On Thursday, hundreds of riot police in North Dakota used pepper spray, batons, helicopters, mine-resistant armored vehicles, and a sound cannon to uproot Native American demonstrators occupying the construction route of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. They arrested 141 people who say the pipeline has destroyed sacred sites and in the event of a spill would contaminate drinking water on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Also on Thursday, an Oregon jury acquitted Ammon Bundy and six other "Patriots" of felony conspiracy charges stemming from their occupation earlier this year of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Southern Oregon. The Bundy crew, which included dozens of other armed protestors, opposed what it considers unlawful ownership of federal lands. Occupiers barricaded themselves inside federal buildings for six weeks, swaggering in front of news cameras with pistols strapped to their hips and rifles slung over their shoulders, before finally being evicted by law enforcement officials.
At first blush, the scenarios seem similar: a group of passionate activists commit civil disobedience in the hinterlands to protest issues that seem beyond their control. But the particulars are quite different, and understanding them illuminates how America’s centuries-old myth of the noble cowboy and savage Indian has taken contemporary form in white privilege and institutional racism. The simplest evidence of the disparities between the protestors at Standing Rock and the ones at Malheur can be found by looking at how each group has been portrayed in the media and treated by law enforcement.
There are three key differences between these two groups: the Bundy militia was white, armed, and staged inside a federal compound on public land; the Standing Rock demonstrators are mostly Native American, they have enforced a “no-guns” rule at their camp, which, until three days ago, was also pitched on public land. The clashes with police occurred when protestors moved onto private property recently purchased from a rancher by Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer, builder of the 1,172-mile oil pipeline from the Bakken to a refinery in Illinois.
Upon moving camp, Standing Rock protestors opened themselves up to charges to trespassing, a crime that provided police with clear justification to disperse them. The Bundy clan, on the other hand, was charged with the murkier count of conspiracy to prevent federal employees—that is, refuge workers—from doing their jobs.
When the Bundys made their stand, news networks arrived immediately, beaming footage of Ammon Bundy and LaVoy Finicum fielding questions in camouflage jackets and cowboy hats. In one perplexing CNN report, a reporter describes the Bundy camp as “peaceful,” claiming “we saw no guns,” even as guns appear in the footage.
By contrast, Standing Rock protestors, who number in the thousands, have been largely ignored by national television news. Many of the reports that have trickled out relied heavily on statements from North Dakota officials, who often portray the Native Americans as dangerous. On August 17, for example, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said protesters “were preparing to throw pipe bombs at our line.” Although he did not provide evidence of the explosives, the claim found its way into the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Tribal officials speculated that he mistook their public invitation to visitors to “pack their pipes”—a reference to peace pipes, filled with tobacco.
“The state of North Dakota is doing everything to paint Native Americans as the aggressors,” said tribal attorney Tara Zhaabowekwe Houska, campaign director for the nonprofit Honor the Earth, who has attended several demonstrations. “They use stereotypes that we are savage and uncivilized.”
Beyond the contrast in rhetoric, there are also discrepancies between how each group has been treated by authorities. For the first several weeks of the Malheur occupation, armed protestors could travel to and from the refuge for grocery runs. Ammon Bundy went to local towns for meetings and to negotiate with the FBI. It wasn’t until the twenty-fourth day of the occupation that he and others were arrested, during one such outing. (Finicum was shot and killed by federal agents when he attempted to avoid a roadblock and, having crashed his truck into a snowbank, reached for a pistol under his coat.)
At Standing Rock, Sheriff Kirchmeier quickly established a roadblock on the state highway just north of camp: anyone trying to enter the reservation was sent on a long detour over dirt roads. As of Thursday, more than 400 protestors have been arrested.
According to Sheriff Kirchmeier, those arrests were made in response to aggression from the protestors. On September 3, they clashed with Dakota Access’s private guards, in what Kirchmeier described as “more like a riot than a protest.”
Several participants and witnesses I interviewed confirmed that protestors on Dakota Access land fought with security officers. But a video of the event shows that the first physical contact occurred when a guard tackled a protestor who had blocked the path of a bulldozer. It also shows guards urging their dogs to attack protestors, six of whom were bitten.
Paradoxically, these unarmed protestors received much harsher treatment from law enforcement than the armed Patriots in Oregon. (Rob Keller, spokesman for the Morton County Sheriff, confirmed to me that no pipe bombs were ever found at Standing Rock and that, as of last week, his officers had not seen any protestors armed with guns.) The Bundy group frequently made the point that, without guns, they would simply have been crushed by police, and this seems to be true. Wanting to avoid a repeat of Waco or Ruby Ridge, federal agents took great pains to avoid a gun battle.
It’s impossible not to ask: Did the two groups of demonstrators receive such vastly disparate treatment in part because one is primarily white and the other primarily Native American?
Racism among law enforcement agencies has been well documented: in the wake of police killings of African Americans in Ferguson and Baltimore, the Department of Justice found both departments mired in racial bias. In 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona, Justice sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio for systematic infringement of the rights of Latinos.
Thursday’s raid is the latest in a series of actions by North Dakota officials that raise questions about whether Native Americans are getting fair treatment before the law. There was already evidence that they were being treated unfairly: a 2016 state study showed that minorities were underrepresented in trial juries in Morton county—whose population in 2010 was 94 percent white and four percent Native American. A 2012 study showed that statewide, people of color were arrested and jailed at disproportionate rates.
It’s hard not to cry injustice when the Bundy crew is found not guilty, despite the other factors at play. Ultimately, having spent three weeks inside the Oceti Sakoni camp on the banks of the Cannonball River, for me, the events at Standing Rock shine a harsh light on a culture that celebrates and appropriates the historical Indian as a symbol of our nation’s brave and free spirit, while at the same time ignoring or criminalizing modern-day Native peoples when they demonstrate bravery in fighting for their freedom. In the context of history, yesterday’s clashes are not an aberration but a continuation of 500 years of brutal relations between the colonizer and the colonized.