Co-written by Winona Laduke and Zoltan Grossman
So you joined law enforcement or the National Guard because you wanted to uphold the law, protect innocent civilians against the bad guys, and help your community in times of need. Instead, they’re having you blockade unarmed people who are trying to hold a prayer vigil, chasing them with armored vehicles and ATVs, raiding their tipis and sweat lodges at gunpoint, and shooting them (and their horses) with pepper spray, concussion grenades, tasers, and rubber bullets. You thought you’d be the cop on the beat or the citizen soldier, and they’ve made you into the cavalry riding in with Custer.
If you signed up for the National Guard, you swore a solemn oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States”against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This is a good time to read the text of that Constitution, including the First Amendment that prohibits abridging the free exercise of religion, or “the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Article Six of the Constitution defines “all Treaties made” (including those with Native nations) as “the supreme Law of the Land.”
The religious rights of Native people are further enshrined in the Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, both of which have been literally plowed under by the Dakota Access Pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners and Enbridge even hired private security goons, who on September 3 unleashed attack dogs on Native people praying to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” On October 27, praying people holding tobacco and sage had their arms stomped until they released the offerings. Impersonal numbers were written on the arms of the arrestees, who were held in dog kennels. Genuine law enforcement or military wouldn’t take sides or turn a blind eye to these shameful violations of constitutional rights, but protect the lives and property of all residents, whether Native or non-Native. If you deny others their humanity, you lose your own humanity.
Yes, some of the water protectors are trespassing on private property and locking themselves to pipeline construction equipment. Their actions are part of a long tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of tyranny, from Henry David Thoreau to Martin Luther King Jr. Remember the Boston Tea Party, in which rebellious Americans posing as Indians took direct action against British tea taxes? The only real difference at Standing Rock is that they’re not posing as Indians. When we visited there, we met many prayerful people who were justifiably angry — what if an explosive oil pipeline or train threatened your home, your drinking water, or your kids’ school?
Yes, many of the water protectors are from out of state, but they were invited by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, with one of the conditions that they don’t have weapons. The state of North Dakota has invited out-of-state armed police and unaccountable private security thugs, all to defend a corporation from Texas. Some of the police have come as far as Ohio and Wisconsin (and what self-respecting Packers fan would side with a corporate franchise based in Dallas?). Why is that that armed white militia members, from out of state and uninvited, are acquitted in Oregon, but invited, unarmed Native people are being criminalized and assaulted in North Dakota?
The trend of state security forces being turned into private corporate security is hardly unique to North Dakota. In his book Resource Rebels, Al Gedicks documents how Nigeria set up a special internal security force to crush Ogoni protests against oil leaks and pipeline explosions. Shell Oil not only admitted funding and arming the military force, but provided access to its boats and helicopters. The commander of the force wrote that Shell operations would be “impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” When Ijaw women led protests against Chevron’s oil pollution, the company flew in police and military personnel that killed unarmed protesters.
Gedicks also documented how in Colombia, “human rights abuses have risen dramatically in the areas with the most intense oil activity,” such as death squad killings and disappearances. BP and Occidental contracted with military units and private security firms to guard their oil pipelines, and BP gave photos and videotape of Indigenous community organizers to Colombian military units, which proceeded to arrest and kidnap them as “subversives.” One army unit even sported a shoulder patch with an oil derrick.
In Ecuador, police and military units have recently repressed protests by Amazon Indigenous communities against oil drilling and oil access roads in the Yasun rainforest reserve. The repression echoes previous governments’ militarization around ARCO and Texaco drilling operations, including detention without charge and torture. Are these the kind of security forces that you’d be proud to be part of, merely appendages of Big Oil? These governments criminalize dissent not because they’re afraid of illegality; it’s because they’re afraid of legal dissent winning the day. They know, just as North Dakota Governor Dalrymple knows, that if the movements grow and gather support, they have the power to stop oil pipelines from damaging their land and water.
It seems impossible that the mostly-built $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline could be defeated. But that’s what happens when industries go into decline — corporations lose some of their enormous profits. The Bakken oil fracking boom is already starting to bust, from lower oil prices and declining well yields. When the nuclear power industry similarly went bust in the 1980s after the Three Mile Island accident, utilities abandoned mostly-built reactors worth up to $2.5 billion ($6 billion in today’s dollars). Why violate treaties and the Constitution for a pipeline that may carry less oil than anticipated, and eventually none at all? In a so-called “free enterprise” system, it’s not your job to prop up energy companies and guarantee returns for their shareholders. It’s your duty to defend the Constitution.
In North Dakota, National Guard personnel are ordered to staff checkpoints, with concrete barriers and lights modeled on Traffic Control Points in war zones like Iraq. At least one of the private security firms guarding the pipeline, TigerSwan, has also worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. Police officers are given trainings that demonize citizens exercising their First Amendment rights as the enemy, and are deployed to prevent legal demonstrations from taking place, even on public property. Outside agencies come in with hyped-up intel briefings and sensationalized scary videos that blow a few of the pipeline confrontations out of proportion.
But guess what? If the Native water protectors continue to be injured or worse, the conflict will only polarize and escalate, and you (and your department) will be left holding the bag. After the outside briefers fly home, you’ll be left with the public relations disasters, crippling security costs, and expensive lawsuits. And are you absolutely certain that your own department won’t hang you out to dry, by refusing to stand behind its “bad apples” who violently violated constitutional rights?
For Guard personnel, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Article 92) establishes a duty to obey lawful orders, but also a duty to disobey unlawful orders to that are clearly contrary to the Constitution. “I was just following orders” is not a legal defense for harming or violating the rights of civilians. If you feel you are being given an unlawful order to do so, you can legally send an “appeal for redress” to Congress that is protected under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. You probably know quiet, creative ways to “work-to-rule,” and share vital information about unlawful actions, to help slow down the madness. And if in doubt, you can always kneel and pray for guidance.
You’re probably being kept in a bubble of skewed briefings and biased media coverage. But it is our hope that this letter will be shared widely so it reaches you through your friends and family (DoD Directive 1325.6 allows military personnel to possess one copy of unauthorized printed material that is “critical of government policies or officials”). We hope that you read it with an open mind, and act according to your conscience. As the German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote on the eve of World War II, “General, your tank is a powerful vehicle. It smashes down forests and crushes men. But it has one defect: It needs a driver…General, man is very useful. He can fly and he can kill. But he has one defect: He can think.”
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