They call themselves water protectors, land defenders. Their numbers are major; they are record; they are inspiring. At its peak, the population at the occupation’s North Dakota base, known as Sacred Stone camp, is said to have reached 3,500, including members of nearly 300 tribes and Native nations that have joined forces with the Standing Rock Sioux, whose tribal lands are most immediately imperiled by the pipeline, as well as environmental activists and other sympathizers.
They traveled from Duluth, Minnesota, and Spokane, Washington; from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Navajo Nation capital in Window Rock, Arizona; and from many, many other places, for historically displaced indigenous peoples are spread across the country, many of them geographically distant from their homelands. Some came on horseback, some in cars and trucks and vans crammed full of donated blankets, sleeping bags, down jackets, batteries, canned food, cell phones: supplies for laying in a true siege.
They set up a village of teepees, tents, and trailers, a sort of protesters’ powwow. Some, like Catcher Cuts the Road, triumphant in a feathered headdress on the front page of The New York Times, wore traditional native clothing; others demonstrated in camouflage or caps embroidered with Vietnam-veteran emblems, bearing signs and banners that read Water Is Life and Defend the Sacred. There were teenagers in sundresses and tank tops, and little kids trailing after their parents in the deep dirt gullies blazed by bulldozers making way for the highly contested Dakota Access Pipeline. Together, they mobilized in solidarity against it.
The Standing Rock standoff, or #NoDAPL, as it is often hashtagged, quickly attracted media and popular attention. It has become the subject of numerous articles and radio and TV segments; it has made headlines throughout the country, the world. The Department of Justice issued a statement requesting a halt to construction, signaling not an outright victory, perhaps, but certainly a landmark. Here was a movement of the people, by the people, so successful it had actually yielded change—or, at least, as Standing Rock Sioux tribe chairman David Archambault II put it, “a crack in the door.” (Construction continues elsewhere along the nearly 2,000-mile route.)
Why, then, has an arrest warrant been issued for the acclaimed journalist Amy Goodman, host of the long-running news program Democracy Now!, for her coverage of the standoff? Why was it not issued until two days after she broadcast video footage of protesters apparently being attacked by security guards brandishing pepper spray and dogs? And what does the arrest warrant mean, not just for the future of the land, the water, the Standing Rock Sioux people, and for all indigenous Americans, but for our fundamental right to freedom of the press?
Since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it had approved construction of a $3.8 billion pipeline to transport nearly a half million gallons of crude oil fracked from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a hub in Illinois, a coalition led by the local Standing Rock Sioux arose in strong opposition, gathering strong momentum by late July. It has since swelled to include a second encampment, as protesters prepare for winter. Not only, they argue, could the pipeline potentially contaminate the Missouri River and pollute water the largely impoverished Sioux population depends on, but the projected path of the pipeline cuts directly into archaeologically and historically significant and culturally sacred ground. And on neither issue, they say, were they properly consulted.
Amy Goodman reporting from Standing Rock for Democracy Now!
Photo: Courtesy of Democracy Now Productions
On September 8, local authorities issued a warrant for Goodman’s arrest, alleging that she trespassed on private lands. Goodman claims she was acting as a reporter, exercising the right of freedom of the press. In the video, which is billed as an exclusive, a fedora-wearing Goodman, holding a Democracy Now! microphone, reports from the front lines of that day’s demonstration, in which protesters approached a wire fence cordoning off a construction site where a half dozen bulldozers dug deep into the contested land. “Criminals! You guys are criminals!” one water protector shouts over the fence to hard hat–wearing workers on the other side.
It was September 3, a Saturday. The day before, Goodman explains in the video, lawyers for the Standing Rock Sioux had filed documents showing that the land being bulldozed is in fact a tribal burial site. And yet, when members of the tribe and their fellow protesters jump the fence, one of them is immediately thrown to the ground by what appears to be a private security guard. Several other people in hard hats emerge, with trained German shepherds, riled up and lunging, in tow. “Sir, reporter from New York,” Goodman says to one of them, and asks what he is spraying. “I didn’t spray anything, ma’am,” the guard replies. But the camera then shows a Native American man who tells Goodman he has pepper spray running down the insides of his sunglasses. Another man, colorful bandanas around his neck and head, points out the bright blood and fresh teeth marks on his tattooed arms—a dog bite, he says.
“Are you telling the dogs to bite the protestors?” Goodman asks another guard. The guard turns her face away from the camera, which then zooms in on the nose and mouth of her dog, covered in fresh blood. Moments later, we see the same guard urging the dog forward into the crowd. Goodman shifts between narrating the events viewers can plainly see (“Security unleashes one of the dogs, which attacks two of the Native Americans’ horses”) and questioning the people around her (“Do you feel like you won today?”). “I hope we’ve accomplished letting Enbridge know that the people of this nation and the people of this world, tribal or otherwise, have withdrawn their social license to pollute water, and that they need to find an honest, nonviolent way to make a living,” answers a woman named Reyna Crow.
As Crow speaks on camera, two fellow protesters pour water from a plastic bottle to flush the sting of pepper spray from her eyes. At one point, protesters resort to using a flagpole and sticks to defend themselves against the guards and the dogs. “The photos [of the attacks] are dead ringers for Birmingham, 1963,” wrote environmental journalist Bill McKibben in the Los Angeles Times. (McKibben led the massive and successful protest against the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2011, for which he spent three days in jail.)
Photo: Courtesy of @suunuxtaniino
Goodman was not broadcasting live, as Diamond Reynolds was earlier this summer when she uploaded to Facebook Live footage of a Minneapolis-area police officer fatally shooting her boyfriend, Philando Castile. But Goodman’s news coverage of the dog and pepper spray attacks went viral in the same way that Reynolds’s video did—and bystanders’ videos of the police killing of Alton Sterling had. And it aroused a similar outcry. The Democracy Now! video has so far amassed some 13 million views on Facebook alone. It was rebroadcast by CNN, NPR, CBS, and NBC, among others. The New York Times also reported in a front-page story that dogs had allegedly been employed by private guards, but no arrest warrant has been issued for the reporter of that story.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is apparently worth far more to the North Dakota authorities, whose grounds for attempting to arrest Goodman are suspect and false and set an alarming precedent that cannot be ignored.
Freedom of speech, and threats to its well-being, is not only a subject Democracy Now! covers frequently; it is perhaps the subject most frequently covered by the show, which bills itself as “the war and peace report” and concentrates on in-depth, ad-free reporting on fights for justice, on social movements, and on the effects of American policy on the rest of the world. It has devoted, over the years, significant coverage to the death of Eric Garner, to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and to the execution of Georgia inmate Troy Davis. And since mid-August, Democracy Now! has been covering the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline on and off the front lines. It reported on water protectors who chained themselves to the workers’ machinery. It published the names of the companies who have invested in the construction of the pipeline. It interviewed noted activists at the camp known as Sacred Stone: Winona LaDuke of the organization Honor the Earth, and Lakota land rights activist Debra White Plume. A warrant for the arrest of its host, issued at a time when the boundaries of journalism are growing increasingly murky, poses a distinct threat to fully and freely telling this story, or any story.
Goodman travels the country and the world with the zeal of a political candidate, raising awareness and fundraising for the independently produced show. In her reporting, she often covers the persecution of journalists in other countries, but she is also no stranger to putting herself in the line of fire in service of a story. While reporting on the massacre in East Timor, she was severely beaten. After she was arrested while attempting to cover protests at the Republican National Convention in 2008, Goodman was asked by a news producer why she, and not he, had been arrested. “Were you out on the streets?” she replied.
Journalists, when they cannot get out in the streets to cover the sieges of the world, are themselves under siege. The warrant issued for Goodman’s arrest is not a story of an oppressed journalist in another country; it is the story of a journalist oppressed in her own country, and more important, in our own country, in a country built on the very concept of freedom of speech. As Center for Constitutional Rights legal director Baher Azmy said in response to the warrant, “This is clearly a violation of the First Amendment . . . an attempt to repress this important political movement by silencing media coverage.”
In recent days, reports have surfaced that the National Guard has been activated in the Dakota Access Pipeline case and that police in riot gear had begun arresting protesters at the construction site. To infringe on the freedom to tell those stories is the most dangerous weapon of all: It strikes all of us. It sends out the dogs. As one protester, who described being bitten and pepper sprayed, told Goodman that day, “I wish they’d open their eyes and have a heart, to realize, you know, if this happens, we’re not going to be the only ones who are going to suffer. They’re going to suffer, too.”
Within the space of a year—an election year—the issue of water has emerged as one of the most contentious and divisive in the United States: The polluted, undrinkable water in Flint, Michigan; unprecedented drought in California and Nevada; widespread fracking in West Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere; the worst flooding in Louisiana since Hurricane Sandy; the severe lack of access to potable water in the Navajo Nation. Wherever we are talking about water, there is a clear-cut connection with freedom. The Standing Rock Sioux know this. The power of their protest depends as much on numbers as it does on their ability to get their story told.
If hundreds of Native tribes and nations can join together in solidarity to resist a dangerous threat to their identity, to their existence, to their freedom, so must members of the press everywhere in condemning attacks on a fellow journalist. This is no time for silence. One standoff leads to another.