An environmental protest has come to resemble a warzone in recent days as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA, have become flash-points of violence between police and protesters. News outlets have reported that the Police and National Guard have used sound cannons, tasers, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean bag-firing shot guns in their attempts to disperse the protesters. As of 3 November, more than 400 protesters have been arrested and charged with various offences, The Guardian reports.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is a US$3.8bn oil pipeline that will transfer oil from the Brakken oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery near Chicago, Illinois. It is a project of the Texan company, Energy Transfer Partners.
In April 2016, members of the Native American Standing Rock Sioux tribe rode out to establish camps to act as bases to protest against the pipeline. The pipeline is planned to run near the tribe’s sacred sites. They argue that the construction of the pipeline will destroy these sites and damage their cultural heritage. In addition to the cultural risk, the pipeline is slated to cross under the Missouri river, the main water supply of the first nations people living in the area.
The camps were established in response to a change of plans for the construction project. Originally the pipeline was planned to cross the Missouri near the city of Bismark, the second largest city in the state of North Dakota. However, the plans were changed when the residents complained to the company that the pipeline would threaten their water supply. In this case, however, the affected locals have had to resort to disruptive protests in order to have their voices heard by the government and Energy Transfer Partners. Tribal elders allege that the proposed changes in the plans for the pipeline were made without consulting the tribes. It is alleged that such a decision is in breach of federal law and the US’ treaty obligations with the first nations peoples.
Although the protesters have committed to peaceful and unarmed protests, they were met recently by the National Guard and local Police in riot gear and armoured personnel carriers, sparking the escalation of the protests. In response to the provocative presence of quasi-military government forces, the protesters built barricades, setting them alight to slow the advance of the Police and National Guard. The government forces have attempted to dismantle the camps, tearing down temporary structures and dispersing the people.
The reaction of the Police and National Guard and their overwhelming display of force highlights the alarming trend of the increasing militarisation of the United States’ Police forces, and the increasingly authoritarian response to groups exercising their democratic right to protest. These groups are often ethnic minorities. Even more alarming are reports of human rights violations by Police and the National Guard. Many protesters have complained of rough and aggressive treatment at the hands of law enforcement, being locked in cages and being subjected to invasive body searches.
A more inclusive decision-making process, involving all stakeholders and affected parties could have avoided this confrontation, preventing unnecessary delay and disruption to the project as well as unnecessary injury to peaceful protestors.