There’s something so poetically beautiful about standing up for what you believe in. In a world where there are innumerable forces trying to pull us apart, turn us against each other and bruise our humanity, people fighting those forces — working together — to affect change in pursuit of a better world is more beautiful and deeply moving than any other piece of art.
I have always been fascinated by protests. All throughout middle and high school, I was obsessed with reading and watching as much as I could about historical protests (such as those for women’s suffrage and against the Vietnam War) as well as those that continue to remain a part of our societal discussion (such as those for gay marriage and environmental issues.) I think I have always been drawn to protests also because they are (supposed to be) a peaceful means to drawing the attention of those in power and initiating change. Although it can be overlooked, peaceful protests can be a powerful tool, and have been throughout American history.
Today in America, we are seeing more and more people showing up to protest various injustices committed by various entities including police, government entities, corporations and, simply, people with xenophobic beliefs. However, the ways in which each group of protestors conducts their campaign varies greatly.
Earlier this year, I was working at a small rural newspaper in Oregon just a few hours away from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge at which a group of armed protestors took over the refuge in protest of unfair government regulations and restrictions regarding land owned and utilized by ranchers. The situation soon became extremely tense, as various governmental agencies became involved, creating a hostile environment in the surrounding city of Burns. The takeover lit a fire in ranchers across the state, including our own county, to examine the statements in the constitution about landownership and protest, as well as to continue the conversation about land regulation as it relates to ranchers and their livestock. I was charged with covering a local gathering of ranchers who supported the takeover and desired to understand their rights and how they could become a part of the protest without becoming violent. and creating a similar situation in Malheur County.
And people were angry. One speaker even talked about being followed, singled out and searched at gunpoint at a government checkpoint outside Burns. I would definitely be angry, and scared.
They weren’t only angry about the laws that they were protesting, but they were also seething about the treatment they received from law enforcement because they were protesting. Which, I could definitely understand, but really what did they expect when they went in armed? Of course they were going to draw law enforcement and create dangerous tension. Now, I am not saying that the shooting of rancher and occupier Robert “LaVoy” Finnicum was justified at all. But because they were armed, it made an incident like this almost unavoidable, in a sense.
Now, compare this to the current protests taking place in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Members from almost all Native American tribes across the nation have shown up in solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe in an attempt to halt construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The problem is that the pipeline will run straight through Native lands, which protestors say will impact the water supply as well as sacred burial sites.
Hundreds of protestors, including various civil rights activists and celebrities, have shown up to participate in the protest and show their support for the Native tribes that would be negatively impacted by the pipeline. And up until recently, the protest has been completely peaceful — activists marching and chanting and spreading the word via social media — only to be met with threatening, militarized law enforcement. Actress and activist Shailene Woodley live-streamed a day of the protest on her Facebook (see video: “The Riot Police are Arriving”) in which you can hear protestors telling police that they are unarmed, raising their empty hands.
Then, on Friday, over 100 protestors were arrested while also being tear-gassed and hit with bean bags from bean-bag guns by police in full riot gear. According to several articles I read, some of the protestors had started fires or chained themselves to items at the camp from which they were being forcibly removed by police. Now, there are also reports that protestors created small bomb-like devices they used to start fires along the highway. So, what started as a completely peaceful protest has escalated out of frustration and resulted in overreaction by police, in my opinion.
There are several questions and concerns being raised about the validity of various arrests of Standing Rock protestors, including that of Woodley. And those are definitely valid in my eyes, as it seems some protestors were singled out over others for no apparent reason. Yet the protest continues on.
Overall, I think the driving cause behind both of these protests are extremely valid and the intentions of the protestors are well-placed. I believe legislation on both of these issues should be re-examined and reworked in order to respect those that the legislation effects instead of placing sole priority on money.
In comparing both of these campaigns I have to say that the occupiers definitely went about expressing their views in completely the wrong way. This is a prime example of bringing about your treatment through the way you act. I think the DAPL protestors began in exactly the right way: peacefully and united. But now it seems frustration is driving them to more extreme methods. Because of this, I urge them to return to their original strategy. I really don’t want to hear of another death due to misplaced anger, tension and misunderstanding.
On Friday, it was also reported that the seven main occupiers were acquitted of their charges in court. I disagree with this verdict. I think they should have faced some sort of repercussions for conducting an armed takeover and inflicting such pain and emotional stress on the residents of Burns, and Oregon. And many others feel the same way.
I suppose this would give us a bit of hope that those DAPL protestors arrested on charges much less serious for crimes much less dangerous, will also be acquitted.
I’m still trying to process the acquittal and the continued reports coming out of North Dakota.
However, my main concern is that we are forgetting our humanity in the wake extreme passion in the form of protest. We are forgetting the principles on which the act of protesting was founded and subsequently added to our Constitution. We are not listening (or are refusing to acknowledge) wrongdoing and the arguments being made, in a respectful manner. And in the end, the humanity of law enforcement (and in some cases protestors) falls by the wayside in the face of anger and fear. If this continues, nothing will change and nothing will get done. And all of the hard work of respectful and methodical protestors will be for not. And that, in and of itself, is unacceptable.
For the record: I support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and all of the protestors working to halt DAPL. But please, don’t let your frustration get the best of you. Our country was founded on slow, painstaking work, not violence. Things will change if we continue the conversation through respectful avenues, which definitely include protest.
Again, protest can be a forceful tool to affect change. But it must be used in the right way.
What do you think about the protests of DAPL in North Dakota? What do you think about the occupiers’ acquittals? How can protests be used correctly and effectively to affect change? Let’s talk.