Eleven months ago, a group of armed militants piled into a couple of pickup trucks and headed for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Once there, they took control of the headquarters building, stationed armed guards around the perimeter and began issuing ominous threats of violence unless the federal government relinquished control over 1.4 million acres of national forest.
Just for good measure, they named their merry band of flag-waving commandos the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, underscoring their bizarre belief that as individuals we all have a constitutional right to simply take, at gunpoint, land and property that belongs to all of us collectively.
The government responded the same way parents react to a child’s tantrum: quiet patience. Authorities adopted a strategy of waiting out the offenders, at one point attempting to gently nudge them back into the real world by offering them a police escort out of the county if they’d just quit misbehaving.
But, as so often happens when the right to bear arms collides with one’s right to be stupid, the freedom fighters’ campaign ended in bloodshed. In a confrontation with police, one of the men was shot and killed as he reached into a pocket containing a loaded gun. After that, most of the rebels gave up, went home or were carted off to jail. Eleven pleaded guilty to an assortment of criminal charges, but a jury last month acquitted seven of them on conspiracy and weapons charges.
Now, contrast the manner in which law enforcement responded to the armed takeover of federal land in Oregon with the way it has responded to Native Americans and others protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. As currently planned, this pipeline will transport crude oil more than 1,100 miles from North Dakota to southern Illinois, and in the process it will cross a major waterway near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation.
In September, shortly after construction workers bulldozed North Dakota land that tribal leaders consider sacred, protesters flooded into the area. As local police watched, a private security company used pepper spray and attack dogs on unarmed demonstrators. Local police later claimed the protesters were violent, swinging fence posts and brandishing knives, but the available video suggests otherwise.
That video, which was broadcast repeatedly on national television networks, prompted the police to issue an arrest warrant for the journalist who shot it. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was charged with rioting — a charge that, thankfully, was later tossed out by a judge. McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson admitted that Goodman’s arrest was based in part on the content of her reporting. “She’s a protester, basically,” he said. “Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”
Then, late last month, National Guard troops and police from a half-dozen states cleared out a protest camp that was blocking roads and highways. Using armored personnel carriers, they advanced on the protesters until a tribal elder physically placed himself between the demonstrators and the authorities, then turned to his people and said: “Go home. We’re here to fight the pipeline, not these people, and we can only win this with prayer.”
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There’s no question that many of the Dakota Access protesters are engaged in civil disobedience, so fines and citations are entirely justified. But the private security firms, the police and the prosecutors have gone far beyond that. Their actions are so heavy handed they seem designed to inflame the situation and to encourage violence. Several Native Americans have reportedly been jailed and strip-searched for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct.
When one compares that sort of overreaction to the government’s low-key response to the good ol’ boys who brandished guns while seizing a wildlife refuge, one has to wonder how much a role race plays in all of this. After all, the federal government has a long and thoroughly documented history of disrespecting the rights of Native Americans — right up to, and including, genocide.
The police and the National Guard have a duty to keep the peace in North Dakota, but they’re also obligated to use the minimum force necessary — not just to protect the rights of protesters, but also to avoid a needless escalation in hostilities.
As Amnesty International has already observed, “confronting men, women, and children while outfitted in gear more suited for the battlefield is a disproportionate response.”