Note: This article was written before the US Army’s decision to not allow the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River.
Many may already be familiar with the current heated topic of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the resulting protest but in light of recent events and to avoid confusion with other countless such protests, it deserves a look into its unique circumstances. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is an 1172-mile new pipeline designed to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois; to do this it will have to traverse 4 states and dozens of counties. The pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners LP claims the construction will transport oil in a “more direct, cost-effective, safer and environmentally responsible manner”.
The grassroots movement against the pipeline started since April and is situated in Standing Rock N.D., a Native American Reservation. The Sioux tribe initiated it, although it has now grown beyond that, and many others have joined in. On social media the campaign is characterised by the hashtag #NoDAPL and has gained international attention. The demonstrators call themselves “water protectors”, as the reason for their protest is that the pipeline runs through the reservation’s only water source and several sacred sites. This relates to long-running Native American traditions of protecting the land instead of destroying it.
The Sioux Tribe claimed that some ancient spaces including burial sites have already been destroyed by the construction.
Whilst the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners LP wrote, in September, that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded”, there is ample evidence to the contrary. According to EcoWatch, 220 “significant incidents” have been reported just this year. EarthJustice, assisting the Sioux Tribe in suing the US Army Corps of Engineers, have stated that in 2010 and 2015 two pipelines spilled 1,000,000 gallons and 500,000 gallons of crude oil into rivers in Michigan and Montana respectively. Pipeline malfunctions and spills are not uncommon, and when they do happen they severely compromise water sources, flora and fauna in the area. Such developments contribute to expanding corporate interests and control of the market by fossil fuel companies. The pipeline also threatens locations of cultural and archaeological importance. The Sioux Tribe claimed that some ancient spaces including burial sites have already been destroyed by the construction.
According to ABC, protesters spent Thanksgiving Day continuing the resistance and added that the day was not truly one of celebration for them, considering the circumstances. The tribe feels the pipeline not only flies in the face of energy and environmental progress, but also exemplifies ethnic tensions in the country. Dallas Goldtooth, on the ground, said that “what is happening in North Dakota is just a mere continuation of 500 years of colonization”.
The controversy made headlines again on 20 November when, on that Sunday night, as the temperatures dipped below freezing, the police doused the crowd with water cannons. As a result dozens were hospitalised with hypothermia and even physical wounds from the sheer force of the cannons. Law enforcement also shot into the crowd with rubber bullets and used pepper spray. Consequently, many more were hospitalized with internal bleeding, fractures and even seizures.
These “crowd control” measures are obviously harmful and subjectively controversial but unfortunately allowed within law enforcement policy. However, the throwing of a concussion grenade, an act that is certainly not permissible, caused the most traumatizing act of violence. The grenade hit environmental activist Sophia Wilansky in the arm and exploded on impact. North Dakota police officers have released statements claiming that the explosion was caused by propane bombs set by protesters but witnesses claim seeing her get shot at with rubber bullets then hit with the grenade and on-site medics confirm the wound is “entirely consistent” with a grenade explosion.
The following Monday a press conference was held with the police department where they claimed that the protesters were aggressive and described the peaceful demonstration as an “ongoing riot”. The Morton County Sherriff, Kyle Kirchmeier, defended the actions of the battle-clad riot forces on site, saying: “Some of the water was used to repel some of the protest activities that were occurring, and it was used at a time where they were aggressive towards the officers.” A Mandan police chief named Jason Ziegler asserted that law enforcement “can use whatever force necessary to maintain peace”.
The aggression and self-justifying attitude of the police departments comes on a wave of publicly condemned cases of police brutality, generally with regards to the poor or minorities. In the past decades American police departments have become heavily militarised, expanding the amount and range of weaponry and riot gear they have available and the intensity of police responses seems to have escalated as well. Although African Americans are affected disproportionately, statistics show that police brutality is on the rise across all demographics. There is massing public outrage against these injustices and misuses of force but within a cocktail of tension, hunger for power, inadequate training, fear, animosity and plenty of heavy weaponry it is not difficult to see why this keeps happening. It is plain to see that massive restructuring and demilitarisation of police forces across the United States is necessary.
At the risk of falling into cliché territory, power corrupts; being given absolute agency over the lives of human beings and the tools to employ that agency will lead to abuse. The brotherhood configuration of police departments enables this abuse further by encouraging officers to have each other’s backs even if that means putting out false statements. Moreover, in a philosophical discussion about moral failings we tend to forget the cold economics of the situation and the billions of dollars that weapons corporations stand to gain from such displays of violence. Without urgent action the situation will escalate. The friction and mistrust between the public and law enforcement is already high.
as the temperatures dipped below freezing, the police doused the crowd with water cannons.
Social media has played an active role in providing support and publicity for the protesters. From people merely sharing their opinions, contributing to GoFundMe campaigns, to celebrities like Shailene Woodley getting arrested in a show of civil disobedience in October, the protest has gathered public and international sympathy. This has helped earn tangible assistance in the form of people, food and money to continue the resistance. It has also helped make up for the scarce coverage of the topic and the violence on “traditional” media sources. The tribe’s concerns are familiar to many citizens who have had laws passed, pipelines built, fracking done, and other dangerous practices carried out against their wishes, despite their protests and with no regard for anything other than crude profit.
It is difficult to point to one cause for the atrocities committed at the Standing Rock DAPL protests, it being an amalgam of runaway capitalism, extreme inequality, police militarization, abuse of power, cultural tensions and disregard for the environment. In view of all these factors reality may overwhelm the best of us but helping is a collective effort, so the campaign has used social media to spread its message through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and even setting up their own website, standwithstandingrock.net.