#NoDAPL: The “Water Protectors” vs. An “Ongoing Riot”

For the past several months, many environmental activists and members of the Standing Rock Sioux Native American tribe have objected to completing construction of the Missouri River site of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion pipeline scheduled to carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.

To support the Standing Rock Sioux’s protest at the North and South Dakota reservation, and the class-action lawsuit against the pipeline, many people – self-described as “water protectors” – have taken to the streets against the pipeline, with many utilizing social media to organize.

In light of continued demonstrations and the controversial state authority response, some major media outlets have touched on the conflict.

The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong explains the situation on the ground for those demonstrating by the Missouri River, noting that “law enforcement officials in North Dakota have deployed tear gas and water hoses against hundreds of activists […].” There have also been reports of activists being “hit with rubber bullets and percussion grenades” north of the encampments are are meant to oppose the pipeline.

The article also notes that “the Morton County Sheriff’s Department described the incident as an ‘ongoing riot’ and described the protesters as ‘very aggressive.’” A sheriff’s spokesman explained that police forces were “spraying water because protesters were lighting fires on and around the bridge.”

Derek Hawkins, contributor for The Washington Post, provides more information, writing that those at the reservation “blocked the roadway with scrap wood, bales of hay and tires and used abandoned trucks to block the Backwater Bridge.” Because of these created barricades, authorities “repeatedly order[ed] them to leave” then “stormed the camp, using pepper spray, high-pitched warnings and rubber bullets against those who refused to leave.” In the aftermath, “more than 100 people were arrested.”

Many mainstream media sources have been criticized for failing to cover this story to its fullest extent, misrepresenting the Sioux supporters goals, and understating the law enforcement responses to the demonstrations.

In a charged piece for Anti-Media, an independently-run media outlet, Nick Bernabe explains that the mainstream media has neglected to comprehensively report on the demonstrations because “there’s really no exploitable controversy on this issue from the mainstream media perspective”–saying that many in America have already recognized that Native Americans have been “screwed” by the government and “resource-snatching corporations.”

Barnabe also writes that “the corporate media in the United States is deeply in bed with oil interests […] Why would mainstream media publicize a standoff that could potentially kill an oil pipeline when their own financial interests would be negatively affected? The answer is they wouldn’t.”

Writing for Quartz, a digital news outlet owned by Atlantic Media, Susie Nielson largely agrees with the mainstream media’s recount of the event, noting that “the stories beneath these headlines were mostly honest” but takes issue how the media referred to these environmental activists: “The founders and leaders [of the demonstrations against the DAPL] at Oceti Sakowin camp have asked that they not be referred to as protestors. They ask, instead, to be called ‘water protectors.’ This request, even after it is published in a given outlet, is not usually honored.”

Nielson also criticizes the media’s use of false equivalency between the actions of the authorities and those at the reservation: “The actions caught on camera last night demonstrated an act of brutal violence inflicted on one group by another. A more appropriate word would have been ‘attack.’ A more appropriate phrase: ‘state-sanctioned violence.’”

Tensions have recently escalated upon the release of an eviction notice, asking demonstrators north of the Cannonball River to leave by December 5th.  

In response, The Huffington Post’s Georgianne Nienaber explains that the eviction plans to close a portion of “federal property north of the Cannonball River […] to all public use and access” and that “a ‘free-speech’ zone will be allowed south of the river.”

Cenk Uygur, host of the progressive talk show The Young Turks, asked, “So can [the government of North Dakota] really do this? The answer is, legally, absolutely not. Protesters are on federal land–it’s army corps land.” Uygur also echoes solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, saying “there’s an argument to be made that it’s actually Sioux nation land, but one thing it isn’t is North Dakota land.”

Mike Figueredo, host of The Humanist Report, voiced his confusion the establishment of the eviction free speech zone: “When they talk about so called free speech zones, the entire country is a free speech zone, so this is absolutely outrageous to me.”

Regardless of differing opinions on the conflict, mainstream versus new media coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrations and authority responses clearly contrast from one another.

Reporting of #NoDAPL also poses the question that the American public has been asking themselves for decades. What kind of coverage is more credible: new media sources that are not recognized enough to be held accountable to the public, or mainstream media sources that are allegedly beholden to profit and corporate interests more so than reporting? How the collective public answers this question will most definitely shape the evolution of American political media over the next generation.

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