tale of Two Protests

As we sit down to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner we might wish to ponder a bitter irony. On this day of feasting to commemorate harmony with Native Americans, those very people are struggling to protect what little land they still possess. Since last spring a group of Lakota Sioux and their supporters have protested construction of an oil pipeline through sacred territory near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Environmentalists have added their voice to those of indigenous people, warning of ecological disaster should the pipeline, which will pass under Lake Oahe and the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, leak.

What makes this affair even more distressing is the response it has elicited from authorities, especially when one contrasts that response with how law enforcement handled another high profile incident. On January 2, 2016, a group of militants seized a building at a wildlife refuge in Oregon in retaliation for the conviction of two ranchers on arson charges and in protest of government land policy. The men came heavily armed prepared for a violent confrontation. Instead of removing them, local and federal law enforcement agencies cordoned off the area and allowed the situation to deescalate over two months.

The Standing Rock protesters have been met with a much more forceful response. In September security guards working for the pipeline construction company unleashed attack dogs and pepper spray against them. Armored personnel carriers were deployed to clear a camp, and police have fired tear case and rubber bullets. Allegations of stun grenades being use have been made but not substantiated. On November 20, police employed water cannon to soak protestors in below-freezing weather, exposing them to the risk of hypothermia. Amnesty International has stated that it is "deeply concerned about how police in North Dakota have treated Indigenous community members and their allies opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline."

The handling of the two incidents reveals disturbing trends in how law enforcement agencies respond to demonstrations. The militarization of some police forces has encouraged them to deploy equipment and tactics inappropriate for peaceful protests. There has also been a tendency to use greater force against people of color than against White Americans. The Standing Rock Sioux have filed a legal challenge to the pipeline. Until the courts resolve the case work on the project should be halted. This action would deescalate the situation before someone is seriously injured or killed.