Standing Rock is the civil rights issue of our time – let's act accordingly
The US government sent helpers to protect integration efforts in the 1960s. Why not do more to protect the Dakota Pipeline protesters today?
‘We’re seeing a scene as explosive as the Freedom Rides or the bus boycotts play out in real time on the high plains of the Dakotas.’ Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters
When John Doar died in 2014, Barack Obama, who’d already awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, called him “one of America’s bravest lawyers”. Without his courage and perseverance, the president said, “Michelle and I might not be where we are today”.
Doar was the federal lawyer sent south by the Kennedy and Johnson justice departments to keep an eye on the explosive centers of the civil rights movement. Those White Houses didn’t do enough – but at least they kept watch on things. Doar escorted James Meredith to classes at the University of Mississippi, and helped calm crowds at the murder of Medgar Evers; he rescued activists from mobs during the Freedom Rides. A figure of history, in other words.
But history is just news from a while ago. Right now, we’re seeing a scene as explosive as the Freedom Rides or the bus boycotts play out in real time on the high plains of the Dakotas. And it’s a scene that desperately needs some modern-day John Doars to keep it from getting any worse.
Representatives of more 200 Indian nations have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in an effort to prevent construction of an oil pipeline that threatens the tribe’s water supply, not to mention the planet’s climate. It’s a remarkable encampment, perhaps the greatest show of indigenous unity in the continent’s history. If Trump Tower represents all that’s dark and greedy in America right now, Standing Rock is by contrast the moral center of the nation.
But the peaceful protests have been met with repression that closely resembles the work of Bull Connor, as the pipeline company’s hired guards began by using dogs, and the local sheriff escalated from pepper spray to using water guns in freezing weather, “sonic cannons” and rubber bullets.
Clearly the authorities are attempting, a la Birmingham or Selma, to goad nonviolent protesters into some kind of reaction that will justify more repression. They’ve used every trick in the book, including arresting reporters and shutting down camera drones to make sure they’re operating in the dark.
So far the Native Americans and their allies have held back despite the most intense provocation – for instance, the pipeline company bulldozed sacred sites and ancient graves the day after the tribe handed a list of their locations to a federal court. Now the Army Corps of Engineers has announced that they’re revoking the permit under which everyone is camped at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers as of 5 December.
So far the Obama administration has announced at least a short delay before granting the final pipeline permits. But that delay could expire at any moment, adding to the tension in the camp. Clearly the administration needs to do much more: the entire pipeline, which underwent an “antiquated” approval process, needs a full environmental review – by a body other than the project’s own developer.
Yes, Donald Trump will likely overturn the delay. But Trump’s not president yet; this tragedy is playing out in the Obama years.
Along with other actions, the federal government needs to grant the Sioux tribal government request to send justice department observers — contemporary John Doars – to the Standing Rock reservation to ensure that the local authorities don’t keep escalating the situation. They should do it because it’s right, and also because it’s a historic moment.