Protest at the Dakota Pipeline project is starting to pay off


People often wonder whether political protest is effective. Certainly, we live an era where our politicians seem to listen mainly to their big donors and to the large corporations, while the average citizen struggles to be heard. Still, even in an era when most people seem to spend most of their time glued to their smartphones, taking matters to the streets can actually work. Protestors have to be well-organized, have endless patience and — this is the most important part — have a truly just cause.

These factors certainly seem to have come together in the sparsely populated rolling hills and wide-open prairies of North Dakota, where members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, joined in recent days by hundreds of supportive Native Americans (and others) from all over the country, have been making a stand against the Dakota Access oil pipeline project. The protesters say that work on the $3.8 billion pipeline is already desecrating sacred tribal burial grounds and other sites, and that the completed project will pose a pollution threat to the Missouri River. Last weekend, the showdown led to violence — largely the result of attack dogs that private security guards had sicced on Native American activists seeking to block their bulldozers.

The scenes of violent suppression reminded some viewers of the brutal tactics that Alabama sheriff Bull Connor had used in an effort to put down civil rights protests in the 1960s. More importantly, the negative publicity forced the Obama administration to concede that the government — which gave the go-ahead to begin construction earlier this year — hadn’t listened to or addressed tribal concerns.

On Friday, there was a dramatic development:

 Soon after a federal judge denied Native American tribes’ request to halt construction of the Bakken pipeline on Friday, federal agencies told developers to pause construction near a North Dakota site that has inspired months of massive protests.

In a joint statement, the Army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior said they won’t authorize construction of the line, also known as the Dakota Access pipeline, on federal land near Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River, until agencies can determine whether there’s a need to reconsider any of the previous decisions regarding Lake Oahe.

“This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects,” the statement said.

The ruling on the injunction request, and the unexpected intervention, comes about a week after Native American demonstrators in North Dakota clashedwith the developers’ private security as construction crews building the $3.8 billion fracked oil line bulldozed over documented sacred sites.

Bulldozing started Saturday, a day after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a court document saying more than two dozen graves, and scores of stone rings, effigies, and other artifacts were in the area near where the Cannonball and Missouri rivers meet, Inside Climate News reported. After the violence both sides reported injuries while dozens of protesters said Dakota Access security personnel attacked them with dogs and pepper spray.

This is clearly just a partial victory; opponents of the pipeline still have a long way to go in order to get the entire project stopped, as happened with the similar Keystone XL project. But for the first time, the momentum is moving in the right direction. The protesters have bought some time for where the real decisive battle may take place, which is in a court of law. But the protesters seem to winning another important fight: In the court of public opinion. The Dakota Access pipeline was on nobody’s radar screen just a couple of weeks ago. Now, many ordinary Americans are pressuring the Obama administration to again show that it’s serious about ending fossil fuel pollution and reversing climate change. These protesters deserve a ton of credit.

Read more on the Obama administration’s stop-work order, from ThinkProgress:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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