Activists count on winning an economic battle
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Stupid tactics have a way of backfiring. Months into the escalating protests and police reaction surrounding the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, it’s possible to look back and see where the pipeline’s builders messed up — badly.
First was the decision to build close to the Standing Rock reservation, which provoked the protests. Then on Sept. 3, guards hired by Dakota Access — a subsidiary of the Dallas-based firm Energy Transfer Partners — sicced attack dogs on protesters as construction crews plowed through a Sioux cultural site, wounding six protesters before the guards fled in their vehicles.
The assault infuriated the crowd as the Internet show “Democracy Now!” captured it on video.
Dakota Access’s use of a security company which unleashed dogs — without licenses to handle them — on Native American protesters was brutal, stupid and a disaster for the company. Video spread globally and helped entrench opposition to the pipeline.
“Basically, what it looked like was a bunch of alligators at the end of leashes being put on the Native Americans there that are protesting,” Jonni Joyce, a police dog trainer and consultant later told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “It absolutely was an egregious use of canines.”
The protesters’ ranks swelled. But nearly three months later, guards with dogs have been replaced by more professional — but still severe — police tactics which have provoked criticism from civil liberties groups.
These tactics include police in riot gear with tear gas canisters, beanbag launchers, baton-round guns and sound cannons. The police, collected from multiple state agencies, also have military hand-me-downs including Humvees and armored MRAP vehicles — meaning mine resistant, ambush protected.
On Nov. 20, police turned water hoses on protesters, who allegedly threw rocks and logs at officers, in below freezing temperatures.
VIDEO: Shots fired + tear gassed unprovoked into crowd of #WaterProtectors in Ceremony #NoDAPL #StandingRock https://t.co/PKg7gsNa0R
Following the use of water cannons, the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate the police tactics. “This is worth standing up for — these brutal police tactics are not appropriate or just,” the ACLU stated.
The Justice Department needs to step in NOW and demilitarize Standing Rock https://t.co/hI5pJkixEB
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared that protesters encamped north of the Cannonball River will be expelled by Dec. 5 — which would encompass the sprawling Oceti Sakowin camp near the proposed pipeline route.
The protests center over a plan by the Corps to allow Dakota Access to extend its $1.6 billion oil pipeline under the Missouri River. Were the pipe to break, protesters are concerned its oil could threaten the sole source of drinking water for the Sioux reservation at Standing Rock.
However, the protests have taken on much larger dimensions, as The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaleson described on Nov. 11. With the issue of climate change ignored by the national media during the presidential election, the Dakota Pipeline protests became the center of a strategy by environmentalists to raise attention to the issue — and raise the costs of the fossil fuel business.
While the company insists the pipeline is safe, the Corps previously ruled out an alternative pipeline route north of Bismarck due to the risk of a break polluting the city’s drinking water. If the pipeline crosses the Missouri farther downstream near Standing Rock, Bismarck is protected.
Activists have pointed out the unavoidable racial dimensions to the shift toward the reservation, as Bismarck is more than 90 percent white. Then, as Michaelson pointed out, there was the Bundy family’s October acquittal after their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which further mobilized the pipeline’s opponents.
But primarily, the protesters are relying on an economic strategy. Every month the pipeline stands still, Dakota Access loses $83 million. While oil prices have recovered slightly, they’re still down significantly from their 2008 high, squeezing the energy industry further. And the protesters are costing the company far more than they’re spending by blocking the pipeline.
At the site, the protesters make do with burned-out vehicle blockades, rocks and homemade shields made from wood and plastic. Medics tend to the injured in climate-controlled structures.
But there’s also division within the Oceti Sakowin camp over aggressive tactics embraced by some of the activists, and residents “overwhelmingly point to a young crowd of campers” as starting the vehicle fires which blocked access from Standing Rock to Bismarck, according to the Associated Press.
Now the future of the pipeline and protests depend on at least two overriding factors. The Corps is studying the feasibility of rerouting the pipeline away from Standing Rock — likely farther north along like Missouri. The company, for its part, wants the pipeline built so it stops hemorrhaging money.
Pres. Barack Obama has ordered a suspension of the pipeline’s construction while the Corps studies alternatives. But there’s no telling if Donald Trump — who has a personal financial stake in Energy Transfer Partners — will revert to the Corps’ original plan after he takes office in January.
Then there’s the Corps’ warning that the Oceti Sakowin camp will be cleared in early December. But as previous examples of force directed at protesters show, excessive and military tactics — worst of all if someone is injured or killed — can lead to further escalation. Activists elsewhere in United States are also studying what happens at Standing Rock, and will seek to learn from its lessons.