Condemnation of “Lawless” Bakken Pipeline Resistance Fails to Grasp the Nature of Political Protest

A coalition established by the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council and comprised of pro-pipeline industry groups in Iowa, Illinois, and the Dakotas, the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now has been busy lately on social media tweeting links to op-eds and news reports that cast protests against Dakota Access LLC’s project in North Dakota and Iowa in a poor light, using familiar and tired arguments.

“This does not meet the definition of a peaceful protest,” one tweet says, linking to a Bismarck Tribune article that leads with allegations from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department that protesters in North Dakota broke through a fence line Saturday and assaulted private security guards, injuring at least three and betraying their stated commitment to nonviolence. Another links to a conservative South Dakota website calling protesters “anti-pipeline radicals” with the note, “Popular political blog highlights violent, unlwaful [sic] nature of #DakotaAccessPipeline protests.”

Such moral scolding is a typical reaction from detractors, but it misunderstands — or purposefully misconstrues — the nature of political protest, which is inherently messy and multifaceted. It neglects to consider historical context, how protest movements are organized and operate, and perspectives aside from those of authorities and others in positions of relative power who seek to stifle their opposition.

Five years ago, covering the Occupy Oakland protests for Mother Jones, I saw similar narratives unfold. The actions of a handful of unruly individuals would be played up to discredit the underlying validity of the largely peaceful, nationwide demonstrations against Wall Street malfeasance and income inequality. At the same time, naysayers would overlook Occupy’s decentralized structure, which encouraged the sort of inclusiveness needed to build the movement but also led to infighting and heated debates about the utility of supporting a diversity of tactics — namely, property destruction carried out by small anarchist factions that many protesters decried or even tried to physically prevent, but ultimately couldn’t. Local media outlets routinely published arrest reports merely parroting the Oakland Police Department’s descriptions of riots suggesting protesters were the instigators — which they sometimes were, but the OPD had done little to earn any credibility, having severely injured two peaceful protesters while blatantly violating its own crowd-control policies and arresting others on serious, trumped-up charges that were later dismissed. (Lesson: Always scrutinize official accounts when the messenger stands to gain from favorable coverage of an event whose details are disputed.)

Similarly, protests against the Bakken pipeline are relatively decentralized. Although leaders have clearly emerged, reasons for joining the cause have been diverse. Environmentalists and private property rights advocates have joined forces in Iowa. Members of dozens of tribal nations and other groups from across the country, including Black Lives Matter organizers from Minnesota, have visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota, where the fight is for sovereignty and protecting the Missouri River water supply on which the Standing Rock Sioux depend. Recently, shows of support have cropped up in Dallas, where local tribal activists protested outside the headquarters of Dakota Access parent company Energy Transfer Partners, and as far away as Paris.

By most accounts, the protests have been largely peaceful. Saturday in North Dakota was an exception, although who instigated the situation has been disputed. “Any suggestion that today’s event was a peaceful protest is false,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier told reporters. “This was more like a riot than a protest. Individuals crossed onto private property and accosted private security officers with wooden posts and flag poles.” (It’s worth noting here that riots and peaceful protests are not mutually exclusive; many of the most notable nonviolent protest movements in US history, including the struggles for racial desegregation and gay rights, have included moments of rioting that in some cases arguably led to social change, and it was Martin Luther King Jr. himself who famously said it would be “morally irresponsible” to denounce rioting “without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.”)

The Bismarck Tribune report shared by MAIN didn’t mention the photo of a security dog, its mouth apparently red with the blood of a protester, nor protesters’ claims that their actions were nonviolent (albeit illegal — they were trespassing) until guards sicced their dogs on them and broke out pepper spray. A report by Democracy Now!, embedded at the top of this article, supports this version of events. In Iowa, Dakota Access has suggested protesters are to blame for $3 million in arson damage done to construction equipment. The vandalism is still under investigation, but it’s a stretch to pin it on the resistance movement at large, as many of its members, committed to nonviolent protest, have condemned it and were presumably uninvolved.

MAIN’s Twitter account also shared a comically obtuse op-ed penned by one of its members, Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council President Bill Gerhard, which ran in the Des Moines Register last week shortly before anti-pipeline protesters in Boone blocked the entrances to buildings storing construction vehicles, resulting in about 30 arrests.

Gerhard warned that construction sites are dangerous (he had a point: a subcontractor doing land restoration work after the installation of the pipeline in western North Dakota was killed in an accident) and protesters trespassing on them risk injuring themselves or the workers. “I would urge anyone considering this kind of reckless action to think very carefully about what could happen,” he wrote. “At minimum you will end up with a criminal record.” He then concluded, “Our workers have a right to a safe work space because this pipeline was approved by our state to be constructed. We must respect the rule of law.”

That’s easy for a supporter of a greenlit project to say but harder to accept for a farmer whose land has been disrupted by the pipeline’s installation. Technically, the rule of law is still a contested point, with lawsuits pending against the Iowa Utilities Board — whose three members were appointed by a governor who has claimed to be neutral about the project but who is also a close political ally of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a member of the pipeline company’s corporate board of directors — arguing that it improperly approved the use of eminent domain because, under Iowa law, it “does not include the authority to condemn agricultural land for private development purposes.”

Gerhard’s scolding would surely be even harder to accept for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who descend from the Great Sioux Nation and see the construction of the pipeline across land sacred to them just a mile north of their reservation as the latest in a series of broken promises and exploitative land grabs dating back at least two centuries, when the Nation’s territory also included parts of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska. “These tribes were pushed into a reservation in western South Dakota under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty,” the High Country News recently explained. “In 1889, US Congress seized parts of that reservation land and created several smaller reservations, one of which was Standing Rock. In 1946, the Army Corps began construction to dam the Missouri River, flooding Native American communities in the Missouri Valley, forcing them to move yet again.”

After condemning protesters in North Dakota for getting arrested and riding horses too aggressively, Gerhard set his sights on the “aspiring criminals” planning the action in Boone. “This week, protesters in Iowa have planned acts of ‘civil disobedience’ at a construction site on the Dakota Access Pipeline, following a ‘How-To-Be-Arrested training’ from the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Bold Iowa group[s],” he wrote. “The hope is that with more opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline jailed, authorities will be swayed to stop construction of the pipeline and side with environmental interests.”

Then, apparently rusty on his Thoreau and unaware that civil disobedience is by definition an unlawful act of political protest, Gerhard asked, “What kind of country do we live in where we now accept these sorts of actions?”

The answer should be obvious to anyone who’s ever opened a history book: the United States, a country whose very existence is owed to acts of civil disobedience and where political protest has a rich history of spurring social change. Today, for instance, is Labor Day, a federal holiday whose origins are rooted in 19th-century radical activism that included the Haymarket massacre of 1886, which began as a peaceful protest against Chicago police officers who killed workers during a strike the previous day but erupted in chaos when an unknown assailant set off a bomb that killed at least eight people. Despite scant evidence, eight anarchists were accused of plotting the attack; four were executed after a controversial show trial. Haymarket was a tragedy and a setback for the labor movement but did not change the legitimacy of the causes for which it would go on to successfully fight. Today, union workers, including those contracted to construct the pipeline, continue to benefit from the early successes of such activism.

“The strength of any movement, regardless of tactics, is its ability to disrupt the smooth functioning of the existing order,” Bay Area activist Mike King wrote during the Occupy movement. “A key way that the police have sought to contain protest movements for the last four decades is through the normalization of permits.” Likewise, the MAIN coalition would like for anti-pipeline protesters to become well-mannered, voicing their grievances in forums where they now can be conveniently ignored.

Instead, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last month opted for disruption, risking arrest by blocking the pipeline’s construction route and in the process turning a largely ignored movement into one that began grabbing international headlines. And again on Saturday, as other options become increasingly exhausted, they employed civil disobedience, trespassing on Dakota Access’ property in a successful effort to temporarily halt construction on land they hold sacred. Whatever your opinion about the Bakken pipeline, the protests opposing it are no aberration from our country’s longstanding tradition of nonviolent resistance.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.