Equal Justice for All: Dogs, Water Cannons and Collective Memory

November 1, 2016 Betsy Theobald Richards

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

What is our democracy without our right to peacefully protest? Our justice system is supposed to keep all communities safe and treat all people fairly, even when groups come together to speak out against the unjust: segregation, wars, racial profiling, and corporate greed. These most basic first amendment rights also apply to the Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors and their allies, gathering to pray at a camp known as Oceti Sakowin (near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation) that stands in the way of the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Stand with Standing Rock
Artwork by Josh Yoder

According to organizers of the protest, the construction of DAPL would “engender a renewed fracking-frenzy… [and]… endanger a source of fresh water for the Standing Rock Sioux and 8 million people living downstream [of the Missouri River]. DAPL would also impact many sites that are sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux and other indigenous nations.” It is important to note that an earlier proposal for the Dakota Access pipeline had it crossing the Missouri River north of Bismarck, ND but authorities were concerned about the risk of poisoning the capital’s drinking water should there be a spill.  No such concern from the authorities seems to exist about the safety of North Dakota’s tribal peoples.

Thousands of sovereign Lakota and Dakota peoples that could be physically, ecologically, and spiritually harmed by the pipeline are literally being held at gunpoint to accept what Bismark’s authorities and citizens rightly refused.

Unfortunately, #NoDAPL’s indigenous-led resistance is being met with outsized use of force that does not serve the goal of safety and security for the community. Last week, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch formally requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate police abuses.  As Tribal Chairman David Archambault stated in the letter: “to many people, the military tactics used in North Dakota are reminiscent of the tactics used against protesters during the civil rights movement some 50 years ago… but to us, there is an additional collective memory that comes to mind… this country has a long and sad history of using military force against indigenous people – including the Sioux Nation.  I would like to think that those days are past – and that today Tribal rights cannot be ignored and military force cannot be used to suppress Indian people.”  The protestors face hundreds of heavily-militarized police in riot gear armed with automatic rifles, tear gas, mace, dogs, concussion grenades, and sound cannons, and flanked by National Guard-driven Humvees, armored police trucks, private militia vehicles and more.  Thousands of sovereign Lakota and Dakota peoples that could be physically, ecologically, and spiritually harmed by the pipeline are literally being held at gunpoint to accept what Bismark’s authorities and citizens rightly refused.  

Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Archambault’s letter calling for an end to the harms of an unnecessarily militarized police force echoes the hopes and aspirations of millions across the country from Baltimore to Tucson, Baton Rouge to Detroit.  As Creative Change alumni and Apache artist Douglas Miles posted: “if you were maced, shot or arrested yesterday in #NorthDakota… know this:  without a doubt you have joined an amazingly long list of honorable, wise and patient defenders and pushers for liberty before you of many nations, kindred and tongue.  Malcolm, Rosa, Cochise, Cesar, Sitting Bull, Leonard, Nelson and the list goes on…”

There are steps citizens from across the country can take to support #NoDAPL and to end the militarization of the police, both on the reservation and across the country.  You can go to the official Sacred Stone Camp website and learn from the organizers how to put direct pressure on government and corporate officials to halt the pipeline. The website also provides guidance on how to support and protect Standing Rock’s protesters. 

In addition, you can take action to hold police accountable across the United States by urging Congress to adopt and implement the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2015, H.R. 1232. This legislation has been introduced to the House and prohibits the Department of Defense from transferring military equipment that is not suitable for law enforcement purposes to federal and state law enforcement agencies. 

Finally, check out The Opportunity Agenda’s newest Criminal Justice Policy Solutions report, Transforming the System, for further information and messaging advice on how to talk about the militarization of the police. We all need to answer the call by standing with Standing Rock.