Sunday’s long-awaited decision by the Obama administration to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was a testament to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe‘s commitment to non-violent resistance. For months, the Tribal Nation and their allies stood up against North Dakota’s outsized militarized police force armed with automatic rifles, tear gas, mace, dogs, concussion grenades and sound cannons — deployed against them for exercising their First Amendment right to assemble, pray and speak out against imminent harms facing their land, water and people.
North Dakota didn’t so much as flinch when the tribe’s White neighbors in Bismarck refused to grant pipeline access for fear it might poison their own water supply.
Standing Rock reminds us that we must all continue to stand up to unreasonable or arbitrary use of power or control often exerted on communities of color. We all deserve to live in safety and with a voice in the decisions that affect us — but we must be vigilant to protect those ideals.
Even under our current progressive president, the Standing Rock Water Protectors faced violence and intimidation from the state and local police all too willing to inflict broken bones, bloody wounds and hypothermia on those daring to peacefully block DAPL’s construction. This all took place on lands designated as Sioux territory by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. As Tribal Chairman David Archambault has said, “the military tactics being used in North Dakota are reminiscent of the tactics used against protesters during the civil rights movement some 50 years ago … But to us, there is an additional collective memory that comes to mind. This country has a long and sad history of using military force against indigenous people – including the Sioux Nation.”
Military-style policing tactics are all too familiar to communities of color throughout the United States.
Latinos along our southern border communities are often confronted with military-level policing. People living up to 100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border are subject to permanent border patrol checkpoints and patrols in their neighborhoods as they try to go about their daily lives. A 2015 report by the American Civil Liberties Union discovered abuses such as racial profiling, unjustified searches and detentions, physical and verbal abuse, intimidation and interfering with emergency medical treatment in southern New Mexico. Ninety percent of those reporting abuses were U.S. citizens, and 80 percent were Latino.
In Ferguson, Missouri, peaceful protesters clashed with militarized police in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown. Demonstrators with their hands up were assaulted by tear gas, rubber bullets and long-range acoustic weapons that use intense, painful sound to deter protesters. The military tactics splashed across television sets and newspaper headlines, launching a national debate about outsized use of force against peaceful protesters.
Unfortunately the imperative to demonstrate peace in the face of militarized police forces armed with shields, hoses, tear gas and batons shows no signs of abating. We know that Standing Rock is likely not over. The company that is constructing the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, has a pending legal claim alleging that the project has already gained the necessary approvals to move forward.
We know this will be all the more difficult under the new administration come January. President-elect Trump has vowed to see the pipeline completed in its current path, and the invective he spreads daily exacerbates a culture of fear that harkens back to historical acts of oppression, racism and violence. He has promised our Latino brothers and sisters mass house raids, arrests and deportations. When asked about police brutality and the Movement for Black Lives,Trump’s response was, “We have to give power back to the police.”
We must all prime ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead: for Indian Country as we exercise our sovereignty, for Latinos at the U.S.-Mexico border and for African American communities facing racial profiling and police harassment across the country. We know our rights, dignity and safety will be tested.
De-militarizing our police forces is a national imperative for communities to feel safe, especially when they’re exercising their First Amendment rights. We might not have that luxury for the next four years. Standing strong, united together to resist peacefully in the face of aggressive government opposition is more important now than ever.
There’s a Lakota saying “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which roughly translates to “we all are related,” and it reminds us that all of creation is knit together. Even with this victory, we must continue to stand for Standing Rock, for the water, the land and for the people. But we must also stand together against state-sponsored violence and oppression in all communities of color. Our future depends on it.
Betsy Theobald Richards is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She was the first Native American to serve as a Program Officer at the Ford Foundation and currently serves as a Program Director at The Opportunity Agenda in New York City.