In 2016, two protests were held over the use of public land. It would seem reasonable that the law enforcement authorities would respond the same to each situation, but that was not the case.
The Malheur Refuge Standoff: In January, armed militants seized the headquarters of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon to protest the conviction of Dwight and Steven Hammond for arson on federal BLM land. The charges were brought because the fires had endangered the lives of firefighters. Ammon Bundy, the son of the anti-government protester Cliven D. Bundy, led the protest. The militants declared the federal government had no authority to manage the federal lands and demanded that the federal government cede ownership of BLM federal lands and the refuge to the state.
The group was heavily armed and expressed a willingness to engage in armed conflict to keep from being removed from the refuge The authorities did not try to forcibly remove the protesters from the refuge. The standoff ended when cold weather and a lack of provisions caused the leaders of the militia to abandon the headquarters. They were stopped on US Route 395 by federal authorities and arrested. Bundy was slightly wounded during the arrest and Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who had declared he would not be taken alive, was shot and killed by law enforcement officers while drawing his gun. Eventually 26 protesters were arrested and charged with felony conspiracy, but they were not convicted by a jury of their peers.
The Dakota Access Pipeline Standoff: The production of oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota has increased dramatically in the last few years. To move the oil to market, the Dakota Access pipeline was proposed to carry 500,000 barrels of tarsands-like crude oil per day through North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois. The pipeline was originally scheduled to cross the Missouri River just north of Bismarck, but Bismarck residents were concerned that pipeline leaks would contaminate the city’s water supply. The Dakota Access Partners claimed that the pipeline would not leak, but that was not a credible claim. There have been several dozen leaks in pipelines in 2016 alone, with two recent ones in northern North Dakota and near Bismarck.
To placate the Bismarck residents, the pipeline was rerouted South where it would pass under Lake Oahe, just one half mile above the Standing Rock Sioux tribal land. (See map.)The Sioux were concerned that leaks would contaminate their water supply, that the construction would disturb their cultural sites, and and that the Bismarck resident’s concerns were given greater weight than theirs. The approval of the second route had been fast tracked by the US Corps of Engineers without a proper environmental or archaeological study, and without consultation with the Sioux nation. By law, any federal agency overseeing a construction project has to consult with native nations or tribes if there are places with “religious and cultural significance” nearby.
The Sioux also had a claim to the land under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, and they sued in federal court to block the construction of the pipeline. They asked for an injunction to halt the construction until the case was settled, but the injunction was denied and construction of the pipeline continued. In October, the Standing Rock Sioux organized a protest just north of the reservation to block the bulldozers from clearing a path for the pipeline. When the protesters were set upon by dogs used by the private security for the pipeline, the the protest made national news. Protesters from across the country began arriving to support the Sioux until as many as 3000 protesters were camped in the area. The authorities called in help from other agencies and about 100 officers and private security officers arrived to police the protesters.
On November 20, in subfreezing temperatures, some of the protesters tried to clear the road of debris so medical assistance and supplies could reach their encampment. An altercation ensued with the security forces, who unleashed water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades in a military-style assault on the unarmed protesters. According to sources at the scene, a dozen protesters were critically wounded or sustained head injuries and were rushed to the hospital, while 168 were treated for hypothermia and pepper spray exposure on-site. One woman may lose her arm after it was injured by a concussion grenade. The UN has denounced the governor of North Dakota, the Morton County sheriff, and the Dakota Access mercenaries for rights violations and inhumane treatment over the incident.
The Corps issued notice that on December 5th they would close public access to the Standing Rock encampment, and threatened “prosecution under federal, state, or local laws” of those who remained, declaring that the decision “is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcement officials.” There were no public citizens in the area except the protesters, and the threat of violence came mostly from a heavily militarized law enforcement response, which had called in help from over 76 different law enforcement agencies. In response, over 2000 veterans pledged to protect the Sioux from law enforcement actions and they began arriving at Standing Rock.
On December 4, the Corps decided they would not issue the final permit for construction of the pipeline. Perhaps they were concerned about the legality of the permitting process, but more likely they were persuaded by the public outcry and the possibility of provoking an altercation involving an attack on veterans. The construction is halted for the time being, but the corporations involved have declared that the pipeline will be built. Further altercations are likely.
Questions: There is a sharp contrast in the way the two protests were handled. The main questions center around the timing: “Do armed protesters have a right to seize and hold public property until they decide to relinquish it? “, and, “Does the state have a right to use physical violence on unarmed people protecting their land and water, to expedite a billion-dollar corporate project?”
(c) 2016 J.C. Moore