The impression one gets from media reports of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, located on and near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, is that they have been organized by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and joined by other tribes and organizations from across the nation. Standing Rock tribal chairman David Archambault is written of as though he has control of the protests.
But I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t think Chairman Archambault has much control over the protest. It seems clear, now, a couple of weeks in there are factions within the protest. A peaceful faction protesting lawfully on tribal land, and a more extreme faction trespassing on federal and/or private property and committing acts of trespass and vandalism.
This is something Lt. Governor Drew Wrigley spoke about in a question-and-answer session with the Grand Forks Herald:
…I think it’s clear that the tribes are not united down there, and that there is not a united leadership front. There are factions within this illegal protest. And numbers vary on how many members are from the Standing Rock reservation. We just don’t know.
I think it could be helpful to the situation if the leadership of the various tribes that are represented recognize that their people are not only involved in an illegal protest action, they are also endangering themselves, the public and law enforcement.
The entire interview is worth your time to read, but this point Wrigley made is one of the most important takeaways, illustrating something a lot of people fail to understand about the protest.
Nor do we have to take Wrigley’s word on these factions. One of the protesters themselves alluded to the divide in comments to reporter Mike Nowatzki a week ago (emphasis mine):
“You have the pacifists and then you have the people who feel something should be done, and they’re camped across the river from each other,” said Jesse Stevens, 32, a member of Wisconsin’s Menominee and Oneida tribes.
Stevens and two other men from Keshena, Wis., left Friday evening and arrived Sunday night, delayed by a broken water pump on his GMC Jimmy. While they set up camp on the “peaceful” side, Stevens said he felt like he should be across the river.
“My point in coming out here was some kind of action, regardless of whether it’s life-threatening or not,” he said. “This is our land, our people.”
I don’t think this man, Jesse Stevens, is speaking for all of the Dakota Access protesters. Or even most of them. But I think he is speaking for a dangerous faction of extremists within the protest.
A faction Archambault, for all his posturing to the media, really doesn’t control.
Perhaps most illustrative of Archambault’s lack of control over the protest were his comments to reporter John Hageman last week in which he said he would not ask unlawful or violent protesters to leave:
“It’s far from illegal or dangerous,” Archambault said. “There is a lot of people who came to support the cause, and they’re doing it in a peaceful manner with prayer.”
Asked whether he would ask people to leave the campsite, Archambault said, “Will you tell somebody that they have a First Amendment right, but they cannot exercise it? How can I do that?”
Archambault worded that rather carefully. He presents it as a situation where he won’t ask people to leave, couching his statement in terms of legal protections for free speech (as if those protections extends to illegal acts like trespass or vandalism), but I think the reality is he can’t ask them to leave.
Because he’s not really in control of the most extreme and most dangerous elements of his protest.
Which is unfortunate. Not only does this faction of extremists represent a threat to the safety of pipeline workers, law enforcement, and other protesters but they also undermine and obfuscate what might be the more reasonable arguments Archambault’s tribe is trying to make against the pipeline.
Archambault and his tribe would be well served if they disavowed, and evicted from the protest camps, some of the more extreme elements. Like the people claiming the cops have orders to shoot Indians on sight. Or the people shining lasers into the eyes of pilots flying over the camp site. Or the people threatening cops.