After months of demonstrations on Standing Rock Reservation, the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline–an underground pipe set to carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil every day that was re-routed from a suburban area to tribal lands–has been blocked by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
This is in large part a response to the outcries by Native Americans for tribal land rights and the efforts of Standing Rock water protectors and protesters that have populated the small reservation since August. Throughout the protests, there has been controversy on either side of the issue: about whether or not the pipeline should be in place, of course, but also about whether or not the protesters should be there, and about the intimidation tactics used against them, like rubber bullets and ice cold pressure hosing.
And while DAPL was certainly never in our own backyards, protests have been cropping up all over the country. Whether it has been in regards to Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, the 2016 election or in this case, DAPL, recently there have been protests all over the United States, meaning we’re never far from those who exercise their First Amendment rights.
Recently I have seen a trend in which people protest the protesters themselves, with many political commentators voicing their concerns that Americans are too thin skinned for their own good. I’d argue it’s just the opposite–protesters are tough.
And why shouldn’t they be? After all, occupying space to offer a different view is arguably the backbone of democracy.
And yet, protesters are constantly threatened by those that do not agree with them. Often, they are threatened by those who swore an oath to serve and protect. Often, they are cast aside by a public that doesn’t understand why they stay, day after day, month after month.
Water protectors at Standing Rock risked bodily injury and faced wrongful arrests on many separate occasions. Regardless of what you may have heard, they did not show up just to play the victim. They are not crybabies sitting around bitching about the government. They stayed because they cared about tribal lands, pollution in the water, institutional racism, future generations, and public health. They stayed because they were committed to standing up for themselves. They stayed because they could–because they should.
The recent decision to block construction of DAPL is a good reason for everyone to take a step back and appreciate the efforts of protesters, and all the activism they bring about. Indeed, the right to assembly is one of the greatest things about this country, and certainly one of the first things to be cast aside in nations that abhor dissenting viewpoints.
In today’s landscape, activism is very much driven by and in response to protest efforts, even when the subject matter isn’t something that we want to hear. In fact, the very core of any protest is a message that someone, somewhere doesn’t want to hear. And that is why we must continue to protect the right to assembly–vigilantly, fiercely, and especially when we are called on to settle down and stay quiet.
And that is something I feel has been lost in translation in recent years. The urge to silence political opponents has gained momentum in surprisingly mainstream circles, and that’s a problem. Fundamental rights laid out by the First Amendment require us to set aside our differences by virtue of letting the other side speak. If we start to occupy the same information filter bubbles and we fail to consider the other side of the story, we have done ourselves as a nation a great disservice.
Whether or not you agree with the decision to block DAPL is beside the point, because recently, the conversation has become about whether or not Americans should protest. Even president-elect Donald Trump recently called into question the right to burn the US flag in protest. (An act of defiance that is completely supported by the constitution, I should add).
We as a society need to be more skeptical of those who abhor protesters: those that call them whiney, those that call into question whether or not it’s appropriate to exercise their right to assemble. If the very real ramifications of the DAPL protests tell us anything, they should tell us that protesting is important. That demonstrators leave behind them a legacy of real-world consequences. And, by God, if Americans want to participate in the political process at demonstrations, they absolutely should. As we saw at Standing Rock, our voices don’t always fall on deaf ears.