The Dakota Access Pipeline Protests Are Exposing Some Of The Darkest, Most Persistent Issues In The US

2 years ago Matthew Taylor

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This past weekend, over 120 protestors, journalists, and filmmakers were arrested in North Dakota for putting themselves in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline project. While this is the largest group of arrests yet to take place during this protest, the past couple of months have seen repeated instances of violent force and violations of constitutional rights by police and private security as well as the silencing of journalists and media.

This resistance is highlighting some of the darkest, most persistent issues inherent to US systems and institutions and the continued violent removal of indigenous people from their land. These protests deserve our attention and support.

Background of the Pipeline

The proposed 1,200-mile pipeline is projected to run through four states, transporting up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, where it will be shipped to refineries. While climate activists and environmentalists are protesting the pipeline with the obvious intent of preventing further carbon emissions, the particular path of this pipeline poses a very unique problem.

Namely, it threatens to tarnish drinking water and destroy sacred cultural sites for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who have lived and worked and engaged with this land since long before any of the institutions and companies that are now violently removing them even existed in the Americas.

Who the land actually “belonged” to prior to its sale to Energy Transfer Partners—the Texas-based development company behind Dakota Access and the pipeline—isn’t entirely clear. Of course, “ownership” in this case is a tenuous and fraught notion. The frustrating and baffling complexities are laid out very well in this piece from The Atlantic, but suffice to say for our purposes that a claim to this land by anyone besides the Sioux must trace its origins to European Christian colonial theft.

Ensuing treaties rightfully gave the land back to the Standing Rock Sioux, but it was then stolen again under threat of starvation, and eventually parceled out for homesteads and reservations. Still, it was overall understood to belong to the federal government thanks to the “doctrine of discovery,” a euphemism for violent theft if ever there was one.

And regardless of ownership, Native Americans have a right to be consulted about development of their tribal land under federal law. The sacred burial sites and cultural artifacts on this land should have made the issue even more pressing. However, consultants for the Dakota Access Pipeline evidently relied on survey information from the 1980s rather than conducting their own independent survey, meaning that they didn’t take any of the recently discovered sites into account.

The Standing Rock Sioux filed for an injunction to halt development while the court looked over new evidence of these sacred sites. Within 24 hours—before the court had a chance to even begin considering the injunction—Dakota Access began construction in precisely those contested areas, most likely destroying them permanently.

The Water Protectors

Rather than using the term “protestors,” the people standing against the pipeline have identified themselves as water protectors. One of the most fundamental issues at stake, after all, is safe drinking water—now and for future generations. Water is acquiring an increasingly political significance in the US, as access to clean, untainted drinking water becomes an issue for those who need it most in places like Flint, Michigan.

The water protectors are not, however, only from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. According to the Los Angeles Times, this past weekend’s encampments included “[n]ative peoples from across the United States and Canada, and as far away as Central America and Norway, along with thousands of nonnative supporters.” And even though firsthand reports say that the water protectors are using exclusively peaceful protest tactics, violent force has been repeatedly deployed against them.

Pepper spray, attack dogs, and unconstitutional arrests of citizens and journalists for trumped-up “rioting” charges have been among the escalated measures taken. Jihan Hafiz, a freelance journalist, told the Guardian “I’ve covered conflicts overseas, and I never imagined I would see this kind of show of force against peaceful people. This is the kind of thing you see in the Middle East.” She was arrested just hours after her arrival last Saturday.

This past weekend was the first instance of water protectors moving their encampment directly into the path of the pipeline, crossing the threshold into private property. Because this was an opportunity to get bodies behind bars on charges of criminal trespassing, Governor Jack Dalrymple called in the National Guard to assist sheriff’s deputies from as far as Wisconsin as well as police (many of whom are in riot gear) from Morton County.

In response to the unwarranted violent force used by authorities and the silencing of media and dissent, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II has called on the Department of Justice to “impose an injunction to all developments at the pipeline site to keep ALL citizens – law enforcement and protesters—safe.” Archambault claims that “[t]he militarization of local law enforcement and enlistment of multiple law enforcements agencies from neighboring states is needlessly escalating violence and unlawful arrests against peaceful protesters” and that “[i]t is because of the behavior of the state that these tensions are heightened.”

A witness told the Los Angeles Times that authorities were indiscriminately macing peaceful water protectors at the front lines of the protest. “[The water protectors] were begging them to stop. It is a little bit horrifying,” she said. A similarly disturbing report was given to the Guardian“‘They’re saying that we’re rioting when we are just standing there in prayer,’ said John Red Legs, a 31-year-old Standing Rock member who was arrested over the weekend. ‘I started singing and that’s when they started tackling me.'”

What This Says About The USA

The Dakota Access Pipeline is the perfect storm to cultivate anger and awareness in people even peripherally interested in issues of social and environmental justice. Even generally complaisant moderate liberals who remain happily unaware of more subtle systemic injustices are bound to be moved by the destruction of culturally significant sites, the pollution of drinking water, and violence deployed against peaceful protestors of all ages, all for the sake of unfettered corporate greed. Rarely outside of children’s stories are good and evil delineated so neatly.

It is critical that we are vigilant and vocal about not allowing this issue to seem isolated. Power takes similarly insidious forms all throughout society; it is just especially explicit in this instance. Treating this an aberration rather than an exceptionally pronounced illustration must be avoided if we aim to raise awareness and consciousness.

People tend to talk about structural violence or property-as-violence as abstract or metaphorical, particularly in academic settings. Here we see that the violence is not just conceptual, but quite literal. Standing Rock is a typical instance of the nebulous distinction between private and public in the US, where a powerful private corporation is able to use state-sanctioned (i.e. public) violence against the disempowered people, whose land has suddenly become private.

Violence puts a prompt end to discussions, negotiations, and critical thought. The property “rights” of Energy Transfer Partners are maintained because the police and other authorities who come to their aid control the means of violence. Of course, this is nothing new; Native Americans have a long and tragic history of being dispossessed of their land by violent theft. But when we take property rights as a given, as many people do, we neglect to confront the uncomfortable fact of how that property came into being to begin with. There’s no reason to think that the Sioux would not still live on their land if not for those first colonial land grabs.

Structural violence is metaphorical in the sense that it is often not deployed, but it is always understood as a potential outcome. Violence doesn’t always (or usually) need to be enacted as it is in North Dakota right now; it often functions just as effectively when it remains a threat. But we risk misunderstanding if we don’t acknowledge that structural violence is not just an intellectual concept but that it also happens, in the most literal sense possible.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is an example of property being obtained and protected for powerful, dominant forces to the severe detriment of the people who rely on and have cultivated a connection with the land. We can see as clearly as ever how police really serve to protect private property and wealth over human rights and wellbeing.

Activists and leftists should offer any and all support that they can to Standing Rock. The water protectors are an exemplary model of resistance, hope, and the struggle for human rights. What we must avoid and correct is the narrative of Standing Rock as a standalone problem. In addition to saving the Sioux land, this can serve as a rare opportunity to cultivate awareness in people who tend not to think critically about power, greed, and state-sanctioned violence in US systems and institutions.

We are a new blog intelligently reporting and analyzing current events through a leftist lens. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and reporting with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.