DAPL protesters at Standing Rock

Amy Goodman on Police Brutality at the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests and The Vital Role of Independent Journalism

I was already in awe of Amy Goodman prior to attending her session and meeting her at the Socialism 2017 conference that took place July 6 through 9 in Chicago. As host and executive producer of the nationally televised news show Democracy Now for 20 plus years, she has been at the forefront of grassroots political journalism often covering the stories the mainstream media ignored. During her session, she cited examples of the movements and people who inspired her from her recent book, “Democracy Now: Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America”. She emphasized the necessity of independent journalism as an alternative to corporate owned media, considering that six corporate conglomerates dominated all media by 2000. Her Democracy Now show, solely funded by listeners, viewers, and foundations, is a shining example of staying independent in a corporate owned media world, and is seen on over 1400 public TV and radio stations worldwide, as well as on the internet.

Goodman is also an investigative reporter, with early roots at Pacifica Radio, and has written six New York Times bestselling books.  She has garnered many awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (considered the “Alternative Nobel Prize”) and many honors for her coverage of the East Timor independence movement. In the early 90’s, Goodman witnessed the massacre of the East Timor people by the Indonesian government, and described her experience “as the event that cemented my lifelong commitment to independent media, where I experienced its power, its importance, and the responsibility that journalists have to go to where the silence is.”

She started her talk discussing the role of the media in today’s society: “War, climate change, economic injustice, these are concerns of the majority of the people, not the minority, yet the mainstream media refuses to cover these issues.”  She added, “Media’s role should be to provide a forum for people to speak for themselves.  I’m often amazed that when media attends a march or protest, they never ask people why they’re protesting. Their answers will tell the story about that event more than anything else.”  

Amy Goodman speaking at Socialism 2017
Photo by Geri Wasserman

Goodman discussed the importance of people powered movements that fight oligarchy. She cited the example of the recent anti-globalist protests in Germany during the G20 summit, and an example from 1999, the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.  As an integral part of this discussion, she focused on the militarism of the police that have caused harm and often escalate tension at these events.  She added, “It’s our duty in the media to not only report the story of the protest, but to shine a light on events like this to prevent people from harm.”

She then turned her attention to a recent protest covered by Democracy Now, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest against the construction of the 3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline, the protest resulting in the largest gathering of indigenous nations in American history. She was inspired by the protesters who persevered against all odds, while battling the brutality of hired security guards and police, as well as day-to-day human rights violations. More than 1,000 indigenous activists from more than 100 tribes across U.S. and Canada joined the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1200 mile long pipeline taking 500,000 barrels of Bakken crude from North Dakota to Illinois, which then connects with a pipeline in Texas. The Standing Rock Sioux were fighting against the pipeline on the grounds it was destroying their ancestral burying grounds and the route crossing the Missouri River would poison their water as well as regional waters.  They questioned why the pipeline was rerouted to avoid Bismarck due to water contamination concerns but it still was kept close to Native American communities.

The Tribe filed suit in July 2016 against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who approved the route on its flawed, one-sided analysis minimizing the risk of oil spill and ignored the Tribe’s treaty rights to water, fishing, and hunting. On August 4, the Tribe asked the federal court for a preliminary injunction, and on September 12 they filed a request for an injunction pending appeal. To describe what the Sioux were up against, Goodman said, “This protest was a perfect example of people taking on the oligarchy, in this case Washington, D.C., and the fossil fuel industry.” Dakota Access is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners; its minor partners are Phillips 66, Enbridge, and Marathon Petroleum.  

On August 23, David Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, explained on Democracy Now, “We were first made aware of the plan for the pipeline in 2014. We said right away we don’t want this. Energy Transfer Partners is making decisions for North Dakota and my reservation and they have no knowledge or sensitivity of what’s in place here. All they see is money and greed. The things that have happened to tribal nations across this nation have been unjust and unfair.”  

The protesters who called themselves water protectors and were estimated in the thousands across the span of the protest, gathered at Sacred Stone Camp. The Camp was founded in April 2016 on the Sioux Reservation by Standing Rock’s Historic Preservation Officer, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, because as he stated, “It is a historic trading ground, a place held sacred not only by Sioux nations, but also the Arikara, the Mandan, and the Northern Cheyenne. The government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas, and as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people.”

Goodman and Democracy Now consistently followed the protest as mainstream media provided very little to no coverage. Her show aired live from North Dakota on a number of significant occasions, one of the most powerful shows covering the events unfolding at Sacred Stone Camp on September 3.  At the time the Sioux were waiting on a Court decision for a preliminary injunction halting construction of the pipeline and just the previous day the Sioux lawyers had filed evidence that their burial grounds were considered sacred land.  The indigenous tribes were on their way to plant tribal flags at the Sacred Stone site on September 3 when they witnessed bulldozers moving full speed ahead towards their burial site.  

The Democracy Now video was rolling as the non-violent protesters who stood protecting their land were met with shocking and brutal retaliation from security guards that were hired by Energy Transfer Partners.  As protesters were guarding their sacred land, the guards responded by using attack dogs, which were later found to be improperly trained for such events, resulting in injuries to both protesters and their horses. Pepper spray was also used to deter protesters.  Goodman reacted to the violence, “The attack dogs were reminiscent of the dogs used on African Americans during the Civil Rights movement. It was an awful sight to see.”

As a result of the strong reaction by the activists that day, the bulldozers did pull back for the time being. Goodman was amazed at the will and tenacity of the indigenous tribes and activists:  “They remained steadfast and strong, no matter the weather conditions or strong opposition they were met with. They were consistent in their message that water is life, for my grandchildren, the next generation.  They would say, it’s not just about us, it is about preserving a resource we all need to survive. That’s why they called themselves water protectors rather than protesters.”

The video released by Democracy Now from September 3 was viewed by 14 million and rebroadcast on many outlets. “This supports the fact that the media has the power to shine its light, its cameras, on injustice,” Goodman explained. “We all can choose to be the sword or the shield in our everyday lives.”

Following Labor Day on September 6, the federal judge issued a temporary restraining order for the pipeline next to the Missouri River, but not for their sacred burial grounds, and on September 9 a federal judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The federal agencies halted any additional permitting and would reconsider its past permits for the project, although construction was allowed to continue across sacred grounds. On October 9, the federal court issued a ruling denying the Tribe’s request for an injunction pending appeal.

Tara Houska, National Campaign Director, Honor the Earth, appeared on Democracy Now on September 7, and talked about the conditions at Sacred Stone Camp: “We’ve seen some pretty serious human rights violations as the protests have gone on. The State of of North Dakota took the water supply from the camp, and medical supplies too. They put up blockades making it difficult to get into the reservation. No one’s really covering this or seems to really care.”

As protests and an increasingly militarized presence continued, Goodman reported from the Morton County Courthouse on October 17, where more than a half dozen people appeared in court on felony charges for locking themselves to construction equipment during recent protests.  Many who were arrested spoke of being humiliated as they were strip searched and held for days for minor misdemeanor charges. Goodman herself was issued an arrest warrant for criminal trespassing, five days after she released an on-the-ground video report from Labor Day weekend. Following this report, her charges were dropped as well as those against other water protectors. “The charges against us were the state’s effort to intimidate us, which was clearly a violation of the first amendment. Journalism is essential to the functioning of a democratic society,” Goodman wrote in her book. 

Just days later, on Saturday, October 21, roughly 140 water protectors were arrested during a peaceful march when they were confronted by police in riot gear carrying assault rifles. Goodman reported on her October 24 show about how the police used pepper spray and fired rubber bullets, in a careless and dangerous way, to shoot down drones the water protectors were using to document the unlawful police activity. At this time, Tribal Chairman Archambault called on the Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into heavy-handed police tactics and violations of civil rights.

One of the most shocking examples of excessive force occurred on November 21 when water protectors were doused with water cannons in subfreezing weather as they attempted to push past a long-blocked bridge on a state highway. Some were taken to the hospital, many of them treated for hypothermia. Protesters also reported being pelted with rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades during the standoff. The Water Protector Legal Collective filed a lawsuit on November 28 against local law enforcement agencies for using excessive force. Throughout the months, more than 400 protestors were arrested.

On her November 24th show, Goodman talked about some jarring facts regarding the resources allocated for police force at the protest. The state of North Dakota approved 10 million dollars to police the ongoing protest, and the Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier called in hundreds of deputies from neighboring states. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple activated the National Guard.

A victory for the Sioux came on December 4, when the Obama administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted construction of the pipeline by not granting the easement needed by the Dakota Access Corporation for construction under the Missouri River. Many remained skeptical, and vowed to continue to reside in the camp and prepare for the winter. Thousands of native and non-native veterans descended on the camp in a show of solidarity. The Army at this time stated they were exploring alternative routes for the pipeline.  Tribal Chairman Archambault said when interviewed by Goodman, “It feels like finally, for the first time in history, over centuries, somebody is listening to us.”

However, the victory was short-lived. Soon after Trump took office, he authorized the construction of the pipeline to continue in February. Tribal Chairman Archambault said in response to this action: “Americans have come together in support of the Tribe asking for a fair, balanced and lawful pipeline process. The environmental impact statement was wrongfully terminated. This pipeline was unfairly rerouted across our treaty lands. The Trump administration yet again is poised to set a precedent that defies the law and the will of Americans and our allies around the world.”

The 11-month long camp was officially shut down by North Dakota Governor Burgum on February 22, and although the pipeline became fully operational in June, the fight was far from over. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe proceeded to sue the Trump administration on its decision to authorize a continuation of construction of the pipeline. In a victory for the Sioux tribe, the U.S. District Court found the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline violated the law in many respects. The judge will be ruling on if, as a federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps was comprehensive in analyzing all the environmental risks associated with the pipeline required by law, whether the Sioux’s treaty rights were respected, and whether the Trump administration’s reversal of a decision made by a previous administration was justified and explained. A decision on the lawsuit is expected in December.

Despite Energy Transfer Partners assurance the pipeline is safe and environmentally sensitive, the pipeline already sprung its first leak at a South Dakota pump station, spilling 84 gallons of crude oil into the surrounding environment. The company was also behind two spills of over two million gallons of drilling fluid into Ohio wetlands in April. Tribal Chairman Archambault responded, “This is what we have said all along, oil pipelines leak and spill.” Environmentalists are against any further construction of oil pipelines because of such contamination risks to the environment; it also deepens our dependency on oil versus pursuing renewable energy.

As she concluded her talk at the Conference, Goodman discussed why the Standing Rock protest and the coverage of the event had a strong impact: “You have to show the injustice, no matter how brutal the images.  I believe if more images were shown of war, people would rise against it. Mainstream media’s excuse is that people lack interest in many topics that we cover, but the reality is they are not informed on the topics because they are not covered by media.” To prove this point, during the protests in Seattle in 1999, there were more hits on indymedia.org than on CNN’s website. She wrote in her book, “People are hungry for unfiltered, real-time coverage from real people’s perspectives.”

Also in her closing remarks, she spoke highly of her Democracy Now co-host, Juan Gonzalez, a recently retired news columnist for the New York Daily News, who was the first Latino journalist to be inducted into the New York Journalism Hall of Fame. Both her and her co-host through Democracy Now have covered many of the movements and issues shaping our democracy including immigration, income inequality, climate justice, LGBTQ rights, police brutality and war. She explained in her book, “Democracy Now is a modern-day underground railroad of information, bringing stories from the grassroots to a global audience. Free speech is democracy’s last line of defense. We must demand it, defend it, and most of all, use it now.”   

When asked on Democracy Now’s September 12 show, what successes can be derived from the Sioux Tribe’s long battle against the pipeline, Tribal Chairman Archambault summarized it well: “It has given us the opportunity to look at public policy and reform, so that our indigenous land and indigenous rights are not infringed upon.” The Standing Rock protests shed light on an unlawful permitting process, reshaping the national conversation for any environmental project that crosses Native American land or public land, and has fired up a movement across the country and world to stop these pipelines and the dependency on fossil fuels, paving the way for a future of renewable energy.

You can see Democracy Now’s full coverage of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline here.

For updates on the Sioux litigation against the construction of the pipeline, visit Earth Justice.


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