In a video streamed live on Facebook on the night of November 20, an army of riot police stand guard as fire hoses blast anti–Dakota Access pipeline activists on a bridge near Standing Rock in the subfreezing cold.
Scenes of distress and chaos follow. A breathless medic describes seeing mass hypothermia and severe hand and head injuries from rubber bullets. Two soaking wet young men complain of being gassed with smoke bombs, tear gas, and mace. A man shot in the head by a rubber bullet is bandaged and carted away in a hatchback. People are choking, crying. Helicopters whir overhead. Amid it all, in the shadows broken by police floodlights, elders sing a Lakota prayer song.
In that raw video and others from the ground, the all-night mayhem on North Dakota Highway 1806 doesn’t look like a riot. Rather, the longest, largest confrontation between police and direct-action activists since the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) caught on in August looks like a siege.
Yet local law-enforcement officials still insist otherwise.
The Morton County sheriff, Kyle Kirchmeier, who called the incident “an ongoing riot” as it played out, said fire hoses mounted on armored vehicles were used only on “protest activities” that “were aggressive towards the officers.”
Never mind that the United States phased out the use of fire hoses to quell protests more than 50 years ago. In a seminal story of the black civil-rights struggle in 1963, police trained high-pressure hoses on schoolchildren marching for equality in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Images of the incident repulsed the nation, so much so, historians say, that they helped usher in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Similarly, viral videos of DAPL security guards attacking unarmed Standing Rock activists with mace and German Shepherds on September 3 helped fuel the “NoDAPL” movement.
But times are radically different post–Election Day. The unprecedented, indigenous-led David-and-Goliath fight to stop the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline, set to cross under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock reservation’s water-intake pipes, is facing a new reality that only broad, sustained support can hope to change.
It’s not just that the president-elect, a “climate-change skeptic,” has promised the fossil-fuels industry unfettered access to oil drilling. Or that Donald Trump has a stake in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s lead developer (of between $500,000 to $1 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.)