Today, we recall the images of police violence against civil rights protesters with horror. The scenes of African-Americans standing up for their basic human rights and being met with police billy clubs, water cannons, and dogs shocked the entire world and helped push the federal government to take long overdue action to defend human rights at home. Pictures and newsreel footage of these events are frequently found in media and educational curriculum, making sure this shameful history remains in our collective conscious as a nation.
Right now, similarly shameful scenes are taking place in Standing Rock, North Dakota and we should react with the same collective sense of horror and urgency.
A Shameful History Leads to the Present Moment
For hundreds of years, the United States government has engaged in systematic violations of the human rights of indigenous peoples. This legacy of colonialism is alive and on full display in Standing Rock. The Standing Rock Sioux are protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which was rerouted due to the threat a potential spill posed to the water supply of Bismarck, North Dakota. Yet, the new route crosses over the Missouri River, the lone water source for the Standing Rock Reservation. A spill here would be no less poisonous, it is just considered to be acceptable, because the people impacted are deemed more disposable. This legacy is also on display in the reaction of state and local law enforcement to the peaceful protests of the Standing Rock Sioux to protect their drinking water. Military style checkpoints. Pepper spray. Rubber bullets. Mass arrests. Sound cannons. Surveillance.
Mass Arrests, Inhuman Detention
In the week proceeding October 23, 2016, police arrested 268 protesters, with 141 arrest being made on Friday October 28 alone. Thanks to social media, many across the world not only followed the events of the 28th thanks to the tweeting of participants, but watched–thanks to a livestream–as the events unfolded. The entire world could see heavily armed, militarized police with tanks responding to a protest.
In addition to the brutality that was broadcast in real time for the entire world to bear witness to, protesters reported that after they were arrested they had numbers written on their arms and they were kept in dog kennels. When asked about this the Morton County Police Department stated
“Temporary holding cells (chain link fences) have been installed into the Morton County Correctional Center and are used for ‘mass arrest’ situations only”
Reports of protesters being held in chain link fences come on the heels of reports that those arrested, including for minor offenses, are being subjected to strip searches. When it comes to arresting and detaining protesters, humiliating and degrading treatment appears to be the norm.
Social Media: Surveillance and Solidarity
On October 31st, people from across the world “checked-in” on Facebook from Standing Rock. While the overwhelming majority of these people had most likely never been to Standing Rock, they were engaged in an act of solidarity with the Water Protectors–and against police repression.
The mass of “check-ins” came in response to a call that made its way across Facebook informing people that the Morton County Police Department was using social media to surveil, harass, and arrest Water Protectors. Although the Sacred Rock Camp has since clarified the initial call did not originate with them and the Morton County Police Department has claimed they do not use Facebook “check-ins” to track or monitor protests, the hundreds of thousands of “check-ins” from Standing Rock propelled not only of the issue of the Water Protector’s struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but the issue of the ongoing police repression the Water Protector’s have faced, into the national spotlight.
Although the Morton County Police have denied specifically using the “check-in” feature to monitor protests, the Sacred Stone Camp told online fact-checking website Snopes, that “There is no doubt that law enforcement comb social media for incriminating material and monitor communications.” An activist on the ground had previously reported similar claims to the Dissent NewsWire. This should not come as a surprise, as there have been repeated revelations about law enforcement using social media to monitor, track, and even arrest protesters.
The Federal Response
A member of the Red Owl Law Collective, which defends the rights of protesters at Standing Rock, alerted the Dissent NewsWire to a letter sent by the North Dakota Congressional delegation asking President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch for federal support for the local law enforcement that was actively engaged in repressing dissent at Standing Rock.
We can gauge what a disaster federal support for law enforcement repression would be based on the impact the presence of out of state police officers has had on escalating state violence. Thanks to the Emergency Management Assistance Pact, which allows states to share law enforcement resources during “emergencies,” law enforcement agents from five different states have been on hand to arrest, detain, and intimidate protesters. Prior to the Standing Rock protests, this law has only ever been used in response to a protest once–in Baltimore, Maryland during the protests in the wake of Freddie Grey’s death in police custody. After a Madison, Wisconsin Alderperson was arrested at Standing Rock while acting as a legal observer, the Dane County, Wisconsin Sheriff’s Department withdrew 13 police officers from North Dakota.
In stark contrast to the North Dakota Congressional delegation, one member of Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has sent a letter to President Obama asking for the Justice Department to send federal observers “to protect the First Amendment’s right to protest the pipeline.”
Take Action: Send an email to President Obama asking him to send federal observers
Standing with Standing Rock
Since the protests at Standing Rock began, police have continuously resorted to heavy handed tactics aimed at crushing dissent. Police have been deployed with military style weapons, in military style gear, and with military style vehicles, such as tanks. Protesters have not only been subjected to police brutality while protesting, after being arrested and detained they have been subjected to humiliating and degrading conditions. While we do not know the full extent of surveillance of protesters, it is clear that law enforcement is closely keeping tabs.
None of this can be separated from the legacy of colonialism and racism that indigenous people have been subjected to. Standing Rock does not stand alone in US history as an instance of state violence perpetrated against indigenous people; it is merely the latest act in a long historical trajectory. The disproportionate police response to peaceful protests is part of not only a history of repressing dissent, but also a history of depriving indigenous people of their basic human rights.