Journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was arrested last month for reporting on the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Today the charges against her were dismissed, but that is no reason for journalists and others who treasure the right to peaceably protest and who believe fervently in freedom of the press to celebrate.
As background the pipeline is a huge project that will carry oil across North and South Dakota, Iowa, and all the way to southern Illinois. According to Bill McKibben in the New Yorker (9/6/16) the pipeline was originally planned to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, North Dakota, but when fears were expressed that a spill there could harm the city’s drinking water the route was shifted. The shift moved the pipeline from mostly white Bismarck to within half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation where tribal members have said they were not consulted. They also stated that the new route, which was approved hastily and with little or no public input, would require digging up burial sites and spots that are sacred to the tribe–some of which has already happened–not to mention threatening their drinking water in the event of a spill. Those behind the pipeline, which includes Energy Transfer Partners, Enbridge, Sunoco, Phillips 66 and others, have said that fears of a spill are unfounded, yet they clearly moved the route of the pipeline away from Bismarck for that very reason.
Because of this an encampment was created where tribal members began a protest against the pipeline. They have been joined by thousands of other Native Americans and allies who have continued to protest and do what they can to block construction at what is now called the Sacred Stone Camp.
While the mainstream media at first mostly ignored the story some journalists and filmmakers made their way to the camp to document and report on what was happening and supporters started pouring in with supplies and to stand strong with the tribe. A private security firm let dogs loose against the protesters which finally drew in mainstream media attention, but many of the arrests by riot police have largely gone unreported. Well more than a hundred people have been arrested, including Goodman, other journalists, tribal leaders, and protesters from around the country.
Other than Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein, who was arrested for writing graffiti on a bulldozer at the site, and actor Shailene Woodley, Amy Goodman is the most well-known person arrested at the protest site. She was originally charged with criminal trespass, as most of the protesters have been, but that was upgraded to “riot”, a misdemeanor charge that could have meant a fine and jail time if the charges had not been dismissed. Goodman’s arrest left journalists, Constitutional scholars, protesters, and others unnerved as she was clearly there as a reporter with a known news organization. Democracy Now (9/12/16) reported that the Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy said, “This is clearly a violation of the First Amendment . . . an attempt to repress this important political movement by silencing media coverage.”
Lizzy Ratner in The Nation (10/15/16) reported that prosecutor Ladd Erickson admitted that trespassing charges would be difficult to prove and then stated that he did not believe Goodman was a journalist, but a protester, even though she was being filmed and had a microphone, not to mention that the charges were not brought against her until after North Dakota authorities had seen and reviewed her report on Democracy Now, a show that has been on the air for decades.
Clearly North Dakota authorities were reaching. They have used private security, riot police, police assistance from other states, and the National Guard to try to ensure the pipeline construction continues. They also clearly do not want journalists reporting on what is going on there. They don’t want to draw attention to the protest, which could bring more support for the protesters, and they don’t want anyone to see how they are handling the situation. They likely had no clue that the Democracy Now report from Goodman would be viewed by millions.
Today the charges against Goodman were dropped. Supporters of the Sacred Stone Camp posted stories all day long about how the nation’s justice system does work after all. But there is a problem with that. Yes, in the long run it does sometimes–but not always–work. In the short term it is a different story. Other journalists and protesters have been arrested and while their charges may be dropped also the arrests effectively stopped them from doing what they were doing at the moment. This is a tactic that has been used often by police when trying to gain control of large, peaceful protests. During the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011 protesters against Scott Walker and Act 10 who were seen as leaders by authorities–although it truly was a leaderless movement–were often arrested and taken to jail on trumped up charges. While the charges were almost all dropped later the arrests removed perceived ringleaders and targeted individuals from the moment, often effectively allowing authorities to regain control of the situation.
One group of protesters in the Wisconsin Uprising who were arrested for holding signs on the first floor of the Capitol when the Capitol police had declared the ground floor a protest area and other floors off limits ended up suing and winning a judgment for the wrongful arrests. The police knew that the charges were not legitimate, but they also knew they wanted to remove the protesters at that moment. This is the fear for the water protectors at Sacred Stone Camp. While Goodman filed her report and had a warrant issued for her arrest later it is possible, and perhaps likely now, that if someone is videotaping or photographing the protests, even as journalists, they can be arrested and removed from the site, effectively cutting off the report and stopping any documentation. The charge can be dismissed by the District Attorney later, and it appears to the general public that the police were just doing what they believed to be their job.
If one thinks this is not likely or possible look at the case of Madison, Wisconsin Alderperson Rebecca Kemble who traveled to the site about a week ago to deliver a resolution in support of the water protectors and went along to a prayer gathering. Kemble is also a writer who has had numerous articles published by The Progressive. When the police arrived to disperse the crowd, she photographed them coming up to where the crowd was gathered. She was cornered and could not leave. The arresting officer accused her of resisting arrest and destroying evidence. She was also charged with riot and trespassing. According to her City of Madison alder blog (10/15/16) the officer grabbed her camera out of her hands. She wrote, “My camera was seized as evidence and may have been damaged or destroyed given that the last time I saw it was lying on the ground far away from the place where it was last in my possession.”
Those who commit acts against the people and against the earth do not want a record of their destruction. They understand that there will be those who know what they are doing and will protest it and try to draw attention to it, but they do not want the vast majority of the citizens to see. The threat of arrest is an intimidation tactic that can keep some from reporting what they see. When journalists from anywhere on the political spectrum are threatened when they are simply trying to report what they witness then all of us are threatened. Amy Goodman may be free, but the press may not be.